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

R.V. Bailey, Envoi Issue 165, July 2013

The epigraph to Katherine Gallagher's collection is from the American feminst poet Nadya Aisenberg:

Still, he sees all things connected,
the body to the universe,
the same laws governing all:
what makes the planets dance,
the apple fall.

This ability to see connectedness in things is what makes us respond to poets; it's a gift we're all seeking but can seldom find in this fragmented world. It's Gallagher's social gift and it informs all her slightest subjects.

This New and Collected gives us a sense of her trajectory over many years, from a very seventies rush of language to the spare condensed style that charcterises her newest workm, where she relies on her readers to pick up the slightest hint, to notice the sly significannt detail.

More than anything, she's a poet of description. She looks with an alert eye, and she's very much a visual poet, so that her descriptions - of moments, scenes, people, passengers on a train - are more than just descriptions. She sees the tree in the conker ('Thirteen'), sees how the small windows of the council houses 'ration the view' ('Slippage'), how the eye is 'the gatherer-in of lover's glance ('Shapes within a pattern'). Particularly interesting is the lively varied sequence of eleven thought-provoking poems about paintings by Kandinksy ('After Kandinsky') where she makes the strange familiar and the colours alive. Some of her short poems manage to be short stories, like the account of how her sister nearly feel out of the car, was saved by Uncle Tom ('Eastville, 1939') She can do wonderful things with words, has a fluency, a spontaneity that establishes immediate contact with her reader (and that's a rare thing).

There's a fine tribute to Anna Akhmatove ('The Survivor'), and one to Nelson Mandela ('Political prisoners'); there are quietly loving poems for her family - son, partner, fether, brother, mother. She has a wide range of reference. Her long, tender poem 'Poinsettias' tells movingly of a death from concer, but she is not an elegiac poet by any means - indeed, often a witty one.

Her poems like a good wine, subtle, strong and satisfying, and their aftertaste can linger gratefully. The more I read of Gallagher's poems, the more I enjoyed them. I recommend this new collection warmly.