I have been gifted a book of poems just once. Amplitude: New and Selected Poems by Tess Gallagher; gifted to me by my then-friend (and now-wife) in December 1996. I had got the book from the library that Fall and must have mentioned that I was enjoying reading it and so V, as a token of her friendship, bought that book during a trip to Austin that Christmas break. We had only met earlier that Fall and so this book will remain with me till my dying day even if I get rid of all the other books of poetry I own.
In 2009 or thereabouts, I also read Gallagher's book of poems, Dear Ghosts, laden with poems elegiac, poignant, and melancholy - like many of the earlier poems in Amplitude, still sometimes about the grief over the death of her husband, the famous author Raymond Carver, but also poems about her deceased father, her ailing mother and also about her own mortality; she was recovering from cancer treatment around that time. I also just realized that she has a more recent book, Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems in 2011, which I will have to try to find and read.
Note: Not all her poems are melancholic. Like almost all poets I've read, her work celebrates life in all its beauty - nature, love, and the mystery of existence. In an interview with Poets & Writers, she said:
“The qualities of light and water are very influential to my sense of poetry,” says Gallagher. She often stares at the water “the way a bird dips its beak in, takes a drink and looks up. I’m always dipping my bill and looking and savoring at the same time, and not really aware of it. I can write just about anywhere, but I feel very good here.”
by Tess Gallagher
near the ceremony
of water, I never
insisted on you. I admit
I delayed. I was the Empress
of Delay. But it can’t be
put off now. On the sacred branch
of my only voice – I insist.
Insist for us all,
which is the job
of the voice, and especially
of the poet. Else
what am I for, what use
am I if I don’t
There are messages to send.
Gatherings and songs.
Because we need
to insist. Else what are we
for? What use
by Tess Gallagher
When I get up he has been long at work,
his brush limber against the house.
Seeing him on his ladder under the eaves,
I look back on myself asleep in the dream
I could not carry awake. Sleep
inside a house that is being painted,
whole lifetimes now only the familiar cast
of morning light over the prayer plant.
This “not remembering” is something new
of where you have been.
What was settled or unsettled in sleep
stays there. But your house
under this steady arm is leaving itself
and you see this gradual surface of
new light covering your sleep
has the greater power.
You think now you felt brush strokes or
the space between them, a motion
bearing down on you—accumulation
of stars, each night of them
arranging over the roofs of entire cities.
His careful strokes whiten the web,
the swirl of woodgrain blotted
out like a breath stopped
at the heart. Nothing has changed
you say, faithlessly. But something has
cleansed you past recognition. When
you stand near his ladder looking up
he does not acknowledge you,
and as from daylight in a dream you see
your house has passed from you
into the blessed hands of others.
This is ownership, you think, arriving
in the heady afterlife of paint smell.
A deep opening goes on in you.
Some paint has dropped onto your shoulder
as though light concealed an unsuspected
weight. You think it has fallen through
you. You think you have agreed to this,
what has been done with your life, willingly.
And here's a poem from 'Dear Ghosts':
My Unopened Life
by Tess Gallagher
lay to the right of my plate
like a spoon squiring a knife, waiting
patiently for soup or the short destiny
of dessert at the eternal picnic—unsheltered
picnic at the mouth of the sea
that dares everything forgotten to huddle
at the periphery of a checked cloth spread
under the shadowy, gnarled penumbra
of the madrona.
Hadn’t I done well enough with the life
I’d seized, sure as a cat with
its mouthful of bird, bird with its
belly full of worm, worm like an acrobat of darkness
keeping its moist nose to the earth, soaring
perpetually into darkness without so much as
the obvious question: why all this darkness?
And even in the belly of the bird: why
The bowl of the spoon
collects entire rooms just lying there next
to the knife. It makes brief forays into
the mouth delivering cargoes of ceilings
and convex portraits of teeth
posing as stalactites of
a serially extinguished cave
from whence we do nothing but stare out
at the sea, collecting little cave-ins of
perception sketched on the moment
to make more tender the house of the suicide
in which everything was so exactly
where it had been left by someone missing.
Nothing, not even the spoon he abandoned
near the tea cup, could be moved without
seemingly altering the delicious
universe of his intention.
So are we each lit briefly by engulfments
of space like the worm in the beak of
the bird, yielding to sudden corridors
of light-into-light, never asking: why,
tell me why
all this light?