by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
When you finally come down to it, all Art is really about such a basic thing: Connection. Human to human, and human to art, whether it’s in a museum, or hung on your wall, up on a stage, showing on a screen, words in a book, or a recording you’re playing.
Of course, not all art connects to all people. What a boring world it would be if all of us felt the same way about everything! But some connections happen only for a few people, while others are nearly universal.
Tess Gallagher (1943 – ) writes poems that do connect for a lot of people. This one taps into the awkwardness most of us who have homes feel when we encounter a person on the street who clearly has no place to call home.
A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too.
with our arms around each other.
Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
off to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep on holding
you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t
come out of nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how
he needs. “Can I have one of those?” he asks you,
and I feel you nod. I’m surprised,
surprised you don’t tell him how
it is – that I’m yours, only
yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love – that’s what we’re talking about, love
that nabs you with “for me
only” and holds on.
So I walk over to him and put my
arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel
him past it. I’m starting the hug
and thinking, “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!
I put my head into his chest and snuggle
in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
into him. He stands for it. This is his
and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s
getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly
we stop having arms and I don’t know if
my lover has walked away or what, or
whether the woman is still reading the poem…
Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
on his coat will leave the imprint of
a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.
Poet, essayist, and short story writer Tess Gallagher was born in 1943 in Port Angeles, Washington, to a logging family. She knew the landscape of the Pacific Northwest and the Ozarks – home to her grandparents – very well from an early age. Gallagher said in an interview: “I don’t know how many children really get to explore vast amounts of territory like that. It builds something in you.”
Gallagher attended the University of Washington, where she studied with Theodore Roethke, and spent time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Port Angeles has remained home, but she’s traveled to many other places, teaching and making appearances, in both North America and abroad.
She translated the Romanian poet Lilian Ursu, and collaborated with Jakucho Setouchi, a Japanese novelist and Buddhist nun, on the book Distant Rain (2006). Gallagher also owns a cottage in County Sligo, Ireland, where she lives part of the year. Her next-door neighbor and companion there is farmer-turned-painter Josie Gray. She partnered with him on Barnacle Soup (2008), a collection of oral storytelling transcribed by Gallagher.
Life is full of interruptions and distractions, whether you’re an accountant or a zoologist – or a poet with laundry that needs folding.
I Stop Writing the Poem
to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.
We are all confronted with life choices for which there are no completely right answers. Whatever we choose we will lose something, so we struggle to find an option which gives us the most and costs us the least. What’s so important at 22 can seem irrelevant at 50, but sometimes we find those early choices did point to our life’s true north.
During the Montenegrin Poetry Reading
Mira, like a white goddess, is translating
so my left ear is a cave near Kotor
where the sea lashes and rakes
the iron darkness inside
the black mountains. Young and old, the poets
are letting us know this sweltering night,
under a bridge near a river outside
Karver Bookstore at the beginning of July,
belongs to them. They clear away debris
about politicians and personal suffering,
these gladiators of desire
and doubt, whose candor has roiled
me like a child shaking stolen beer to foam
the genie of the moment out of
its bottle. The poets’ truth-wrought poems dragging it
out of me, that confession—that I didn’t have children
probably because in some clear corner I knew I would have left them
to join these poets half a world away who, in their language
that is able to break stones, have broken me open
like a melon. Instead of children, I leave my small dog, quivering
as I touched her on the nose, to let her know it’s
me, the one who is always leaving her, yes
I’m going, and for her I have no language with
which to reassure her I’m coming
back, no—what’s the use to pretend I’m
a good mistress to her, she who would never
leave me, she who looks for me everywhere
I am not, until I return. I should feel guilty
but the Montenegrin poets have taken false guilt off
the table. I’ve been swallowed by a cosmic
sneer, with an entire country behind it where
each day it occurs to them how many are still missing
in that recent past of war and havoc. Nothing to do
but shut the gate behind me
and not look back where my scent
even now is fading from the grass. Nostalgia
for myself won’t be tolerated here. I’m just a beast
who, if my dog were a person, would give me a pat
on the head and say something stupid like: Good dog.
The Tallest Men in Europe
are from Montenegro.
Also tall women wearing four-inch spiked heels.
No, I don’t want to be a tall woman or a tall man.
Too much bending. Better a student of reaching.
But ahh—glimpsing the willow revises me completely.
I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
– for Drago Štambuk
If we have the good fortune to have someone we love in our lives, when they leave home, we miss them.
The sleep of this night deepens
because I have walked coatless from the house
carrying the white envelope.
All night it will say one name
in its little tin house by the roadside.
I have raised the metal flag
so its shadow under the roadlamp
leaves an imprint on the rain-heavy bushes.
Now I will walk back
thinking of the few lights still on
in the town a mile away.
In the yellowed light of a kitchen
the millworker has finished his coffee,
his wife has laid out the white slices of bread
on the counter. Now while the bed they have left
is still warm, I will think of you, you
who are so far away
you have caused me to look up at the stars.
Tonight they have not moved
from childhood, those games played after dark.
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.
near the ceremony
of water, I never
insisted on you. I admit
I delayed. I was the Empress
of Delay. But it can’t be
put off now. On the sacred branch
of my only voice – I insist.
Insist for us all,
which is the job
of the voice, and especially
of the poet. Else
what am I for, what use
am I if I don’t
There are messages to send.
Gatherings and songs.
Because we need
to insist. Else what are we
for? What use
Tess Gallagher met Raymond Carver in 1977. He was a master of the short story, and inspired her to write three short story collections of her own. For 11 years they were friends, lovers, editors and sounding boards, before his death from lung cancer at age 40. Carver was her third husband.
They had much in common, both writers born in the Pacific Northwest to hard-working families. (see Word Cloud: MAYDEEP for two of Carver’s poems -https://flowersforsocrates.com/2017/05/26/word-cloud-maydeep/ ).
She wrote Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), a collection of sixty poems on loss and grieving, after his death.
That linkage of warnings sent a tremor through June
as if to prepare October in the hardest apples.
One week in late July we held hands
through the bars of his hospital bed. Our sleep
made a canopy over us and it seemed I heard
its durable roaring in the companion sleep
of what must have been our Bedouin god, and now
when the poppy lets go I know it is to lay bare
his thickly seeded black coach
at the pinnacle of dying.
My shaggy ponies heard the shallow snapping of silk
but grazed on down the hillside, their prayer flags
tearing at the void—what we
stared into, its cool flux
of blue and white. How just shaking at flies
they sprinkled the air with the soft unconscious praise
of bells braided into their manes. My life
simplified to “for him” and his thinned like an injection
wearing off so the real gave way to
the more-than-real, each moment’s carmine
abundance, furl of reddest petals
lifted from the stalk and no hint of the black
hussar’s hat at the center. By then his breathing stopped
so gradually I had to brush lips to know
an ending. Tasting then that plush of scarlet
which is the last of warmth, kissless kiss
he would have given. Mine to extend a lover’s right past its radius,
to give and also most needfully, my gallant hussar,
to bend and take.
Now that I am Never Alone
In the bath I look up and see the brown moth
pressed like a pair of unpredictable lips
against the white wall. I heat up
the water, running as much hot in as I can stand.
These handfuls over my shoulder—how once
he pulled my head against his thigh and dipped
a rivulet down my neck of coldest water from the spring
we were drinking from. Beautiful mischief
that stills a moment so I can never look
back. Only now, brightest now, and the water
never hot enough to drive that shiver out.
But I remember solitude—no other
presence and each thing what it was. Not this raw
fluttering I make of you as you have made of me
your watch-fire, your killing light.
Gallagher’s own cancer came in 2002, while she was caring for her mother. At one point, her mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s and congestive heart failure, was at Ridge House along with one of Gallagher’s nieces, who was pregnant.
“I’m thinking, ‘If I don’t beat this cancer, it’s curtains,’ and there’s my mother and then my niece and this child,” Gallagher said. “It helped actually, to focus on other’s needs and not sit around and let it fester.” After four operations and multiple treatments, she did survive.
She was cleaning—there is always
that to do—when she found,
at the top of the closet, his old
silk vest. She called me
to look at it, unrolling it carefully
like something live
might fall out. Then we spread it
on the kitchen table and smoothed
the wrinkles down, making our hands
heavy until its shape against Formica
came back and the little tips
that would have pointed to his pockets
lay flat. The buttons were all there.
I held my arms out and she
looped the wide armholes over
them. “That’s one thing I never
wanted to be,” she said, “a man.”
I went into the bathroom to see
how I looked in the sheen and
sadness. Wind chimes
off-key in the alcove. Then her
crying so I stood back in the sink-light
where the porcelain had been staring. Time
to go to her, I thought, with that
other mind, and stood still.
Words Written Near a Candle
If I could begin anything
I’d say stop asking forgiveness, especially
theirs which was always
the fault mentioned in your condition.
Nettles could be feathers
the moment they brush your
ankle. At the same time: floods, earthquakes,
the various slaveries
hunchbacked near the fence
to catch your glance.
What is it to say that among the hired boats
we carried our bodies well, cracked
jokes, left the gaps
in our lives and not
the page? This far to learn
the boat does not touch the water!
And if this is goodbye,
it is a light nowhere near believing
and I am happy
and it is all right to make a distance
of a nearness, to say, ‘Boat, I have left you
I am with you.’
The Vilela were hunter-gatherers of the Grand Chaco in South America. Their language is now extinct, only its Ocol dialect still struggles to survive. The last Vilela people were absorbed into the surrounding Toba tribe, who are fighting their own battle to maintain their cultural heritage.
The readers of poetry, the writers
of poetry. Nation inside
the nation. That rainbow holding briefly over
the Strait of Juan de Fuca, its violet
inner rim, its guess-work dome
of crimson. My back to the sun for this
to happen at all, the eye extending
its shadow until it sees into
what it doesn’t see. I don’t have to think
of raindrops hanging as light, or to command
the schoolbook corpses of refraction and
internal reflection to be dazzled. The myth
of the Vilela Indians, its rainbow
a gigantic serpent charmed
by a small girl until it sheds her
sway and piecemeal ravages the world, vanquished
at last by an army of birds—that’s good enough
for me. And victory too, each bird
dipping itself in the blood
of the monster.
“the eye extending its shadow until it sees into what it doesn’t see”
A gift Tess Gallagher gives to us in her poetry — and we are dazzled.
- Stepping Outside. Penumbra Press. 1978. (Chapbook)
- Instructions To The Double. Graywolf Press. 1976.
- Under Stars. Graywolf Press. 1978.
- Willingly. Graywolf Press. 1984.
- The Hug. 1984.
- Amplitude. Graywolf Press. 1987.
- Moon Crossing Bridge. Graywolf Press. 1992.
- I Stop Writing the Poem. 1992.
- Portable Kisses. Capra Press. 1992.
- My Black Horse. Bloodaxe. 1995.
- Dear Ghosts. Graywolf Press. 2006.
- Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems. Graywolf Press. 2011
- The Lover of Horses. Harper & Row. 1986.
- At The Owl Woman Saloon. Simon & Schuster [Scribner]. 1999 .
- The Man From Kinvara: Selected Stories. Graywolf Press. 2009.
- A concert of tenses: essays on poetry. University of Michigan Press. 1986.
- Soul Barnacles. University of Michigan Press. 2003.
Biography and Sources
- Academy of American Poets:
- New Yorker magazine:
- Oregon Live:
- Poetry Foundation:
- ‘During the Montenegrin Poetry Reading’ – old town bridge of Kotor, Montenegro
- ‘Under Stars’ – night sky at Flagstaff AZ
- ‘Refusing Silence’ – tree with double rainbow
- ‘Red Poppy’ – red poppy closeup
- ‘Now that I am Never Alone’ – brown triangle moth
- ‘Words Written Near a Candle’ – Great Lakes wooden rowboat
- ‘Redwing’ – red-winged blackbird
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud