An Arrow Flew out of the Cosmos — Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems by Tess Gallagher

Midnight Lantern

Midnight Lantern:
New and Selected Poems

BY Tess Gallagher
(Graywolf Press, 2011)

Tess Gallagher’s Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems moves through an emotional terrain both sensual and brilliant, where passion, love, and loss resonate from opulent, intense images. The book’s selections build on over forty years’ work, starting with early work in Instructions to the Double (1976), on to Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), arguably the most memorable section, and ending with Signature: New Poems (2011).

In “Red Poppy” (Moon Crossing Bridge) Gallagher writes “My life / simplified to ‘for him’ and his thinned like an injection / wearing off” (p. 112). The “him” in this poem is Raymond Carver, with whom Gallagher lived for many years and married just a few weeks before his death in 1988. This line of poetry is something of a parallel for the collection. The poems about Carver’s illness and death form the book’s climax, with the poems in earlier and later selections quite different in tone, if not style. In “Wake,” a foreshadowing of this change: “Did I want to prove how surely / I’d been left behind?” (p. 113).

After Moon Crossing Bridge, Gallagher’s poems have a new bite: the lines “He always loved / me in those red shoes. Defiant, sexy / and with him” (p. 169) from “Widow in Red Shoes,” turns mourning into an active, rather than a passive experience. They challenge the statement from Tsvetayeva she quotes earlier in the poem (“As long as I don’t cry he hasn’t / died”). He died, and I’m crying, the poem says, and I’m wearing these red shoes, “a little worn” and “not easy to replace,” the way anything or anyone we love must become.

The poems from My Black Horse, Gallagher’s 1995 collection, circle around the questions of loss, recovery and replacement. In “To Whom Can I Open My Heart?” the poet hears “a shrill cry of panic / that is a plea and a question.” What started out as a look at the stars ends in a disquieting revelation:

So little to tell. Not even the word tomorrow
is world enough to offer myself
hearing it.

— p. 187

The lack of a soul mate, a companion, comes across powerfully in this poem; one senses the speaker’s mixed emotions as a voice, “urgent and full of an ancient, inexplicable pain” subverts her mood. The voice seems to echo her own feelings, startling her into an unexpected recognition of how alone she is. This is an example of Gallagher’s mastery of the jump-cut, a quick shift in mood and scene without leaving the narrative of the poem. Her poems take the reader into a landscape saturated with emotion, as in this stanza from “Surgeon”:

Afterwards, high on pain meds,
I talk on the phone
to loved ones in an exuberant
soaring and don’t recall a thing.
Strange to put my hand
there days later and find only
the pouting lip.

— p. 226

The flood of endorphins (“exuberant soaring”) combined with pain-killers removes the speaker’s awareness that she has lost a breast to surgery. Only later does her hand tell her the truth, and at the end of the poem, the line “Don’t talk to me of heaven” (p. 227) describes the duality of survival: an uncertain future follows the immediate rush of relief. Even her shortest poems have this quality, as in these lines from “Bull’s-Eye:”

I tell my friend
it’s okay. I’ll be okay.
When the doctor
said There’s no cure
an arrow flew out of
the cosmos – thung!

— p. 229

…these poems take their strength, at least in part, from Gallagher’s powers of observation, and her precise description of the realm of the senses…

In “Perished,” the terse lines “One minute they were laughing, / the next they were drowning” (p. 282) illustrate that perilous place where Gallagher’s poetry finds its truest mark. This and many of the poems from “Signature: New Poems,” the book’s last section, illustrate her life in Lough Arrow, Ireland, where she lives for part of each year. As part of the final section, these poems stand at a far remove from the poems of Moon Crossing Bridge, chronologically and in subject matter. These later poems are more outwardly focused than her earlier work, more narrative, often describing the people of her village in vivid words: “Mickey Moran, his arm thrust / like a battering ram against the sky” (“Ballerina,” p. 285).

These poems are more sure, deft and skillful, with fewer of the sudden shifts and striking turns found in poems like “His Moment:” “That’s why I love most / the moment when you take your lips away” (p. 171). No less affective, these poems take their strength, at least in part, from Gallagher’s powers of observation, and her precise description of the realm of the senses, as in “Abandoned Lunch:”

Fresh pineapple in shredded carrots
juiced with lemon. Boiled red potatoes.
Smoked salmon with capers and rocket.
Seven hours and no one appears to eat.

— p. 297

The details of these lines, combined with poem’s title, tell more than one story — who leaves such a feast? Conversely, who doesn’t show up for such a meal, obviously prepared with care and expertise? The poem does not answer these questions, but opens into another story, one about a bride who said “No” when asked “Do you take?”

Although these later poems are the work of a poet in full command of her skills, Gallagher’s earlier poems, such as the exquisite “The Calm,” (from Instructions to the Double) are my favorites, for their beguiling yet tragic revelations: “If I knew where to find you / I would say goodbye” (p. 17), she writes, but life is never simple enough for a clean break. Our emotions inhabit a world that is often apart from us: “Like a swarm, / the heart moves with its separate / wings under the eaves” (p. 17).

Overall, this collection showcases the best work of a major poet. Dextrous and resilient, Gallagher is a survivor: of her hard childhood, her husband’s death, and cancer. How fortunate we are to have such a voice as hers, one that elevates these and many other experiences, making art out of everyday life.

Printed from Cerise Press:

Permalink URL: