The Oxygen of Poetry


Dear Ghosts, Tess Gallagher [144pp, 8.95, Bloodaxe]
 

This is Tessa Gallagher's seventh book of poetry and her first for fourteen years. The collection before this was the much-praised Moon Crossing Bridge, a set of moving elegies for her third husband, the great American short-story writer, Raymond Carver, who died in 1988. Tess Gallagher is now in her mid-seventies bearing the pains and anxieties of serious illness with fortitude and some serenity.
 
There are elegies here too: the first husband who survived Vietnam 'having come home some-sort-of-alive...
 
            carrying in his pocket shrapnel dislodged
            from his plane, memento of one fate
            having spared him
            so another could put him down.
                                    [from 'Brushing Fate']
 
her 'flesh-and-blood father' who, before setting off to work as 'a pipe-fitter in the Bremerton shipyards'
 
            glances back at the peace of his neighbourhood
            to which he has added one small, necessary magic: fire.
                                    [from 'Fire Starter']
 
the women of Auschwitz she thinks about, in a moving and courageous poem of that name, when she is having her head shaved and counting herself lucky in comparison:
 
            I feel strangely gentled, glimpsing
            myself in the mirror, the artefact
            of a country's lost humility.
            My moon-smile, strange and far,
            refuses to belong to the cruelties
            of ongoing war. I am like a madwoman
            who has been caught eating pearls - softly radiant,
            about to illuminate a vast savanna, ready
            to work a miracle with everything left to her.
 
her husband, Raymond Carver:
 
            Before heading to the cemetery
            I made them leave the lid up
            while I ran out to the garden
            and picked one more bouquet
            of sweet peas to fan onto your
            chest, remembering how you
            beamed when I placed them
            on your writing desk in
            the morning. You'd draw
            the scent in deeply,
            then I'd kiss you on the brow,
            go out, and quietly close
            the door.
                        [from 'Sixteenth Anniversary']
 
Most of the poems in the book are unhurried; they take their time and expect you to do the same. They are like leisurely walks in the fresh air or conversations which, like nearly all conversations, enjoy going off at tangents, as if they had all the time in the world - that is, until they circle back and you discover that what might have seemed inconsequential has sneaked up on you as meaningful and satisfying. It's like learning to trust. These poems follow what Eliot famously called the logic of the imagination.
 
            Sometimes a glory
            is just that - a guessing into
            the seen, noticing
            the fringe of presence
            when it comes, trying to match
            its fervency by something
            as tangible, something
            only you are equal to.
                        [from 'Little Match Box']
 
In them ghosts can be communed with, death confronted ('Time / to admit the limitations of death as admonition'), vulnerability acknowledged, and each new day accepted with some equanimity:
 
            The new day has been given
            so whatever befell us yesterday
            can be withstood, not as it was,
            but as if we had perished
            into it, and, despite horror or joy,
            something miraculous could be
            done with us that surpasses even hope,
            which only wants ascension of the prospect
            and not the helpless, dire turn - its
            clang and echo.
                        [from 'What The New Day Is For']
 
The acceptance we find in them is strongly Buddhistic. The poems are alive with curiosity but they are also meditative and metaphysically speculative. They are, it has been said, 'punctuated by... feisty resilience and signature grace'. They are also haunted by wars that have had to be lived through and awareness of man's constant inhumanity to man. But shining through all this there is a delicacy of feeling that finds a focus in small things too. She keeps finding dead or dying birds to contemplate; she rejoices in the escape from being run over of a badger (I am reminded of John Clare's moving poem): 'How I need you, badger, so the world / can be strange enough/to save...
 
                        In that loophole-moment
 
            badger let us have again the freezing stars
            of an Irish morning.
                                    [from 'Brushing Fate']
 
Several poems have Ireland as their setting, which she sees as a 'healing place'. Particularly affecting is the poem Irish Weather
which I'll quote in full:
 
            Rain squalls cast sideways,
            the droplets visible
            like wheat grains
            sprayed from the combine.
            As suddenly, sunshine.
            If a person behaved
            this way we'd call them
            neurotic. Given weather, we gust
            and  plunder with only
            small comment: it's
            raining; sun's out.
 
This is an uplifting collection of fine poems.

              Matt Simpson 2007