Be With

by Major Jackson

“At which point my grief-sounds ricocheted outside of language” opens Forrest Gander’s poem “Beckoned” in his book Be With. In this volume, the poet, translator, and husband of the poet C. D. Wright, who died unexpectedly in 2016, staggers through his sorrow, marking in lines full of insight, at times astonishingly so, an entanglement of emotions, including enduring love and regret: “Though I also wear / my life into death, the / ugliness I originate / outlives me.” In addition to managing these feelings with language as an armament of sorts, Gander imbues objects such as a handstone in the poem “Archaic Mano” with both symbolic and talismanic import. This poem and others mimic the journey of making and undoing and remaking. Throughout the book, Gander superimposes meaning on the world around him in poems that frequently have the precision of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”: “Not far / from the right / metaphor: / a cigar coming / apart in the train / station toilet.” The book carries a tenderness that is more than impressionistic, crude, or general. In the opening poem, a consolatory address to the poet's son, Gander writes: “When she spoke, when your mother spoke, even the leashed / greyhound stood transfixed. I stood transfixed.” That same sensitivity illuminates the poem “Ruth,” which describes the immense challenge of caring for a mother deteriorating from Alzheimer’s: “So take her hand, walking in / the garden: an animal moment of warmth / she won’t recall after our sit. Voracious / starlings ride a swinging cage of suet. / That signal enthusiasm in her eyes / muddles with torment. Choose whatever / you will and the disease still wins.” This elegiac collection does more than externalize grief; it provides a continuum of feeling that never forgoes the demands of living and living with complexity.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.