JULY 8, 2016
FOR THIS INSTALLMENT in my “Second Acts” series, which pairs a second book of poems published over 20 years ago with a second poetry book that has recently appeared, I juxtapose two poets for whom erotic thrall and consequence (in relationships, in landscape, in language, in art) and an obsessive, almost violently restrained stylistic ardor have been central driving engines of the work from the get-go.
Born in 1956, Forrest Gander (husband of the late poet C. D. Wright) has published — as poet, translator, novelist, essayist, and editor — over 20 books, and his many honors include a Whiting Award, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His first collection, Rush to the Lake, published by Alice James Books in 1988, pulses with a sensuality both exotic and domestic, eastern and occidental, and reveals an infatuation with the Eros of soma, place, and text that has deepened, transformed, and extended with each subsequent book. Richard Siken’s first book, Crush, selected by Louise Glück for the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, captured — with its Cavafy-like mix of torturous tenderness, desperation, and raw emotion — an immediate and passionate following among readers of contemporary poetry.
How to follow first books that come out of the gate with this kind of preternatural promise and intensity?
What the reader finds in Gander’s second full-length collection, Lynchburg (1993), is a working-through, in an intricately concentrated, almost netsuke-like form, of the leitmotifs that will find ampler, more spacious, and longer shape in his subsequent work. Among his early and abiding flood subjects are a musky, fecund erotic domesticity, an obsession with japanisme, an attraction to the visual arts — both in ekphrasis and in the sexual shape of the poem itself — and a belief, as Charles Wright puts it, that “all landscape is autobiographical,” a terrain that for Gander often means, especially in Lynchburg, the rural American south.
Lynchburg is a city on the James River in the Blue Ridge foothills of central Virginia, and many of the poems in the book evoke a literal rural south (Red Wing boots, red clay, tobacco crops, revival tents) as well as a south of the mind (Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary before making his way to the left coast, to Mexico, to Arkansas, and to Rhode Island, where he now lives and teaches). There can be no mistake, either, that although the city of Lynchburg was named for its founder, John Lynch, Gander means for us to feel the haunted freight of racist atrocity in his title, as he evokes landscapes (bodily, literal) storied by vernaculars both sensory and criminal.
As the photographer Sally Mann writes in her 2015 memoir Hold Still, it’s “not easy [for artists] working in the South.” By this, I believe she means difficulty not only for artists making art while living in the south, but also, or perhaps especially, for those working from it, as a kind of place of origin, a matrix of source material. Of the artist Cy Twombly, who, like Mann, hailed from Lexington, Virginia, Sally Mann writes:
Choosing to work outside the art world’s urban centers, as both he and I have done, is difficult, at least it certainly has been for me. More than any artist I know, Cy managed this classical remove, embracing James Joyce’s artistic intent, summed up in three words at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “silence, exile, cunning.”
Silence. Exile. Cunning. Certainly Gander slips in and out of these modes as he delves darkly back and shines forth into regions of his real turf: the “body’s landscape,” which is also “the Palestine of your mysteries / which increase like a sum / of our breath,” as he writes in “Foretold.” Poems like “Also Our Bed is Green” exemplify the mesh of aforesaid themes, a sexy float of ecosensuality, eroticism, restraint, all in a wordscape haunted by extremity:
This poem cannot hold what I have to fill it.
The wax in your ear tastes
bitter until I suck your tongue
and it mixes with the humid trace of my semen.
I have all the tricks of the trade
for overcoming our happiness.
Friends pull up anchor and the heart
tugs its blue moorings.
A turtle is busted apart on rocks
below the dam. Little do we know
the landscape we might pass through
eating sardines and rotten peaches
or how it might mark us
with its fidelity to our words.
Perhaps the most exciting poems in Lynchburg, lyrics of pitch-perfect sonic originality and vocal complexity, are those in section III, “Life of Johnson Upside Your Head: a Libretto,” a series about the wildly gifted blues musician Robert Johnson, a native of Mississippi whose death at 27 in 1938 is shrouded in legend and mystery. In these 17 poems, part fable, part history, body and voice (“young and tight and high”) and landscape mourn for one another, as in these last lines of “The voice the dead man’s voice”:
[T]he voice an orphan who ate match heads
his wife on the cooling board his baby buried
pain’s medium voice contours of landscape eroded
mortal erotic upwelling to warp as the degree
of emotion the power to be funny
jammed through oblivion like crowbar cotton
fields frog gig pissing in wild sweet peas
sweat lubricating voice sex speeding up the dead
man’s voice orphaned from its mouth
In these keening lines, as in the extended series and the second book they come from, we are privileged to see (and hear) Gander moving not only toward the longer modes in which he will later work primarily, but also into the realms of the personal/political and eco/ego/erotic poetics (the collaborations with Sally Mann, for example, in Eye Against Eye) that we have come to associate with his enduringly restless, important, and original work.
One anxiety for anyone putting together a second book, perhaps especially if the first book has won a prize and received some notoriety and attention, concerns how the sophomore effort will compare to the first. Will it be as good? As well liked? Will it constitute a significant development for the poet? Will the collection have something at stake? A raison d’être? Most of us can think of a writer or two whose early successes were paralyzing, shutting a career or trajectory down too soon. Another understandable response might be a fear of departing too much from the gestures that worked well in the inaugural collection — an uncertainty that can lead, over time, to monotony, or worse, self-parody.
Another thing for the poet to do, of course, after publishing a first book, is to write the poems one needs to write and see what that adds up to when it feels time to assemble a second collection. It’s possible, particularly if some time elapses between the first and second book, that the latter will contain poems that, at least on the surface, seem to depart radically from the earlier work, in theme, form, even obsession.
This seems to be the case with the poems in Siken’s second book, at least formally/rhetorically, and at least on first glance. Siken himself left a clue about this at the end of Crush, in the book’s last poem “Snow and Dirty Rain,” the very last line of which is: “We are all going forward. None of us are going back.” Even a nonreader of English would notice the long-lined, sprawling, urgent shapes of the poems in Crush, with their dropped lines, their wild-ride syntax:
Says to himself
The boy’s no good. The boy is just no good.
But he takes you in his arms and pushes your flesh around
to see if you could ever be ugly to him.
You, the now familiar whipping boy, but you’re beautiful,
he can feel the dogs licking his heart.
Who gets the whip and who gets the hoops of flame?
He hits you and he hits you and he hits you.
Desire driving his hands right into your body.
Hush, my sweet. These tornadoes are for you.
You want to think of yourself as someone who did these kinds of things.
You wanted to be in love
and he happened to get in the way.
(from “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves”)
And any reader would also notice the more measured, even at times dialectic strophic and stichic forms that predominate in War of the Foxes, such as these opening stanzas from “Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors”:
To have a thought, there must be an object —
the field is empty, sloshed with gold, a hayfield thick
with sunshine. There must be an object so land
a man there, solid on his feet, on solid ground, in
a field fully flooded, enough light to see him clearly,
the light on his skin and bouncing off his skin.
He’s easy to desire since there’s not much to him,
vague and smeary in his ochers, in his umbers,
burning in the open field. Forget about his insides,
his plumbing and his furnaces, put a thing in his hand
and be done with it.
Helen Vendler, in The Breaking of Style, writes, “in lyric writing, style in its largest sense is best understood as a material body. When a poet puts off an old style (to speak for a moment as though this were a deliberate undertaking), he or she perpetrates an act of violence, so to speak, on the self.” It occurs to me that it may be for this very reason — to enact the violence done to constructs of the self in order to reveal a truth about self, or even the possibility of a self — that Siken moves from the panicked, breathless careening, the harrowing, psychosexual poetics of Crush, and into a “calmer,” epistemological, discursive, and fabular mode in War of the Foxes.
Don’t misunderstand me. The obsessions coursing through Crush — homoerotic twinning, specular selving (think of all of those Jeffs in Crush’s “You Are Jeff”), issues of dominion and abuse — abide in the new book, too, but Siken goes at them in a different manner — less high-volume confession and more fierce interrogation (proofs, evidence, documents, plans, mapped terrain, formulae, equations, gaming, probability, color theory, allegory) of the validity and even the ethics of art, for painting as well as poetry. Acknowledging (in “Three Proofs”) that “fervor reduces thought to shorthand and / all we get is an icon,” Siken seems to want to slow down a little in these new poems in order to unpack any facile or oversimplified notions of (self-)divisiveness, love, identity.
The poems are full of daring positings and questions: “When you paint / an evil thing, do you invoke it or take away its power? / This has nothing to do with faith but is still a good / question” (from “Three Proofs”), or “Can we love nature for what it / really is: predatory? We do not walk through a passive / landscape. The paint dries eventually. The bodies // decompose eventually. We collide with place, which / is another name for God […]” (from “Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede”), or:
A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The prob-
lem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the
question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all?
Not how, because hows are easy — series or sequence,
one foot after the other — but existentially why bother,
what does it solve?
(from “The Language of the Birds”)
Part spy novel (or better yet, Mad Magazine’s wordless cartoon strip “Spy vs. Spy”), part Oregon Trail–esque survival computer game, part Game of Thrones power play, part Hunger Games, in which the sensibilities of Beyoncé’s Lemonade meet Dante’s Inferno, War of the Foxes is full of rolling heads: decapitated, cleft, full of garbage, at war with the heart, the body. As the speaker explores, philosophically, aesthetically, what it means to “replicate” anything by painting or writing it, he struggles with the “ethics” of these and other impulses to possess or master. “The enormity of my desire / disgusts me,” he writes in “Birds Hover the Trampled Field,” and in “Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors,” he says:
sings weapon. The mind says tool. The body swerves
in the service of the mind, which is evidence of
the mind but not actual proof. More conquerors.
What does a man want?
Power. The men spread, the thought extends. I paint
them out, I paint them in again. A blur of forces.
Replete with aphoristic intelligence (“Painting the inside of anything is / dangerous,” or “A man with a bandage is in the middle of something. / Everyone understands this,” or “Grant me freedom from objects, / says the painting. I will help you, says the paint,” or “My body is a graveyard, // says the landscape. You’re welcome, says the landscape”), War of the Foxes is, then, an ambitious book, a demanding book, an epistemological Baedeker. It takes on the quandary of the lyric poet or of any artist — Is there a territory of the self? Can it speak for others? Who cares? — asking questions that are particularly prescient in our simultaneously self-cocooned and “connected” moment:
Anyone can paint
a mask. It’s boring. And everyone secretly wants
to collaborate with the enemy, to construct a truer
version of the self. How much can you change
and get away with it, before you turn into someone
else, before it’s some kind of murder? Difficult,
to be confronted with the fact of yourself.
For these two psycho/eco-erotic poets, then, the second collection provides a terroir for working through, stylistically, the violence that is in love and the love that is violence. “Part of his earlobe torn off in a married woman’s teeth,” Gander writes in the Johnson libretto; “What can you learn from your opponent?” Siken asks in “Detail of the Fire”:
More than you think.
Who will master this love? Love might be the wrong word.
Let’s admit, without apology, what we do to each other.
For Gander, the second book intensifies and compresses the lyric in order to articulate “a voice that no longer exists in a room that no longer exists,” which is a Keatsian gesture that he’ll extend in later books. Siken moves from the lovesick intoxication of his first collection into a more “logical” exploration or argument regarding love/art/war and their inextricable, attendant dangers in his second: “We all dream of the complete document, the atlas of the idea, / the fish on the table finally gutted,” he says in “The Painting That Includes All Painting.” “What does all this love amount to? / Putting down the brush for the last time.” The question what does all this love amount to? is the engine of both books. As Gander says of Johnson in the poem that closes Lynchburg: “There is not much time in the day between death and life. Tuning. His dogs, throat eaters, untamed and invisible. A weed under tongue. Wanted to be a living man.”
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, will be published in 2017.