Jake Adam York


Poems by Forrest Gander: Life of Johnson Upside Your Head, Librettos for Eros, Field Guide to Southern Virginia

Forrest Gander may well be one of the South’s most distinctive poets. Certainly, the region has produced many fine and memorable voices, but it seems that Forrest Gander has worked to develop a particular and unforgettable timbre that marks him in the midst of the choir. Maybe, however, that’s just the way he is. Whatever the case, the distinction is unmistakable. Throughout his poems, we hear Gander’s obliquity, his particular slant.

Call it his accent.

Though Gander was born and raised in Virginia, the cultivation of the twang has required a great deal of oblique relation to that home land. After graduating from the College of William and Mary, with a double major in Geology and English, in 1978, Gander moved to San Francisco to study poetry. Once he had earned his master’s degree from San Francisco State University, Gander shifted, with poet C. D. Wright, to Mexico, to Arkansas, and to Rhode Island, where they now live and coedit Lost Roads Publishers while Gander directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Brown University.

The better part of Gander’s life has been spent outside of, or on the edges of, the geographical South. His poems reveal, however, that wherever he has lived, some part of him has continued to inhabit the south – in a Delta, in a Virginia, in a Mississippi of the mind – places all Southerners touch at some time. In each of his six books of poems – including Deeds of Utmost Kindness, Lynchburg, and Science and Steepleflower, which are represented here by major poems – the gravity is unmistakable.

Like Whitman, like Fred Chappell, Gander has found long forms well suited to this world. Like Whitman, like James Dickey, Gander’s written world is marked by various musks. His South is a gritty, smelly place of extremes – not a solid South of columned galleries and never-emptied juleps, but a wide region that has room for the spider’s pregnancy, the devil’s desire, Snap-On Tools and blues guitar, a multifarious region.

In every poem, Gander’s generosity – his great capacity for a sympathy with a scene, a consciousness – is readily apparent. Few contemporary poets, in any region, have such a large embrace.

Gander challenges us, too, to embrace so wide and so real and so un-ideal a place in place of the pastoral scenes William Gilmore Simms and the romancers of the Old Southwest first fashioned, the dream that resists erosion easily as any fossil. Thus he follows Billie Holiday, who asked us to look hard at the “pastoral scene of the gallant South” to find its strange fruit.

If Gander’s poems challenge us through their language as well as through their ideas, then they illustrate just how difficult our growth is, after all, just how far we have to go. And if these poems remind us of Souths we often forget, then, certainly, they also help us on our way, kindly but honestly – a slow truth, a kind of drawl.

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