National Poetry Month Celebrations continues... and no, G may be for Ginsberg but I haven't gotten to admire the free-wheeling poetry of the Beat poets yet. I've read Howl (listen to him read it; Stunning!) and America (hear him read it! Awesome!) and some other poems by him and own one book by him (Cosmopolitan Greetings) that I picked up at a book sale many years ago but today, the poetry of a lesser-known poet (relative to Ginsberg, most poets are lesser known, I suppose!)... Tess Gallagher.

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. 

Tess Gallagher (Source of image.)

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.”
And also, although many of the poems come from her personal experiences and losses, I would not call her a confessional poem. Like she says elsewhere, "Although my poems come out of my life, I don't feel them as personality events. The 'I' may be very personal, but it's a multifarious 'I'. You may think that it's only Tess Gallagher, but I don't think so."

Anyways, on to the poetry. It has been a long time since I read Amplitude and so it was good to re-read some poems trying to find some to share today.  Here then are two poems from the book:

Refusing Silence
by Tess Gallagher

Heartbeat trembling
your kingdom
of leaves
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
insist?
There are messages to send.
Gatherings and songs.
Because we need
to insist. Else what are we
for? What use
are we?



Willingly
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
    only darkness?

    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?

More poems by Tess Gallagher can be read via the Poetry Foundation here.

1 comments

  1. Gita Vasudevan // April 7, 2013 at 7:16 AM  

    i am sure you struggled not to include this one by her...so im posting it, simply :)

    The Hug
    by Tess Gallagher

    A woman is reading a poem on the street
    and another woman stops to listen. We stop too,
    with our arms around each other. The poem is being read and listened to out here
    in the open. Behind us
    no one is entering or leaving the houses.

    Suddenly a hug comes over me and I'm giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
    off to make itself comfortable, then subsiding. I finish but keep on holding you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn't
    come out of nowhere, but if he could, he would have. He looks homeless because of how
    he needs. "Can I have one of those?" he asks you,
    and I feel you nod. I'm surprised,
    surprised you don't tell him how
    it is -- that I'm yours, only
    yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
    its face. Love -- that's what we're talking about, love
    that nabs you with "for me
    only" and holds on.

    So I walk over to him and put my
    arms around him and try to
    hug him like I mean it. He's got an overcoat on so thick I can't feel him past it. I'm starting the hug and thinking, "How big a hug is this supposed to be?
    How long shall I hold this hug?" Already we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
    shoulders, my hands not
    meeting behind his back, he is so big!

    I put my head into his chest and snuggle in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
    into him. He stands for it. This is his and he's starting to give it back so well I know he's
    getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly we stop having arms and I don't know if
    my lover has walked away or what, or if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses --
    what about them? -- the houses.

    Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
    But when you hug someone you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
    on his coat will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
    when I walk away. When I try to find some place to go back to.