2012 Pulitizer Prize finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee in Poetry: Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World

March 1st, 2012 § 1 comment

As Chinese poets, we don’t want to go backward, Xi Chuan observes, but ahead of us the way forks in innumerable directions.  Forgetting which language he has just heard, but remembering the substance, the exhausted translator begins to translate the original language into the original language.  The nonnatives are inept at reading the forms of discussion here, much less the subtleties.  What is taken as evident wafts away.  Tensions come clear, faces shaking no, one translator interrupting another.  The topic, Where is Chinese poetry going in the age of globalization, invites phatic responses.  But under their masks of muteness, the visitors go beyond listening to; they listen into.

What else is being

asked, what

is at stake?

Forrest Gander’s Core Samples from the World has lingered in my thoughts for nearly a month now.  I find myself reflecting on the recollections of encounters with people high and low, literate writers and illiterate villagers, that span from China to Mexico, Bosnia to Chile.  Most traveler accounts focus almost exclusively on the writers themselves, with the people encountered being conflated with their cultures and monuments into a vague, “exotic” landscape that feels devoid of interaction.  In those accounts, the travelers just go, arrive, view, and leave, with only mementos and rarely any memorable encounters.  Core Samples from the World is different.  Gander does not as much describe what he encounters in the four countries he visits as he witnesses.  We encounter through Gander’s testimony cultures that are far more ancient than mine, some of which, like the Kyrgyz, have their own national poetry that rivals (and in some regards) surpasses the grandeur and depth of Greco-Roman epic poetry.  The way he describes the recital of part of the Kyrgyz national poem, Manas (clocking in at 232,162 lines in some written forms), is indicative of how he approaches encounters in each country that he visits:

Each of the local singers specializes in a single section of the poem, one declaiming in a raspy voice at a martial clip and another chanting forlornly, but all strumming the three-stringed komuz.  The last Manas singer rocks back and forth, reciting his part in the meter of horse hooves, trochaic tetrameter.  After the performance, the poets are invited to sit cross-legged at long tables in a restaurant where, in their honor, a horse has been slain and cooked.

This is not to say that in his witness Gander fails to explore keenly his own reactions to what he has encountered.  Here is a segment from “The Tinajera Notebook” that deals with his visit to a local Mexican market and the emotions inspired from it:

…Radiance inside.  Bald

children wearing hats, and a bald baby in a mother’s arms, and

here in the lobby, where I wait for you.

to be X-rayed,

some stranger whose exhaustion

can’t be fathomed, begins to snore.  If this

is the world and its time, as irrevocably it is,

when I step out into sunlit air

suffused with sausage smoke and bus exhaust,

with its relentless ads

for liquor and underwear,

where am I then?

Quien es?  First words

of Hamlet.  Last

of Billy the Kid.

Gander does not skim over the emotions sparked by what he has seen in these countries.  He describes in poetry, through the photography that his collaborators took from which he devised some of his poems, and in his adaptation of the Japanese haibun (a form of essay-poem), just what he has encountered and how events, small and epic alike, affect the peoples he meets.  Not all of the encounters are benign, as he describes a literary festival in Santiago, Chile:

At dinner, the Santiago poet averts her face from the gringo although no one else is sitting close enough for her to engage in conversation.  A synecdoche, he is taken for his government.  She lights up and blows sullen smoke down the table.  With suspicion at the threshold of dialogue, there is always a word blocking the first word.

And on the second day of the festival, after many papers, a consensus emerges that there are no longer regions of poetry; there are zones.  A distinction weakened, perhaps, in translation?

Final night, a local poet accuses the host of avoiding the issue of regionality altogether, of talking around it with clever language games when, in fact, some people’s lives are at risk, even now, at this moment, because of what they write, because of where they live.

Another shouts from the audience that vanguard poetry doesn’t speak to him, it is elitist, the tone of the whole conference is elitist.

And so the last evening dissolves into tensions,

A dinner table balanced
like a barbell, partisan drinkers
cluster at either end.
The foreigner can’t control his situation; mastery eludes him.  After four days in another language, he who started out infinitely sensitive is completemente rendido, rent by the effort of constant attentiveness.
Sometimes, it is easy to spot a phony, particularly when it comes to descriptions of personal situations.  Forrest Gander is no phony.  What he does through the three media described above is provide a sampling of cultures and traditions that are not as much filtered through him as they use him to speak to those of us who may not have considered just how diverse we are in our customs and beliefs.  Core Samples from the World is one of the best poetry collections I have read.  It is easily on par with Bruce Smith’s Devotions and I believe it is the best of the five nominees for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.  It is a work that will move those who read it, as they cannot view others nor themselves in the same light again after careful consideration of what Gander says in this collection.

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