DAN BEACHY-QUICK on Striven, the Bright Treatise, by Jeffrey Pethybridge. Noemi Press, 198 pp., $25.
AURA VAN DEN BERG on A Questionable Shape, by Bennett Sims. Two Dollar Radio, 242 pp., $16.50
WILL SCHUTT on Core Samples from the World, by Forrest Gander. New Directions, 96 pp., $15.95
Suicide remains, from antiquity to now, from Ajax leaping on the blade of his own sand-buried sword to our soldiers fighting now in Afghanistan, an act unfathomable to those of us who survive in its wake. Jeffrey Pethybridge’s astonishing and powerful debut, Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press, 2013) is written against the suicide of his brother, Tad, who in 2007, jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. “Against” here is a word of primary formal gesture—not a polemic, but a seeking of words that can place themselves tangent to their imponderable concern and so bring it to light. Death defies description. So every real elegist laments even as he writes his elegy, forced by reality into the impossible work. Such a poem becomes a “Fathom-Line,” taking measure of unknown depths, and placing within human arms an act that feels ungraspable. Pethybridge’s unerring instinct is to turn to poetry’s own prosody, those undergirding forms that make sense not merely available, but possible. Anagrammatic permutations of his brother’s name, as well as of antipsychotic drugs, demonstrate the book’s most strident ardor: an old, nigh magical belief, that in rearranging every letter into every possible position one might find within the word that unspoken thing (some call it soul and some mind), that silence that abides in the midst of all life and which, in some of us, so dislodges the frame that should hold it, that we propel ourselves into the larger blank that death seems to promise. Pethybridge’s intelligence is everywhere found, nowhere depended upon. His literary allusions move from Sophocles and Dante to Zukofsky and Stein, but he understands that knowledge offers no answer to those difficulties that in their ancient and ongoing resistance to human comprehension stultify the mind with its own devices. Instead, through translation and document, through psalm-making and repetition, through modernist play and metaphysical conceit, Pethybridge offers every method he can—not to answer and not to understand—to bring us close to the very limit, that line where word and song, body and soul, intent and act, have yet to differentiate one from the other, and we find ourselves there, at the railing of the bridge before the lights have turned on, brightly striving against the coming silence, offering—no meager gift—what company we can.
A Questionable Shape is the zombie novel I've been waiting for.
It's Baton Rouge, hurricane season is on the rise, and a community is reeling from a recently—and tenuously—contained zombie infestation. Our hero, Vermaelen, who has his doubts about how contained the epidemic actually is, pings between his girlfriend, Rachel, who has thrown herself into the recovery efforts, and assisting his friend Mazoch in the search for his missing, presumably zombified father.
To the great credit of A Questionable Shape, while the horror of the epidemic is vividly and convincingly captured, the typical zombie apocalypse fare—a horde of lurching zombies tearing some poor Baton Rouge-ian to shreds, say—is discarded in favor of haunting, nuanced glimmers of the undead: a zombie lurks on a streetcorner, forlorn and deadly; a zombie tromps through a field, hungry for something to destroy; a zombie gazes at Vermaelen and Rachel from across a lake with vague interest. It's unclear how much the undead remember, if they remember anything at all, but they keep returning to familiar places, keep haunting their old haunts, like detectives on a haphazard search to understand who they used to be.
There are river barges housing undead bodies. There is a pamphlet called FIGHT THE BITE. Vermaelen and Rachel practice "defamiliarization" techniques, in an effort to prepare for the day one of them might turn into something unrecognizable. Folded into the epidemic and the nascent recovery are troubling questions of how a person should proceed if their partner or parent or friend is transformed into the undead. What are the loyalties, the human requirements, of the living? How ruthless should the living be in their quest to save themselves?
In the end, the zombie epidemic and Mazoch's subsequent search provide a stage for Sims' to display his most potent narrative gifts: deeply smart and deeply engrossing philosophical ruminations on the nature of what it means to be alive, and what it means to stop living in a world where "no longer living" isn't quite the same thing as being dead.
Louis Simpson once warned, "It is easy to put on the costume of a nation other than your own ... to share in the emotional life of that nation is another thing entirely. Americans like to dress up and play at what they are not ... in poetry the results are not convincing." Yet the desire for authenticity, for genuine engagement with the world, remains profound. If the poet-protagonists of recent novels by Ben Lerner and Nicholson Baker are to be believed, contemporary poets are keenly sensitive to the kind of charlatanism Simpson describes because they tend to see themselves as frauds.
Poets' suspicion of authenticity—and language's ability to accurately capture a singular experience—has led many contemporary poets to explore collaborative methods (erasures, rengas, joint translations) that give the lie to concepts of originality, coherent narrative, and a continuous self. Forrest Gander's Core Samples from the World is no exception. It includes collaborations with photographers; long poems that suggest, but never outline, a narrative; bits of translation; and a travel diary. In a prefatory note, Gander writes:
This book comes about as unprecedented human movement leads, here as elsewhere, to conflicts, suspicions, and opportunities to reconsider what is meant by ‘the foreign,' by ‘the foreigner.' It is also a very personal account of negotiations across borders (between languages and cultures, between one species and all the rest, between health and sickness, between poetic forms, and between self and others).
The result of Gander's negotiations between borders is a daring—yet ultimately oxymoronic—work, a self-conscious book about not being a conscious self. Yet while self-consciousness might diminish the emotive mystery of poetry, Gander approaches cultural and linguistic divides with charming self-deprecation. Remarking on the cannablistic quality of translation, he writes, "Had I just translated Siento que mi fatiga se fatiga as /My get up and go done got up and gone?"
The book's title, Core Samples from the World, provides rich bedrock from which to extract the substance of its contents. On one hand, the title announces its considerable ambition to cover a wide swath of the map. On the other, the word "samples" implies the inevitable result of such an ambition: the traveler can carry back only samplings from his excursions, snippets of dialogue, the occasional souvenir, remembrances of brief encounters or missed connections. But Gander is hardly the kind of holidaymaker who stuffs his carry-on with candy and liquors purchased at the duty-free shop. As the "core" of the title suggests, however fleeting or stalled by the roadblocks of translation his reckonings may be, Gander's purpose is to uproot the essence of his earthly travels.
In one of the collection's many prose passages (patterned after Japanese haibun, which pairs short diary-like essays with haiku) the poet accompanies a group of international writers to the home of Ysabel Fernandez Galàn, a Mexican museum director. Galàn owns one of the largest collections of anamorphoses, "those distorted paintings that, viewed in a convex mirror or from a certain perspective, suddenly resolve into natural proportions." As Gander describes it:
Flat on her living room table is a painting—like something made at the boardwalk by dripping liquid color onto a spinning square of cardboard. It is only when Ysabel places a cylindrical mirror at the center that a detailed image forms in the curve of the mirror ... Next to the table, a contraption similar to a land surveyor's transit points toward a large painting of four faces. Ysabel notes that the man who commissioned the painting didn't want to be visible to his four enemies who are depicted in it. Put your eye to the sight in the transit, she directs, and you will see the four faces resolve into one face, the face of the man who commissioned the work. His face is composed of the faces of his enemies who disappear that he might appear.
If we substitute the word "enemies" with the word "foreigners," we might see this anamorphose as a model for Core Samples from the World. Each of the book's four sections details a far-flung journey—to China, Mexico, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chile—made in the name of poetry. (Gander travels almost exclusively for the purpose of kicking it with other poets). On each trip we encounter other practitioners of the art, including the Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra and the Bosnian filmmaker-poet Senadin Musabegovic. And each encounter with these strangers appears, at first glance, to shed light on the book's author. (There is sufficient evidence to say, with few exceptions, that the speaker of the book is the author).
Any insight into the private life of the poet is gleaned from the four poems opening each section, all titled "Evaporation." In each, the reader eavesdrops on a couple. There are hints that the affair has soured ("When had we kissed like that?"). Sickness is alluded to, as is a dead child ("Marbles in the concrete headstone spell Child."). But the particulars of such a narrative, as the title "Evaporation" implies, remain vaporous, furthering our sense that human character is unquantifiable.
In fact, the many vanishing acts in Core Samples from the World complicate any natural proportions an anamorphose may render. Over the course of the book the poet remains insoluble. A translator at heart, Gander would prefer to disappear so that others may appear. As he writes, "I wanted to break a mirror ... I wanted to borrow eyes from another language." The central question of the collection, then, is not "Who am I?" but,
Quien es? First words
of Hamlet. Last
of Billy the Kid.
William H. Bonney and the Prince of Denmark are fitting avatars for a book of formal shape-shifting and changes of scenery. Really, who is there? The father or a figment of the son's imagination? A lawman or a turncoat? And who's asking? His father's keeper or a solipsistic cad? A folk hero or a murderer? As Gander knows, our inability to disentangle the enigmas of Hamlet and Billy the Kid is precisely why our interest in them never flags.
What Gander has written elsewhere about the poet George Oppen applies just as well to his own ethic here: "[He] honors a consciousness interwoven with the world of objects, a consciousness that is nothing if not a collaboration with the world." His pursuit, if not self-discovery, is human connection. And his method, if not estrangement, is inclusion.
Nowhere is the collaborative nature of Core Samples from the World on clearer display than in the sections that couple poems with photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide and Lucas Foglia. Iturbide's stark black-and-white photographs present an unpeopled landscape: exposed rebar, contorted trees, cacti strung round with newspapers. A viewer gets the feeling that Iturbide did nothing but point her camera and shoot. Yet upon closer scrutiny her landscapes transform into something resembling "an art installation." The trees seem to lock horns, like bucks. Cacti impale the newspapers. Bending in the wind, the rebar resembles a stalk of reeds.
By contrast, Raymond Meeks trains his lens on people. In his series "Lovegreen," a mother and daughter dwell in a softly lit arcadia. The girl, her frail arm "planted like a cup handle," is imbued with some out-of-reach and—that word again—vaporous nostalgia. Meeks is more consciously artful than Iturbide, and the poems pick up on this shift:
Chiastolite pebbles along the braided stream.
Smell of pine and camphor.
Clangor of light.
What might otherwise seem precious becomes unsettling when we realize how indifferent to the viewer Meeks' subjects are; no one returns our gaze. In another series of Meeks' photos, children and workers haul off mounds of dirt and rocks, their faces concealed under hard hats, and a woman "ghosted with dust" looks away defiantly. As Gander writes: "I can be read, say her eyes, but not by you." Such refusal engenders the kind of frustration and discomfort travelers are well acquainted with: Why won't the "other" engage with us? What right do we have to engage with those who don't want to be engaged?
The self-consciousness that Meeks' photographs provoke in the viewer is emblematic of the major dilemma of Core Samples from the World, one suggested by Simpson's warning thirty years ago. Americans are so painfully aware of the snickers exotic costumes can elicit, so scared to death of misappropriating the foreign, that they can never allow themselves to disappear into the other. In poetry, this means the words on the page rarely, if ever, dissolve into pure feeling—whatever the feeling. Gander's solution—via the haibun—is to revert to flat, reportorial language, and it's hard not to feel a pang of disappointment reading the summary account of a woman being injured at a bullfight ("In the unprecedented pandemonium that followed, Julieta was upended and gored, her legs exposed to everyone. The near-death experience made her an instant celebrity") or hold out a plate for more when treated to a thin helping of hefty subject matter, particularly vis-à-vis postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina ("There were those who grew rich and powerful on the war, as always. When the conflict ended, they were in a position to control the political machinery").
If the upshot of globalism is that American poets have directed their gaze farther outward—and more and more international poets are being made available to English-language readers, thanks in no small part to translators like Gander and small presses like Lost Roads Press, which Gander co-edits—the burden they face is an overabundance of cultures they can read about, and draw inspiration from, but possess few if any vital ties to.
Though no stranger to the world, particularly Latin America, Gander is clearly more fluent in the language of North American landscapes, in the "rotten, oily smell of red-blossoming / pawpaws clumped along [a] creek." In the third section of Core Samples from the World, Gander's poems accompany Lucas Foglia photos of an eco-community in Utopia, Virginia. The whole section achieves an intimacy that is solvent. Less distance separates the viewer from the viewed, thanks in no small part to the straightforward, photojournalistic quality of Foglia's photographs. The similar achievement of Gander's accompanying poem may also be due to the poet's familiarity with the people and the landscape (Virginia is, after all, Gander's home state). Not surprisingly, the subjects of Foglia's photographs return the viewer's gaze. A young member of the community, wearing little else but a fox pelt around her shoulders, stares back at us. Appropriately, Gander's poem captures a familiar idiom:
things we do would gross people out
because they just don't know. Always was
baffled by the connections in life. It's
moving around for the light. I thought,
that plant's growing before my eyes, it's insane.
What the news media don't want you
to know about. All the wild edible plants ...
Just as Iturbide/Gander reveal the artistic in the actual, Foglia/Gander unveil the conventional nature at the core of the iconoclast's posturing. But it's never clear—should it be?—whether the poet sympathizes with or satirizes Utopia. Probably both. Gander deftly illustrates the hypocrisy of a community that can advocate for "[moving] in a way that's more connected" while also "post[ing] a man to keep out strangers." Yet the former mantra —"only connect"—could easily serve as an epigraph for Core Samples from the World. That Gander can poke fun is testament to his intellectual integrity. It may also be a privilege of belonging.
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