Monday, July 31, 2017



SANS by G.L. Ford
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)

            In the spirit of its name, I’ll begin by sculpting the form of G.L. Ford’s first full-length collection, Sans, with a subtractive process, cataloging what it lacks. Most overtly, there are neither end-stopped lines, nor titles above individual poems.

The table of contents hides at the end of this slim, inconspicuous white volume; therefore, a reader seeking the title of a piece must flip to the end to match it to its corresponding page number. It’s wholly possible that a reader may breeze through the whole collection believing it to contain only one untitled poem written as a series of fragments. Only short bars at the end of each piece, as well as labels at the bottoms of poems in a sequence titled “Enkidu’s Lament,” indicate separation.

Ford enacts “sans” conceptually by illustrating a condition in which abstract ideas cannot correspond to physical representation and vice-versa; the signifier lacks the signified. Since memories arise from sensations (especially smells, since the olfactory bulb has direct connections to the amygdala and hippocampus), Ford centers on the difficulty of recollection in such a state. “Enkidu’s Lament (6)” epitomizes the strain:

“the glass…cast upon
me and my poor mortal
eyes the image that
I want to say still
haunts me, but what
I am left with is no
memory of sight but of
the act and moment
of seeing…” (44)

Enkidu bemoans retaining only the temporal and experiential elements of witnessing the glass, rather than recalling the visual impression of the glass itself. For him, perceptions of notions such as time cannot coexist with perceptions of senses such as sight.

Ford’s fascination with perception evokes both verse and prose by John Ashbery. Ford explicitly discusses sensory input, and Ashbery’s poetry (particularly The Tennis Court Oath) mimics a jerky stream of consciousness. Also, in a 1969 review of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, Ashbery declares that he and Bishop delight in how, as humans, “we confusedly feel ourselves to be part thing and part thought.”

Ford’s nameless primary speaker derives not joy, but panic from a supposed violent dichotomy between abstractions and objects. They depict a “broken polynomial” and “letters stripped of sound.” They dramatize ideas and matter as “pull(ing) taut against each other…defining / the boundaries of my every loss…” The speaker portrays the friction between the poles as so intense, it shapes their own suffering.

This rubbing metaphor reminds me of Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense.” The fact that the speaker’s truths are “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins” terrifies them. Unlike Nietzsche’s theory, which attributes the formation of these truths to a civilization’s gradual, “long use” of metaphors, the petrifying truths of Ford’s speaker result from a singular trauma which they never explicate.

Perhaps it was a defeat in heroic combat. The character of Enkidu originates as the man-beast from The Epic of Gilgamesh. The goddess Aruru creates the feral Enkidu to counter Gilgamesh’s arrogance, and the primary speaker of Sans senses that the world condemns their “bestial sympathies”— or, conversely, judges them “not / bestial enough.” The speaker also conflates savagery with kindness by portraying their reluctant altruism as “brute and / natural compassion.” The contrast of Enkidu’s wildness and benevolence to the primary speaker’s sophistication and egocentrism corresponds to the epic’s original Enkidu-Gilgamesh binary.

            The primary speaker particularly evokes Gilgamesh’s royal privilege in the piece “Sanitation,” in which they recall when they and their fellow nobles employed their inferiors to sort through the wreckage of their prerogatives:

            “We hired experts…
            to help us reclaim what might
have been left of our
earthly patrimony…our
usual pastimes of gossip
and the mutilation of the flesh…we
expected that those we had charged
with arranging our
deliverance would do so
after a reasonable time
and for a reasonable sum…” (16)

The primary speaker recollects when they and their companions arrogantly contracted out their redemption to skilled laborers, confident that they could buy salvation despite their abuses of power. By the collection’s juncture, however, the traumatic split between concreteness and abstraction has humbled and even crippled the speaker, leaving them without “memory of sensation / itself, only a cobbling /of words.” The condition also represses Enkidu, who characterizes “each thought” as “an act of supplication.”

Paradoxically, the speakers cannot associate physicality with notions, but they envision their memories as spatial. Enkidu portrays the forgetting process as determinedly “leaving room / for fewer and fewer moments.” The primary speaker transitions from pompous heir to timid sentry. In “Industry,” they and their companions return to a defunct workshop, and their recollection of its former purpose dwindles into “the small and shrinking / circle we’d calculated / we could hope to defend.” The speaker conceptualizes their remembrances of the abandoned studio as a territory to protect. Complicating their guardianship, their memories often self-destruct, “history / taking care of / effacing itself.” Although they claim an inability to link the immaterial with the material, Enkidu and the primary speaker incongruously depict intangible memories as tangibly erased.

            Along with their patrols, the primary speaker aims to preserve their recollections by sharing them vocally. Although historians signify The Epic of Gilgamesh as the earliest extant work of written literature, the primary speaker of Sans is more preoccupied with oral tradition. They remark on their “throat / and jaw seizing up” when they attempt “to shape the sounds…spoken before.” Handicapped, the speaker cannot transmit speech of the past to present listeners, cannot secure its remembrance in the future. In “Bisprecan,” they elaborate their oral obsession:

            “I spent a week
            cataloging mouths, all
            the concatenations
            of lips and teeth and
            tongue that set themselves
            before me…
            I’d emerged from
            naked animal silence
            into taking breath not
            for the sake of breath
            or blood but
to fill the hollow
            impetus of words…” (37)

            Once the primary speaker indexes their impressions of the mouths that once confronted them, the listlessness they perceive in language compels them to speak. Fixating on speech organs prompts them to inject life back into communication. Rather than a “hollow / impetus,” the speaker feels a fierce drive to reanimate spoken discourse with their memories.

            Ford’s omnipresent enjambment mimics speech and evokes his primary speaker’s fascination on it. He often breaks lines on the words directly following caesuras, as Eliot does in the first six lines of “The Waste Land.” Eliot ends lines with gerunds to invigorate the reader, provoking them to proceed; whereas Ford often finishes them with wan prepositions such as “of” and “a.” Granted, Frank O’Hara also commits this writerly sin in “To the Harbormaster,” but the surprising juxtapositions in each line that result compensate for it. Lines from Sans such as “of them from recall, left, ” “pretended to, when,” and “little but themselves, as” do not stimulate enough to stand alone.

            When Ford couples such choppy enjambment with feverish repetition, his speakers stutter, frantically scrambling for “le mot juste.” Enkidu especially stammers, recalling smiles “bright as ice or ice / that winter on winter / cracks,” and sputtering about distance measured in “breaths between / regrets, between / contrary certitudes…” Enkidu repeats his phrases to correct them; the fitful enjambment mimics the self-doubt he feels after the calamitous rupture between the palpable and the impalpable.

            The repetitions also function as reminders. The speakers’ inability to associate the physical with the abstract distorts their self-perceptions: they question their own corporeality. References to breath and heartbeat recur frequently, as if the speakers are consciously noting their own bodily functions. Enkidu uncovers “the buried pulse / in old dark courses” by utilizing his “breath / the gauge.” In “The Acquisition of Virtue,” the primary speaker contemplates the circulation of blood:

            “…I thought, chilled
            and cramped and weary, what’s
            more ageless, more
ephemeral than the blood
we seek to possess, that runs
through and between us
hot and quick and forever
just about to stop” (39)

The primary speaker unravels a paradoxical meditation on the vascular system, illustrating it as simultaneously “ageless” and “ephemeral,” both “forever” and “just about to stop.” These contradictions indicate the depth of their fixation on the pulse, revealing how tightly they cling to hallmarks of their physical existence.

Perhaps the primary speaker cherishes the vascular system because it is a closed circuit, containing the bloodstream and preventing loss. Since memory diminishes with the passage of time, both speakers link flux with depletion. Enkidu reflects that in conjunction with his forgetting process, “water flowed beneath the ice / and ice beneath the water.” In the final, titular piece, the primary speaker unveils a conceit that encapsulates their equation of flow with loss:

“There is only time, a sighing
of the frame, a constant
reckoning with the buttresses
and pinions of memory
that hold off the collapse
of experience into one
great wash…” (58)

The currents of time crash against the fasteners of memory, threatening to dilute distinct perceptions into a general rinse. Ford caps off his collection with the ironic assertion that a deluge combining everything causes the ultimate nothingness, the supreme condition of “sans.”

            I’m very curious to know what— or perhaps, more aptly, who— drove Ford to examine such devastation, particularly regarding memory. When I ruminate on other contemporary poets concerned with recollection, Don Mee Choi and Ocean Vuong come to the fore. Both stylistically-dissimilar writers convey memory through a personal lens. Like Ford’s, the speakers of their poems doggedly preserve reminiscences, especially their family members’. In an essay for The Volta blog, Choi writes that her parents’ “memory formed the lining of the womb in which (she) was conceived.” In the poem “Ancestor Worship,” Ford’s primary speaker also implies a desire to conserve their family members’ impressions, despite “the creeping resignation that / to hold precious is not / to redeem.” That’s as personal as they get.

            My craving for more intimate context for Sans is not a criticism: in fact, the lack of familial or other details fits the book’s conceptualism and its speakers’ struggles to retain their recollections. I can’t help but wonder, however, what inspired Ford to write about memory loss on the premise that Enkidu fears his own oblivion. Since the literary canon immortalizes the character, that framework packs quite a punch.


Katie Hibner’s poetry has been published by  Bone Bouquet, inter|rupture, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Vinyl,  and Yalobusha Review. She has read for Bennington Review, Salamander, and Sixth Finch. Katie dedicates all her poetry to the memory of her mother and best friend, Laurie.

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