Review of Forrest Gander’s Eye Against Eye

I recommend that you check out Eye Against Eye, a contemporary, fragment-focused book of poems that is currently at the top of my list of favorite books by Forrest Gander. The collection opens with “Poem,” a minimalist preface in which there is consideration of loss, the human way of coping with loss, and how the poet deals with complications of writing about such loss in comparison to the reality of it: “Pathetic/any remark/then” (1). The collection is sectioned off by four long poems (“Burning Towers, Standing Wall;” “Present Tense;” “Late Summer Entry: the Landscapes of Sally Mann;” and “Mission Thief”), linked together through poems functioning as their title implies (“Ligature,” “Ligature 2,” etc.); a ligature functions to tie and bond parts together.

With lines like “stacking stones, which divide what from what once” (5) and “As if they were waiting, Gander connects the haunting images of remove by evoking the events of 9/11 through the gaze of ancient history of the Mayan ruins to the next section of “Present Tense.”  The use of mythical history seems to be a trend with some of the books recently on my shelf as a means of discussing conflict, as if allusion or myth is something more familiar to people or easier to digest in which a discussion of fear and war can be had.

The first section focuses heavily on description of stones and the ruins, considering the care of what had been built (“An index finger dressing a joint will/fix in the mortar its mark, an intimacy/to surpass every other gesture the hand/has made” (17) and what is no longer there. The reader is led through an exploration of “[t]he fragility of presence” (18). The sections move with fluidity in consideration of history and modern day, privileging landscape and theme over character or narrative. The language of the poems fulfill a haunting pathos. The long poems are sequences in stichic form, broken by the ligatures, which appear in couplets. Formally, it is interesting to think of the weight placed on individual lines as a means to link sections and the tension created through compression. Though serving as a method of connection, the “Ligatures” end up doing more work as each couplet or single line seems to leap in voice/speaker, narrative, place, and time, almost as a collage of others’ experiences. The reader has to reconcile the connection between couplets before making larger connections to this poem acting as a bridge and the rest of the sequence. The first “Ligature” ends with a couplet that informs me of how to read these couplets and perhaps their relationship to the other poems: “As if they were waiting. As if inside experience, bright with meaning/there were another experience pendant, unnameable” (20).

The section that follows, “Present Tense,” seems to be more of a movement toward the avant-garde and language poetry. The images seem disparate and surreal: “In an epoch dominated by stars some speak softly into wafer phones/some milk caged bears for bile/for some the silhouette of a thronged city/flickers beneath a flickering sky/the gods squeeze themselves into icons for some” (23). The movement here is difficult to follow (except between the line of a thronged city to the idea of flickering) as there is an impulse to decipher the images, despite the possibility of emotion taking precedence over meaning. Perhaps, Gander hints at this with opening “Ligature 2” with “I’m afraid you have mistaken my intent, I do not say to her” (35).

In the third section, the collection maintains its mysterious tone but drastically changes in format with the inclusion of Sally Mann’s landscape photographs. The poems alone are enough to hold one’s attention, but really what else keeps me hungering in this space is how the object of art is in conversation with the materiality of the written word. The poems turn in on themselves as ekphrastic and reflective of landscape, image, and memory. The poems mirror the first section in an interesting way to hold to the theme of remove in considering what is shown and not shown, or rather what is perceived or misperceived, in the photographs.

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