Forrest Gander

This review was published in First Intensity: A Magazine of New Writing, Spring 2000.

In Science & Steepleflower (New Directions, 2000) Gander writes from in-between, where prepositions are the force that carries language seamlessly from one way of seeing into another. He navigates different terrains of the world and his life by collecting evidence. Putting them together, he arrives at some approximation that attempts to link experience with memory, and empirical observation with folklore.

In part one of the book, Gander goes back to the time when magic and folktales were used to decipher nature’s sway over human lives. He makes a “convulsive incision” and opens our eyes to the ordered chaos of the cosmos, where molecules and gods are violently breaking apart. This mirrors a severance of ourselves from all that we know or thought we knew. An “incisive force” that cumulates with the poem “Eggplants and Lotus Root” in part five of the book. The entire book collapses into this section, like cosmic debris into the worm hole. It ebbs and flows, opens and closes, between language’s implosion of meaning and play.

Part two is the exquisite serial poem “Field Guide to Southern Virginia,” which juxtaposes human desire onto the bumps and hollows of wild woodlands. Emotional evidence—those residues of love and sex—are fused with field guide observations of nature. Mosses, underbrush, and passionate loving are all here.

Your sex hidden by goat’s beard.

Laminations in the sediment. All

preserved as internal molds

in a soft lilac shale. (20)

Empirical evidence that is passed down through scientific observation—of stars, plants, insects, animals—comes into Gander’s poems as lyric disguise. In the poem “Escaped Trees of Lynchburg,” Gander twists the language of field guides and works to “decipher the concealed from the given.”:

The trees live disagreeably,                  secreting

chemicals that attract                               parasitic wasps

when caterpillars start                           to strip leaves.

February sap rose                from woodpecker holes. (31)

The space left between the words of Gander’s sentences gives form to the fluid and constantly changing world. The form of the poem itself makes clear the severance between all that will never be seen, and all that is taken for granted. Gander uses language like a lasso cast into the dark and mysterious crevices of nature, both human and organic. His careful lyric, combined with his formal adhesion to space and breath, tames the chaos of emotional, invisible, and sexual realms. The definition of human progress in this hyper-technological age is to move through nature as if we own it—Science & Steepleflower makes clear that there are many things which should never be claimed.

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