Tess Gallagher

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Gallagher, Tess 1944–

An American poet, Gallagher writes precisely and evocatively of childhood remembered and families, using her childhood, her family, as a focusing device. Under Stars, a recent collection, includes many poems based on a trip to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Robert Ross

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[Tess Gallagher's poems in Stepping Outside] are subtle; one thinks, somehow, of underground passages that recurve on themselves, so that the adventurer is expelled at the exact spot he entered the maze, retaining the conviction of hidden treasure; or, of the accomplished stripper, who has vanished from the stage by the time the yokels realize that it is her sequined G-string that is spinning toward them through the smoky air. You will notice that in both these analogies the baffled reader is represented as male, and I suspect that if Tess's poems ever do give themselves up fully it will only be to a few other women. There is a defiance toward men that is usually gentle but always meant: not a rock bottom but the bottom of a net—one is not hurt but all the same stopped, not allowed…. But it would be unfair to say that this book is a feminist document. Tess is a great lover of men…. (p. 364)

Tess's style is her own and needs to be experienced. The language is always incisive; her ambiguity never bases itself on vagueness. The "cheap shot" is quite noticeably absent, and no poem is longer than it needs to be. This is a beautiful and also a refreshing book. (p. 365)

Robert Ross, "New Poems: Tess Gallagher," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76, pp. 364-65.

Ira Sadoff

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Tess Gallagher's Instructions to the Double takes its title seriously. It operates on several levels of dialectic: the redemption and cruelty of the family, the notions of continuity and change, of absence and presence, of leaving and returning. The exploration of the family is central to the book: in "Coming Home," Gallagher expresses tenderness toward her mother and simultaneously recognizes the necessity and brutality of her leaving home…. But perhaps the central concern of the book is absence, "finally, it is the missing cloud that concerns us…. If absence deserves, as you say it / does, a voice which blinds itself / and recovers, let me complete / the assurance." There are many moving poems in this … collection, mature and assured in voice and vision, compelling in imagery and use of line. And finally it is its balance, its wavering between ambivalence and resolution, that makes Instructions to the Double so rewarding: "And / there is less doubt, yes or no, / for whatever you have been compelled to say / more than once." (pp. 245-46)

Ira Sadoff, "A Chronicle of Recent Poetry," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1977 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. 35, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 237-47.∗

Valerie Trueblood

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Instructions to the Double is a book about what Tess Gallagher calls the "true disguises" of the world, the way the world addresses us and what we see and hear instead. The poems are full of doubles: shadows, reflections in eyes and water and mirrors, resemblances ("Your neck, so / like hers", "each moon so like a moon"), photographs, a body's impression burnt onto bedsprings in a fire. These doubles attest to a hidden, static quality in what happens—its beauty really—as the real figures busy themselves with their lives….

Gallagher's people move and then like ghosts continue past their actions. They're seen in silhouette, or moving in slow motion, from a future they're unaware of. Some of them are still...

(This entire section contains 480 words.)

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present in the places they have left or died in. They possess power over her that they never knew they had—and now over her readers.

She knows something about the dreadful and doesn't dress it as the interesting. "Two Stories", a poem about the murder of her uncle by thieves, and the friend who changed it into literary coin, is wrathful. It is easy to say the subject demands the sense of wrong this poem has; then look hard for her severity elsewhere. Another poem, "Cows, A Vision", is dedicated to this uncle (so that when we come to "Two Stories" we think, Not him!). He was a farmer; here are his cows: "The cows were never born. They came / with the land, with the bucket / hanging in the well". This believing, or magical, view of the land, and the people where she grew up alternates with another voice—stubborn, humorous, adult—in other home poems, "The Woman Who Raised Goats", "Coming Home", "Black Money".

"Black Money" is a little novel of 42 lines, in which a family's work, love, economies, bitternesses unfold against the humming and whistling of a pulp-mill and its town in the northwest. It is a poem filled with exertion and strain but it stays buoyant….

The buried excitement of family life produces the strongest poems in the book. Her weaker ones are those that are merely "about" duality or loss or anger (the title poem, for example)….

Gallagher is an intuitive poet, and her intuition keeps on working when her eyes aren't fixed on the troubling, beautiful scenes of the northwest/family poems. Then a poem like "When You Speak to Me" results…. The nouns are generic, there is nothing to see—which would be all right if there were something to think. Poems like this wear a sign "Beware of Poet". Plurals abound. Horses lose their horseness in order to be totems. These poems are so little like Gallagher's fine ones as to seem dictated.

Valerie Trueblood, "Tess Gallagher, 'Instructions to the Double'," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1978 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Valerie Trueblood), Vol. 7, No. 4, July-August, 1978, p. 39.

Hayden Carruth

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[Tess Gallagher's poems in Under Stars are] personal lyrics, done with a verbal finesse rare to find these days in the common American free-form convention. I am tempted to call it feminine. And I do, risking the era's awkward consequences, because there is after all a womanly sensibility in literature, thank heaven, and we can recognize it. Moreover, Gallagher's poems, beyond their delicacy of language, have a delicacy of perception that I, at any rate, associate with women; the capacity to see oneself objectively as another person doing the things one really does, but without the hard philosophical intrusions most men resort to; instead with clear affection and natural concern. If Jane Austen, in creating her characterizations, was often writing about herself, then Tess Gallagher, in writing about herself, is often creating characterizations, i.e., fictions, people existing in words, whom she cannot know, yet whom she regards with wonder and sometimes with Sapphic pathos. Delicacy and light and the feminine strength of a clear view—these are the qualities that give me much pleasure in Gallagher's work and awaken in me much sympathy…. (p. 89)

Hayden Carruth, "Impetus and Invention," in Harper's (copyright © 1979 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the May, 1979 issue by special permission), Vol. 258, No. 1548, May, 1979, pp. 88-90.∗

Peter Davison

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[Tess Gallagher's] beautifully designed second book, Under Stars … shows her braving the most difficult of entanglements: unlike almost all other poets of her generation I have read, she faces up, in every line of her work, to the full engagement with language…. Her poems evince a syntactic regeneration, a new involvement with the processes and passage of time.

Gallagher's work requires enough liveliness in the reader to follow her through facet after facet of grammatical inclination, to listen to her language with alertness for the rhythms and interaction of her syntactical groupings. It is tempting to take poetry like this and quote it until the blood runs. (pp. 94, 96)

The apparent simplicity of Gallagher's way of speaking turns out to be difficult to follow because she is dodging through the most intricate of alien entanglements, the movements of the human mind itself. Who has decreed to our younger poets that the present is more immediate than the past and future, or even separate from them? Praise is due to the poet who manages to make them coexist in a single figure of the mind's action. Gallagher, to her very great credit, has undertaken one of the most daunting of poetic adventures: utilizing all the resources of language to explore the nuances of feeling, the nature of the passage of time, and, most intricately and reflexively, the nature of language itself, through which we know most of those other things.

Every poet has a vision—of violence, of transcendence, of the shadow in the picture, of decaying churches. Gallagher's vision lives in three or four dimensions, through the operation of human utterance in space and time. Poetry is most sublimely, for her, the subject of the poem. (p. 96)

Peter Davison, "The Great Predicament of Poetry," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 6, June, 1979, pp. 93-4, 96.∗

Bob Ross

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[Under Stars] is in two parts, titled separately. Start Again Somewhere, the second part, is a loose collection whose theme is the generosity that time rather extorts from us if we are to remain sane and good-humored in the face of the mortal erosion our dreams, our loves, ourselves are subject to. (Whew!)… These poems are always compassionate, sometimes sad, sometimes deeply funny. The language is luminous, rhythmical, occasionally complex but never too difficult. Best are perhaps "My Mother Remembers She Was Beautiful" and "If Never Again"; it is always a problem to pick a favorite from one of Tess's collections.

If the second section is good, The Ireland Poems, the first half of the book, is a triumph. Based on her experiences during a substantial visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, this minibook propels us along on a magic cloak of words from one immediacy to the next. (p. 273)

My own preferences are three poems, "Woman-Enough," "Ever After," and "The Ritual Of Memories." The three seem to me to form a series that take the reader as far as anyone can toward that vanishing-point that is the source of living perspective. (p. 274)

Bob Ross, "Thumbing the Stars," in Prairie Schooner (© 1979 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Vol. 53, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 273-74.

Krin Gabbard

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[In Instructions to the Double, Under Stars, and On Your Own, Tess Gallagher] consistently reaches into fresh, often startling reservoirs of experience and comes up with original, lucid verses.

I am most impressed by the wide variety of subjects that Gallagher has investigated. "Two Stories" is about the murder of her uncle in 1972: it compares someone else's lurid account of the killing with her own perceptions…. In "Breasts," she dates the end of her childhood rapport with boys to the day her mother interrupted the children's roughhouse and demanded that the little girl cover her "swart nubbins." "A Poem in Translation" defines the additional violence that a translator does to a persecuted Russian poet. All the poems are written in single, distinctive voice, which, if uniformly humorless, is quiet enough to accommodate differing levels of tone and sharp enough to carry emotional urgency. One even hears this voice in the one poem in which Gallagher writes in the persona of her father…. The reader also hears it in her most difficult poems…. She is always successful in evoking her childhood. Here especially the images ring true and immediate…. Gallagher understands that the mind of a child works in ways that for want of a better word can be called poetic. (pp. 54-5)

Another group of poems concerns the poet's travels in Ireland where she was particularly aware of the situation of Irish women: in one poem, rich with the resonances of a folk ballad, several women recount their sorrows in that troubled country. Old loves are the subjects of several poems in the three books. With only the barest trace of sentimentality she can seize on the quickly observed exterior scene and ponder its inner significance; she can examine the impossibilities of a relationship with an obsessed war veteran; or she can discourse on those "Counterfeit Kisses" that do not deceive the one who accepts them. (p. 55)

Like all good poets from Homer to the present, Gallagher occasionally writes about creating poetry and about what can happen to the creators. Three poems in Instructions to the Double, including the title poem, are concerned with the occupation of the poet, and typically, all three approach the problem from quite different perspectives. The best of the set is "Instructions to the Double" in which the poet's self is split. "The double" is told to take the risks it must if it is to survive…. "Instructions to the Double" is a powerful piece of work, though it is more about poetry in general than about Gallagher's own poetry. What she has lived through—directly or vicariously—is not as important as her ability to invest thought with poetic vision. Few poets writing today are as successful at it as she. (p. 56)

Krin Gabbard, "Reviews: Tess Gallagher," in Open Places (copyright 1980 Open Places), No. 29, Spring, 1980, pp. 53-6.

Joyce Carol Oates

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Tess Gallagher's Under Stars … evokes commonplace images and events, and renders a familiar world in beautifully precise terms. Like Instructions for the Double, Gallagher's excellent first book, Under Stars presents, in rigorously pared-back language, a series of observations, or states of feeling before they pass into conscious observations. Some of the poems are in the poet's voice, others are in the voices of strangers, or a voice suggested by a "careless waltz" at an Irish wedding or a melancholy ballad. Some interpenetrate one another; the boundaries between people dissolve; the past is present in quiet, unobtrusive images. Belfast violence, for instance, in the winter of 1976, is evoked in oblique memories, in terms of dreams that blend uneasily with reality. (pp. 103-04)

Some of the poems reach for obscure conclusions, and I am not always certain of the voice that is being evoked, but it is impossible to read Tess Gallagher's poems without being drawn into their mesmerizing rhythms and convinced of the rightness of her intense yet unforced images. She is clearly one of the most gifted and promising of our younger poets. (p. 104)

Joyce Carol Oates, "The Authority of Timelessness: 'Under Stars'," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1980 by The Ontario Review), No. 12, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 103-04.