Core Samples From the World

  • Forrest Gander
  • New Directions
  • 96 pp

Drawing on his wide-ranging travels, poet Forrest Gander considers the transfer of feelings between cultures.

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

New Directions Press celebrates its 75th year of publishing this year, and there’s no better time to bring out a new Forrest Gander book. Core Samples From the World is a book of poetry and prose in four sections, with photographs for each section by Raymond Meeks, Graciela  Iturbide and Lucas Foglia.

Gander is the author of more than a dozen books and has distinguished himself as a master linguist and translator of mostly Mexican and Latin American poets. Core Samples traverses the world, examining what it means to be a “foreigner,” and then comes home to ask the same question. Gander is always wondering how feelings can be transferred from culture to culture, which this book addresses handsomely in poems and in prose that equals the poetry. The poet travels to China, Chile and Bosnia. We see how vulnerable he is in other lands, convinced that the voice is a bridge. Gander modestly describes speaking other languages too fast (trying to impress) and how it makes for mistakes and embarrassments. This is why the book is more than a travelogue. Gander pays attention to nuance. He sees collaborations between the world and self as ethical questions.

Gander is a trained geologist, a background that serves him well. He also has a souvenir-collector’s knack of bringing home inscriptions and epigraphs from relics and artifacts to imbed into his essays and poems. He carries home emblems, but it is his vivid memory that clarifies the writing. Core Samples does not romanticize other cultures. It represents the poet in the world willing to take risks. Poets can be photojournalists. Stephen Crane, for example, covered the Spanish-American War as a war correspondent.

Forrest Gander is a translator of other poets. U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin champions translators as important workers. He says translation is called “impossible” because we can never find exact language equivalents, but we can find language that is equal. (Merwin chose Gander as a Witter Bynner Fellow for the Library of Congress in 2011-12.)

Back home, Gander visits more foreigners, those choosing to live in “intentional communities.” These “eco communities” are what we used to call “communes.” They are back again, with people living off the land. In the third section of Core Samples From the World, Gander writes a long poem, “Moving Around for the Light, a Madrigal.” Forrest Gander does not judge as he records. This poem shows his interest in ecological politics, writing in the voice of an eco community resident:

for Utopia, Virginia

The natural order of things.

Sugar-bushing. Some

things we do would gross people out

because they just don’t know. Always was

baffled by the connections in life. It’s

moving around for the light. I thought,

that plant’s growing before my eyes, it’s insane.

What the news media don’t want you

to know about. All the wild edible plants,

for instance. Getting on good here, blacks

and white. No fossil-fuel based technology. I’ve

eaten owl. Wing muscles and leg muscles,

that’s the only meat on him.

So much roadkill — beavers,

otters, deer, raccoon.

We cook them up, preserve

the hide instead of slashing it.  …

the poem ends:

… Grew up using a bow and

arrow to shoot rabbits. Need to be around

like-minded people. So I can see

the cause and effect in my life.

They’re really strong personalities.

I have a strong personality too.

Nobody comes in, nobody leaves. Ever

eat a blue heron?

Natural order of things.

Wing muscles and leg

muscles. That’s the only meat on him.

Where do you think you come by your pattern?

Let’s get this process right.

Want to find my bearings in what’s real.

Move in a way that’s more connected.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

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