Saturday, April 25, 2020

is, is not

"Instead of 'Come in' she says 'Not now.'" Like Stephen Dunn's Pagan Virtues, Tess Gallagher's Is, Is Not is a rigorous read. The poems could be described as opaque, but there's a challenge more in the use of language and the physics of situation. Association and sentences sometimes move past what I felt would normally be a comfortable, familiar stopping point. The book itself is quite a lengthy tome too. I literally felt the language trying to push itself, twist itself. Perhaps the whole "is, is not," the "two doors," is the paradox that lies within many of the poems: "sad-happy"; "live step, dead step" (with each step forward, we get a little closer to death; "steps" also lead to "mystery ... How else let difference tell you / what you are?"). The poems are often having direct conversations with others, friends, or even illustrating a conversation with something itself, like "Breath": "... breathe it / open to the glass world. It / breathes back / to prove neither it / nor you can end / this exchange of breath / for worlds." There are moments in the poems of the unending--of an almost obsessive circularity: "I come. I go. You stay. You keep on / staying. I come again. You are here." Or in the description of "March Moon": "How unsatisfying half is / even when heading / full..." Admittedly, I was doubting myself if this was at least somewhat the intended effect until I reached Gallagher's "Afterword" which, like Kimiko Hahn's essay in Foreign Bodies, gives a fascinating look into craft: "The kind of poetry that seeks a language beyond the very one in which it arrives may travel from edge to edge... I find myself trying to out-leap what I can almost say... I seem to be writing in some sense beyond language." And later "[my poems] challenge dualities which tend to blot out a range of possibilities." So yes, there is something more than just simple paradox, the simple two doors, and the simple "is, is not." Gallagher's lyricism attempts to stretch beyond.

-Jeffery Berg

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