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Review: Carnival Edge: New and Selected Poems, by Katherine Gallagher

Rob A Mackenzie, magma 49, March 2011

No fake, rosy picture of the world:

Katherine Gallagher has produced only four collections since her first in 1974 and perhaps that's one reason I hadn't heard of her before opening my review copy of Carnival Edge. Poets who complete a book every two or three years keep themselves in the public eye. Whether most maintain a high standard and make progress between books is another matter.

Only a short sequence survives from the 1974 collection; an intriguing, fractured piece on the theme of visual perception. It's quite unlike the poems that follow eleven years later - lucid, emotionally perceptive explorations, usually with a strong narrative and featuring characters moored between past and future, tragedy and hope, life and death. The struggle to move on, to make interior and physical journeys though difficult terrain, is at the heart of these pieces. In The Trapeze-Artist's First Performance:

The scene is drunk on air -
its nothingness
that she must navigate.

Although fears are real and nothingness an everpresent threat, Gallagher doesn't view the world with hostility. Neither poet nor trapeze-artist walk alone. In this case, the audience are balancing her with their eyes. There's no fake, rosy picture of the world; hope comes with courageous struggle against the odds. If imagery in some poems felt too obvious, such as the kite held by dissidents before the eyes/of their jailers (Political Prisoners), I was impressed by how her plain, narrative poems suddenly become provocative, with far wider implications than first seemed likely, such as Girl Teasing Cat with Mouse, a disturbing domestic drama which reformats itself as a microcosm of human war:

predators, lust, the moment of no return -
all spinning out of control.
And the girl knowing and not caring.

My favourite section is from the fourth collection, Tigers on the Silk Road, originally published in 2000. The first four poems are particularly strong, moving and reflective, each centring around flight, but encompassing long-distance love, bereavement, defiant celebration, and - in Jet Lag - the limits of human ambition:

So much for all that sky-gazing,
wanting to get off the ground.

Now I'll just sleep on possibilities.
I'm still thirty thousand feet up,

nudging clouds like a sunset, the day
slipping through my fingers.

Slight poems exist in this book: those which overcook an extended metaphor (Poem for a Shallot) or stock memory (The Lesson, which explores the father-daughter relationship through a bicycle lesson). However, most avoid such dullness. A new poem, Seeing the Hand, pictures a hand flying around a beach, preoccupied with its actual history and what it might otherwise have done. It becomes the bearer of every reader's past regrets and potential hopes. People who, as in the poem, initially exclaim at its strangeness will find it discomfortingly familiar by the end. Ambitious sequences like After Kandinsky from 2006's Circus-Apprentice suggest Gallagher is still on the journey of discovery and struggle her poems embody:

Let yourself believe - in love, in colour, the way
it directs your eyes, treats you to sharp angles,
throws you unannounced onto each brink.
You hardly know yourself when your feet
touch ground and the colour has remade you.