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

Katherine Gallagher's Carnival Edge: New and Selected Poems draws on thirty-five years of published work and consistently manifests a love of for her native country, Australia, as well as the way her relationship with it has changed since she moved to England in 1979.

While her first collection, Eye Circle, was published in 1974, much of her early work is left out, with only a short selection from Eye Circle and no work from her second, Tributaries of the Love-Song. This lacuna becomes the more interesting for the gap in styles between Eye Circle and her third collection eleven years later, Passengers to the City. Eye Circle's poems are fragmented and spaced apart on the page; they tend to work more associatively, but with Passengers the poems consist of direct, clear sentences and prove more linear and straightforward.

As the first poem included from Passengers, Song for the Unborn, suggests, Gallagher, like Donovan, often uses personal narrative. While poems do not definitively declare their roots in autobiography, the use of first person in retellings of common experiences creates a sense of intimacy and evokes a sympathetic personality. For example, Song poignantly concludes

Suddenly I knew
your eyes were almost ready
to life the dark.

One area of experience that recurs throughout Carnival Edge is life as an expatriate, from a sense of connection and delight in seeing Australia and things associated with it, to the strange space inhabited during long-haul flights.

Australia tends to bring out the best in Gallagher's work. The fluent lyricism of Art Class on Observatory Hill, Sydney goes hand in hand with the poem's visual focus and use of precise detail, concluding evocatively:

Their canvases reflect this bluest of light
where the tutor's words float like gulls
wheeling in and out among Moreton Bay figs.

One of the few humorous poems, Concerning the Fauna, begins with the speaker's reaction to images of kangaroos and koalas on screen and progresses thus:

Once I saw a famous politician
fill a meeting-hall:
his subject, Kangaroos and koalas -
our national identity.

People listened rapt:
by the end of the evening
we were all either
jumping or climbing.

After personal experience and the relationship with one's native country, Gallagher's next great interest is art. Ekphrastic poems pepper the volume and provide a turn away from the personal that gives the volume greater scope. The first, Kandinsky Journey, gently evokes the experience of art; out of the shock, the poem concludes, the paradox of colour / will balance you. After Kathe Kollwitz - The Face of War takes a different tack, presenting a dramatic monologue in the artist's voice that explores the motivations behind the eponymous exhibition. Twenty-one years after the appearance of Kandinsky Journey in her third book, Gallagher returns with a long sequence, After Kandinsky, in Circus-Apprentice. Here eleven poems explore eleven of Kandinsky's works between 1922 and 1927, the first five years of his Bauhaus period. In these poems, narratives arise from the paintings: Grey Forms (1922) engagingly opens Seals: the beach welcomes them, while in Horizontal (1924), It is night and the city has put itself to bed / once more. Those who have survived / are in their shelters. The greatest gift of Gallagher's poetry is its ability to immerse us in other worlds, whether as palpable as Australia or as elusive as a work of art.