A Dangerous Mission: Tess Gallagher
by Gary Lehmann
It's a dangerous mission. You/could die out there. You /could go on forever.—Tess Gallagher from "Instructions to the Double"
The act of writing poetry on a regular basis has some very profound outcomes
that the writer does not always realize at the beginning of the adventure.
A good poem tells a small truthful thing about the world the poet inhabits.
A talented, persistent poet writes many such poems and tells many tiny
truthful secrets about his or her inner existence. Taken in the main, this
process finally develops a poetic voice. Although the poet may write on all
kinds of topics and cover any number of poetic techniques, eventually, one
central theme or subject matter emerges that dominates that poet's presence
in the poetic world. It becomes that poet's public persona.
We see this pattern over and over. Robert Frost was not all walks in the
woods. He wrote love poems and sad poems. He wrote all sorts of poems, but
what we remember of him are poems that seem to have been written while
walking in the woods.
Mark Doty wrote all sorts of poems and probably thought he had a developed
settled persona when his male lover died of AIDS in 1995. Ever since then,
he has become the voice of the AIDS crisis in poetry. It will become his
Tess Gallagher wrote thousands of poems over her lifetime, but the core, the
heartland of those poems come back to that moment in 1988 when her third
husband, the short story writer Raymond Carver, died. Her best books are
books of poems about his death and her grief thereafter (Moon Crossing
Bridge ). She has occupied much of her time since then editing and
seeing through publication Carver's works. Even while she may have had an
entirely different life in mind for herself when she was twenty, her poetic
destiny has guided and directed what people will remember of her forever.
It is a strange thing that happens to poets who are talented, published,
public, and persistent. Out of that tiny habit of telling the truth in verse
day after day emerges a central image as poet that takes over, becomes the
"you" the public sees. It is your poetic destiny, your voice in poetry,
your core being emerging into public view.
Tess Gallagher has a life aside from her two-year marriage to Raymond
Carver. She was born in 1943 in Port Angeles, Washington. She received a
BA and an MA from the University of Washington. She studied creative
writing under Theodore Roethke. Interestingly, Roethke wrote for a whole
long life but is really only remembered for the poems he wrote about the
years between 1920 to 1925, when he lived with is father and mother in
Saginaw, Michigan, operating a family greenhouse. Gallagher went on to get
an MFA from the University of Iowa, to teach at a dozen well-known colleges,
and to receive many grants and honors, but all these things pale into
insignificance against the tidal wave that overtook her when she met and
married Raymond Carver.
Her book Willingly (1984) consists of poems written to and about Carver.
Carver included Gallagher as the "good woman" in his short story "Gravy"
published in The New Yorker the year after his death. They even
collaborated on two screenplays, "Purple Lake" and "Dostoevsky."
Tess Gallagher has written many books on other topics, but her relationship
with Raymond Carver has really come to define her career. In Moon Crossing
Bridge (1992), she poured her heart into a book of poems that itemize in
great detail the stations of her grief after his untimely loss.
Since his death, Gallagher has acted as his literary executor. She has
written introductions to three books of his poetry and seen them through to
posthumous publication. (Call if you Need Me , A New Path to the
Waterfall , and All of Us .) She collaborated with the film
director Robert Altman to produce a film based on nine of Carver's short
stories ("Short Cuts" ). She has become as much the architect of
Carver's image as Donald Hall is in control of Jane Kenyon's future in print
or John Cheever's future is in the control of his daughter, Susan. Tess
Gallagher has even written a book of essays on the topic of her relationship
with her lover, Soul Barnacles: On the Literature of a Relationship: Tess
Gallagher and Raymond Carver (2003). The book Cathedrals (2002) shows both
of them on the cover and includes a history of a single encounter and the
two short stories that resulted, one from each.
In 1997, The Atlantic Monthly interviewed Tess Gallagher. It was 9 years
after Carver's death. She could have spoken about any time in her life.
Many women would have moved on to other matters, but for Tess, the time that
comes to her lips most easily is the time she spent with Raymond Carver.
The Atlantic interview illustrates the electric pull that Carver has on her
consciousness. The interviewer asks a question to set her up.
In your essay, 'The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief,' you contend that poems are
'the best and oldest forms we have for attending and absolving grief.' Your
Moon Crossing Bridge—a book of poetry written in the wake of the death
of your husband—puts stock in this belief. When writing this book did you
experience your grief as images and words, or as something even more
abstract that you then struggled to pin down with language?"
"'The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief' was written in 1984, eight years before
Moon Crossing Bridge, and although I didn't know it at the time, much of
what I was writing in that essay was preparatory to those poems. At this
point, I don't think the word 'absolving' grief is what my work is about in
Moon Crossing Bridge. That book was written partly in order to sustain the
grieving process long enough for me to absorb the loss. I think the word
'attending' is more true to what I was doing. I was noticing all the
different inflections in the process of grieving and how lively and varied
that experience is, how it quickens everything around you. In the epigraph I
say that I'm going to carry the grief, and you have to get hold of an
amorphous entity before you can carry it. I would say the book is about
discovering a form you can use to move with the experience on its terms,
instead of merely constructing a container.
I don't think I was looking to pin anything down with my language. In fact I
didn't have language at all as I'd once known it; what I had at first was
silence. I was certainly unseated by this void. Those poems were just
waiting for language as it would come. I had to stay open and leave time and
try to be receptive. I was reforming my way of being in language, or it was
Can you feel its pull? There is a sort of tractor beam that draws her
attention and her commentary into a line. While she is exploring all
aspects of her life, there is at the same time a kind of central focus that
is carving out of a mound of words a monumental image of which she is
probably only partially aware. Invisible forces are drawing her to these
conclusions, these topics, these answers, and this process happens to all
poets who chose to tell the truth in print for any length of time.
"She Who Is Untouched by Fire" is a story in my new collection that has also
affected space and time. The action of the prose—a woman having what
amounts to an out-of-body experience—is wave-like. Certain elements keep
repeating only to come back slightly changed, which becomes more and more
absorbing, until you are really inside her experience and have been lifted
out of yourself in the same way that the most wonderful poems can lift you,
almost physically, leaving you to hover above the earth. If I've told it
right, by the end of that story you feel you're in an afterlife that is also
life; it makes a flesh-and-blood ghost of you. Still, I don't know if I'm as
inventive with tense in fiction as I might yet become."
In another interview, she said in answer to a question by Daniel Bourne,
"I think it was preparatory to my book, Moon Crossing Bridge, actually. I'm
not sure exactly when that poem was written, whether my father had died at
that point or not. But we're mortal, our death is inevitable. We're always
going to have our nose to that window. Later, I went very, very deeply into
the disappearance of my companion and love, Raymond Carver, in Moon Crossing
Bridge. And in doing so, of course, you go into your own death space, too."
There is something in our protoplasm that lines things up for us and makes
sense out of the chaos of existence. It defines and refines certain central
themes which we cannot release by any conscious act. Carl Jung said that
the issues that remain unresolved in our lives return over and over
demanding reinvestigation. As poets, who write down little moments of truth
everyday, we are more susceptible to these invisible magnetic forces. We
tend to emerge with more self-definition after a lifetime of
self-examination. There's no way around it.
Previous Home Next