To write about profound loss, you step inside a genre, elegy, that is full of haunting echoes. Gander’s poems call to mind those Thomas Hardy wrote after the sudden death of his wife, Emma. Hardy’s verse skips over his immediate, painful past to a moment “when our day was fair,” dwelling on the uncanny traces his wife left behind in “a room on returning thence.” Gander shares the intensity of Hardy’s grief—his morose fixation on moments squandered. The poems in “Be With” recall the happy parallel paths in life and in art that he and Wright followed—always within a holler of each other. After Wright’s death, Gander’s memories revolve around objects, landscapes, work, and routines—symbols that become nearly sentient in their embodiment of his pain:
What Gander calls the “spectacularization / of the trivial” occurs when the everyday—an ordinary cabinet, a mundane memory—“means just / what it feels like / it means.” We teach our objects how to speak our language. This poet’s cabinet even talks in meter.
“Be With” charts the addled chronology of personal loss. The linear march of time is scattered with vignettes from Gander and Wright’s life together, often out of order, often repeated. Early on, she candled eggs for a poultry farm while he played “frisbee on the green.” One night, instead of making love Wright takes a bath, her knees poking up “through the soap bubbles,” while Gander stargazes under the “Prawn Nebula.” Loss is what makes these memories visible; without it, what you have is just another evening of slightly divergent marital priorities. A more recent, more painful memory captures the contesting imperatives of finality and delay:
“If you want
to throw in
some dirt,” the priest
addressed the widower
and his child generally
but did not
The priest doesn’t finish the sentence, but Gander must.
Meanwhile, the world proposes alternative measurements of time and loss. One day, Gander discovers that “the spider / vibrating on its long legs in the ceiling corner / over my desk doesn’t exist now.” The spider’s work, so deeply associated with writing poetry, has been cut short. In an interview, Gander has said that one poem in the collection, a loose translation of the first ballad of St. John of the Cross, was literally interrupted by Wright’s death. This breach is honored in real time: the poem suddenly veers off in a personal direction. The book as a whole replicates this effect: it is a self-suturing wound, equal parts bridge and void.
The fleeting moments that Gander assembles seek an order that is not merely chronological. He remembers a question from Wright: “If it’s not all juxtaposition, she asked, what is the binding agent?” The most obvious answer is language, though, as Gander discovers, language often fails. “Creepy,” he writes, “always to want to pin words on ‘the emotional experience.’ ” Sometimes he gets rid of the binding agents altogether, as in “Deadout,” a two-part poem that arranges fourteen sentence fragments into intelligible couplets, then scrambles them into dreamlike illogic. The result isn’t nonsense; it’s a haunting near-sense made by foiling cause and effect.
Gander has a degree in geology and is the author, with John Kinsella, of “Redstart,” a pioneering hybrid treatise on ecopoetics, a movement in contemporary poetry that, according to Gander, explores “the economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms.” In the same way that the vocabulary of faith might aid a religious poet in a time of crisis, Gander’s deep affinity for the natural world provides a kind of solace. There phenomena “rarely have discreet beginnings or endings” and instead reveal “layers, duration, and transitions.” The impulse to go very small or very big, from the microscopic to the cosmic, is evident in the opening poem. “You lug a bacterial swarm / in the crook of your knee,” Gander writes, while “through my guts / writhe helminth parasites.”
The book’s final section is titled “Littoral Zone”—the part of a body of water, usually near the shore, where enough light passes through for plants to grow. My Google search tells me that by the time sunlight reaches the bottom of the littoral zone it is usually one per cent or less of its surface strength. That’s about as much comfort as arrives in this harrowing, sometimes despairing book. But even in near-darkness there’s light enough for a new, strange kind of love poem:
. . . From
afar, do you see me now
briefly here in this phantasmic
The phrase “phantasmic standoff” is lifted directly from “Redstart,” where it refers not to humans but to strange “nocturnal / pods,” surging in the dark water. It was Nietzsche who defined human beings as “hybrids of plants and ghosts.” The comfort of the littoral is, I take it, entirely figurative. ♦