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Review: Circus-Apprentice, by Katherine Gallagher

Adrian Buckner, Poetry Nottingham 61/2, Summer 2007

What's it like then? Isn't that the question you ask when someone has mentioned a poet you've not heard of? You wouldn't expect them to give you the hushed lips sign and send you a review in the post; you'd prefer it if they enticed you there and then by encapsulating the qualities on show in a few words. What's it like then, why do I want to write about this poet? is this reviewer's question to himself when faced with a choice of books to consider. So, what is Katherine Gallagher (a poet I was not familiar with) like? My briefest answer, the theme running through my head on a first read through these poems: Here is a poet whose mind is cluttered with subject material for poems, but whose poems are never obscured by clutter.

Some poets find that poetry is the voice to which parts of their experience are alive. Katherine Gallagher is not such a poet; poetry is the voice in which she answers to all of life. One practical measure of this is the division of the collection into five sections, dealing broadly, though there are overlaps, with meditations on the natural world; character sketches of strikingly singular individuals; autobiographical and childhood pieces; some travel and myth-treating poems and finally, eleven 'After Kandinsky' poems, referencing individual works.

The opening poem, Entente is a hat-off-as-you-enter-the-church piece which introduces one of Gallagher's locations:

It's that time of the morning
when the suburbs are pure. Stripped
clean, and the birds are out,
not changing the subject

But a MacNiece-like abundance and effusiveness rolls out over the poem Hedge (Forsythia) to introduce another pulse:

I have been waiting for this special rain:
its sudden flux, lemon butter madness,
the flare of its 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.

The perspective from the suburbs widens in poems such as Les Gorges du Tarn - Everywhere, people are living with stones, stones/ with people: this earthing exchange..., and in Hybrid, the poet's native Australia recalls her to the root of her appetites: It is my reference-point/ for other landscapes/ that, after thirty years,/ have multiplied my skies.

The second section opens with the poem chosen, significantly I think, as the collecton's title:

I'm learning it all - acrobatics, clowning,
riding bareback and trapeze...

I weave my life around dancing elephants
who spray the air while turning
their backs on the crowd;...

The poem ends with an urgent and supplicating note of caution:

I'm walking the high-wire, making my mark
poised, balanced, don't look away -
you are my gravity's other edge.

I don't know to whom this is addressed. This may be the wrong question (readers very often do ask the wrong question of poets) but I think of these three lines as a neat summary of why this poet is worth reading. She is in high places, she keeps her poise and she knows that poems are subject to the laws of gravity.

My imagistic bent took particular delight in Girl on a Bolting Horse, a poem brilliantly creating its own world of frost and fire:

The horse's head forward, not surrendering,
the girl vertical in her stirrups

the black sky gathering steel.
Wind slicing the hair from her face,

the dark curve of herself going faster -
the blur of her brothers, standing transfixed;

she, holding her breath, bone-afraid
and flying...

What superb detail, that blur of her brothers. It engages every sense at barely containable pressure. For me, blur now sounds like the Grand National charging past at ten yards.

Coming down to earth, the collection sems to be drawing to a natural end with some touching poems of childhood reminiscence and filial devotion. The poem Cloud-eye, in memory of Gallagher's mother, concludes with a quatrain which bears the weight of concrete and distressing detail, yet still manages to fly: She slides down into sleep and wakes again/ on this final island, where touch is more important/ than words. She grimaces, begs for morphine.../ Our world divides. We'll fly differently now.

But the collection does not end there. With a new burst of invention we are pitched into an eleven poem After Kadinsky sequence. I didn't fel the absence of the paintings as a barrier to enjoyment and this is perhaps the acid test of success for poems about art. So good were some of the poems that having, for instance, In the Black Square (1923) written above, was almost a distraction:

A rainbow creeps into shape
above a pristine hill, each breakaway field
imposing itself. The rainbow briefly
commandeers the sky, slings moments
to make you draw breath.

The poet seems as much present in the open air here as in contemplation of the art. A more conventionally meditative note is struck in Blue Painting (1924):

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


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

the single flowers
multiplied under a clean sky.

- multiplied under a clean sky: an excellent description of the canvas on which Katherine Gallagher creates her poetry. I warmly recommend this book to those who'd like to have their poetry palette refreshed and de-cluttered.