Forrest Gander — Eye Against Eye

Forrest Gander is always writing snatches of the infinitesimal, the ineffable. The smaller the detail and the more impervious it is to the membrane of the human eye, the more likely Gander is to throw it some attention and grant it space in his collection of writings. He inhabits the microscopic like no other and employs scientific jargon and other arcane diction to encroach on the unseen world the way only scientific equipment can with its accuracy down to the nearest angstrom. He is also maddeningly protean—shifting the registers of his attention quite easily and usually without warning. However, there are a number of areas that Gander gravitates towards. He loves the natural world; in particular, birds and other animals are prevalent. The minute and sometimes outrageous details of his personal domestic life come to call. His present personal world exacts a toll as well. Also, Gander is relentlessly playing with the white space on the page. For him, the absent entails just as much as the present, and he pays great attention to it. Eye Against Eye uses the left hand margin as a place to ground every line, unlike Science & Steepleflower and Torn Awake where the fragments scatter over the page like iron filings that have just been magnetized. For this reason, there is an appearance of more narrative in Eye Against Eye as opposed to his last two previous books. Perhaps this appearance of a more storied form is due to his desire to take on more moral territory in Eye Against Eye. If Science & Steepleflower was about the contrast between seeing the world as it is presented and the obstacle of intellectualizing the visible world through a kind of scientific abstraction, and Torn Awake was about the rapture of transcendence via visible detail and that which is not normally seen, then Eye Against Eye looks at the outcome when visual fields and their attendant outlooks on the world overlap and collide. It is about the conflict of visions; sometimes they enhance and other times they destroy each other.

Eye Against Eye is organized like Torn Awake. Longer pieces serve as anchors for each section, and they are punctuated by short pieces that connect and accent each section. In Eye Against Eye there are four main pieces that are punctuated by a series of four “ligatures” (one after each longer poem). The ligatures themselves are oddities in that they don’t seem to be bridges between main pieces, nor do they cohere very much themselves. They seem to be couplet outtakes from other poems (and given Gander’s penchant for piecemeal construction, the glomming on of phrase after phrase, this assessment of the ligatures seems likely). Perhaps they are even transitional pieces that have been removed to give Gander’s poems their distinctive feel at times. In this way they might be said to be the doughnut holes of the larger poems that are themselves the doughnuts. They are collections of transitions it may be said. As scraps, ephemera, they might represent evolutionary dead ends within his works. They are little mutations that might have guided the development of a particular poem, but were no longer needed. They are vestigial, like hen’s teeth, a link to the unseen past of the organism.

Perhaps they are ligatures to the unseen, the unfelt, that are awaiting the items that can be fused to them (which are supplied by the reader). Perhaps Gander is chiding the reader to consider whether one can consider whether something can be called a ligature without its overtly connecting anything. At this reading, these pieces are still a little bit confusing as to the purpose they serve in the book.

While the ligatures may be the condiments, the four longer poems are what the reader goes to the ballpark to eat.

The first longer poem that opens the book is “<A HREF= “http://www.poems.com/burnigan.htm”Burning Towers, Standing Wall.” It is a meditation on Mayan ruins that the speaker inspects closely and in typical Gander fashion asserts the presence of those who are absent. The builders of the ruins are venerated and the destroyers are shamed. In this way it resonates with the World Trade Towers. The lives of those who perished behind the walls of the Mayan ruin are implicitly equated to those who perished in the attack on The World Trade Towers. The equation of these two is never more than implicit (beyond the title) as those who died in the Trade Towers are never explicitly invoked. Very craftily and subtly Gander implies this connection through the title alone. The ruins are inhabited by a plethora of flora and fauna: spotted turkey, iguana, trogons, quetzal, orange lichen, crows, king vultures, sea birds, gnats, iridescent butterflies, mosquitoes, wukus, cacomixtles, Capparis trees. These residents are the present ones, but the disappeared ones are the ones grieved for. Yet in the next to last line Gander posits “the fragility of presence,” not only to lament the ones who are no longer present, but also to remind the reader that the animals that occupy the ruins now are susceptible to vanishing. But it is with the human realm that Gander is primarily preoccupied. The final image in the poem is of “a bird perched at the tip of the branch. Singing, we say.” The reflection here is that even the wild world of animals that presides over the ruins is claimed by humans in the way we anthropomorphize them as mimicking human acts, like singing, when more precisely a bird’s verbal gesture only conveniently resembles song. Even the ruins, perhaps especially the ruins after Gander’s treatment of them, belong to the realm of the human and must be embraced by the humanity that survives them for as long as that impulse to embrace the ruins can be sustained. This poem is the table-setter for the “encounters” that ensue.

“Present Tense” is the poem that least addresses the moral sphere of eye against eye, will against will. The main task of this poem is to address the notion of simultaneity, the “world of physical even and mind’s word indissoluble.” The beginning of the poem is a litany of strange occupations in a “sobering enthusiasm for the unmoored no longer defining narrative.” On first approach, this is a confounding commentary (is it the “unmoored” who are no longer defining narrative, or is it the sobering enthusiasm?) Presumably it is the will and desire to apprehend those wandering bits of information which escape the encapsulating drive of narrative. The whole world blossoms simultaneously in “Present Tense” while the speaker gauges how that world is perceived, either through the lens of a knowing viewer or through the “virtuosity of feeling as it meets the mineral-hard quiddity of the world.” The ultimate presence that exists in the simultaneous now is that of the beloved. The “you” (the beloved) begins to emerge in the fourth section. The presence of the “you” overtakes all of the world’s intrusions that compel the attention. Backstory for the “you” is established. Intimate details and preferences are rehearsed. These details reach simultaneity with other distant and larger events.

you were telling me don’t lead with your left foot
just when a solar storm blew out the cell phone
I heard you say grasshoppers open their spiracles to breathe.

The inquiring mind of the speaker pushes out further at the same time it is tuned in to the local, yet it is somewhat deficient in that “our [human] inquiry is given us whether or not we can speak it / in the world’s terms by the world.” The inquisitive state of mind is the eternal present. But none of the universe’s claims on attention can finally match the claims on attention the beloved makes. The beloved becomes the universe at the end of the poem “should you fall / should you hollow inward” represents the implosion of the big-bang of the universe after the universe has extended to its final reach. The beloved “crack(s) and spill(s) the yolk of yourself,” but the speaker defies this transformation through the utmost tenderness of being there. In these last strains is the pledge of allegiance and closeness to the beloved even as the beloved ages. This is the claim made by the speaker in the present tense in the face of the past and facing the future of aging in the context of the world’s grandness. The simultaneity of events that is suggested in the poem’s title is supplanted at the end of the poem as well. The title becomes ironic. The gist of the poem is about the past and the future not the present. The speaker seems to assert that the present as it manifests itself in the world is full of things that do matter, but not ultimately so.

In “Late Summer Entry” the eye of the poet is matched against the eye of the photographer, in this case, Sally Mann, whose ethereal landscapes provide the canvas for Gander’s meditations and insertions of the speaker into the scene. No one writing today is better than Gander at tracing the path from vision to intellection and unpacking this process along the way. Miraculously, Gander’s insights are declarative and informative, yet they remain mystical too. These pieces are the most magical in the book. The herky-jerky accretion of fragment he uses in the other pieces (which emphasize disjunction as much as connection) give way to a wholly discursive presentation even though Gander takes it upon himself to create a sense of brokenness in “Collodion” and “Argosy for Rock and Grass” and “Road and Tree.” The majority read like prose poems with Gander’s careful attention to detail and oeuvre providing much descriptive language that maps onto the photos we see. He animates many of these landscapes with the life of the unseen or loads them to carry metaphysical freight. Such is especially the case with “Science & Steepleflower” which comments on the photo that was the cover of the book of the same name published in 1998.

SCIENCE & STEEPLEFLOWER

The temperate velvet sheen on the water is not applied, but
constitutive. Just the stream utters light. The woods are hushed.
The vagueness of a near shoreline endows the water with a
transfigured, opalescent lour. We see the reflection of trees, partly
erased in splotches, as though a delicate mist. Our eyes following
the stream until shadows pinch off the flow of our gaze.

Because the realm is uncertain, it prompts us. Not placid,
but haunting, this pastoral. the shaggy forest is dim, private,
oneiric. And the circular frame of the image closes inward.
Called vignetting, this girdling dark is a metaphor, and it has two
meanings. It signals the onset of our blink, and as such, can be
read as a sign of the evanescence of the image that, even in the act
of preservation, must be relinquished. However it is equally
indicative of the incipient vision opening to us from the other side
of consciousness, the muscular curtain drawing back from the
beginning of a dream.

The end of this piece is where we see Gander hearkening back to Torn Awake, his 2001 effort on New Directions. The last sentence is about as explicit of a definition of the transcendence he explored in that book. Some might question this section of the book who know Gander’s previous efforts and who hail him as restlessly experimental. He seems to be rehashing old subject matter, yet I for one am entranced by his mastery when writing about this subject matter—the marriage of vision to thought. For those who come to Gander’s work for the first time in Eye Against Eye, I suspect this section will provide the most impact. One might argue here, though, that the form Gander chooses to play with these themes is a novel one. The dialogue he has with Mann’s photograph provides an insight into the praxis for his conceptual/theoretical work in Torn Awake. Here we see his tendency toward romantic transcendence in action as he transforms many of these seemingly lifeless and barren (certainly understated in a way that, say, Ansel Adams is not) landscapes into frames teeming with brisk lives of their own and ready to trigger thought.

The final section of the book, “The Mission Thief,” is a Borgesian-like narrative of forking paths. The main trajectory of the poem follows down the same path of the latter part of “Present Tense.” The speaker almost fawningly illustrates his gratitude for his presence at the side of his beloved on a seemingly innocuous day in San Francisco’s Mission District. However, an interesting turn of events occurs at the end. The speaker is presented with an instantaneous moral choice. A homeless person who has stolen a bicycle is hurtling toward him. The speaker can either be a man of action and interfere on behalf of the righteous, but at the potential cost of being ripped away from the bliss of having his beloved by his side. In addition, by acting he exposes a coarser, tougher side to his beloved than he is accustomed to exhibiting. The second choice is to let the bicycle thief go by and commiserate with the grief of those who have been harmed by the theft. Unlike Vittorio de Sica’s classic, “The Bicycle Thief” where the moral weight is placed on those who happen to be harmed by the thief, the innocent victims, if you will, here Gander chooses to put the moral question to the bystander, the role that has been so easy to take on in complex modern societies. He presents good reasons for staying out of harm’s way. The poem presents one kind of ending and then in a “doubletake” that manages to bifurcate the poem, the poem ends with the choice of complacency and passivity. Gander seems to be rewarding this choice as the path to peace and well-being. There are regrets for this failure to act. He takes on the grief of the injured party. It is the speaker’s burden to be befuddled by the events that are transpiring when he says, “the world shifts / along a hairline crack / you can’t tell / what is happening / until it moves on and is gone / as someone and someone’s grief / careen around a corner.”

It is fairly transparent that Gander’s real subject here is not really the slice-of-life drama that he depicts. Rather, this scene acts as a metaphor for one’s passive complicity with or active stance against world-shaping events (like the War On Terrorism or the war in Iraq). The metaphor is apt insofar as the decisive moment arrives as the speaker is still somewhat befuddled by events. However, the metaphor breaks down somewhat because, for me, there is no equivalency between theft and today’s scourge of terrorism and its accompanying efforts. Theft is easy to greet with moral certitude that it is wrong. Terrorism is quite different in this regard. As the old saying has it, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. While I don’t fancy that every mujahideen is a principled freedom fighter, I have difficulty in escaping the realm of moral ambiguity when I contemplate their project, even if I don’t condone their means. Of course, the thief, too, is not without sympathy; however, a purse snatcher is far easier to recognize as a moral hazard, and it is easy to lump the homeless man who is a bicycle thief into this same general category. Certainly this is why Gander must choose a homeless man as the thief because it is easier to see this act as one of desperation. [Unfortunately, I suppose this is upsetting for all of the homeless who can afford to read this book and see themselves depicted in such an unfavorable light.] The central moral question Gander presents is both a timeless and a timely one. Is there a moral obligation to thwart the desperate act of someone whose action may cause grief or harm to others? I think I hear Gander saying that the world moves past such harm and grief, and the individual act to thwart such desperation only leads to more grief and harm (made right by an immediate sense of vindication), and the immediate act often has the effect of poisoning the attitudes of those who previously thought well of you.

One of the most satisfying aspects of any of Gander’s work (and Eye Against Eye is no exception) is the apparent fastidious technique that lies beneath the surface of the poems. It is fascinating for me to imagine how the accretion of fragments come together to achieve a system that is poised at the edge of entering a chaotic regime. In his book of essays A Faithful Existence, Gander describes his technique like this:

Sometimes I begin poems with a structural penchant, but unlike the Oulipoians, whom I admire, my architecture deforms according to what it comes to contain. A long poem, “The Faculty for Hearing the Silence of Jesus,” started as mimetic enthusiasm for a rhetorical motif in a section of the Bhagavad-Gita, but in the final version of my poem, no approximation of the original pattern remains. Overriding musical and semantic concerns transformed the poem. “Feel pattern, be wed” goes the gnomic verse that guides me.

Whether form or cadence triggers the poems, measure always conducts my composition. Writing, I pass from time to space, from succession to juxtaposition. I write the poem in all directions at once, emphasizing not the stability of single words but the transition that emanates between them, or between it and its rings of association, rings of silence. My idea of meaning derives from the continuity of the transition, which is, for me, erotic

These cobbled-together forms of slow accretion must be informed by the geological process of stratification where layer upon layer are added to come up with a complex structure. The poem is then the cross section of these layers (some of the information missing as it is cut away). [In this way Gander’s work reminds me of the Austrian avant-gardist, Friederike Mayröcker, whose work I have translated and whose poems also provide the reader with the similar feeling that he/she is only seeing the cross section of a healthy number of tangents she has pursued. the overall effect of Mayröcker is phantasmagorical whereas Gander is more steady and wondrous.].

However, these accumulating fragments in Gander also remind me of a biological metaphor, that of point mutations which give rise to appendages that are grown but then perhaps abandoned, resulting in evolutionary leaps and bounds (successful adaptations) and evolutionary dead-ends. To extend the metaphor a little further, each fragment has its aura of effect, just as, say, a mutated gene may result in a cascade effect whereby it effects many other kinds of other genes or even distant cell types. A self-proliferating system is borne, one where, as the system grows more and more complex, accumulating more and more bits and fragments, it is catalyzed again and again by the new fragments it takes on. Indeed, this is exactly the process of autocatalysis that Stuart Kauffman describes in The Origins of Order and elsewhere. It is autocatalysis which explains how, despite the statistical improbability of random molecular interactions leading to the first amino acid within the pre-biotic soup, amino acids, the presumed building blocks of cellular life were formed. Gander’s fragments, while far from being random, come together in the same way to bring about his complex poetic structures.

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