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Review: Acres of Light, by Katherine Gallagher

Dilys Wood, Artemis Poetry, May 2017

If you had to guess which of Katherine Gallagher's senses was keenest, you might opt for eyesight. In her sixth collection, Acres of Light, she pans across broad landscapes brilliantly invoking light effects, angles of view, atmospheric conditions: "summer's haze shearing the air, / suddenly rising above the plain, / the non-identical spires [of Chartres cathedral]" ('Measure of Stillness'); "The blue hills are a singing range of fur, / the tremendous ache of mirage / spreading itself almost neatly / deliciously, ahead; its sheen / that keeps you looking" ('Your Story'); "A wing-tip draws its arc / over the valley, a city clasping / a river to itself" ('Coming into Zurich').

Gallagher's life has involved residence in three countries - Australia, where she was bom, France and England- with many revisits and other travels. One outcome is that the idea of scanning distance and of being constantly on the move are etched into her poetic awareness: "I pitch my tent / on the edge of the desert,//watch the helter-skelter mirages: / savour the joumey's spell", 'The Brief of Travelling'. This interest gifts us with the outstanding, image-rich poem 'Ode to the Boeing 747' ("Winged lurcher / without the heart of a bird unwrapping temperatures / in the grip of each now"). There is more than a hint here of the poet as migratory spirit, impatient of being grounded, travelling freely between past and present, sequentially "in the grip of each now".


Tender poems about youth, parents, extended family are archetypes in this poet's work. She makes her own childhood feel close and empathises with a child in 'Bullies': "He freezes / as they expect//though a voice inside him squeaks / Words cut his tongue,//weigh in his mind / like a bruise". Her brother Kevin is another innocent, cornered victim trapped by cancer - the focus of a compelling sequence of eight poems, 'Acres of Light'.

The opening poem of this sequence, 'Going Back to the Farm', uses another of the long-distance views so significant in this collection: "Call it 'Home' as it catches you on the road through Shelbourne-/a shape in the distance, the house you both built." As Kevin will "spend last days in the shades of all you knew", the poem conveys the ambiguity of 'home' for the dying man. The several possible meanings of 'catches' (glimpse, hurt, trap), reminding us of how dense and allusive this poet's use of language can be, though always seeming direct and unpretentious.

The 'Acres of Light' sequence shows frankness and incisiveness in handling a painful subject; also control and versatility, from the chant-like 'Serenity Prayer' ("Let it enter your heart, / be the hope of your being.//Everywhere you turn,/light follows, takes you / across borders") to the quiet lyric about rain which may reach back to a shared childhood, "We hear new notes, / their shine shot through with sun - / washing us with the beauty of rain" ('Eastville Sonata'). These poems focus less on death than on her brother's lifework preserving landscape ("planter of twenty-thousand wattles, / she-oaks, banksias, ironbarks", The Telling), thus linking with Gallagher's own pervasive interest in protecting the environment. In the final moving poem, she refers to a trait in Kevin that might seem to express her own life and poetic, "Your drug was the love of breakaway, / a fine cutting free. Under the fiercest sun, / you have worn the beauty of flowers" ('The Presence of the Trees').