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Review: Circus-Apprentice, by Katherine Gallagher

Rowan B. Fortune-Wood, Envoi 149, February 2008

from The Personal to the Political

... Katherine Gallagher has an aesthetic purity which combines introspection with an outward focus. Gallagher's longer verse layers narratives, like Keeper, which opens with the question, You want me to be a lighthouse keeper? Fine., continuing, I'll keep my ground, teach people / to keep their distance, and concluding with the assonance of, slip and slap of sea. Shorter poems provide a single, fleeting impression succinctly captured in a flash of lyricism, such as Bonfire Night, which employs a simple rhyme scheme and some alliteration:

Smells of bonfires
backyards burning
all the leaves have
finished turning.

Gallagher's reflections are subtle, as in From the Sahel:

Aicha, I know little about you, your days in Nadraogo,
your work in the village reforestation commune...
How have you rattled the sky, perfected the art of loving trees?
Your fable of neem stalks our century and more.

This poem recounts the story, taken from an article in The Independent, of Aicha Ouedraogo, a woman from the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso, who, as part of a reforestation project (Regeneration Sahel) has, 'nurtured' a neem, from a seedling - carrying water to it weekly, / gliding sure-footed towards it like an Angel of the Desert. Gallagher's sense of beauty pervades every line to create exquisite repeated sounds and internal rhyme, and reaching into a tongue-dry, drought-filled sky.

Moreover, the collection's range is startling. Gallagher is just as able to conjure a 'drought-filled sky' as to turn her hand to clever intertextual humour, as in Inscape, where I imagine some joker writing / on it, This is not a clothes brush. Gallagher manages to be clever and unassuming, comprehensible in her straightforward, evocative simplicity. Part IV of the collection contains autobiographical long narrative poems that encapsulate this simplicity, such as Dancing on the Farm:

I wanted to dance with my father,
dance fast over dirt tracks,
dance full-flight across creeks;
breeze past watching crows,
surprise every sheep and cow.

Gallagher's fourth collection encompasses humour, memory, introspection, reflection, incidents and snapshot moments. Her verse is sometimes simply beautiful (e.g. Winter Hyacinths), at other times tragically moving (e.g. The Last War), but always technically brilliant.