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Review: Circus-Apprentice, by Katherine Gallagher

Circus-Apprentice is perhaps at its best when responding to, or writing in terms of, light. She seems to me best as a poet of surfaces (which is not the same as being superficial) - but what surfaces they are, dazzling and radiant, seen with a painter's eye and articulated in language full of passion and painterly texture:

I am in love with its brazenness:
Ferocity that opens up the sun...
...
hedge-fire, this harvest I revel in, where gold
is traversed by sun and the thicket locks me into birdsong.
...
I have been waiting for this special rain:
its sudden flux, lemon butter madness,
the flare of it showering over full stems.

Gold in the hand, mesmeric glints
to shelter in: a saffron-walled room en plein air
an alfresco walk through known treasure.


from Hedge

Even if surfaces are Gallagher's best starting point, there's nothing superficial- as suggested above- about the way she explores their implications. This is particularly true of the sequence of eleven poems 'After Kandinsky' which closes the volume. The work of Kandinsky - the painter who said in his Reminiscences that he sought in spite of its apparent impossibility to capture on the canvas a 'colour chorus' (as I called it) which, bursting out of nature, forced itself into my very soul - proves an ideal jumping-off point for Gallagher. The poems are meditations on the specific paintings, all from the 1920s (it is worth looking them up and having them to hand when reading Gallagher's poems) which lead the poet into fascinating territories, mental landscapes as much hersas Kandinsky's, in which small and large, united by shape and colour, coexist. Here, for example, is 'Blue Painting (1924)':

Let the eye investigate blue
and all the arrows focus gravity.

Across the spectrum - cerulean,
Prussian, cobalt -

a patchwork of hues
quits galaxies.

Remember Earth,
the Blue Planet,

how it takes you into backdrops
for a rose, a hyacinth,

the single flowers
multiplies under a clean sky.

This is Katherine Gallagher's fourth full-length collection. If you aren't yet acquainted with her work, this would be a good place to start.