Thursday, August 24, 2006



Eye Against Eye by Forrest Gander
(New Directions, New York, 2005)

A Book That Grows: Forrest Gander’s Eye Against Eye

Has a book been so compelling that when you’re done you don’t want to put it down? Then when you finally do, you pick it right back up to sift the pages, stopping to read a poem here and there, or, if you can’t resist, reading the book again in its entirety? Or, if you pried the book out of your hands/eyes/mind, is it one of those books you leave on your reading table rather than shelving it with the other “finished” poetry books?

Forrest Gander’s Eye Against Eye has been one of those books for me this year. However, it didn’t start out that way. The first section, “Burning Towers, Standing Wall,” was unengaging; I didn’t gain anything from re-reading it (first read it in The Blue Rock Collection). An evocative poem of a visit to Mayan ruins in Tabasco Province, Mexico, it also didn’t seem to fit in stylistically with Gander’s work in the remainder of Eye Against Eye. The poem, enriched by the vocabulary we’ve come to know in all Gander’s work, develops as a conventional lyric poem. It moves through descriptions of the ancient, almost mythic wall, its makers and destroyers, its visitors, insect and birdlife, image to image interspersed with commentary:

Some of the sounds bouncing from the stones are
nearly the same sounds they heard—resonant
human voices and the perwicka perwicka
of a quetzal in flight at a distance—
and give us access to them almost
through grinding cicadas and crickets
thrumming serrated thighs
through their domestic acoustics...

The appealing self-awareness of the poetry–poem knowing it’s a poem–in the later poems in this volume is absent, and the radical fissures, crevasses, sudden chasms that underscore the other poems, have not yet evolved.

Spread throughout the book, binding the other sections together, the four “Ligature” poems create attention through the disjointed transitions between sentences and groups of sentences in a way that “Burning Towers, Standing Wall” did not. A narrative and a metanarrative at once, the first “Ligature,” in a “sequence of dark non sequiturs,” constructs a turbulent relationship between a father, mother, and an adolescent boy. It’s a jarring poem to inhabit, a ligament stretching, straining to make a transition from the aching ambience, the angry nostalgia, of the Mayan ruins to the quick turning, traveling, of “Present Tense.”

The eleven poems in “Present Tense” jostle the reader from Fire Island, Lake Ontario, Narragansett Bay, Mississippi, San Francisco, Laguna Beach, to unnamed places, personal and universal, the reader must map. Many of the phrases of the poems, whose lines have no end punctuation, accelerating the already rapid pace, stand alone–“quartz and alkali feldspars, an intimate graphic intergrowth”–while many skip down the page in tight partnership:

Dribbling down our steep street
mulberry stains resemble a meteor shower
a wrinkle of gravitational waves passes through
our inquiry is given to us whether we can speak it
in the world’s terms by the world

to finally fuse in the last seven lines:

should you fall
should you hollow inward
wake from dreams worn out and dull as a horse
should you crack and spill the yoke of yourself
you will find in me a stay
and this the promissory note of indebtedness
a proximity that cannot be unhooped

“Ligature 2” is a sinewy walk, perhaps in a narrow street in Mexico, traveler struggling with communication with passerby and with his son who, later, flails back: “At the hotel, sunburned and disconsolado, the boy immelmanning across the pool for an hour.” Still struggling, the man arrives at what he needs, if only in his dreams: “I remember dreaming last night that he loved me.”

In my first reading, the book took off starting with the series of poems, "Late Summer Entry: the Landscapes of Sally Mann," poems accompanied by photographs (albeit poorly reproduced). These poems work on several levels: as description of key elements in the black and white photographs:

                                         --the ditch
gaping like a grave for the tower,
catfish heads scattered in the dirt, and
                                                    ditchwater dull as resin.
("The Broken Tower," p. 57);

as meditation on how technically the photo moves the viewer:

Enmeshed in a field of concentric force, the spectator is drawn toward a wormhole of brightness, not depth but another dimension entire. A light which is life source.
("Ivy Brick Wall," p. 51);

as description of a transaction between poet, reader, and photographer:

At the same time, the blemish
joins together the realms
of seer and swimmer
in our experience of plunging
into and out of the image.
("Bridge & Swimmer," p. 55);

as surface from which the poet sees the unseeable:

and shadows
               condense into a living blackness
where non-being stirs, where the swirl
of unborn things,
                                             like a nursery of spiders,
stirs beyond our senses.
("Photo Canto," p. 41);

and as celebration of how object in concert with audience perception becomes a creative force in itself:

It is this originary force that transforms the ordinary into the exultant. Here, where light authors act and meaning, where whelming ivy overwrites brick wall.
("Ivy Brick Wall," continued from above).

Three of the poems have yet another dimension. Printed in two columns (left column left justified, right column winding down the page), "Road and Tree," "Collodion," and "Argosy for Rock and Grass" can be read across columns or down each column, left then right, creating some startling juxtapositions, tightening connections within the poem:

But to fault                the image for its lack
of correlative, we would                miss its fullness
coming to be.                The river is named
The Holy Ghost. We believe                what we do not know.
(the end of "Argosy for Rock and Grass," p. 53)

Unfolding in San Francisco’s Mission District, “Mission Thief” is an intense narrative. It begins slowly, deliberately, with the poem’s speaker strolling with a partner down the streets. Then a man veering near on a stolen bicycle cuts into the poem, racing up the street past the couple. The poem’s action multiplies, fractures, hand against stucco, neck, dance of spectators, the man who has lost his bike trying to keep up running, desire/doubt to intervene, a panoply of emotional responses. The swirl of activity crystallizes near the end, a looking back:

the rest of us unrescued
stopped in time transfixed
to this stark spectacle of our separateness
making its stand
hammering its horizons home
behind which
each of us says I don’t know
who you are
you never broke through me

“Ligature 4” ties up the volume. All four poems speak of a young boy, one who has perhaps grown up by the end of this poem, grown up and into himself and away from his parents, a tightening or a loosening of the ligature:

Throwing himself into the back seat after wrestling practice, mat burns on
his cheek and forehead.

His muteness an onomatopoeia of the rising moon.

As it stands now several readings later: this is one of those few books I can't put on the shelf (Tom Beckett’s Vanishing Points is still one of those unshelved books, over a year after its publication; it's on the table behind me as I type, ready for perusal at moment's notice). Minus "Burning Tower, Standing Wall," Eye Against Eye is an astounding collection.

Gander is a master of the multiple, of the manifold. Though he may point to something in a phrase, he diverts–yet includes, not excludes, creates not destroys–attention by the next phrase. Read the book through, then re-read and re-read the later poems, then re-read the first half. Then re-read the whole thing. Then browse, gaze and graze....The book grows!


Crag Hill edited SCORE, one of the premier visual poetry magazines in the United States & SPORE for nearly twenty-five years. Poems have recently appeared in Aught, Generator, Eratio, Shampoo, & Sleeping Fish.


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