Forrest Gander, Twice Alive

TWICE ALIVE: AN ECOLOGY OF INTIMACIES, Forrest Gander. New Directions, 80 Eighth Avenue, New York 10011, 2021, 84 pages, $16.95 paper.

I knew Forrest Gander only as the partner of the poet C. D. Wright (1949-2016), until I attended a 2018 presentation of Pablo Neruda’s Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, translated by Gander.

The author of numerous books, poetry and prose, Gander is also a celebrated translator and collaborator. I eagerly read his previous book of poems, Be With, and now this one. And while I find him quirky and hard to capture, I’m grateful for these books. He cares deeply about language, languages, and about people as well as plants and planet.

At the New Directions page for Twice Alive, I found these words, which explain a lot in a little space:

“While conducting fieldwork with a celebrated mycologist, Gander links human intimacy with the transformative collaborations between species that compose lichens. Throughout Twice Alive, Gander addresses personal and ecological trauma—several poems focus on the devastation wrought by wildfires in California, where he lives—but his tone is overwhelmingly celebratory. Twice Alive is a book charged with exultation and tenderness.”

The loss of his partner is pretty clearly part of the loss addressed in this book. I want to say “embraced” in this book. It’s a weird book, where nothing seems off-limits. Consider the opening stanza of the title poem, “Twice Alive”:

Mycobiont just beginning to en-
photobiont, each to become
something else, its only life and a
contested mutuality, twice alive,
algal cells swaddled in clusters

As in other books I’ve read and blogged about this month, the layout of many of the poems here is challenging. I was intrigued by the layout of the Aubades (meaning a morning love song, or a poem about lovers parting at dawn):

Aubade III

We were servicing the pools of the wealthy • we were opening the
passenger door for the dog • the dog who waits in the truck • dog
staring at the restaurant entrance • so when we come out again
with a napkin • wrapped around a chunk of burrito • whimpers
with excitement • and we don’t • feel entirely alone • through it’s
true • Yo, la peor de todas • at Arion the printers • were dampen-
ing linen • so the type would cast a shadow • before they tossed
slugs of type • back into the hellbox • in the evening • we tried
to cure a phantom • limb with a mirror • but what is missing • is
inside us. A few were • throwing gang signs and smoking Reggie
• before we boarded at pre-dawn • to sit forever on the runway •
sucking up the spent fuel • of the plane before us • the overhead
ducts spewing noxious air • reflected in the dark window • our
own eyes looking back • looking blank • while neutrinos sleet
through us

—Forrest Gander

You can learn more about this poet and this book at Poetry Foundation. I’m also happy to recommend Gander’s website, where I found interesting offerings under both the media and news tabs.

And see this New Yorker piece on Gander’s book dedicated to C. D. Wright, Be With, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2019.

One epigraph from the opening of Twice Alive:

a garden without lichens / is a garden without hope –Drew Milne

There is—as you can see from the excerpts I’ve included here—a lot of unease, if not outright alarm in these poems. But also hope.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

THEN COME BACK: THE LOST NERUDA POEMS, Pablo Neruda, trans. Forrest Gander. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2016, 163 pages, $23 ($17 paper),

Well. What does one say about Pablo Neruda? Lauded as the greatest poet of the Americas, the greatest poet of the 20th century, influencer of all subsequent generations of … Nobelist … etc. I can’t imagine what I might add.

All I will say is that I attended the Seattle Arts and Lectures presentation of this book — back in those lovely old pre-Pandemic days, and heard a number of the poems, first in Spanish (which was like listening to music), then read by Forrest Gander (a remarkable poet in his own right), the translator. The book is part poetry collection, part artifact, with color plates. It’s funny, and loving, and generally just worth the trip.

I’m compelled to share a scrap from poem #20. Although Neruda died well before our current age of iPhones, it so anticipates our enslavement: “raising my arms as though before / a pointed gun, I gave in / to the degradations of the telephone.” “I came to be a telefiend, a telephony, / a sacred elephant, / I prostrated myself whenever the ringing / of that horrid despot demanded” — and so on (pp. 60-61).

The Prologue, by Gander, is worth reading (and rereading). He tells about how these poems overcame his reluctance to do the translation (“The last thing we need is another Neruda translation.”) And he shares the process with us — not only his encounter with the locked vault of the Neruda archives, but with his own journey through the poems, often hand-written on menus and placemats.

Once I moved through the introductory material and into the poems, it was all over….When the glowing screen revealed the lost poems, hours suddenly clipped by in minutes. I neglected to come in for dinner. The windows opaqued with night. The world hushed as I translated the first three poems. The truth is that I disappeared from myself. I was concentrated entirely into the durable moment of translation — which begins in humility, a sublimation of the self so extreme that the music of someone else’s mind might be heard. And for a while, no remnant of me existed outside of that moment.

Forrest Gander, “The Prologue”

“For a while, no remnant of me existed outside of that moment.” I can think of no better reason to come to poetry.


I bid the sky good day.
There is no land. It slipped away
from the boat yesterday and last night.
Chile’s been left behind, just
a few wild birds
follow us drifting and raising up
the dark cold name of my homeland.
Accustomed as I am to goodbyes
I didn’t strain my eyes: where
are my tears bottled up?
Blood rises from my feet
and roves the galleries
of my body painting its flame.
But how do you stanch the moaning?
When it comes, heartache tags along.
But I was talking about something else.
I stood up and beyond the boat
saw nothing but sky and more sky,
blue ensured in
a web of tranquil clouds
innocent as oblivion.
The boat is a cloud on the sea
and I’ve lost track of my destination,
I’ve forgotten prow and moon,
I don’t remember where the waves go
or where the boat carries me.
There’s no room in the day for earth or sea.

— Pablo Neruda

Click on the links above to read more about Neruda and Gander. Also, you can find a description of the project and links to the paperback edition at Copper Canyon:

Forrest Gander