Gander, (James) Forrest

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GANDER, (James) Forrest

Nationality: American. Born: James Forrest Cockerille (later changed by adoption to Gander), Barstow, California, 21 January 1956. Education: College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1974–78, B.S. and B.A. 1978; San Francisco State University, California, 1980–81, M.A. 1981; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1983–84; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1984. Family: Married C.D. Wright in 1982; one son. Career: Special lecturer, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, 1984–86; assistant professor, 1989, associate professor, 1993–95, and professor of English literature, 1996–98, Providence College, Rhode Island; since 1999 Briggs-Copeland fellow in poetry, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visiting writer, the Burren School of Art, Ireland, 1996, Writer's Workshop, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1997, and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1998–99. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1989; Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative North American Poetry, 1993, 1997; Fund for Poetry award, 1994; Whiting Writer's award, 1997; Jessica Nobel Maxwell memorial prize, American Poetry Review, 1998. Address: 351 Nayatt Road, Barrington, Rhode Island 02806–4336, U.S.A.



Rush to the Lake. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alice James Books, 1988.

Eggplants and Lotus Root. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1991.

Lynchburg. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

Deeds of Utmost Kindness. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Science & Steepleflower. New York, New Directions, 1998.


Editor and translator, Mouth to Mouth: Poems by 12 Contemporary Mexican Women. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Milkweed, 1993.


Forrest Gander comments:

   What lasts in thinking is not
   So much the way
   As its horizon, the plum side
   Not facing us but richer
   In contingency
                a lateral
   Sheer rock face
   From which hiero-
   Glyphs wave what
   Lasts comes after
   The red flash
   The negative Commemoration outside of
   Syntax, human
   Recognition turned away
   From finally itself
                to pinions one seed
   Junipers scree
   Blasted like rusty cans
   The prehistoric wind blinds
   Us with dust a cactus
   Spine goes through our shoe
   But we are bent
   Upon not that
*  *  *

Forrest Gander draws on all of the resources of language and contemporary poetic technique in his writing. He uses space on the page, gives close attention to detail, favors the striking image, and experiments with form, and his strategies range from the lyric to the narrative. The versatile and responsive style that results is perhaps his most important contribution to contemporary poetry.

The most experimental of Gander's works is his chapbook Eggplants and Lotus Root, which consists of five titled sections and a coda. Each section contains three poems—"Geometric Losses," "Violence's Narrative Continued," and "Meditative"—and each of the three poems maintains a similar form and subject matter across the sections. By creating these parallels, Gander forms a book in which the poems have a subtle and complex relationship to one another, similar to recurring themes in a musical composition or to the layering of paint in abstract art. Even his less obviously experimental collections are carefully organized so that, in addition to the strength of individual poems, the collection itself assumes significance.

No matter what the overall strategy, all of Gander's poems are filled with carefully observed detail, and although the speaker may preserve emotional distance from the subject, the poems are filled with visual close-ups, as in this example from "Life of Johnson upside Your Head": "Sweat washing all of them / night sweat, clothing soaked sterno sweat, blind / face glowing like a new shoe shine." When detail is in the service of narrative, the poems become small scenes, as in "The Man Who Wouldn't Pay His Dues." Other poems are like photographs, capturing moments of insight: "Suddenly I recognize / my own face / in the waitress's eye" ("breakfast, dinner"). "Soundtracks and Color Tints" is a list poem that is almost Whitmanesque in its range, while the poems that comprise "The Second Presence" are short and imagistic, reminiscent of haiku, as in this excerpt: "Woodpecker: a sound / Wobbling / The wet trunk around." Gander's poems occasionally wander before they focus, as if the true subject were the movement of the mind itself. "The Provinces of Saturn," for example, begins with the mention of blue paper and then proceeds through loosely related statements to its conclusion: "I am unmanned without you / In this inconstant dark." Gander is also capable of powerful lyrics, as in the title poem of Rush to the Lake, which describes a crowd's reaction to a drowning and ends with these lines:

   The impassive water
   has slipped her
   its cold tongue.
   The nuns hold back the children
   who are straining to the edge
   of their faith
   for the dead to be like the wonderful
   dead in stories.

His images dramatize the familiar: "He hurls his tenor past the moon / while the night goes pale as teeth" ("Parable in Wolves' Clothing").

Place and longing are important subjects throughout Gander's work, and both highlight a sense of displacement. Rush to the Lake contains many poems concerned with Japan and Japanese culture. Lynchberg takes a place-name as its title. Deeds of Utmost Kindness contains three sections—"Roasted Gingko," "Ozark Log," and "The Faculty for Hearing the Silence of Jesus"—of poems about travel or specific locations. The images and fragmented consciousness of "Figures of Travel" approximate the dislocation of being a tourist: "Corollary to the phenomenon of looking familiar to strangers: / the language which escapes you in one country haunts you in / another." Similar to travel, erotic longing can make the self seem both singular and transformed, and it appears to be allied with what threatens as well as with what satisfies: "Emptying itself of mouthlight / Mostly I am thinking about your body / Or your pubic hair twisting into a braid / / No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever" ("Prelude").

Gander uses whatever technique or form an individual poem calls for. What unites his varied stylistic devices is his precise and unsentimental eye.

—Kathleen Aguero