Tess Gallagher’s poetry is like a double- or even triple-exposed photograph: It contains layer after layer. Her poetry epitomizes the title of her early volume Instructions to the Double in that it expresses multiplicity of meaning. Gallagher writes of relationships, love, grief, and memory in and of themselves, as well as of specific memories. She writes of her Northwest childhood in a working-class family, her parents, her lovers, and her deceased husband, the writer Carver. Most of her relationship poems are set in the Northwest, with boats, forests, and birds mysteriously in concert.
Gallagher’s strength comes from extracting spiritual lessons from ordinary items or events, as in her “View from an Empty Chair.” In this way, she deals in Ralph Waldo Emerson-type correspondences; however, she takes correspondences a step further by eventually including the dead in the correspondence between humanity and nature. In “Tableau Vivant,” the dead reflect on those mourning them. Some poems mingle the living with the dead. “Inside the Known” contains a narrator who confuses her self with not only her shadow but also a corpse. “With Stars” blends childhood memory with stars and with the dead. This combining of the living with the dead and nature informs many, if not most, of the elegiac poems in Moon Crossing Bridge. In her later work, Gallagher’s romantic sensibility becomes mystical in its understanding and attempt to portray the ineffable.
Instructions to the Double
Instructions to the Double, Gallagher’s first significant publication, established her as an original voice, contemporary and confessional in that she writes of her familial relationships, the societal expectations of women, and a final acceptance of herself. The originality of her collection lies in its skillful use of doubles—a body’s impression on a burnt mattress, reflections of people in eyes, glass, and water—all of which suggest a hidden, static quality. This quality becomes progressively more ghostly as the characters she writes about seem increasingly present, such as “the ballerina closing the halo/ of her partner’s arms” in “Zero,” the photographs in “Time Lapse with Tulips,” or memories of the dead. “Even now,” the poet of “Coming Home” says, “he won’t stay out of what I have/ to say to you.”
These resonances are made even more poignant by the metaphorical “doubling.” The arms of the ballerina’s partner are both a halo and a zero, the red tulips in a photograph are also tulips in a Mason jar, and a widow’s expression is like that of a worried wife’s gaze toward the sea, anticipating her husband’s return. Then the doubles themselves double, creating associations and memories that spin into infinity, as water creates wakes and snails leave silver trails.
Gallagher’s next major collection, Under Stars, continues a passionate lyricism but is less personal and more social. The first section contains poems about joy and pain in Ireland. In this sense, they are poems of place. “Disappearances in the Guarded Sector” evokes the political turmoil in Belfast. “The Ballad of Ballymote” captures the wry sensibility and speech rhythms of the Irish. Gallagher makes the connection with the Irish so real and intimate that the second section, containing poems about family and lovers, flows naturally from the first. This connection is expressed in the last lines of the title poem, “Under Stars,” a double tribute to a lover and to universal kinship:
Again I walk into the wet grass toward the starry voices. Again, I am the found one, intimate, returned by all I touch on the way.
“The Same Kiss After Many Years” deviates in subject matter in that for most of the poem, parents comment on their grown children’s last visit but end with a surprising “Kiss me/ let’s forget them,” a happy tribute to older lovers.
Critics consider Willingly to contain some of Gallagher’s best and worst work. Her better poems in this volume are not about herself but are nonetheless filtered through her consciousness, such as “Conversation with a Fireman from Brooklyn” and “Black Silk.” In both poems, another person is featured, but the “I” reflects on the others’ behavior. “Each Bird...
(The entire section is 1880 words.)