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.
[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.
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.∗
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 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"....
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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.∗
[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.∗
[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...
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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...
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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...
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