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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems (NewSouth, 2010) and The Pilot House (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). His new collection, School of the Americas is due out in 2012, also from Black Lawrence Press. He is a Pushcart Prize winner for 2012.

David Rigsbee reviews "Midnight Lantern: New And Selected Poems" by Tess Gallagher

Midnight Lantern: New And Selected Poems
by Tess Gallagher

352 pages
Graywolf Press


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Tess Gallagher's early work embodies what has somewhere been called "Iowa expressionism," which might be thought of as the experience of what it is like to be me feeling the presence (or absence) of you. The "Iowa" component connects up not only the wheaty gold of the Heartland, but adds its own wash—muted, spiky, or jungle-lush, as the case may be—of internationalism—especially as that term takes root in Spanish and Eastern European Surrealism. Geographic influence aside, what has been interesting about this kind of poetry is the emphasis on interiority as the authenticating agency in poetry. Behind this, as you might surmise, is the notion that personhood—and its representation—is a value that transcends even art, that sees poetry as a means, not an end. It is therefore a moral (and political) art, for it comes to rest in a place that is still humming after language has come to a stop. It follows that a robust attitude toward means is a good thing to have. Gallagher's poems speak to the beauties inherent in rendered language, but despite the poet's considerable descriptive gifts, the poems are also impatient with decoration.

This impatience acts as a defense against the potentially debilitating onset of irony, that aesthetic malady that renders so much of poetry (and art) insignificant and leaves the door cracked so that even the most feeble strains of nihilism are liable to move in and infect the whole. Gallagher's poems, seen in the light of this early affiliation, may seem escuela vieja, but it is the school of her mentors, Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. Her Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems shows how the personal, the private, and the intuitive continue to thrive in the midst of the cultural and political commodifications of every sort—and why Akhmatova was more important than the Politburo.

The mid-1970s debut volume, Instructions to the Double, proved a versatile demonstration of how subjectivity, whose mission is to make sense of the interior, is the key to that interiority (as opposed to, say, religious or philosophical reflection). It is one of the prized collections of the decade, which is otherwise remembered for the Bee Gees, gas lines, Son of Sam, Watergate and the storm of theory that descended on lyric poets, who were challenged to justify their practices and the privileges arrogated to them. These challenges were issued in ways that would today seem oddly literal and overbearing.

For Gallagher, subjectivity itself holds the lever to every larger conversation, from digging the self's mines to the politics of human survival. As she says in "Second Language,"

      you smoke after a meal, the sign
      of food still on the plate, the two
      chairs drawn away and angled again
      into the room.

The fortunes of language as both social tool and vehicle capable of transporting the private into the thoroughfares are not the issue, although conversation—or the utterance that patterns the diurnal nature of experience is (mostly) the goal. Not that she is unaware that language has been deemed problematic, but the avoidance of what Beckett calls the "discrediting" of language becomes not only an avoidance—which, after all, is a negative way of putting it, but becomes a behovely conviction to carry forward. In the title poem of her second collection, Under Stars, that sense of the vehicular integrity of the letter of feeling is buoyed by its own fragility and made manifest in the image of a woman going out to the mailbox at night to mail an actual letter:

      The sleep of this night deepens
      because I have walked coatless from the house
      carrying the white envelope.
      All night it will say one name
      in its little tin house by the roadside.

In the early work, as her first title, Instructions to the Double, suggests, the "double" is a person of interest. Moving from book to book, it becomes variously the other, the echo, the Beloved, the idealized self, and the interlocutor. In later work, it becomes the other country—Ireland—a counter-image of her own working-class origins in Missouri and Washington. For Gallagher, issues of identity are always to the point, linking as they do, existential provenance with public, civic, and political consequences. Her interest in masks leads back to Wilde and Yeats and by a slightly more eccentric path to Eliot and mid-century Modernism. It also leads to kabuki and the poker mysteries of gesture, restraint, and understatement.

In the early poem "Breasts," she marks the passing into experience in terms of acquiring a new gender marker that at first seems more nearly a mask than a fate:

      Swart nubbins, I noticed you then,
      my mother shaking a gritty rag from the porch
      to get my shirt on this minute. Brothers,
      that was the parting of our ways, for then
      you got me down by something else than flesh.

Gallagher's poems get much of their early energy from the grinding of contraries: her love of masks, of improvisation, versus her love of stability and the insistence that authenticity is no9t an illusory quality. You sense sometimes that she wishes it were otherwise, that she were otherwise—and so she praises and is drawn to the authenticity of others. And yet, her father was the first to show the shortcomings of such a solid identity, and her poems about him can almost be read as cautionary tales. In "Black Money," she observes,

      Coffee bottle tucked in his armpit
      he swaggers past the chicken coup,
      a pack of cards at his breast.
      In a fan of light beyond him
      the Kino Maru pulls out for Seattle,
      some black star climbing
      the deep globe of his eye.

The poem reinforces the idea that place is destiny. The father knows that the future belongs to Seattle (the globe of his eye—the world is what he smartly sees). There is the ambivalence involved in "settling," instead of striking out for the territory. The sides of this ambivalence are also the largest doubling of her early poems. In the powerful and hauntingly colloquial "3 a.m. Kitchen. My Father Speaking," she represents memory with documentary concentration and fidelity to voice:

      I quit the woods. One day just
      walked out, took off my caulks, said that's
      it. I went to the docks.
      I was driving winch. You had to watch
      to see nothing fell out of the sling. If
      you killed somebody you'd
      never forget it. All
      those years I was just working
      I was on edge, every day. Just working.
      You kids. I could tell you
      a lot. But I won't.

In spite of a keen ear for mimicking the patois, Gallagher is not afraid of abstractions and wields them with perhaps sometimes too great a facility and zest, resulting here and there in the mannered line. David Wagoner notes that ending on an abstraction is "like ending on a sermon." Wagoner presumably means not only that abstractions end in didactic or solicitous suspension, but because they undertake the business of generalization, they seem to prefer putative to real, lyric triumphs to successes measured by more conventional means:

      I was justifying my confusion
      the last time we walked this way.
      I think I said some survivals need
      a forest. But it was only the sound
      of knowing. Assumptions
      about roots put down like a deeper foot
      seemed dangerous too.

If she finds in the projected double the proper interlocutor—and that is, in the relational world, an iffy matter—then the world is indeed, as Wittgenstein was always at pains to remind us, the size of our language. And this is not only to pay a compliment to language, but to praise the world for being disposed to improvisations—one of which is to let itself be comprehended in conversation and verse.

In later work, Gallagher is more plainly interpersonal, which gives her poems added dignity and poignancy when she shifts, as she does mid-career with the death of her husband, Raymond Carver, to elegy. Now it is a truism that every elegy is a self-portrait, and that reflection, on the occasion and under the auspice of death, is the utmost private double. And it is auspicious, as every poet knows, because death requires that we make our meditations in a final vocabulary, beyond which only the critic can gainsay the poet. Literary criticism, you might say, is the thing death shares with silence.

Her work has matured confidently in its ability to inhabit larger circles and address larger topics. The lushness and feathering also push her poems in the direction of music, both as a pure object of contemplation and as a skillset. Her refusal to lapse into the monotone of so much contemporary verse owes something to her gradual adoption of Ireland as her second country. That it is the geographical equivalent of personal interlocution also allows her to apply the political layer more directly, a layer, which, until then had been as much literary as existential:

      Walking back, you tell the story
      of the sniper's bullet
      making two clean holes in the taxi, how
      the driver ducked ands drove on
      like nothing happened. No pain
      passed through you; it
      did not even stop the car
      or make you live more
                                      "Disappearances in the Guarded Sector"

Throughout her career, Gallagher has been as much a poet of thematic richness, with recurrent, even totemic images (animals—horses, birds, lambs) and subjects (parents, work, travel) as she is of stylistic high-profile. Moving through the ample selections from each of her collections, you find familiar categories in circulation: family, animals and birds, pastoral scenes, work, departed loved ones—much of it the traditional stuff, in fact, of subjective poetry.

There is a tenderness in the work of this period, as Ireland, her counter-land, the land deepened and saddened by The Troubles begins to enter her work as subject and song. Because Ireland is the Double writ large, it returns with even more engagement in the volumes subsequent to Moon Crossing Bridge, especially Dear Ghosts, (2006) and a final section of Signature: New Poems. The geographic and cultural parallelism begins with Under Stars (1978) and allows her to consider an older, more agrarian world—the fields and woods, the animals, both wildlife and domestic that have passed not only from her life, but from the lives of most of us. There is no danger that these things will open the gate to a false nostalgia. Heaney noted that Lowell was remarkably "free of the sigh for lost Eden." Gallagher may not be altogether free of that sigh, but it is doubtful she would march off into a brave new world, either. Rather, it is the moment—the two moments, one present, one absent—around which her imagination makes its images:

      They kneel to it, folded
      on its four perfect legs, stroke
      the good back, the muscles bunched at the chest.
      Its head, how the will shines large in it
      as what maybe used to overcome it.
                                    "From Dread in the Eyes of Horses"
In the earlier (English) volume, My Black Horse: New and Selected Poems, the poet is shown on the cover mounted on her horse Sugarfoot. At once Tom-boyish and Romantic, the girl and her mount, very much in motion seem to be one powerful and synchronized organism. As in Edwin Muir's famous apocalyptic poem ("The Horses"), the horses in Gallagher's poems figure as creatures of transport and willing slaves to the labors of their errant masters; in either case they are redemptive creatures:

                           He'd pass his mind
      over them where they pushed their muzzles into
      each other's flanks and necks and their horseness
      gleamed back at him like soundless music, until
      he knew something he couldn't know
      as only himself, something not to be told again
      even by writing down the doing.
                              "If Poetry Were Not a Morality"

During the Gulf War, Gallagher becomes quite literally pastoral by intervening and purchasing a lamb on its way to the slaughterhouse and writes,

      You are my army
      Of one, though your brothers and sisters
      Are gone to table. So are we all
      Bought and sold in the coin of the realm.

In "Sah Sin," a poem in which a hummingbird brings with it the death of innocence, Gallagher puts the totemic bird at first to edifying purposes that border on the political and the didactic:

      Lifting my blouse
      and catching it—(as I'd heard
      South American women do)
      under a breast.

      It didn't stir, but I held it there
      like a dead star for a while
      inside my heart-socket
      to make sure, remembering the story
      of a mother in Guatemala
      whose baby had died
      far from home. She pretended
      Ii was living, holding it
      to her breast the long way
      back on the bus, so no one
      would take it from her before
      she had to give it over.

Readers are made aware elsewhere that Gallagher had undergone breast cancer treatment (mastectomy), lending a special interest to that shielding and maternal protection of the fragile. The poem ends with a visit by a student who "had become famous in the East/for his poems."

      Now he was
      a little bored with being
      a poet. He asked some questions
      about what I might be
      writing—courteously, as one
      inquires about someone
      not considered for a while.
      I made a pot of tea
      and served it in the maroon cups
      the size of ducks' eggs
      so it would take
      a long while to drink. Fame.
      It was so good to sit
      with him. He seemed
      to have miraculously survived
      every hazard to make his way
      to my house again.

While she takes the measure of the whipper-snapper, she also makes plain that the judgment is subsumed by a common interest that is less literary, than tutorial, and less tutorial than animal. The equipoise is perfect, calming the jitters with Buddhist forebearance ("it was good"). It even made me think of a neologism to describe it: "freak-quilibrium." The paradoxes attendant on fame (of which Gallagher has had a share) are also shared by the means to acquire that fame, namely language, as she recognizes in "Deaf Poem":

               Yes, he can step back into life just long enough
      for eternity to catch hold, until one of us
      is able to watch and to write the deaf poem,
      a poem missing even the language
      it is unwritten in.

It is little wonder that she has taken on the musical mission of Irish verse, with its reliance on the sonorities of meaning. Notwithstanding several barbs aimed at the ability of language to support disingenuous ends and aims, Gallagher trusts her language to be fully present to its occasions, be they personal or otherwise. As such, they are, in the distinction Lowell made, themselves events, not the record of events. They also, since the 1970s, continue to stand in contrast to the language of many of her peers, whose experiences tend to be ever-so-finely cross-hatched with skepticism toward means. These poems have a lush interior that always seems to speak to innate capacities instead of delimitings: the mutual work of tongue and the ear must take effect before the work of eye and hand.

Be that as it may, there is most power, most tenderness and moral authority when the existence of these very things is under threat. Hence many readers will remember the somber yet accepting authority of the elegiac Moon Crossing Bridge, a volume that enacts the means by which the perfect interlocutor—now lost—must be internalized. That book was a watershed in elegiac poetry, but I would have been somehow impoverished had I spent the latter half of the departed century without the music of her earlier poetry, just as I am delighted to "have a sit" with the poems of Dear Ghosts and Signatures. I will end this review with an excerpt from the title poem of that difficult book:

      And who's to say I didn't cross
      just because I used the bridge in its witnessing,
      to let the water stay the water
      and the incongruities of the moon to chart
      that joining I was certain of.


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