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A Loss That Every Loss Fits Inside: Thoughts on Forrest Gander’s BE WITH

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ISBN: 9780811226059
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: New Directions - August 28th, 2018

I came to poetry by way of a couple poets whose work I could not stop thinking about. Like songs getting stuck in your head, I had poems which I would say out loud to myself for no real reason. I still do this. I’m glad I still do this. One early poem I could not shake was the late C.D. Wright’s “More Blues and the Abstract Truth.” I had a recording of Wright reading it and the lilt in her voice punctuated perfectly what the piece suggested. It’s worth listening to. She became one of my favorite poets, a true experimenter. She made me feel like poetry could expand as far as you let it, that some poems can go on and on with no need to wrap up with some cute epiphany. I remember reaching out to her on Facebook and got a short reply back that sent me spinning. I had contact with a true hero, even if only digitally. Of course, her unexpected death was absolutely heartbreaking. It was a week after David Bowie’s and they had both just released new work and were the same age. It was perplexing. It was sad. It’s difficult to accept there would be no new work after her last collection. Though this sentiment is not new, it was the first time I really had to contend with it.

Just this week, her husband Forrest Gander (whom she taught alongside with at Brown) released a new collection of poems following his 2011 Pulitzer Finalist CORE SAMPLES OF THE WORLD, entitled BE WITH. Out from New Directions, BE WITH takes on grief as its subject, an elegy of sorts to his late wife as well as his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer's. I couldn’t help but want to see if C.D. was a blatant subject in his new work, and although that was my original intention when wanting to read this collection, I came away from it thoroughly impressed by Gander’s own poetic strength. Consider the opening lines of an early poem “Beckoned” which uses the anaphora “At which point…” throughout, almost like a meditation: “At which point my grief-sounds ricocheted outside of language. / Something like a drifting swarm of bees.” And later describing his wife: “At which point her voice was pinned to the backdrop of vaporous color.” Gander is spectacular at an almost sci-fi description of the grief world, an otherworldly landscape he creates by reimagining language as something tactile. I could really feel the use of language as the medium in these collections, which seems obvious to say about poetry using language as the medium, but there is something truly to be experienced by Gander’s poems that other poems don’t have: a three-dimensionality. I feel this way about few poets, where you can “feel” the typing in the work. These poems are constructed with pure intent; nothing is out of place or frivolous.

BE WITH also has an eerie quiet that reminds me of Jean Valentine’s collection BREAK THE GLASS, especially in this line from “What It Sounds Like”: “You who were given a life, what did you make of it?” It’s a question you feel Gander is trying to sort out throughout the collection. The book is shot through with this reflective quality, a meandering in mortality. Perhaps this is most apparent in the sequences “Tell Them No” and “Ruth.” The section “Ruth” explores his mother’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s, containing this line: “She’s lost / my name, but the / occasion of my / presence begs / more. Who is my / mother now I am / unspoken for?” Gander shows us the difficulty of living a life after those closest to you, anchoring you to the world, are gone. Is it possible to start again? These poems give voice to someone trying. Although these poems can be difficult in structure and subject, BE WITH is one of the strongest collections of poetry to come out this year and one you ought to invest in.