Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Tess Gallagher

Yesterday I was in Black Oak Books. Frankly, I was there killing time, but what better place? It's not like I can go to Cody's anymore. There's a big industrial "Available" sign out on the store's former front window.

Today's vocabulary word? Blight.

Anyway, back to Black Oak, located in an area we Bay Area types call "The North Side", which is code for the wealthy part of Berkeley. Black Oak is near the fabled Gourmet Ghetto; Chez Panisse and the Cheese Board are steps away, as are a variety of boutiques selling $400 shoes.

So there I was, in my $30 shoes, cruising the store. I found Tess Gallagher's newest book of poetry, Dear Ghosts, (the comma is hers).

I read a bit of poetry, but I'm hardly Helen Vendler. I learned about Tess Gallagher in 1989, when she came to give a reading at California State University, Northridge. This was immediately following her husband Raymond Carver's death. Apart from reading Cathedral in high school, I knew little of either writer.

So there I was in the Little Theatre, surrounded by all these older cultured types, the sort of people who go in for large handmade brooches and shawls. The men wore tweed; a few even had those little driving caps that aren't quite berets. I had no idea what I was in for.

Tess Gallagher wore a bright red suit and red suede pumps. She had a sweep of dark hair to her waist.

Then she opened her mouth, and out came the poems from Portable Kisses, which are about losing Raymond Carver.

I don't know how the shawls and tweeds held it together. By the end of the reading, I was snuffling, wiping my eyes, and pretending not to be weeping.

Afterward I read my way through her work and his, learning the myth of their literary couplehood. Later I attended Humboldt State University, where Carver had briefly lived and studied. His tenure there was during some of his worst drinking years, but the school faculty and some of the community still made much of his transient presence. A few of them liked to say unkind things about Tess, much of it along the lines of the Yoko Ono effect.

Carver called the final ten years of his life "gravy."

So much for the naysayers.


Dear Ghosts, is one of those books that is also a beautiful object, with a gorgeous cover by Alfredo Arrequin. As always, I first read the acknowledgments, learning that Gallagher is either suffering or recovering from cancer. Then I flipped to the back inside cover, where the author photo is.

Gallagher's gorgeous hair is gone. As in cancer-bald. Her face is still beautiful, though older. There amidst the snooty Berkeley literati I was transported back to the Little Theater, wanting to cry all over again at the singular unfairness leveled at this woman.

Today--Friday--I began reading the poems. "Sixteenth Anniversary". "Black Beauty". More Ray poems, a lot more political work, poems to friends and relatives. I'm only partway in. Reading poety is like drinking cognac--you can't just guzzle it. The words are joined so finely I want to be fresh enough to appreciate them fully, meaning I will read more come morning, when I am rested.

This is my favorite Tess Gallagher poem:

Elegy with a Blue Pony

It is said one-third of China
is a cemetary: "But what
a cemetary!" Henri Michaux exclaimed.
Somewhere a cemetary exists
For all the kisses I was going to
give you. Multitudes of butterflies
like to sleep there in that third
of my heart's country. Their wings
open and shut pensively, as if
the lips of the sky had come down
to announce the end of a journey,
to ruffle the meadow grass
with the azure breeze of the moment.

If, in your travels in the spirit world,
you suddenly recall those kisses you
might have had, you won't have to
live again to enjoy them.
They are waiting. You will always
be expected by my kisses.
Lie down. Let the nose
of my blue pony brush your neck.
Don't be sad I'm not with her, or
that the butterflies rise as a body
to let her pass. Don't be sad.
I'm still alive and have to follow
my kisses around. But you, you can
lie down and be enlivened, kissed
in yet another imperishable
collaboration on the way to me.

Tess Gallager, Portable Kisses, Expanded. Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1994: 99.


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