In Dear Ghosts, Tess Gallagher’s elegiac mood and personal conviction create a sense of companionship between the living and the dead, a result of her long-standing fascination with memory and mourning. By refusing to release the valued presences of deceased friends and loved onesin particular the shade of her husband, short-story writer Raymond CarverGallagher enriches her work as a poet and her life as a person.
A notable earlier work, Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), is essentially an elegy for Carver in which Gallagher works through her grief over his death without relinquishing his imperishable influence in her life. The success of that volume enhanced Gallagher’s prominence as an accomplished poet, a status she had enjoyed since 1976 with the publication of Instructions to the Double. The volumes Portable Kisses: Love Poems (1992), Portable Kisses Expanded (1994), and My Black Horse: New and Selected Poems (1995) were well received, but the appearance of Dear Ghosts,made up of new and previously uncollected poemshas been hailed as a triumph.
The comma at the end of Gallagher’s title indicates that the work’s contents are intended as letters addressed to the deceased as well as the living, reading audience. Gallagher dedicates the work to her cherished ghosts, suggesting that they are both kind and tenacious indwellers of her remarkable life. The term “ghost” naturally refers to the deceased, but at times Gallagher also speaks of spectral qualities within the living. Readers must assume that these figures, often friends of the poet, will at some point survive physical death in a similarly ghostly fashion.
An assortment of ghosts, including those who attain only distant levels of intimacy with the poet, inhabits the unseen world that the poems engage. A variety of circumstances afford opportunities to “see” into these otherworldly dimensions. For example, in “Little Match Box” Gallagher suggests that the existence of a twin moon orbiting beyond the visible one may be intuited by a willing and perceptive person: “Sometimes a glory/ is just thata guessing-into/ the seen, noticing/ the fringe of presence.” Discernment of this rewarding “presence” connects earthly life to distant realms.
New developments in Gallagher’s life add richness to this collection. She writes of her struggle with cancer, her experience as the caretaker of her dying mother, and her increased involvement in religious practices of East Asian origin. Other poems draw upon her travels as she returns to the region of her family’s roots in Ireland, works as a translator in Romania, and visits friends in Japan. The poet unearths and imparts wisdom from these journeys as well as from events in and around her home in Washington State. An astute observer of nature, Gallagher also explores the physical and spiritual dimensions of a variety of familiar objects such as horses, birds, lilacs, and the moon.
The collection opens with a prefatory page containing an adapted segment of the title poem (“black butterflies of the general soul,/ join me to those who are missing”) and goes on to describe ghosts as sleeping with their “sweetness intact.” The butterflies, black as they may be, lead the speaker to ghosts who retain their desirability even after death. This passage invites readers of the poems that follow to join the poet in her visionary experiences.
The book’s fifty-five poems are divided into seven sections, each opening with a quotation identifying connections within the section. Some of the quotations are of Buddhist origin and others, once again, are made up of lines from the title poem, providing a further thread of continuity. Such aids are important, as Gallagher mixes subjects, settings, and styles. A single poem may exhibit lyric intensity, relate narrative content, and call upon the past, present, and future. Readers who have appreciated Gallagher’s previous works will probably applaud her continued pairing of opposites such as war and peace, illness and health, life and afterlife. In a similar vein, she complements her frequently conversational phrasing with a generous number of striking expressions and images.
The words of a Buddhist nun, “to be neither separated from words nor/ obstructed by words,” introduce the first section of the work. This concept is fully present in the first poem, “My Unopened Life,” in which the existence of a parallel life is proposed. This idea remains dominant throughout...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)