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Review: Circus-Apprentice, by Katherine Gallagher

Penelope Shuttle, Second Light Newsletter

Admirers of Katherine Gallagher's previous collections will welcome the strong, resourceful and varied poems of her fourth full-length collection, Circus-Apprentice, as will readers new to her work.

The book is divided into five sections, each of which has its own integral poetic sense, but an overall unity is created by the subtle way themes echo across from one section to another, creating an undertow of memory, a weaving of realities- and this interaction of energy gives the book its imaginative intelligence and quick-witted lyricism...
...the first section begins, fittingly, with a beginning, and in Entente we are introduced to the city suburbs at dawn when all possibility is within grasp and the song birds of the morning one by one / fit into their feathers.

Concentrating on memory and nature, this section gradually widens out its perspective to the two very fine closing poems. In the searching and wise elegy, Thinking of My Mother on the Anniversary of her Death, the poet floats across a hemisphere, searching for her mother, inviting her to come with her, until

We float,
almost sisters
in the glide of it.

This poem establishes a vital link with the elegies for her parents in the book's fourth section (and indeed the book is dedicated to the writer's parents). It is followed by Gwen John Swims the Channel, a poem of great panache. The artist Gwen John, who has 'always loved the coastline', and had 'painted herself into its mirror like a cloud passing over' is depicted as an ever-questing courageous exemplar,

the archetypal swimmer
planing darkness, with the coast
clearing and Paris-Meudon behind her.

That word, planing, is exactly right, as the poet, in empathy with the artist, celebrates the courage of a woman who painted and lived life with a channel-swimmer's strength of body and soul.

I also particularly admire, in this section, The Year of the Tree, where the poet is under a mysterious obligation to carry a tree through the Underground, with all concomitant difficulties. But, says the poet to the people who stare at her and

the oak I was lugging
along the platforms -
Relax, I said,
it's a tree not a gun.

This is a great example of how to write about terrorism on the underground without being polemical or ranty.

The title poem itself opens the next tranche of the book. Here are poems that interpret the self and others, including animals, form unusual and compelling angles.

Circus-Apprentice is characteristically original and sparky, yet never blurs away from lyric intensity. Using an informal three line stanza, the poet explores 'the path not taken', imagining an alternative life of training to work in a circus, as acrobat, clown, trapeze artist, bareback rider, fire eater, lion tamer...But we realise, especially from this closing metaphor, where she is

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

that the circus to which the poet is apprenticed is life, as we all are.

Like Circus-Apprentice, Keeper and Nomad use a first person voice to powerful effect. Keeper is a fable of identity which opens with a challenge to an unknown individual, and has a strongly sustained follow-through-

You want me to be a lighthouse-keeper? Fine.
I'll set myself up in a spiralled house
with only books and the cat for company.

I'll learn how the sea looks
turned inside out, how bird cries
are thin winding scarves escaping.
No one will know how I value
the way the ships' lights radiate,
how I long for their visits.

The poem is muscular yet luminous, touching on human loneliness and the demands of any relationship. By delineating a different way of life, that of an imaginary lighthouse keeper, light is also shed upon the role or identity of the poet.

Nomad is a lovely energetic Taliesin-style poem which races round the world with great verve in lines such as-

I've built a craggy house and held it up with stilts,
worn my rags to work and made a plushy pile,
I've mulled the pull of planes in a galaxy of sky,
Walked behind the rich and bottled their disdain,
Tore my heart askew in the dregs of afterthought,
And spread my wings through knots of air to buttonhole a coast.

I love the tempered elation in this poem.

And Nomad leads very naturally to section three which adds a rich further dimension to this collection by taking us on a magic carpet ride from Kathmandu to Delphi to Lake Orta. Woven in with these poems of travel (which comprise interior journeys as well as exterior, and remind us of the poet's Australian background) are several poised observations on love, shot through with a sense of vulnerability, especially in Love Cinquains.

Section four plunges more deeply, passionately and painfully into the past. Especially moving are the poems about the poet's late parents. In The Lesson the poet's father is teaching her to ride a bike. It's hard for her to get her balance, but then- she does! And this equilibrium gained is as much a life lesson as a riding lesson.

The father yells-

Get your bloody balance right.
Maybe I should let you go?
Dad, don't,
I screamed, please, don't, Dad.
Okay, okay, but go easy.
Remember, it's up to you.

This is worse than hell, I thought.

Then as if by magic, just on dusk
I glided forward, swaying right
to left- moved away from him.

Slowly, my girl! He shouted, catching up,
steadying my wobbles again.
I couldn't see his face but I know
that he was smiling.

In Dancing on the Farm the father/daughter dynamic is just as vividly presented in its contrast between a bush dance in the poet's girlhood and a dream the poet has about her father long afterward. She remembers how her father waltzed with her to save her from being a wallflower. But in her dream she wants him to dance the foxtrot with her. He refuses.

But the foxtrot...
Too fast, he shrugged, I'm past it.

I didn't believe him, standing there on the edge
of my dream with his face slightly pained-
as if giving bad news
and the gentle side of him spoke:
a look that said he was vulnerable,
my Dad, opened up,
the weight of days holding his feet
to the boards.'

The unsentimental directness and poignance of those last two elegiac lines, their gravity, give a clear indication of this poet's range, also attested to by the poems for her mother, where the key motifs are the visual and the aerial. In Cloud-eye she says of her mother-

...she too ill to speak
slowly becomes my eye in the clouds, the gap
I will see through.

What an extraordinary phrase- my eye in the clouds - carrying the thread of life and being from mother to daughter.

After Kandinsky, a sequence of poems inspired, I am assuming, by the recent exhibition at Tate Modern, uses a redemptive vocabulary to create a meditation on eleven canvases by Kandinsky. The paradox of colour Kandinsky refers to might also refer to the paradox of language with which Katherine Gallagher works. She uses language like a prism held up to the light, and this new volume, so cloudsure, attests with great force to this poet's gift.

Finally I want to say how grounded this book is; draw the reader's attention to three poems, Footwork, Itinerant and Talisman, all connected to feet and shoes, where Katherine Gallagher, who understands the aerial (as demonstrated in her imaginary circus where she tries out being a trapeze artist, and in Cloud-eye), reminds us that, like all committed poets, she has her feet firmly on the ground, is rooted there in actuality, memory and imaginative process.