Gallagher, Tess

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Nationality: American. Born: Tess Bond, Port Angeles, Washington, 21 July 1943. Education: University of Washington, Seattle, B.A. 1963, M.A. 1970; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1974. Family: Married 1) Lawrence Gallagher in 1963 (divorced 1968); 2) Michael Burkard in 1973 (divorced 1977); 3) the writer Raymond Carver in 1988 (companion 1979–88; died 1988). Career: Instructor, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, 1974–75; assistant professor, Kirkland College, Clinton, New York, 1975–77; visiting lecturer, University of Montana, Missoula, 1977–78; assistant professor, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1978–80; professor of English, Syracuse University, New York, 1980–90. Visiting fellow, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, 1981. Taught inner-city high school and college students, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, 1993. Since 1992 instructor of poetry aboard the Crusader, Seattle Resource Institute Seminars Afloat. Participant, London International Poetry Festival and European Poetry Festival, Sibiu, Romania, 1992. Awards: Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1976; Elliston award, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977, 1981, 1987; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; American Poetry Review award, 1981; Washington State Governor's award 1984, 1986, 1987, 1993; New York State Arts grant, 1988; Maxime Cushing Gray Foundation award, 1990; American Library Association's Most Notable Book List, 1993; Lyndhurst prize, 1993–95. Address: Sky House, 119 Vista Lane, Port Angeles, Washington 98363, U.S.A.



Stepping Outside. Lisbon, Iowa, Penumbra Press, 1974.

Instructions to the Double. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1976.

Under Stars. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1978.

Portable Kisses. Seattle, Sea Pen Press, 1978.

On Your Own. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1978.

Willingly. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1984.

Amplitude: New and Selected Poems. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press. 1987.

Portable Kisses: Love Poems. Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1992.

Moon Crossing Bridge. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1992.

Portable Kisses Expanded. Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1994.

My Black Horse: New & Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.

Recordings: Some with Wings, Some with Manes, Watershed, 1982; Lunch Poems, Tess Gallagher, 10/30/97, University of California, Berkeley, 1997.


Screenplay: The Night Belongs to the Police, 1982; Dostoevsky, with Raymond Carver, Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1985.

Television Play: The Wheel, 1970.

Short Stories

The Lover of Horses and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1986; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989.


A Concert of Tenses: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1986.

At the Owl Woman Saloon. New York, Scribner, 1997.

Editor, A Guide to Forgetting, by Jeffrey Skinner. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1988.


Critical Studies: Reviews by Hayden Carruth in Harper's (New York), April 1979, and Peter Davison, in Atlantic Monthly (New York), May 1979; interview in Ironwood (Tucson), October 1979; by Harold Schweizer, in CEA Critic (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania), 1987; by William Doreski, in Harvard Review (Cambridge, Massachusetts), November 1992; "To Speak Aloud at a Grave" by Jeanne Heuving, in Northwest Review (Eugene, Oregon), 32(1), 1994; Tess Gallagher by Ron McFarland, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1995; "On Disproportion" by Tony Hoagland, in Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Tess Gallagher comments:

When I was a young girl salmon fishing with my father in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington State, I used to lean out over the water and try to look past my own face, past the reflection of the boat, past the sun and the darkness, down to where the fish were surely swimming. I made up charm songs and word hopes to tempt the fish, to cause them to mean biting my hook. I believed they would do it if I asked them well and patiently enough and with the right hope. I am writing my poems like this. I have used the fabric and the people of my life as the bait. More and more I have learned how to speak for the others, the ones who do not speak in poetry, though their lives are of it. What do I write about? The murder of my uncle by thieves in the night, the psychic death of my husband in the Vietnam War, walking through Belfast in 1976, a horse with snow on its back circling a house where the dancers have fallen to the floor by daybreak. I have wanted the words to go deep. I have wanted music and passion and human tenderness in the poems. Intelligence and loss. Only in the language I have made for myself in the poems am I in touch with all the past, present, and future moments of my consciousness. The poem is the moment of all possibilities, where I try to speak in a concert of tenses. I do not want to disappear into the present tense, the awful now. I want to survive it and take others with me. I am more concerned about the kind of writing that allows "with" than I was in the beginning. Not just "to" or "for" or "at." The Irish have no word for "mine" or for "wife," only "he or she who goes along with me." My poetry. I cannot say that. Only "that which goes along with me."

(1990) I am presently feeling American poetry suffers from too much light and am concentrating on a certain density that allows mystery without making the poem too obscure. For instruction I am thinking a lot about Emily Dickinson and John Donne and Lorca, learning ghost songs from the Irish, oriental folktales, reading books about our relationship through history to horses (a preoccupation), pursuing friendships with "pattern painters" in Seattle, and living more consistently near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where I was born at Port Angeles, Washington.

(1995) In Moon Crossing Bridge I attempted to create a psychic and emotional space in language that had not perhaps existed formerly toward the subject of mourning and grief in American heterosexual love poetry. In Roland Barthes's terms, which indicate that while pleasure may be spoken bliss may not, I have been engaged in writing the "untenable text" that occurs in the silent space between what is actually said. The density of language and image have hopefully extended areas of thought and feeling, partly through transgressional means of taking on subject matter formerly forbidden, as in poems such as "Red Poppy," "Wake," and "I Don't Know You," among others, poems that attempt to renegotiate temporal and spiritual dimensions. I consider MCB my best book to date, although several of the poems in Portable Kisses (1992, Capra Press) could actually stand within MCB, such as "Black Violets," "Anatomy of a Kiss," "Black Pearl," "White Kiss," and "Like the Sigh of Women's Hair." Portable Kisses Expanded (1994, Capra) continues the lyrical assuagement, postmourning, that I began in the 1992 edition, developing wit and irony in the persona of the "Kiss." My present poetic involvement, besides poems for my next volume, involves the translation of the Romanian poet Liliana Ursu's book The Sky behind the Forest, translated with Adam Sorkin and the author. From 1991 to 1993 I worked on the film Short Cuts with Robert Altman, using nine stories by my late husband, Raymond Carver. I have now entered a period of concentration on the short story during the very welcome Lyndhurst grant that has allowed me time to return to this form I rediscovered during my time with Raymond Carver. I am writing toward the proverb "If you contemplate revenge, dig two graves." I hope to complete the volume by 1996 before I return to my teaching, this time at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

*  *  *

Born in the Pacific Northwest, the oldest of five children of a logger turned longshoreman, Tess Gallagher was a member of the last class taught by Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington and was also a student there of David Wagoner. This is not to say that her work bears much resemblance to theirs beyond great vitality and an obsessive desire to make words count.

Instructions to the Double is full of doubles of two sorts: people with whom the speaker closely identifies—father, mother, uncle, husband—and likenesses—reflections in a mirror, water or eyes, resemblances, shadows, ghosts, photographs. Whichever the kind, the poems that disappoint are those whose subjects remain generalized, such as "When You Speak to Me," "The Perfect Sky," and "Instructions to the Double." The most successful are concrete, rooted in intimate and intimately felt family experience: "Two Stories," about an uncle murdered by thieves, "Coming Home," "The Woman Who Raised Goats," "Black Money," and "Time Lapse with Tulips." This last is one of Gallagher's best; it brilliantly considers and rejects illusion and fixes on reality. The wedding photograph that is the occasion for the poem is illusory in at least two senses: a photographic image is an illusion, and the particular image "preserves / a symmetry of doubt with us / at the center." The poem has its own symmetry of statement. The first stanza retrospectively denies the impact of a marital kiss and the prospects of living in connubial bliss into old age. The second stanza denies the assumption that tulips will be accepted by the bride, while the third voices the uncertainties of the wedding guests, the "symmetry of doubt." The turn suggested in stanza two ("But they are wrong") is declared at the beginning of stanza four: "Whatever the picture says, it is wrong." The real picture is something more certain. Instead of what the photograph portrayed—passion suppressed—is passion ready to be released, passion comprehending love and death:

   Inside, the rare bone of my hand and that harp
   seen through a window suddenly so tempting
   you must rush into that closed room, you must
   tear your fingers across it.

Symmetry and harmony are about to be achieved.

After Instructions to the Double, Under Stars is a letdown. The first half of the book, "The Ireland Poems," derives from Gallagher's travels in Ireland in 1976. A traveler's impressions, even those of a sensitive poet with ethnic affinities for the land visited, almost inevitably disappoint. After reading Seamus Heaney, say, with his profoundly apprehended vision of the Irelands, one is tempted to characterize Gallagher's poems, especially "Disappearances in the Guarded Sector" and "The Ballad of Ballymote," with their eternal notes of sadness, as simply more news from that unhappy land. The second half of the book, "Start Again Somewhere," is not so much a second start as a return to subjects explored in Instructions to the Double, as in "My Mother Remembers That She Was Beautiful." Yet even these less successful poems indicate that Gallagher has a strong voice—passionate, elegant, passionate, painstaking.

Willingly, the next major book after Under Stars, is much better. Dedicated to Raymond Carver, with whom she lived from 1979 and whom she married six weeks before his death in 1988 from cancer, it is full of the passion of a highly successful love affair between artists. In the several poems to Carver, various in their subject matter, we get a clear picture of an admirable man, as in "I Save Your Coat, But You Lose It Later," "Skylights," "The Hug," and "Each Bird Walking." Other poems are to Gallagher's father—"Boat Ride," "Accomplishment," and "Candle, Lamp, Firefly." There are also four fine poems to horses—"From Dread in the Eyes of Horses," "Death of the Horses by Fire," "The Cloudy Shoulders of the Horses," and "Legacy." They capture the mysteriousness of that noble beast, so much desired by her maternal Cherokee grandfather, who wanted more horses, as Gallagher tells us in "If Poetry Were Not a Morality," the first of the new poems in Amplitude. "Bonfire," another new poem from Amplitude, is about Carver and ends with the doctor's news, which "flushed us through with dread." When the dying Carver is thrown into her arms, the poet is reminded of a violin:

   It wasn't for music
       you came to me, but
           for daring—mine and yours.
   When they have to, they will write in the Book
     of Welcome:
                        Two darings, two darlings.

The last two words may seem at first reading merely cutesy, but on later readings they seem daring.

The title Amplitude is either a bit presumptuous (The American Heritage Dictionary defines "amplitude" as (1) "greatness of size; magnitude;" (2) "fullness; copiousness;" and (3) "breadth of range, as of intelligence") or ironical. The book is indeed copious and varied, but it is not great of size or magnitude.

Gallagher's relationship with Carver again foregrounds her collection Moon Crossing Bridge, which she dedicates to her late husband. Some of the poems in the book move primarily on the strength and depth of the subject behind them instead of on what shows through. When she addresses the ambiguities and paradoxes of the survivor's life, her poems find success. "My love's early death has scraped away my future," and yet life persists, even as it becomes a "chaotic laboratory of broken approaches." Some of the poems work by bringing the power of remembering and the peril of grief into the study of ordinary moments and objects: "Some griefs are sent / only to haunt." One of the collection's most powerful poems is "Wake," which claims, "We were dead / a little while together then, serene / and afloat on the strange broad canopy / of the abandoned world."

Twenty-three new poems, plus the entire contents of Moon Crossing Bridge, are included in My Black Horse: New & Selected Poems. Dedicated to her mother and Carver, the volume is introduced by an essay of the poet's, titled "My Father's Love Letters," in which she accounts for her parents, her childhood, and the possible origins of her life as a writer. She cites Louise Bogan as an example of her idea "that important time junctures of past with present events via memory, with actual presences, are always inviting new meanings, revisions of old meanings, and speculation about things still in the future."

In this spirit the poems in the collection confirm Gallagher's growing interest in attaining metaphors for the most complex and immutable thoughts. The later poems in the collection illustrate the difficulty of this endeavor; in trying to speak of the unspeakable, expression can lose its potency and intelligibility.

Gallagher's true strength is storytelling, and the best poems in My Black Horse demonstrate this strength. A fishing boat on a lake serves as the setting of "Boat Ride," a lengthy tribute (some two hundred lines long) to both the poet's father and "good memory, if you are such a boat." "Black Silk," a poem that exposes a daughter's apathy toward her mother after her father's death, is one of the collection's best and works off of one of Gallagher's enduring traits, that of finding simplicity and truth amidst the archetypal.

—James K. Robinson and

Martha Sutro