February 2006

Olivia Cronk

nonfiction

A Faithful Existence by Forrest Gander

“If the language practices commandeering world history are increasingly standardized, utilitarian, and transcriptional, poetry offers a different order of relationship with the other. Because poetry’s meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, because they are distinct from those meanings obtained by rational and calculative processes, they might well be considered miraculous.”

If there are plenty of things in the air that poetry readers might sniff out as too unsettling to really consider (a long stretch of slapdash weather, presumably global-warming induced; the various weirdnesses related to a manipulative debate around Intelligent Design; corporate mergers; Iran; North Korea), books like Forrest Gander’s A Faithful Existence offer a different order of relationship with the pending collapse that is the universe. Gander quotes poet Paul Eluard in his first piece: “There is another world, but it is inside this one.” With the precious flavor of a Joseph Cornell box and the heady struggle of interpreting the cosmos, Gander argues for a way of reading that is at once productive (language yields a good) and collaborative (language only lives in collage). Additionally, each piece in the book mimics the reality of reading -- the various structures that comprise our reading lives inform one another endlessly; words and notions establish the complexion of our daily lives, even in witless moments. There are multiple roads, accidental paths made so by use. “In his own time, Giovanni Battista Vico argued against clear, distinct, Cartesian ideas, emphasizing instead practical wisdom and ingenium, the power of connecting separate and diverse elements.” “I follow those poems whose rhythms and syntax draw me away from what is already familiar, secure, agreed upon.”

A Faithful Existence is not, by the way, a book of poetry. It is a book of essays -- about poetry largely -- but also about reading, illness and death, routine, turtles, nymph stick insects (one of this fair breed is pinned to Gander’s wall), and being a flexible participant in the world. The book references physicist Richard Feynman, singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt, Billie Holiday, and so many others. Gander’s observations revolve around his various modes of response. He is actively engaged with the world -- using its things to practice “ingenium.” When writing about other writers (and he does so very generously and seriously), Gander uses others’ words as “lines” in his theater of discourse. At moments, he actually blurs his voice and another’s. It’s a bit of resonance without the pedestrian tone of clarity. He reads one thing by the light of another (this characteristic reminds me, subtly, of language poet Bruce Andrews’s Paradise and Method). And then, of course, there are other writers’ voices cobweb-ing and shadow-puppet-ing that light. In this way, though, Gander exposes (or re-suggests) some wonderful writers. He advocates for these word-arrangers. And he holds their ideas up against an unearthly light to make them newly alien -- echoes of another world.

The New York Times’ Science Section recently ran a review of a book, written by string theorist Leonard Susskind, that proposes the concept of a megaverse -- in which multiple universes are possible at once. There now exists the hypothesis that there are 10 to the 500th power possible models of physics. Susskind, according to reviewer Corey Powell, “calls the enormous range of environments governed by all the possible laws of physics the ‘Landscape.’ The near-infinite collection of pocket universes described by those various laws becomes the ‘megaverse.’” This seems to me an adaptable metaphor for reading. And it seems to me, also, that Gander’s book marks a simultaneous strand in thought. There is a need right now for a language that allows for implied possibility -- for second, third, and 10 to the 500th power worlds wrapped around this one.

The father of western logic, Socrates, claimed that he had only one real talent: to recognize at once the lover and the beloved.

In those very years when Socrates was making himself the gadfly of Athens, the Maya in Central America were building an extensive civilization. According to their beliefs, the world had already ended several times. It had come to an end once by fire, once by water. The final apocalypse, the one they predicted for our time, would be brought about by... hubbub, commotion.

A Faithful Existence by Forrest Gander
Shoemaker & Hoard
ISBN: 159376071
149 pages