April 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Prose Urgencies: Forrest Gander and a Faithful Existence

A poet’s prose enters conversation into an odd and overlooked genre of speculative reflection. In a world where writing often consists of deliberative discourses and forensic analysis, the reflective and frequently paratactic tracings of a poet’s prose slip through the cracks. Neither critical in the academic or popular notions of commentary, nor particularly useful as a technical manual of the craft, the prose in this genre makes connective overtures -- forming ligatures often to the unknown. G. M. Hopkins’ journals, James Schuyler’s diary, G. W. Sebald’s personal narratives, and D. H. Lawrence’s essays all share commitments to a natural world mediated through poetic prose. Guy Davenport’s essays also combine the interests of a literary critic with the perceptive poetic urge to disclose the environments in which art acts. Often there is little need to rush forward to some discursive point in the work of these writers. Instead, the sentence and the words composing it are offered as an end to writing. Language trumps the message, and so the words multiply and mutate, move into spiraling gestures that reveal surprising discoveries.

In recent years Eliot Weinberger has turned the essay into a robust and essential form that hovers between fictional narrative and personal life study. Robert Creeley, earlier in his career, explored prose narratives in a variety of domestic contexts. In many ways, the difference between verse and prose is slim. What counts comes through an art that shows an attention to process -- a movement of words through the body to scratch out some testament or witness to the world’s claims on us. A poet writing in prose does so to spread out in space in order to feel the delight of the wandering mind. Montaigne claimed that term essai because of his fidelity to the attempt -- a trial, he called it. The essay provided a space to try out ideas, insights, or verbal wanderings. Prose of this kind brings an expanded sense of form to writing, and yet the temptation in the poet to turn the sentence into a line of verse accompanies this process of writing. What emerges through this confrontation with the world in words is an arrival of some other witness, some unknown perspective that accompanies the poet, hidden, primordially, in her shadow.

A Faithful Existence introduces readers to Forrest Gander’s version of poet’s prose. Trained as a geologist -- though now he is an acclaimed poet -- his attention to the natural world is informed by the precise habits of evaluation encouraged in the scientist. The sixteen essays here conjure a world with that same precision and care, and yet a fidelity to poetry provides the shape and transmission of his receptive mind. A book of creative accuracies, Gander’s prose marvels at the morphology of life. In it we are treated to speculative insights on poetry and science, meditations on the process of translation, biographical narratives and evaluations of poets, as well as cultural apertures that relate the poetics of the Americas.

The opening essay offers a morphological relation. Beginning with an insight of Louis Zukofsky (“[p]oetry doesn’t compete… it is added to like science”), Gander quizzes the preference for categories we have developed along with our appetites for epistemological precision. Indeed, he tests the membranes of separation that prevent form from being apprehended according to his actuality. The essay reads energy as it shifts in the natural world as well as through poetry. Only one world exists, and it is immanent in our investigations. Or so he suggests. “Like species, poems are not invented,” he writes, “but develop out of a kind of discourse, each poet tensed against another’s poetics, in conversation.” A sense of an ongoing, mutating transference of energy takes place in this opening essay. Aristotle, Theophrastus, Albert Magnus, Paul Eluard, and others arrive with sudden presence to illustrate Gander’s preference for historical relations. What we see comes through how it has been misseen by others. Gander suggests, too, that our own inability to see clearly enters testament to the climate of exchange we inhabit with the past and future. Poetry and science are like the tightly woven scales of some rough membrane, and yet that skin is shed, replaced eventually, too. “How readily reality adapts to the imagination,” he writes. “Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, known especially for his work with uncertainty, suggested that antiparticles might be ordinary particles traveling backward in time. His insight was elicited not by daunting mathematics but by his curiously simple-looking arrow diagrams, which suddenly made the idea seem plausible.”

Gander’s prose moves with care and provocation. No haste hinders the sudden accretion of insight. He presents the enfoldments of form as cast about in the energy of words. The very question his work addresses is that of the apparent situation. How is this moment connected through form and energy to accomplish its own transmission? How does our reception of the past influence our presence in a world fundamentally in flux and transformation? Great questions -- though they are impossible to address with definitive answers. Instead, Gander’s prose moves around the inquiry to perform an essential mediating role. Through the shifting perspectives of science, history, and poetry, images move into new modalities that are apprehended in the words of the author.

An essay on the Georgia-based singer-songwriter Vic Chessnut may come as a surprise in this collection, although Gander, a Southerner too, clearly identifies with the musician’s lyrical passion. “Chessnut’s recuperation of decay and ordinary ugliness,” writes Gander, “calls to mind the radical innovation of the Japanese poet Basho.” He also observes a “political edge” in Chessnut’s music when he sings, in “Sultan So Mighty,” “in the trembling high voice of a eunuch.” Gander, here, drawn to a song about a eunuch who negotiates the boundaries between a sultan and his harem, perceives in the power of the maimed a liminal access to understand the larger culture we inhabit. (Chessnut, to underscore the metaphor, is confined to a wheelchair due to a traumatic neck injury.) Gander’s exploration of Chessnut’s music reveals the pop artist’s poetic gifts, and without extending the burden of critical evaluation, Gander identifies themes of “[d]eath and life, decay and beauty,” a reminder “of the essential rhythm of experience.”

Other pieces in this collection discuss his motives to translate the work of Latin American poets, while some attend bodies of work by Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Jaime Saenz, Araki Yasusada, and the seventeenth-century cosmologist/poet Thomas Traherne, a writer who “anticipates contemporary phenomenological urgencies.” These “urgencies” concern Gander too, and compose his preoccupations with language, translation, and narrative. Gander, like Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, philosophers whose work is close to the poet, finds limitations in rational thought. Gander writes:

When Merleau-Ponty makes his own case for a primary consciousness, he imagines a state akin to Traherne’s “original simplicity,” a pre-reflective awareness that reveals the “coexistence” or “coincidence” of an embodied subject with the world. It is the world, more specifically the body in the world, that structures perception, Merleau-Ponty insists, and he quotes Cézanne’s boast that the landscape thought itself inside him and that he was its consciousness. Traherne makes a declaration just as bold and intuitive when he writes, “The world was more in me than I in it.”

This last claim of Traherne’s can be said of Gander’s work too. The prose seeks to reveal the world inside him, and it moves with ease to bring us to a new awareness of our relationships to our environments. The essays in A Faithful Existence provide essential perspectives in a language that delights as well as expands through us, to inspire reflection and wonder.