As sneaky and persistent as the wild lichens that poet Forrest Gander probes with deep curiosity and respect in his new collection “Twice Alive: An Ecology of Intimacy,” the rich, sensorial language with which he constructs these poems has a way of attaching itself to a reader, tendrilling its way into our heads and hearts, expanding and spreading there long after we’ve turned the page or closed the book.
This is not poetry designed to soothe or delight or distract. These poems feel as if they were designed to be breathed in so fully, absorbed so deeply, that once we’ve exhaled again, they’ve become woven into us as firmly as a filament of lichen embraces the branch of a tree or the cleft of a rock.
Gander, who lives in Petaluma, won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 2019, with his collection “Be With.” This follow-up is in part a collaboration with mycologist Anne Pringle, with whom he conducted fieldwork and found the inspiration for a number of these poems. The recent Northern California wildfires are a presence here as well, their destruction and fury – and the aftermath of that devastation – providing the perfect soil in which to find smoldering truths about resilience and rebirth and grief and wonder and the ugly/beautiful biology of perseverance.
Though often rooted in scientific terminology and precise descriptions of the natural world, these poems are also undeniably personal. You can feel Gander’s heart beating inside every line. The intertwined intimacies the author discovers throughout his (sometimes) borderline-erotic examination of lichens – how they look and smell and function, how they reproduce and survive – possess the power to transform a reader’s own intimate relationship to nature and the wilderness, and even to other living things, humans included.
“Twice Alive,” as dense and twisty as a patch of rock tripe lichen on a bolder in the woods, is easily one of the best collections of poetry to be released this year.