Fourteen Poems from Is, Is Not
Painting by Cynthia Yatchman

 

 

Writing from the Edges: On the Poetry of Tess Gallagher

One outreaches language in poetry when the in-seeing elements of consciousness ask the unseen of life to come forward.

–– Tess Gallagher
We go to the poems of Tess Gallagher as to a spring. As she writes in the title poem of her recent collection, Is, Is Not, we seek our “restorative,” perhaps to rediscover a profound connection to nature and wildness, to “the consciousness of those other sentient beings next to us on the planet” (Is, 127). In the space of a Gallagher poem we encounter the sensation of being fully present to ourselves in the world now, as well as to the more than human. For instance, as in the poem “Your Dog Playing with a Coyote,” we travel to the border between wild and tame. At this border, opening to poetry’s largesse as we read the text, we grow aware of our own freshened immensity. As poet and philosopher Harold Schweizer writes of Gallagher, “She is the acute observer of the large in ordinary occasions. Her work is a combination of metaphysical wit and lyric grief, ranging from the profane to the metaphysical, from cabbage to the dreams of the dead.”

 

Photo below by Danielle Vermette
taken at AWP in Portland, Ore.

In such delicate balance, grief and wit walk hand in hand. In “Earth,” watching dogs paw up the ground, find what they need, then lift their legs to mark territory, the speaker dryly notes that “Some dogs/ are only human.” The lush detail in “Season of Burnt-Out Candelabras,” about a May-December relationship, is also bittersweet. The poem ends with a now-older May realizing that it was not she who “was doing the sacrificing” in that youthful affair. Two further characteristics round out the list of qualities in Gallagher’s poetry, wisdom and illumination, which burnish the poems of moment in this feature – the charming celebration of a neighbor’s child in Ireland (“Oliver”); the exquisite poem by a great American poet in fellowship with one of Northern Ireland’s greatest living poets, Medbh McGuckian (“As the Diamond”); and the haunting poem for Gallagher’s long-time companion, the Irish painter Josie Gray (“Blue Eyelid Lifting”). In that poem, the speaker is watching the stars from her cottage window when Josie joins her. She begins to name the constellations she learned from her first love, lost to her long ago “in fitful times of war.” In the magical no-time of love, her past love’s gift of knowledge becomes the “star-bridge” between her and Josie, as the “blue eyelid” of in-sight and intimacy opens them to the eternal.

The poems’ spare lyricism is graced by such cosmic moments, as in the title poem, “Is, Is Not.” This poem hovers at another border, moreover, the one between a “live step, dead / step.” One day, on the rim of the valley near Tess’s cottage in northwestern Ireland, Josie tells her about the death of Major Pat Higgins, who famously died “Between one step and / the next” by the road. The poem marks in trochaic meter (two feet) the invisible place where one is one moment and then in the next is not. Gallagher leans toward direct statement and koan-like compression, but her poetry also configures the complexity of an existential as well as poetic quest. Her aim, she writes  in the Afterword to Is, Is Not, is “to deliver liminal space and time, that which occupies a stance at both sides of a boundary or threshold” (Is, 130). She writes from the edges of consciousness, seeking what “unknown places [language] can reach” in poetry, as Alice Derry remarks in her review of Dear Ghosts (2006).

The poems that follow are drawn from Gallagher’s most recent collection, Is, Is Not (Graywolf, 2019). They range in their settings from the American Northwest, where Gallagher grew up in a logging family and now lives, to Northwest Ireland, her adopted country, where for five decades she has lived for part of the year. She is the author of eleven collections of poetry, including the elegiac volume for her husband, Raymond Carver, Moon Crossing Bridge (Graywolf, 1992), and the collection in which she confronts not only the deaths of loved ones, but also her own grim diagnosis of cancer, Dear Ghosts. In addition, she has published several works of fiction, including the short story collection At the Owl Woman Saloon, and a number of collaborative books of translation. Her essays on poetry have been collected in such volumes as A Concert of Tenses (1986). She has received many honors over the course of her career, including Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a Maxine Cushing Gray Foundation Award.

I hope this taste of the magnificence of Tess Gallagher’s poetry will inspire you to read more.

 

 

 

Poems from Is, Is Not

 

Staring down from the bridge
at the moon
broken up
in the river, who
could know, without looking
up, it stands whole above

its shattered self.

 
 
 

—a notion not out of place
where bears hunch under apple
trees at night like rocking chairs
with volition. She’s lonely, your dog,
and the young coyote waits for her at the edge
of the forest. Not sinister that tongue
 
laughing wildness when she
dashes forward to feign attack, then glances
away. If your dog chases too far,
what then? Joining wilder kin to rove
at borders suddenly treacherous? What does
dusk have to do with their marauding?
 
Some ancient tincture of permission
allows the edge of night
to blend where wild and tame
exchange fur in one naked, human
mind—my thinking toward them
to grant wilderness its emissary.
Coyote, whose very appearance takes
 
whisper to its highest pitch—then breaks
the play-form of invitation to withdraw,
shedding with a guiltless, backward
look, this unbidden fringe-work—to rejoin
her serial moons, her black on black
of night, our freshened
immensity.
 
 
 

Flit, a useful word,
allowing one in, yet escape
from presence. If mind is
at least hinge
to body, its jade lantern
gives dart and hover
 
their difference—an arm
that wishes it were
a wing, air displaced
by a finger-length
of wit. We do not so much as argue
with the never-was as slip
 
its noose. Suck down
two thirds of your body
weight in nectar and by nightfall
you are no heavier than a star
to anyone’s gaze. A lantern
communing with the dark
 
takes memory to another level
and even when lifted high
cannot bother to care
it does not illumine
an ocean with its
flotilla of shore-prone boats.
 
 
 

Those dogs chuffing down black dirt
at the end of the driveway,
seeming to grin with delicious
intake—I knew earth wasn’t
what it seemed. Envious, I could get down
on my knees and join their feast. Tails
wave, one paws the ground open
for the other.
 
The display ends as suddenly as it
began. They’re off, lifted legs
marking territory. Some dogs
are only human. Yet what they did
there with their teeth and mouths stays
with me through the day. I see them as I can’t
see myself, finding what they need
just under the surface—
 
digging for it, eagerly, letting me
wonder at sufficiency,
at certain insatiable hungers.
Needing a few bites of earth
to settle us out.
 
 
 

The sunken blossoms have melted
from the rhododendrons as surely as wax,
leaving ragged claws
the garden books advise to “snap
off.” I could do this all day
—the narcotic jerk of my wrist,
the sticky juice of beauty come and
gone accumulating on fingertips,
its debris tossed to the ground like
ridiculous party hats crushed
while a lot of somebodies got drunk
and danced all night.
 
My hands flick stem to stem until
memories fumble my labyrinths, my
caves and alcoves. Way back
in there I remember a woman who was
gorgeous and young, who let an old man
take her to bed. She wanted to experience
everything from the inside out, and
probably there was a little alcohol
in the mix to help ambition along.
This man had a brain like Grand Central
Station, unbelievable traffic coming
and going. He was courtly, a gentleman.
She considered she was sacrificing herself
on behalf of experience, that kind of glib,
 
young notion. He was a great kisser,
putting everything that was slipping
elsewhere right up front so promise
crashed through to a whole other dimension
where you didn’t really care if it ever
got satisfied. What a surprise! She wasn’t alone
as with some of that young stuff, panting
past her like locomotives, who
left the station empty and in aftermath
 
leaped out of bed for a smoke. Her sweet
old man took his time. Before sex they
would have a great meal at a great restaurant
she couldn’t afford. Candles would have been
lit. Music of the sultry twenties tumbled
over them like fountains alone under stars,
say in some Italian piazza at midnight,
though that phrase would never have occurred
to her then, since she hadn’t been to Italy. You
could say this experience was like visiting
an exotic off-the-map island with room enough for
just two bodies. If he wanted rejuvenation,
 
she was sure he got it. And she?
She felt that kind of old that savors everything
to the last. They threw their bodies away
while they accomplished all this, and that young
alabaster cocoon of hers with skin a challenge
to velvet, became something transparent,
like the idea of never-being-old. They met
 
a few times like this until his reason for
being in that city took him out of even
her country and to where it was unlikely they’d
ever meet again. But somewhere now, with
age-spotted hands like mine, she could be
tossing the gaudy aftermath of rhododendron
blossoms to the plush of lawn, hauling him back
from whatever death he must surely
have had while we were both busy throwing
ourselves away on others, becoming those old
soul types who ripen young, maybe as an
unforeseen consequence of being quenched
and revived too often, before they know
much about life. It’s only luck
 
I lived long enough to understand who
in that fated pair was doing the sacrificing.
 
 
 

Stepping where they step
in the unhindered woods
where my neighbor and I agree not
to build a fence,
I startle the lone doe
from her kingdom of solitude.
 
Days since she informs every hidden cavity
of fern and vine with possible
trespass—but also profound stillness
I crave when she fails
to appear. A light-footed yearning
inhabits me, though it was
 
blundering flushed beauty
out. I lay down
my cities, rivers bereft
of their banks, snowmelt
and downpour where she pressed
the unsurrendered harp
of her body against moss. Vaults
 
of cement crack open. An arbor of blustering
neon goes dark in the borderland
of word-wrecked freedoms. Out of this
overlay of the human, the doe
uncoils herself with power
that is not retreat, just
the nothing-else-that-could-happen,
 
as my uninhabitable shadow
triggers her fear-plundered heart.
 

for Jane Mead

 
 
 

is bound by light, so are we
breath-bound into our
shining. But for that, the stone
of us would gray us past silence
into some deeper, earned
neglect. I wore a diamond once,
 
like a crown to a finger, but its
flash, its imperial glance had
belonged to the mother
of the beloved and would not
accept my stolen ways. Giving it
back was like trying to give back
love, or give back a mother
 
when her worth quenched
even the beauty of the garden
she’d left behind. Still, I am
over-attracted to the shade she
designed under the largest
evergreen, planting in formation
the stalwart deer-proof lilies
 
and striped hostas, those whose
petals can leech light from a cloaked
star. I swing the mattock into parched
ground, loving the weight of its dull
thud and having to claw my way
down to something gentle—as with
 
an Irish-moment when you realize
you will never be let in except by
holding silence until it turns
back on itself—the power of the unsaid,
an ultimate compression,
so exceeding language you banish
vast libraries with a glance away
 
into my hearth where blackest coal
noiselessly witnesses two wordsmiths
toiling in broad daylight by firelight,
in the glow of after-flame,
where my presence to your presence
is a humming out of which the long dead
cottage midwife, who lived here, reappears
 
to recount the particularities
of each parish birth, and we are thus
reborn in sparks of first-breaths
that ring us like a fairy fort, protecting
our held-in-light, until some
force-of-heart stuns us again
into stumbled speech and we agree
 
to the hostage-taking each word requires,
strung like that across the brow
of someone else’s shadow-moment.
So it is when a reader opens the poem’s
 
in-breathing—that which we took care
not to press too fully upon them
for fear we might extinguish the spirit’s outlaw
vagabonding with freedom’s
quarrelsome uptake.
 

for Medbh McGuckian

 
 
 

A brief reverie while sitting at the edge
of the Pacific below Sky House,
admiring the filigree maps of wave-froth
inside the curvature as it rolls
forward, then deposits its overlay
of surrendered continents and ocean
partings into the ebb left
only moments before. Loss without
sadness! I take my restorative
like a shoreline whose surety
is always: something is coming!
 
*          *          *
Bird splat on the Belfast hotel
window. Then suddenly a red brush
from two stories down among beer barrels
rises like a hydra-headed dragon
to spit a spiral of courtship water
from its center. Its mating dance, like
some near-extinct bird, scrapes
the sky free of its detritus. Up and
down it prances on the tight rod
of its mission until I see better
the brick on brick my secret room
is up against. Who says
nothing works here?
 
*          *          *
“Pat Higgins, the Major, died right
there,” Josie says, pointing to air
at the side of the road on the valley
edge. “Between one step and
the next. He was a great character,
fond of his pint, a great worker. He’d
see what there was to do and do
it without orders. He was popular.”
 
They pray for him yet on their way
to Highwood mass, and take a blessing
for themselves at the spot where he
fell between two steps: live step, dead
step. The invisible place marked in
an invisible forever in their on-beating
hearts. Living step, dying step. Memory

step, no

 
 
 

The stars have come onto
my pillow as they are want
to, these frigid nights
below Orion’s star-slash
of welcome. I get up and
marvel with all my being.
 
Suddenly you are standing
behind me looking out
over my shoulder
from our back-door window
at the high display. I say aloud
the names of the few constellations
 
I know, told to me by my first
love. Who would have guessed
he would become our
star-bridge, he whose future
fell away from mine
 
in fitful times of war?
In the morning I’ll unlock
the double gates to let
the workmen in, trying not to
dislodge those moments
when the blue eyelid
 
of unexpected closeness
pulled us in by the empty sleeve
of its far away.
 

for Josie Gray

 
 
 

Over the rain-rutted avenue
I’ve walked to horses at Kingsborough,
neglected estate, now plundered
by gatekeepers, the twisted arms
of rhododendron hacked for firewood. The locals’
mild compensatory salute: “It’s grand
to finally see the lake!”
 
I hold my palm to the muzzle of a mare,
her deep eye that sinks me in,
its richly fringed lid closing over
my reflection, then lifting me
like an emissary of unknown offerings
down corridors burnished with inklings
of hounds and masters, drops of port
 
spilled from a flask onto her neck, or
Cromwellian plunder of silver
dug into the pasture while the horses, unbridled,
gazed on. She snuffles my empty
hand, then tosses me and history into her
farthest cavern. She’ll keep me for the contraband
I am, a lonely walker who doesn’t know
 
what she wants in a borrowed land
far from home. A small entitlement of steps
led me to mystery, seeking to be
left out. How else let difference tell you
what you are?
 
 
 

With steps freshened
by wearing a man’s cast off shoes,
I follow the rain-rutted road
as far as the fishing boats
turned upside down
on the soggy bank, their oars
secured elsewhere to provide
against thieves.
 
Mottled light through
waterside trees over the bows
and sterns means trading
fish for birds.
 
I take up the invisible oars
put by for just this
occasion: a banishing
scald of sun blotted inexactly
by a succession of windblown clouds
able to lift the entire flotilla.
 

A bird
flies through me. Then
a fish.

 
 
 

He appears like a genie
in my sun-shattered kitchen,
ten years old going on fifty. He’s
full of eagerness this first day
of his spring holidays. “I’m
coming to see you, Tess, every day!”
 
So he exposes any near me
for casual reluctance.
Croissants are coming out
of the oven. His timing exact.
Yes, he’ll have a cup of tea
with his. He settles himself
 
at the end of the table like
a helmsman. Delight has driven
every shadow from not only
the living, but the dead, his
child’s voice drifting out
the open doorway toward
 
Abbey Ballindoon and its
cache of tombstones, their
chiseled names muffled
in moss, the language
of eternity. Tell me everything,
my prince. Don’t leave a chink

 
in the air. Ripple your rill
across my living heart
like a balm.
We retire to
the open fire, the flames
calling out his songs, the nimble
fast ones that trot across
 
the brain like wild stags or
hares terror-thrilled by
hounds. We are each other’s
as surely as song stitches breath
to air. But I’ve grown old,
forgotten the courtship rituals.
 
How did he learn to imagine
the strange exact gift—that
shadowed errand to Sruthlinn
Spring, kneeling there to pick
watercress to be left in a plastic
bag at my door?
 
“And what did you do with it?”
“I ate it,” I say.
“Just like that: you ate it?”
“Yes, just like that.”
 
The rare limestone prickly sweetness
gone into me like his spontaneous
offering of song
and, on leaving, the bright clasp
of his arms at my waist, so
I glimpse those loves in his future,
the ones who will never taste
wild watercress, the secret currency
of land-flushed water
finding its day-glow green.
 
And of the young letting the old
know, that memory is that other
seeping green that melds
each moment to silence until
it reappears as something else.
 

for Oliver Wall

 
 
 

I entered this world not wanting
to come. I’ll leave it not
wanting to go. All this while,
when it seemed there were two doors,
there was only one—this 

passing through.

 
 

Acknowledgments

 
For permission to feature this generous selection from Is, Is Not, we extend our gratitude to Graywolf’s editor, Jeff Shotts, and to Tess Gallagher herself. All poems copyright © 2019 by Tess Gallagher, from Is, Is Not. Used by permission of the author and Graywolf Press.
 
To buy Is, Is Not and other books by Tess Gallagher, please order from Bookshop.org or directly from the publisher at www.graywolfpress.org.

1. Tess Gallagher, Is, Is Not (Minneapolis: Graywolf P, 2019), 127. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text as Is, followed by the page number.

2. Harold Schweizer, “Tess Gallagher’s Poetry: Like a Thing Never Done,” CEA Critic, vol. 50, no. 2/4, 1987, pp. 67–78. JSTOR, accessed 16 June 2021.

3. Alice Derry, “Urgent Stories: Tess Gallagher’s ‘Dear Ghosts’.” Northwest Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 2007, p. 152+. Gale Literature Resource Center, accessed 17 June 2021.

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