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
[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.
'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