(New Directions Books, 2011) 

 

Forrest Gander’s Core Samples from the World, a 2012 Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle finalist, aims to mineralize experience in order to articulate a world (of, in) poetry beyond the commonplaces of globalization. In its uncommon explorations of the complexly sited body-in-the-world, the book echoes many of the poets Gander, currently a professor at Brown University, has translated over the years (see, for instance, the Mexican poets Coral Bracho and Pura López Colomé). At the same time, its four numbered sections, all pointedly titled “Evaporation,” map a variety of landscapes (China, Mexico, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chile) and their not always corresponding mindscapes. Haunting photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide, and Lucas Foglia accentuate the poetry’s ethnopoetic charge, but they also complicate its documentary pretensions. Juxtaposed against these photographs of children, of workers, of natural landscapes from across the world, what can poetry do? As if acknowledging this tension, Gander teeters between documenting struggle (his own and others’) and wishing for a truer connection, a way to cash in on his “core sample” wager: “Let’s get this process right. / Want to find my bearings in what’s real. / Move in a way that’s more connected.” (60). There is something moving about these moments of vulnerability, about the acknowledgment of the dissonance between this poetry’s doubts and its documentary impulse. To his credit, Gander mines this dissonance; his is not the elemental poetics of the later Neruda, with its core words and its vatic faith, but rather a field of forms, from couplets and tercets to prose blocks, sometimes (as in the “Xinjiang” section) all in one page. The insertion of text in the margins further complicates the book’s documentary aims, by turns locating the writing “in” a particular place (BEIJING, GOBI, ISLA NEGRA) and ironizing the whole documentary enterprise as it dissolves, at one point, into a manual of “CULTURAL AND LINGUISTIC POINTERS” (66). The self-irony here is at once refreshing, engaging, and troubling, as Gander mines his life as a touring poet-translator- professor in long travel narratives set at conferences and festivals, implicitly underscoring the privilege and the distance (same thing?) at the heart of his core sample poetics: “Accepting the invitation, the U.S. poet arranges an all-day flight to Santiago” (84) and “Twenty poets speaking seven languages on a field trip to the outskirts of Beijing” (12). It is as if Gander were trying to sidestep the imperial “I” of the tourist poet (Planet News-era Ginsberg, maybe?) by recognizing and ironizing his own political and institutional standing, something any “world poetics” must keep in mind. At the same time, this strategy seems like an attempt to address tricky questions that have long haunted translation studies and ethnopoetics about the poet/scholar/translator’s loaded relationship to the “other,” the same other that is so solemnly depicted in the book’s photographs. A part of me wants to read Core Samples from the World as trying to have it both ways (documenting the “other” even in its disavowal), or, more cynically, as an apologia for a well-meaning but run-of-the-mill poetic liberalism/humanism (the Pulitzer finalist citation praises how the book “digs deeply to identify what is essential in human experience”). But I am ultimately swayed (moved, even) by Gander’s restlessness, his self-reflexive form, his historical asides, and the brief moments of lyric resonance, unresolved epiphanies that embrace and honor the self and the world’s ultimate strangeness/ estrangement/foreignness. As Gander puts it: “To welcome the / strangeness of / strangers / not versions / simply of / my own / thought” (29).  

                                                                                                                                 

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