Joy Is More Horses Than We Need

Review of Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems, by Tess Gallagher

By L. S. Bassen

Midnight Lantern:
New and Selected Poems
by Tess Gallagher
Graywolf Press, 2011ISBN: 978-1555975975 

Inside a black hole, time and space change places, and that’s how I like to read books, backwards. It’s a good way to approach Tess Gallagher’s new retrospective collection MIDNIGHT LANTERN New & Selected Poems because the most recent poems are at the end under the title Signature. The eponymous poem is a useful first-last step (310):

The father and children walking where
they would always walk in the mind
of the father’s remembering, more perfect now
than life could make it, illuminated by loss,
yet more gift than loss.


You can find in these few lines Gallagher’s poetic DNA: family, mind, memory, and paradox-juggling optimism. Their dramas are personal rather than public, lyric rather than epic, neither urban nor ironic. In 1987, she quoted Jean Cocteau (“It is likely I would not have dedicated myself to poetry in this world which remains insensitive to it, if poetry were not a morality”) and concluded (88) with a manifesto:

I have to go through the world
like an overwrought
magnet, like the greedy braille of so many
about-to-be-lost memories.
… there being no answer except
not to be dead to each other…
…And even some of our soon-to-be deadness
catches up to us
as joy, as more horses than we need.


Comparing 1987’s poems with those from 2006, the older poet speaks of herself as:

 …the schoolgirl at the back of the class
who can’t help raising her hand toward the ceiling
even when she can’t answer
the question, lifting herself
by desire alone.


Did Gallagher obey the instructions she’d given herself back in 1976, in the title poem from Instructions to the Double (4-5)?

Don’t stop for anything, not
a caress or a promise. Go
to the temple of the poets
… the one on fire
with so much it wants
to be done with. Say all the last words
and the first…:
If anyone from the country club
asks you to write poems, say
your name is Lizzie Borden.


Well, a lot happened since the memory of her young mind in Breasts (7) when “The day came/ this world got its hold on me –” and her brothers could hold her down by a cotton shirt.  By 1992’s MOON CROSSING BRIDGE, mourning began: her husband, famed short story writer Raymond Carver, died at 50 in 1988. Now, praise comes easily for this recognized poet.  But how will Tess Gallagher’s voice sound after Ray Kurzweil’s predicted Singularity when humans look like Model-T primates? It grieves me that the bridge she invokes isn’t one between C.P. Snow’s TWO CULTURES.  Perspective and introspection are plentiful in this fine retrospective collection, but Gallagher doesn’t fully see now. She speculates profoundly and eloquently, as if from any century — but our own. In the glare of a century of life/global-altering knowledge, MIDNIGHT LANTERN is more a lantern at noon. This is both its luster… and lack.


Published in Cider Press Review, 2013.

In 2009, L. S. Bassen was the winner of the Atlantic Pacific Press Drama Prize. She has won a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and over two decades has been published (poetry/fiction) in many lit magazines and zines. Recently moved from NYC to RI. She is a prizewinning, produced, and published playwright, and commissioned co-author of a WWII memoir by the Scottish bride of Baron Kawasaki.

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