Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Poets Tess Gallagher and Robin Robertson dive headfirst into mythic flaws, contemporary and classical.

By Sandra Gilbert and D. H. Tracy
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Dear Ghosts, by Tess Gallagher. Graywolf Press. $20.00.

Reviewed by Sandra Gilbert

Tess Gallagher has always been an endearing poet, simultaneously meditative and what we call "confessional"--meaning, in her case, that she often beautifully transforms incidents in her personal life into occasions for nearly mystical reflection. Especially after the death of Raymond Carver, her longtime partner, she moved into a search for the secret meanings that shape both love and loss, stationing herself at the center of what she called Moon Crossing Bridge, to interrogate grief. Now Dear Ghosts continues that quest with elegiac poems brooding on all the souls who haunt her, as well as poems examining both her own art and her own mortality. A writer of generous fluency, Gallagher sometimes fails to restrain words that overflow into prosiness. "A Stroke of Sky," on 9 / 11--a theme that's tripped up platoons of poets--begins with astute observation:
            Our fabled American buoyancy,
our save-the-day vigor slumped
to urgent reciprocity--like relatives
in a quarrelsome family
who see each other only at funerals,
and don't need to
speak, just nod and press
each other's hands.

But soon the language slackens into awkward philosophizing:
Our inner plea: not to be absent
from pain through the tourniquet
of irony, denial's tepid bath water
that poisons the soul's aquifer.

Block those metaphors, as they used to say in the New Yorker.

But perhaps rambling or clumsiness is the chance Gallagher takes so she can push herself ever further into her subjects, as she does at her best. "The Dogs of Bucharest," a powerful travel poem, becomes more than a voyager's journal entry as the writer--hearing the dogs begin "another alarm, their chuffing / like black shovels full of earth tossed / into an open grave that is everywhere"--contemplates poetry, politics, grief, and survival. Signaling another bereaved woman, her "temporary neighbor across the yard," she sees herself and her friend as two widows "saluting each other. Just that. A sign / across this chasm of life," then resumes quotidian solitude, acknowledging:
            that inevitable, necessary moment
when we drop our arms,
turn our backs to the window. Do
the next ordinary thing.

It's hard to define the strength that shapes survival, so it's no wonder Gallagher sometimes goes too far into strange tropes or too deep into the clotted darkness of the private. But when she's in control, even her tentative affirmations are heartening.

Sandra Gilbert is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Belongings, and two works of non-fiction. She is a professor emerita at U.C. Davis.

© 2007 by Sandra Gilbert. All rights reserved.

Swithering, by Robin Robertson. Harcourt. $16.00.

Reviewed by D. H. Tracy

Shortly into Swithering you intuit you're in grown-up hands, and that the poet is writing from a set of concerns thought hard about before the poems were even begun. To "swither" means to fret or worry--what, exactly, is Robertson in a swither about? About the human fit in nature, is one answer; about the soul's fit in the body, is another. Behind both of these lies a parent agitation about the mutual insufficiency of spirit and matter. In maintaining an inconclusive pseudo-animism, the book is a powerful exercise of a variety of negative capability--only Robertson does not so much resist reaching after fact as lunge at it enraged, which both abases it and exalts it with attention. Animals and ruins, where human qualities are present but dilute, are the natural symbols of his poetry, and there are lots of each: creatures hunting and hunted, overgrown tool sheds, abandoned crofts, the deserted batteries at a seaside priory.

Robertson's retelling of "The Death of Actaeon" is the first time in a decade I have cared about a Greek myth (Actaeon the hunter happens on Artemis naked, she turns him into a stag, and his own dogs run him down). If Robertson has a divinity, it is the dying Actaeon, an ephemeral compound of reflection and natural force, a mind expiring in comprehension of an immensity in which it has no part:
Drowning now,
his horned head reared, streaming, from the ruck,
as if a god was being born
--not a mortal soul transformed and torn apart.
The huntsmen looked around for Actaeon: calling
--each louder than the one before--for Actaeon,
as if he weren't there.
Should he not share this unexpected gift?

Heart trouble as a young man seems to have brought mortality home to Robertson (he writes about his operation for a replacement valve in "A Seagull Murmur," which will make you clutch your chest). He shows a sensitivity born of experiencing bodily fragility and a savagery born of rage at that fragility. These interact effectively throughout the poems, in part because the savagery does not let the sensitivity settle into a serene contemplation of the durable; they are not the same thing. His sense of human relationships is thereby harrowed, and in "Leavings" and "Donegal" he has written the best poems of fatherhood I have ever read.

Robertson shares with many Scottish poets the tendency to write at the same altitude, no matter the subject--cursing your neighbor and cursing god are essentially the same activity. This tendency has a salutary moderating effect, and weaves a poem about the death of Actaeon and (for instance) a poem about asparagus into a fabric of sensibility, where they might otherwise have drifted towards the overblown and the trivial. Hounded, and in a state of extreme self-alienation, Robertson has nevertheless found a way to write levelly, with concentration and without dissipation, coming away poem after poem with forceful answers for his predicament.

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2006 by D. H. Tracy. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.

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