back toJacket2

Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Arielle Greenberg reviews Torn Awake by Forrest Gander

Torn Awake by Forrest Gander. New Directions, $13.95

This piece is 1,200 words or about three printed pages long.

Looking over Forrest Gander’s book of poetry is a fascinating study in artistic development — his work has changed, in subtle and profound ways, with each new book. His latest, Torn Awake, is his most challenging work to date, but in aiming higher in this cycle of odes and meditations, he sometimes leaves behind the earthy quality of some of his earlier poems. For this reader, this is unfortunate, because while Torn Awake grapples with important issues of spiritual truth and humanity, the result is an impressively intellectual collection that feels more distanced than Gander’s older poems. In fact, on the first page the speaker states, ‘Yes, and the more / distant it is, the more I have valued it.’

Torn Awake is divided into six sections, five of which contain a pair of poems each: a longer meditation and a shorter ‘Love’s Letter.’ The first section begins with ‘The Hugeness of That Which Is Missing’ which, with its airy look on the page and the opening line, ‘Call the direction the eye is looking / the line of sight,’ immediately establishes an introspective tone. Many of the moments are lovely surprises, as in the line, ‘A color / disappears into its complement, / the day puts on evening’s sleeve.’ But the poem is not light — there is pain here, and absence and alienation: ‘Radiant opacity. Speaking earth. Weren’t we / thick once as birds and awake together? / But something has hissed me out.’ The speaker here seems desperate to feel central to the world, to believe: ‘To say: I have lost the consolation of faith / though not the ambition to worship, / to stand where the crossing happens.’ The ‘Love’s Letter’ ode that follows is called ‘To C,’ and it’s a mysterious little love poem extending the notion of wholeness, in which the speaker asks the reader/lover to ‘Consider / the darkness of the water which has no scent / and neither can it swallow.’

‘Voiced Stops’ has an entirely different feel — from the first moment, ‘Summer’s sweet theatrum!’ the high-pitched presence of youth is felt, and the poem studies a father-son relationship, where the boy’s body seems to indicate realness, mutability. The poem is vivid, almost sweaty, and full of complex and musical sound:

Else by damp resentment, swal-
Lowed almost in coverlet, fetched longwise
From lashing hours into this unlikely angle, wedge,

Elbow of unfollow. Before, the nightly footfall
— shtoom — his bed to our bed. Scaled eyes.

Sometimes the words take on a bumpy quality, as if barreling down stairs, one-syllable words falling on top of each other, as when Gander writes, ‘To wit: / lying bare, the sheets a husk shed low / over the sorrel-vine of him.’ Pride and sorrow mingle here, the father worried about ‘eldering’ his son, but the overall feeling is one of gratitude and wonder, with the existential preoccupation with mortality consuming the accompanying love letter ‘To the Reader:’ ‘Although it is late now and the question you were asking, / Who am I, has become something different. / What is there?

We then move to another bodily poem, ‘The Gradual All,’ only this time the body represents lust as much as love. There is a second-person address here, but the ‘you’ seems to shift, sometimes seeming to be a horse (‘pushed you / deep into a corner. Held the haunches’) and sometimes the rider (‘Cannot, I cannot step back, / I told you, wiping my eyes between your breasts’). It’s a poem with a distinctly galloping rhythm, where the sections repeat detail from earlier sections with a temporal urgency, and has a far-ranging quality that delights, in which martinis and riddles, summer camp and surgery, come together to tell the story. The accompanying ode is from Orpheus ‘To Eurydice,’ and is a narrative aware of its own narrative—it seems to see itself as an opera or theater piece. Looking, speaking, moving all lose their potency, and the poem is one of frustration, and ends, ‘With what word, what gambit, / might a stubborn, remnant hope contract even further / and even further into a summons?’

‘Line of Descent’ returns us to the realm of the familial, with the child teaching his father how to feel, to discover, on a camping trip: ‘When one is well-defined, is the other / uncertain?’ Again, the man in the poem seems unable to fully overcome his detachment:

An ant escapes
From the ant-lion and
Deux ex machina! —
the boy dangles it over
the ant-lion pit and drops it back in.
Who can peel back the observing
and climb into presence?

The complementing ode, ‘To Virginia,’ is to the state, and to the way we carry place inside us: ‘where / quartz-veins sever beds of black mica in the hills and rains / etch brachiopods from Shenandoah limestone . . . Begotten / with strange attentiveness, besotted / as I am with you.’

A sense of tribute is sustained in ‘Carried Across,’ in which nature, birdsong, and language come together, refusing perfect translation, on a trip to Mexico: ‘But in this human idiom, voices /bleeding across frequencies, intention /torn open, the selves crowning, I experience / extended cloud.’ The final ‘Love’s Letter’ that follows, ‘To the Invisible World,’ is one of the book’s finest moments, a funny and breathtaking poem dedicated in the notes to John High, ‘a monk and poet.’ Much of the piece is mock-Biblical, a kind of modern, free-wheeling Song of Songs:

To what can I compare her conversation’s surprise?
Karl Jansky built an antenna to study shortwave radio interference
but he discovered radio galaxies.

From the fricative heat of her limbs when she walks,
the forest blooms beside her, berries ripen.

Torn Awake ends with ‘Facing in All Directions,’ a poem in which a relationship is compared to an ancient family unearthed in Cyprus,

the skeletons of a young man,
a woman, and their eighteen month old child.
The man’s arm circled the woman’s waist, his left leg,
as though to shield her,
He had thrown across her pelvis. He held her hand and clutched the child.
Bliss comes uncounting the hour, seizing no set moment.  

Once again, the speaker seems both satisfied and mystified by his love of the world, by his passing life, able to find beauty even in the most poignant evidence of loss. I am encouraged by what I see as a newly expanded interest in spiritual questioning among the country’s experimental poets, but feel that too much of such work is spent in abstract philosophy, rather than in grounding, tangible moments of inquiry. Gander is a poet who has proven himself able to do both in Torn Awake, and the result is a hushed reverie of bittersweet discoveries.

Forrest Gander’s author notes page gives more recent information.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

Jacket 19 — October 2002  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Arielle Greenberg and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is