Eco-Relations: On Jody Gladding’s “I entered without words” and Forrest Gander’s “Your Nearness”

By Susan McCabeDecember 6, 2022

Eco-Relations: On Jody Gladding’s “I entered without words” and Forrest Gander’s “Your Nearness”

Your Nearness by Forrest Gander
I entered without words by Jody Gladding

IN HER NEW poetry collection I entered without words, Jody Gladding sets out on an exciting odyssey through her three-dimensional pages, where sparse words make up what looks like gravitational fields. The words disperse in normal font while a bold through line of words, sometimes just letters, enables the reader to find an anchor as well as encouragement to wander towards other word clusters within the environment of the page. This mode signals language as endlessly generative and experimentally explores the semantics of the natural world and the nature of language, both unruly, fecund, death- and love-driven, necessarily unpredictable. The minimalist words of each choreographed poem hint at invisible webbing even beyond the large landscape page, luxuriating in lots of blankness, and ultimately hearken towards the billions of galaxies that exist in interstellar space outside of our own. The bold words are hubs, swapping out ego for deep texture, while sounding out fears of human extinction with our “storm / drains” and “cinder / blocks,” predicting that “over / your / cities / the / grasses / will / grow.”

One of Gladding’s precursors’ texts, Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Throw of the Dice” (1897), reveals language “will never abolish chance,” performed with word constellations crossing back and forth over facing pages; here, uniquely, some of the “throws” in Gladding’s work have an English version next to a French translation (or the opposite), setting forth possibilities not available through a single tongue. One poem begins, “why everything beautiful” (we see “web” here in the initial letters), which doubles with “pourquoi / toutes les belles choses” — alliterative with “piquent” (a word formed by stringing letters in bold), signifying “sting,” while the left-sided poem in English forms the word “hurts” out of “though,” “undergrowth,” “morning mist” and “rising”; each rendition vibrates and activates the other. On another pair of pages, “des herbes” translates loosely across to “wild” — the latter word recurs in these windswept pages that perfoliate (my coinage combining proliferate and periphery) across edges. 

Distinct from Mallarmé’s work is the vastness of blank space and time her choreography implies. Stones with herbs and grasses form a stratum, with another driving “thousands of years” towards “a petroglyph.” Gladding addresses a variety of ecological phenomena with an unusual inclusive magnitude considering that her eco-empathy uses “thrift”: saving on words, she still connotes colorful grasses. In another instance, “taxol,” a cancer drug derived from yew trees, directs attention to “a barred owl” whose “call” reappears as:

This creates simultaneity between “the chemo nurse” bearing a warm covering, and the sounded-out “awwwlll” — like the owl’s own extended cry. There is also the unexpected appearance in these pages of Blind Willie Johnson, whose haunting blues songs of the late 1920s were sent on the Voyager Spaceship in 1979, potentially to communicate, as one “who will speak / for us” to possible other galaxies “beyond / our / solar system.” Johnson’s earthly existence was rife with poverty and suffering, his blindness the result of his mother throwing lye at his face, yet he distilled his challenging experiences in “humming and moaning.” In yet another constellation, this time, Gladding excavates Eurydice who “steadies her phone” to photograph Orpheus, who sets out elsewhere. She has her own loss and flowers to tend. One can be “unhinged” by Gladding’s empty chapel, arroyo, or mountain that “will / let / you / in” (each word on separate strata of space):

The through lines, like the first title poem, “I entered / without words,” until “the mother / tongue / licked / me / into / being,” slyly allow the “I” to mostly disappear:

As is already obvious, Gladding’s meditative poems defy precise quotation through their strategic spacing, as they bid the reader to catty-corner the page, or striate outward, the unsayable gaining presence in the blanks. While this review itself disallows fully showing the book’s meticulous spread of words, my hope is that absences not revealed will prod the reader towards the book! One feels, in following the bold-faced thread, for the nugget that binds one to the page as an Ariadne cord, if not by a mycorrhizal understory, allowing the eye to embark across ghost margins to form other lyric possibilities.

What is the line? What divides matter from other matter? Can it be found without direction? What of this premier poem’s “aster” and “yellow” and “star,” proximate words, in the page’s planetary sky, alongside an earthly “deep summer”? These poems form a long poem that demands to be read as an ecosystem, a mesh of being enfolded in cryptic nature. They beg for the ear: “s i l e n t” (every other letter in “silent” is lifted to different heights) “becomes // l i s t e n” (the letters in “listen” behave similarly to those in “silent”); the jagged palindrome resonates with moving away from steel and concrete to softness. When an “I” emerges, it remains ecocentric, as with “have I attended the birds.” There are “the / monarch / migrations” that sketch across the page to “refugees” and “stragglers” in “what it means to be reduced.” Gladding seeks “the commons” and the roots below, alluding to the germination of the epidemic, a cancer diagnosis, and the many who are cast aside by a corporate capital world. I offer an example with this photo of my pencil lines and circles connecting various biomes. Note here how she plays against “wealth” and “shares” with “give / and / take” through words such as “stock.” The bolded “on this green / live / languages / graze” seeks the means to escape fixed meaning. It is through this diagrammatical openness that Gladding shatters centricity, where grazing is a reading across interconnections within a shifting ecology.

This textured language is reminiscent of the section “Time Passes” in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, where elements take over the house (without people in it), reshaping it through flux; a house belongs to the elements for Gladding, where stanzas as rooms have imploded, lose hinges. In one poem, “space is not matter” jaywalks across the page and beckons to the next page where “the poor // hide” clothing, handing it “from one / to / another” under or through the “epidemic” where “all suspect clothing / must be burned.” A poignant “lit / trash / can” belongs to the very fabric of our communal language and personhood, our shared earth. The last piece in the book offers “every // being // constitutes / a probe / employed // in // a new // direction,” self-referentially alluding to her own multidirectional approach, leaving the nonbolded “star // dust” as a unifying character of these probes, on the search for new eco-subjectivity, promising something even beyond or before language itself.


It is as if Forrest Gander had Gladding in mind when he wrote his note fronting Your Nearness, a recent UK reprinting of the earlier Twice Alive (2018), which was released before his Pulitzer Prize–winning Be With (2019). This time, color photos of resurrections (a type of lichen) startle — this species is an obsession of the ecopoet Brenda Hillman as well. Lichen, for Gander, only conventionally marks “pollution (litmus, in fact, is derived from lichen),” a notion too simple. Instead, lichens have “more to do with collaboration than competition,” and “that collaboration is transformative,” a theory economically signaled by Gladding. “Death cannot destroy lichen,” nor any of her grasses, Gladding teaches, while Gander notes that they “can reproduce asexually, and when they do, bits of both partners […] establish in a new habitat.” This Gander book, in fact, emerged at least in part from one of the poet’s collaborators, the mycologist Anne Pringle, leading him to venture that lichen reflect “intimacy” and provoke the realization “that our identity, all identity, is combinatory?” “Always a knit of identity,” wrote Whitman, and like one of the book’s epigraphs drawn from the same fount of eco-praise, “Who need be afraid of the merge?” This text pivots towards the merge. It even makes intimacy and “association” with Tamil poetry that flourished between 300 BC to 300 AD in Southern India. This is an intimacy that strikes deep chords for what Gander notes as the five landscapes of both India and California (his birthplace), exploring “Forest, Pastoral, Sea, Mountain, Wasteland.” His intimacies are elastic in space and time. Like for Gladding, words are not enough for him, especially not enough in their logical, indexical register, their sounding more central.

Your Nearness takes the concept of mutuality to address human intimacies as closely resembling the presence of lichens and fungus. As a pastoral or love poet, he turns the microscope upon the organisms that are both alive and dead at the same time, akin to our own being-state as well as our intimacies. This is the “merge.” Suzanne Simard’s 2021 Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest illuminates the poet’s attraction, throughout this volume, to mushrooms and other fungal entities. She asks:

Would I find roots with a net of fungus attached? Or a truffle? I hated to ruin the oasis by looking for mycorrhizas, so I checked my plant guide. The heathers formed a symbiosis with coil-like ericoid fungi […] [which] turned rocks into sand and released minerals, slowly making soil that other plants could grow in.

Simard notes her love of eating fungal loam, or humus. This again is the “merge.”

Simard offers example after example of generally ignored “mutuality” that led in the 1990s to making messy forests sterile, or felling it to make homogeneous plantations, without the rich nutrient “understory” of lichen and mushrooms. I allude to Simard because she sets the stage for Gander’s marvelous linguistic plasticity that names the multiple kinds of fungi and their connective filaments, not as a metaphor for human mutuality, but as an assertion that when we love, we enter into a relationship similar to the one going on between trees, plants, roots, and fungi. The messy enchantment of a forest is the topos for lovers to find each other embedded in a mutualist environment.

What is most compelling in Gander is the attempt to discover a way into ecological distress as part of our humanness; it stretches beyond empathy to recognition that not only are we not the “center,” but we also belong to the micro and macro disasters we have engendered. He stays with the trouble, in other words, which includes spotlighting a burned forest.

At the center is “Twice Alive,” which shows the work of survival that predicates collaboration. The first stanza says much, in merging science vocabulary with “lyric” rhythm:

mycobiont just beginning to en-
wrap photobiont, each to become
something else, its own life and a
contested mutuality, twice alive,
algal cells swaddled in clusters

The color photo of bark next to this poem shows greens, pinks, and grays, spotlighting the process of becoming “something else.” The mycobiont (the fungal component of lichens) is symbiotic with the photobiont (green and blue algae) so that both fungi and algae live twice, coming to the aid of each other to “enwrap” and to “swaddle.” The poem is an ode to the multitudes of mushrooms, first aid to the living through their above-ground flesh and their buried underground network, sending signals to plants, growing out of decay. Among the many named in this poem are “the delicious chanterelles called Trumpets of Death.” Lichens survive on “dew and fog,” with their “velvety / tomentum and the wet thallus.” Like Gladding’s poems that use bold to signal a poem within a poem, here similarly bolded words foreground an upper story of texture, with words such as “tomentum” (a wooly down matting) underscoring poetry’s constant need for new vocabulary. Here the sound inherently reminds us of momentum (a word used later as delayed rhyme), undergirding the “holdfast / of the umbilicate lichens.” Gander admits that “it is rarely possible to tell / if lichen is dead or alive.” The cordyceps, tall fungi parasitic to insects, “dissolve / into slime,” the poem concluding that, rather than being distant empirical scientists tracking fungi, “whatever we thought / we were following was following us, its / intention unlinked to our own.” Lives regenerate through deaths — where something intends to survive, in traces, a flock of spots or colors, a new set of rhizomes. Like Gladding’s, his bolded words act like generative “hubs,” akin to those “mother trees” Simard discovers as invisible messengers beneath the earth’s surface.

What attracts me most about this collection is its unflinching look at eco-disaster. In “Wasteland (for Santa Rosa),” Gander examines the North Coast’s post-fire conditions, here with its brown and “dead leaves,” its “boring dust,” where, “sucking up // acres of scorched / topsoil and spinning it / outward in a burning sleet,” the poet is propelled into “filth and embers,” his “mouth open // in every direction at once.” He admits he must “turn / everything to tragedy,” as “remorse” is necessary “for the feeling to rise.” Silicon Valley and its new money leeched the drying landscape before this spade of deadly wildfires. Complicit with capitalism in some form, with extreme weather, complicit with its dead, Gander is among a few poets, including Brenda Hillman, who are up to the grieving called for by an age of natural disaster, inequity, rising fascist heat, and increasing temperatures. It is tragedy writ large by injured ecosystems. “Post-fire Forest” bluntly confronts “carbonized trunks” with “their inner momentum shorted-out,” like “mute clairvoyants.”

The first of several “Unto Ourselves” marks the recognition that humans had “in every / essential way stopped moving forward,” and given the date of this poem, written during the pandemic, allows “ourselves” to finally take in the unreal intensity of eco-bereavement. The poem takes place in Bolinas, a coastal community in Marin County, and the communal speaker comes upon “a blue / whale rotted on the sand […] its stink / drifting southward where dozens of barnacled / forty-foot grays, dead from starvation, began to hulk”; he takes in the sea waves “smashing against those / knolls of oily decomposing flesh.” This disaster could not be erased from “everywhere we looked.” (In the last mid-century, poets usually focused on individual sea carcasses.) The poet and beloved(s) could not look away, the very sound of “pulverized rock” conducting through the sand to the ankle. As he recognizes that he and his friends have become “steeped in the privilege / against which we protested,” the emotion of “abyssal unhappiness” wakes us up: “[W]hen we were coming to feel something, / when our shadows merged (not as / romance, but the real consequence / of our mutuality).” Conifers are “naked and / without relief.” The second “Unto Ourselves” dismisses even Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” and other “hortatory sops / we told each other to make the unbearable bearable.” It is not enough to rail against industry and capitalism. This unhappiness must be felt, but, as Gander notes, self-recrimination is not the key, for “the light is there, grace itself,” something larger than “duration’s ebb.”

The effluvial hope of this volume lies in newly understood mutuality, as one lover with another, one lichen to another. Gander delves far into grief to love what is yet alive. For instance, “The Redwoods” uncovers “terpenated air,” “a nesting murrele[t],” “harlequinades of a vole,” “whipplevine punctured,” “rotting redwood needles that / lightly tremble with nematodes,” and a “spider-like arthropod.” The human is only one reflection in a myriad merging stream, but even so, one can discover mutuality in “rampant pipevine.” This book cuts a path for humans to get intimate with their energies, “defenses,” and communions, much like the lichen.


Susan McCabe is a professor of English and creative writing at University of Southern California. She has published H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism (2021), Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (1994), and Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (2005), and received as well the Agha Shahid Ali Prize for a book of poems, Descartes’ Nightmare (2008).

LARB Contributor

Susan McCabe is a professor of English and creative writing at University of Southern California. She has published H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism (2021), Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (1994), and Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (2005), and received as well the Agha Shahid Ali Prize for a book of poems, Descartes’ Nightmare (2008).


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