Core Samples from the World (2011), considers “what is meant by ‘the foreign,’ by ‘the foreigner.’” Part travelogue, part essay, part poetry, it is a unique exploration starting with a writers’ conference in China. Redstart (2012), a collaboration with the poet John Kinsella, explicitly takes on the literature of ecopoetics. It focuses on how to create poetry in harmony with the environment as a curative to the damage we do by seeing the natural world as something separate from us. The chapbook Eiko & Koma (2013) takes inspiration from Japanese dancers and tries to render the dancers’ fluid merging of self in poetry. The Trace (2014), a novel, takes a spiritual and physical journey through the Chihuahua Desert so searing that it practically gives the reader sunstroke. Whether in poetry or prose, Gander seeks to understand what connects and what separates us.
These themes take on deep poignancy in his book of poetry Be With (2018), which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. It emerged from his grief over the sudden loss of his wife, the poet C. D. Wright. It explores the lingering echoes and shadows of an entwined life. Be With includes one long poem, “Tell Them No,” written in disconnected snippets each describing the bite of loss:
Standing in a wind of
diesel fuel waiting
for his luggage. Shaking
silently, mouth agape.
Pulping his eyes
With his knuckles.
Although the work is deeply personal, the pain evident, the same themes intrude on the poet — he cannot ignore his surroundings, the “darkling beetle,” a “lizard / doing push-ups.” The poem “Carbonized Forest” contains the stunning line “here is the untranslation of the world.” It’s hard to think of a better image for how grief strips the world of meaning.
In contrast, his new book, Twice Alive, celebrates a rebirth from the wreckage, a rediscovery of himself and his new partner, Ashwini Bhat, a sculptor and former professional dancer (to whom the book is dedicated). Grief remains a basso ostinato in the collection, but it is leavened by the beauty of the natural world, the joy of new love.
If one knows nothing of that context, Gander frames the work for the reader. These poems form an “ecology of intimacies” — intimacy as integral as the symbiotic splash of plant and fungus that make up lichen, “two things that merge, mutually altering each other.” They also reference a way of looking at the world expressed in Sangam literature, classical Tamil work produced from 300 BC to 300 AD. One strain of this literature has remarkable parallels to the current ecopoetics movement; it explores our relationship to the world as one of deep interconnectedness. The five landscapes of Sangam poetics — Forest, Pastoral, Sea, Mountain, Wasteland — are also landscapes of California. Gander explores these landscapes in dazzling detail; as one immersed in them, the specificity of the description enlivens the reader. In the same way, the physical, emotional, and spiritual relationship of the poet and his new love create a vibrant new entity. This metaphor forms the overall arc of Twice Alive, a sensual love poem to the earth and to human partnership.
Gander pushes the constraints of existing form. He often employs unique typography, such as bullet points between phrases (when reading these, Gander often knocks on a surface), or slashes that mimic the lines of the redwood trees whose photographs appear on facing pages in the book. (It would be lovely to see an edition of Gander’s work that does justice to the photos.) Rather than distract, they seem to highlight the originality of the work.
As a reader of Gander’s previous work, one comes to these poems with the expectation of heightened and illuminated experience, and the book generously fulfills this promise. As with all Gander’s writing, the vocabulary and sensibility are complex — sending the reader to the dictionary (or the internet) to look up “Sursum Corda” or “winze” or “greenschist” to experience the full impact of the nuanced descriptions which expand the world of the reader.
Throughout the book, many of the poem titles repeat, their themes recur and are elaborated, underscoring “the multiple and divergent echoes, resonances, sounds, colors of each realm so consciously consecrated,” as the scholar N. Manu Chakravarthy writes in an endnote.
Often the poems have a stated physical location: the path circling Mt. Tamalpais, Kenneth Rexroth’s Cabin, the beach at Bolinas. They are a starting place — the locales are infused with the vision of the poet. The pure, physical pleasure of the other suffuses these poems:
the breakers, standing so close he can feel
heat coming off her wet scalp. What is
his relation to this person
before him, so familiar and foreign? The way
he searches out her face, he searches out himself. Gusts
thrash crests of swell, spring grasses twirl …
Within this intimacy, the landscape becomes vividly alive, even when the terrain itself is fragile, devastated. The world of Twice Alive is precarious, fire-wracked, sometimes bare, and yet somehow the poet discovers and explores the impulse toward happiness, as in “Post-fire Forest”:
remains of the forest takes place
in the exclamatory mode. Cindered
utterances in a tongue from which
everything trivial has been volatilized …
You have, everyone notes, a rare talent
for happiness. I wonder how
to value that, walking through wreckage.
These two selections are part of the “Sangam Acoustics” series. The intimacy between two lovers informs the ecological intimacy of the landscape, both of which are all too fragile. The poet struggles with that paradox, the pull of grief for our beleaguered planet and our personal shame, remorse, regret, against the rising of delight in the present, where there is so much minute and particular beauty. The work is serious, at times achingly beautiful, but also sprinkled with humor: “we tried walking in someone else’s shoes / but fuck that really it was a sham, / like frogs HAZMAT trucks were beeping.”
What knits the world together is close observation as in these snippets: “the frass of caterpillars tinkles onto beds of dry / leaves” and “tree limbs pajamaed in moss.” The imagery is always fresh, startling, whether in relation to the natural world or the self: “He wonders if he has let himself flatten out / into a depthless sheet, like escalator stairs” and “Now your laughter / transparentizes me” and “the lonely night was adjourned like a can of green paint / splashed onto the dining car’s windows.”
The poems often express a deep wonder of the seen world, its temporal strangeness: “a low vibration in • your bones, for don’t you find yourself • absorbed in a next moment beyond your given life?”
Gander doesn’t shrink from the cognitive dissonance of the 21st-century experience. “Unto Ourselves” states this explicitly. It sets the scene in Bolinas, where dozens of whales have died of starvation “everywhere we looked if we cared to look.” Gander takes on the life of privilege with
the skip at the center of ourselves
overabundance of the present
shame which plugs up each minute and
stands in now for whatever it meant
to live oneself before every gesture
became performance …
The poem doesn’t resolve this discomfort, but lays it bare, explores, and exposes the strained dance of who we are amid “our own sorry initiatives.”
Whether describing “Erogenous zones in oaks / slung with / stoles of lace lichen” or “her lavish face [that] turns toward him / beaming, the corners of her eyes wind-wet,” the acknowledgment of what is precious is all the more poignant because it arises from uncertainty. This duality infuses the poems of this unique volume, as it infuses our lives. It appears in many guises as the poems weave their magic. But it is most clearly expressed in the final lines of “Sea: Night Surfing in Bolinas”:
I’ve risen from the bottom of • myself to find
• I exist in you • exist in me and • against odds I’ve known even
rapture, • rare event, • which calls for • but one witness
Meryl Natchez’s latest book of poetry, Catwalk, blurbed by Jericho Brown, Lynn Emanuel, and David St. John, is available now from Longship Press and Amazon.