Ways of Being

Intimations of living and dying in the lines of Forrest Gander

In 2019, Forrest Gander won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poems Be With. The title was a quotation from his wife, the poet C. D. Wright, who died suddenly in 2016. Wright’s final book, ShallCross, which was published posthumously that same year, bore the dedication, “for Forrest / line, lank and long, / be with.” Shadowed by Wright’s death, “be with” evokes loss, interruption, incompletion—separation.

But the phrase can also be read as a statement about our essential connectedness with other people, creatures, and things, a reminder that being is always a being-with. Or maybe “be with” is an imperative, an ethical call to lean into that connectedness, with all the emotional, intellectual, and political challenges that entails.

In Twice Alive, a recent collection of his poetry, Gander writes about lichen, a life form created when two species “merge, mutually altering each other.” Transformation through mutual exchange: this is an environmental vision of generativity and resilience. It also describes Gander’s many collaborations with composers, musicians, photographers, and sculptors, and his translations of poetry from Spanish, Japanese, and other languages.

The poems gathered here recall members of a family and their ways of being with each other. We meet three figures: the poet’s “I,” the “you” who is his partner, and the couple’s son. They appear in various scenes and configurations over a period of perhaps many years. At one point, it becomes clear that the marriage is “gone,” the boy’s “mother gone” as well. The father and son have been left alone together, talking—tensely, it seems—“to take the edge off.”

Gander shifts perspective from one poem to another. Sometimes, he speaks in the first person and sometimes in the third, as if the self he is writing about belonged to someone else. These meditations on time themselves unfold in time. One poem is punctured abruptly; others are suspended in the form of a question that can’t be answered or a feeling that can’t be resolved.

Where there is intimacy, there is also mystery and opacity. The two ideas are held together in “June, Tendrils of Trumpet Vine.” When it grows “too dark / even to see each other,” the poet’s partner asks, “Where // is your face, Forrest?” Then she answers her own question: “Inside me, / it doesn’t age.” Here, recalling how Wright preserved an image of him, Gander does the same for her.

The varied verse forms and shifting points of view in these poems imply that our ways of being with each other are mobile and situational, bound by time, and yet are also transcending it. Or should the emphasis be the other way around? “Then This” recalls, in the present tense, the poet’s receiving the news of a friend’s sudden death. The son is practicing the cello; on the refrigerator is a photo of the boy as an infant, locking eyes with the same friend who has just died.

They are all present in this scene: the father, the wife, the son; the infant and the growing boy; the friend who held the child in his hand and the friend who is now dead. But the cello in the background is the music of time, which is the music for musical chairs. So it is in anyone’s life, as “The music stops” and one after another of us leaves the room.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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