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Review: Circus-Apprentice, by Katherine Gallagher

Last Sunday I carted an awkward tray of potted ranunculi and a hairy fern across London by bus. My surreal view of the moving urban landscape through the stems and flowers - as if a mini-garden were flying along the streets - put me in mind of the other leaves I have been carting around London in my bag over the last month: Katherine Gallagher's Circus-Apprentice. I've also been reading it as I travelled to and from work by bus, watching the street spectacle over the pages of poetry. Poems in the collection have consistently brought my attention to the natural environments oftentimes overlooked as you move through the city - the trees, squares and gardens - where a wholly different experience of city-time goes on under our noses every moment of the day.

The poem I was thinking of now, through the petals, was 'The Year of the Tree', where Gallagher recounts a similar experience, carrying 'a tree / through the Underground'. While equally sensitive to the absurdity of her task, the poet also sees its potential for revelation.

I imagined everyone on the planet

taking turns
to carry a tree as a daily rite.

A few people asked
Why a tree?

I said it was for my own
edification -

a tree always
has something to teach.

In Circus-Apprentice poems about plants and animals afford a profound consideration of our relationships with non-human living things, their potential for offering 'edification', intellectual and spiritual learning, but also edification about our social and political obligations beyond even the more obvious need to increase our awareness of the harm we do the environment in everyday living.

Gallagher's first epigraph, by Basho, is telling here: Go to the pine, to learn from the pine. Her second epigraph, by Lao Tzu, From wonder to wonder, Existence opens speaks to me of the relationship between Gallagher's art and the insights gained through the contemplation of plants. If she is taking the tree through the Underground to my garden, / the start of a forest, she is also making leaves of another sort. If these offer the reader edification, they are literally made of Gallagher's source material. The reader is drawn into a relationship with nature that carries responsibilities: if we are to exploit trees in the practice of our art, we are obliged to draw wonder into wonder, to read thoughtfully, allow existence to open in the process. That is something of a challenge: I have no doubt I do more junk reading than I discard junk mail. But this is only one - more serious - insinuation of the reader in Gallagher's collection. The reader in the poem Circus-Apprentice is addressed by the poet as my gravity's other edge, the hard surface on which she will fall from the tight-rope - she is taking stylish risks because that is what people want - but joy, too, is the outer edge of gravity, and she is seeking her own thrills in courting our attention. Reading poetry here is a sensual double-act, and if this is the poem that names the volume, it is a characterisation of the writer-reader relationship that holds throughout the most 'environmental' and the most personal and elegiac poems in the collection.

In late October 2006 I attended the launch of Circus-Apprentice at Trinity United Reform Church, Camden. London has been Gallagher's home town for nearly thirty years: before London she lived in Paris, Melbourne, Eastville, and Bendigo, with many travels in between. The poetry in this collection, as ever, is cosmopolitan - referencing Australian, Alpine, Mediterranean, English, Asian, and African landscapes, engaging with European art, mulling over the experience of global war - but Australian-ness is recurrently reflected upon in Circus-Apprentice from the perspective of a global 'hybrid', the Australian writer in London.

That night Gallagher took centre-stage in a noble history of those who have forged a poetic space between national literatures, shaped through engagement with the remembered landscapes of Australia yet written into the contemporary 'landscape' of non-Australian, in this case British, reading. Gallagher's environmental poetry in this collection seldom addresses Australian landscapes directly, but she brings to her engagement with all terrain the 'knotted roots' of her childhood spent in places like 'Laanecoorie on the Loddon, with its long Aboriginal name'. Indeed in Circus-Apprentice Australian landscapes are also landscapes of childhood and of the fraught and violent Anglo-Celtic engagement with Aboriginal country. If the pantoum of 'Laanecoorie' carries away the childhood play-site's 'long Aboriginal name' after the first line, it also restores it in the final stanza, suggesting if it foundered it returned, if it has been transformed it remains the same, making a shocking history of its suppression and its fierce confrontation of the personal past through the political present, a ('knotted') condition of all who speak of 'roots' into the land. The country takes its piece of Gallagher - the 'Talisman' of a resented boot, washed away by a flooding creek - but in turn it is itself 'swallowed', sitting 'quietly' but not peacefully 'inside' the poet.

Walking on country conceived in this way is not easy: there is in this collection a preoccupation with feet, the reliable but weary feet of the Itinerant, Gallagher's father's feet, held with the weight of the days to the boards on which he is dancing, the askew toe of Footwork, the wasting feet of The Invalid. Feet are the body's knotted roots into Gallagher's landscapes, making us see anew their shape and their sacred purpose, highlighting a gnarled process of their growing into country, it is this that constitutes the Australian quality of Gallagher's encounter with foreign lands: the non-Indigenous Australian, fundamentally itinerant in home country and abroad, walks, looks, writes, reads with no sense of uncontested, rightful ownership, obliged to negotiate increasingly complex obstacles in her travels across land and into maturity. The opposite, then, of relaxed and comfortable, Gallagher's Antipodean poetic is an awkward tread.

One of the pleasures of being an academic reader of poetry is the opportunities it affords to meet and work with 'real' poets. I have known Gallagher since moving to London and admired not only her work, but all the work she puts into supporting poetry generally and other poets specifically in Britain and Australia. In November 2005 my partner, Kwesi Edman, set to music the sequence of poems that forms the final section of Circus-Apprentice, 'After Kandinsky'. (These have also been published separately in a beautiful limited-edition pamphlet by Australia's Vagabond Press.) Ekphrasis is a risky business: I have heard other readings of poetry about paintings where all I wanted was the poet to get out of the way of my view of the canvas. Here Gallagher's poetry works outwards from rather than in the way of the paintings, sometimes describing aspects of Kandinsky's abstractions but mostly using the paintings to pursue the writer's relationship to colour in a similar way to how her more familiar poems contemplate the processes whereby nature, everyday tasks, or memories can become poetics. Edman's music - moody, variously dissonant and lyrical - added its own dram to the sequence when read aloud, underscoring how ideally the wonder of viewing, listening, and reading opens into the wonder of further creativity.

There was an excellent turn out of Londoners and others for the launch of Circus-Apprentice, and for once I found myself at an event not organised by my colleagues and myself at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies; I could simply sit back and enjoy the reading. The first half was being enthusiastically received when we were suddenly informed the hall had been double-booked...by a community drum group. Thankfully, though the privilege of friendship with poets like Gallagher I have learned Poetry's voice is never silenced, even if it is intermittently overwhelmed by the cacophony of modern life. Its time, influence, and movement, are as subtle and strange as the plant that we live among in the city. The role of academic reader of poetry brings with it an obligation to ensure grounds are tended and smoothed, relative and transient silence obtained, for that continuous voice occasionally to be heard. The best I could do in these circumstances was to go home withCircus-Apprentice and read it silently and alone. Gallagher writes in the first poem of her collection, Entente, a audience of one is enough. But many others will enjoy these leaves as much as I have done, starting, what is more, forests of our own.