Mixmaster of Sensations

By Brendan Galvin / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
Torn Awake by Forrest Gander (New Directions Books, 96 pages, $13.95).


Professor of English Forrest Gander, Brown's new director of creative writing, is clearly an original, as the eleven poems in Torn Awake demonstrate. The longer ones in particular take the reader on lyric roller coasters, and Gander, who joined the faculty last summer, is so enamored of variety and of individuating observations that no ride closely resembles another. Often the shapes of his stanzas on the page reflect the swoops and swervings of his thoughts. It is as if he has set out to describe daily life wishing to include what might normally be viewed as distractions from the main event. In this he is a Mixmaster of sensations, going from the cosmic to the microscopic, sometimes in the same line, restlessly gathering information from the physical sciences, nature, dictionaries, philosophy, and whatever's out the window and about to impinge on his speaker's consciousness. One senses that he's untroubled by the mind's weakness in matters of concentration, that whatever deflects it is wonderful and useful as fuel for the poem's unfolding. To borrow from Wallace Stevens, he's a connoisseur of chaos, enthralled by the workings of his own mind and the sensations that bombard it.

Such strategies require that the reader become involved, too. Passivity is out of the question, since to follow the decidedly postmodern program in Torn Awake one must assemble the parts, make the connections, and perform the lexical consultations, whether the poem's about the state of Virginia, the poet's relationship with his son, a sojourn in the desert, or love. Take these fairly typical lines from "Proximity," a section of a long poem called "The Hugeness of That Which Is Missing":


Originary dynamo: a remanence in rock
of the paleomagnetic field. Iron grains,
aligned in magma, orient the core.
But here in the flicker between
eruptions, I am
subject to an utterance with no fixed point.

The pitcher plant wallows a wren.
Each site of smooth space overlies
a tangent of Euclidean space
endowed with
striated dimensions, swoons, and suspenses.
She plucks from the oven a still-soggy newspaper,
glancing at the forecast: rain. Smooths her skirt
behind her knees

and we leave the house together like waves
propagated in unison, in lock step. The hubcap
reflecting the wet dog's face
and our distorted bodies



Right off, that first line invites the reader to consult his Oxford English Dictionary, and the first stanza, loaded with geological terminology, provides a clue about the poet's undergraduate major as well as the vocabulary with which he confronts the world. "I am/ subject to an utterance with no fixed point" is as close to summarizing his method as Gander gets, and this is followed by a shift to the external stimulus of "The pitcher plant swallows a wren." This is then reinforced a few lines later by the scene reflected in the hubcap. The reader knows that the event triggering these lines is a man and woman leaving their house, that they are acted on by the same physical forces as the natural world, and that the speaker (or should it be "consciousness"?) is at least mildly aroused by the way she smooths her skirt. The sexual is never very far away in Gander's poems. There's humor, too, in the woman's consulting a soggy newspaper for the weather forecast.

Given the occasional flat statement, as in the domestic scene above, we usually know where we are in a Gander poem. Still, we are beings acted on by our contexts, by physical laws, by our linguistic capacities, and by Eros, among myriad other things, and our perspectives are simultaneously multiple. The textures of Torn Awake capture the richness of our predicament.


Brendan Galvin is the author of a dozen volumes of poetry, including The Strength of a Named Thing (1999). He lives in Truro, Massachusetts.
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January / February 2002