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Tess Gallagher is noted for verse considered both philosophically and emotionally profound. While the publication of her early poems coincided with the emergence of a new feminist literature in the United States, Gallagher’s poems transcend gender in their exploration of what it means to be human, inviting readers to observe the dynamics of human experience. In addition to illuminating relations between family members, Gallagher’s lyrics explore the contrasts between childhood and adulthood, along with dreams and reality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Finding Poetry in Childhood
The oldest of five children, Gallagher was born on July 21, 1943, in Port Angeles, Washington, into a family of timber loggers. As a child, she helped her father—a hard-working, hard-drinking man—with logging and later did farm work on the small ranch her family owned, and she spent her free time playing among the giant trees in the Olympic forest. As a result, references to the natural beauty of Washington State and to childhood memories, such as salmon fishing with her father, appear consistently throughout her poetry. According to Gallagher, the highlight of her adolescence was receiving a horse from her uncle. Naming the filly Angel Foot, Gallagher felt as if she had found a kindred spirit. Unsurprisingly, richly symbolic horses abound in Gallagher’s writings, figures embodying a harmony of intellect and instinct, gentleness and strength.
Writing with Roethke
At the age of sixteen, Gallagher began working as a reporter for the Port Angeles Daily News. With plans to become a journalist, she entered the University of Washington after graduating from high school. Finding journalism classes dull compared to actual newspaper work, Gallagher enrolled in a creative writing class taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke in 1963. Her first poems for Roethke’s class concern her father and explore her origins. Although she knew she had found her calling, Gallagher neither completed her bachelor’s degree nor pursued writing for several years because of a series of personal upheavals during the 1960s. Following Roethke’s death in August 1963, Gallagher’s fifteen-year-old brother was killed in an auto accident, and in 1964, she married Lawrence Gallagher, who soon joined the U.S. Marine Corps. When her husband left on a tour in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, Gallagher stayed home and earned a BA in English from the University of Washington in 1967.
From Iowa to Ireland
After her marriage ended in 1968, Gallagher entered graduate school at the University of Washington, studying under Mark Strand, who would later become an American poet laureate. Gallagher completed her MA in 1971. The next year, she did advanced work in poetry, cinema theory, and moviemaking as a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met poet Michael Burkard, whom she married in 1973. Gallagher’s first book, the poetry chapbook Stepping Outside, was published in 1974, the same year she received her MFA degree from the University of Iowa. Gallagher and Burkard shared teaching posts during the mid-1970s until marital tensions prompted her travel to Ireland. Living there near the Ballindoon graveyard, Gallagher wrote poems in which she sought to reconcile conflicting forces in her life and art: loyalty and independence, domesticity and restlessness, narrative lucidity and lyric intensity. In 1977, she returned to the United States, and she and Burkard were divorced that summer.
Love and Collaboration
In November 1977, Gallagher met Raymond Carver, a short-story writer who became her collaborator, critic, and soul mate. While Instructions to the Double (1976) and Under Stars (1978) had won Gallagher recognition as a promising young poet, Carver held equal stature in short fiction, thanks to his debut collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976). During the 1980s, even as each writer gained stature in his and her primary genre, the two helped reshape each other’s art. Gallagher, for example, published The Lover of Horses (1986), a collection of short stories based on themes well established in her poetry: the unruly interplay of self and family, individual and community, male and female, word and deed.
Finding Life in Death
Gallagher’s collaboration with Carver was cut short when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The couple married in June 1988, two months before Carver died at the age of fifty. During Carver’s illness, Gallagher encouraged him to write, and the result was A New Path to the Waterfall (1989), a collection of poems that bears Carver’s name but is clearly a joint work. Consumed with memorializing Carver, Gallagher spent several years ensuring that his remaining works were published, that his books were translated into other languages, that documentaries about him were filmed, and that friends committed their memories of him to paper. Gallagher’s deep mourning permeates her next book of poetry, Moon Crossing Bridge (1992). In the poems of this collection, Gallagher accompanies the spirit of a loved one into death and then returns to life. In the closing poems, she finds that, far from reducing her capacity to love, her husband’s death has taught her to love without reservation and fear.
Artistically, culturally, and spiritually, Gallagher’s horizons continue to expand. Teaching appointments and fellowships have taken her from Whitman College in Washington to Japan. Collaborating with author Hiromi Hashimoto, Gallagher has translated her own short stories into Japanese. With Liliana Ursu and Adam Sorkin, she has worked on translating Ursu’s poems from Romanian to English. In 2007, Gallagher and Josie Gray, an Irish painter and storyteller, published Barnacle Soup: And Other Stories from the West of Ireland.
Works in Literary Context
Living with an alcoholic father, studying under Theodore Roethke, traveling alone in Ireland—Gallagher’s writing has always been influenced by events and people in her life. Without a doubt, Gallagher’s life and art were most profoundly inspired by her relationship with Raymond Carver. However, scholars also recognize the importance of her place in the emergence of a new kind of feminist literature. In an interview with Daniel Bourne, Gallagher says, ”I began in that generation of women writers who stepped forth out of the feminist revolution. That was very, very, formative. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were extremely important … to the forming of my mind.” Indeed, much like the works of Sexton and Plath, the central subject of most of Gallagher’s books is selfhood, a female writer’s quest for personal and artistic independence. To achieve it, she must cast off the stereotypes—siren, servant, victim— forced on her by a patriarchal culture, or a society in which primarily men hold positions of power. By the end of her odyssey, she has found the antidote to insecurity: self-discovery and, ultimately, self-reliance.
Popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by writers including Anne Sexton and John Berry-man, confessional poetry delves into subject matter that had never before been openly discussed in American poetry. Speaking in the first person, confessional poetry often shocks readers as it addresses such private experiences as trauma, depression, death, and relationships, usually from an autobiographical perspective. Much of Gallagher’s verse, especially her earlier works, belongs to the genre of confessional poetry.
Two notable poems from Instructions to the Double derived from the confessional school include ”Breasts” and ”Black Money.” Using her breasts as a vehicle for self-reflection in the former poem, Gallagher recounts her discovery of womanhood, her disillusionment with that role, and, finally, her acceptance of herself as a woman. As Gallagher moves from the physical to the emotional in ”Black Money” she draws on her childhood in Washington to investigate the complex relationship between father and daughter. Autobiographical in presentation, both ”Breasts” and ”Black Money” explore memories from childhood to early adulthood that mark crucial moments of transition in Gallagher’s development.
Works in Critical Context
While some reviewers have found her persona inappropriately intrusive in pieces ostensibly about others, most have praised Gallagher’s sensitive and insightful exploration of personal issues and familial relationships. Recognizing Gallagher’s gift for disguising universal truths without negating their impact, Jim Elledge writes:
—– On the surface, Tess Gallagher’s poems seem little more than observations on ordinary events which she has witnessed or, more often, in which she has participated. … However, an intense emotional conflict lies submerged beneath the calm images and metaphors . . . which raises otherwise mundane subjects to art of a high caliber. Critics have particularly commended the rhythmic qualities of Gallagher’s verse, observing that her use of colloquial cadences lends her poems the natural flow of conversation. Writer Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, has observed that ”it is impossible to read Tess Gallagher’s poems without being drawn into their mesmerizing rhythms and convinced of the rightness of her intense yet unforced images.”
Moon Crossing Bridge
In 1997, Gallagher published Moon Crossing Bridge, a series of sixty poems centering on the theme of loss and grieving prompted by the death of her husband in 1988. Scholar Marilyn Kallet praises Moon Crossing Bridge as ”a rare document of loss, faith, and returns—return to the site of loving and to the gradual last breath, return to life’s immediate summonings.” In regard to the obvious difficulty of undertaking such painful personal material, critic Margaret Holley determines: ”The elegiac danger of self-indulgence is routed here by a poetic spirit that is genuine, generous, good-humored, open, and uncommonly sure and mysterious in its touch.” Impressed by Gallagher’s raw honesty in her poems, Judith Kitchen writes, ”Whatever such material may ultimately mean to her private life, it has left her a more powerful, confident, and convincing poet.”
Other critics, however, find several of the poems in Moon Crossing Bridge to be overly sentimental. Academic Mark Jarman, for example, eschews those poems in the collection that have a tendency toward excessive emotion.
”Gallagher has always been best in the short, spare, basically narrative lyric,” he writes, ”and that is how she is best in this book of grief.” Suzanne Shane agrees, declaring, ”The reader becomes aware of the poet’s discrepancies in translating her emotional fabric into language: pieces of many poems blur into vagueness and problematic ambiguities, approaching sense and implying contingencies that fall away.” What moves many readers of Moon Crossing Bridge—sentiment—is what others consider the volume’s weakness.
- Gallagher, Tess. Instructions to the Double. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1975.
- Bourne, Daniel. ”A Conversation with Tess Gallagher.” Artful Dodge 38/39 (Spring 2001): 4-21.
- Elledge, Jim. “Willingly by Tess Gallagher.” Poetry Magazine 146 (August 1985): 293.
- Henry, Patrick. Introduction: Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher.” Philosophy and Literature 22 (October 1998): 413-416.
- Holley, Margaret. ”Myth in Our Midst: the Multiple Worlds of the Lyric.” Michigan Quarterly Review vol. XXXII, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 150-164.
- Jarman, Mark. Journals of the Soul: Tess Gallagher’s Moon Bridge Crossing.” The Hudson Review vol. XLVI, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 415.
- Kallet, Marilyn. ”The Real Work of Grieving—Tess Gallagher’s Poetry.” American Book Review (August 1993): 18.
- Karp, Vicki. Two Poets: Several Worlds Apart.” Parnassus 12/13 (1985): 415-421.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. The Authority of Timelessness: ‘Under the Stars.”’ The Ontario Review 12 (Spring, Summer 1980): 103-104.
- Shane, Suzanne. Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge.” Western American Literature vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 86.
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