Is, Is Not by Tess Gallagher
Its title suggests the endless arguments of two children, that something “is!” or “is not!” While we are not encumbered by mere recitation of unresolvable argument in Tess Gallagher’s collection, the reader experiences poems that “devolve from Eastern notions of reality. That is, they challenge dualities which tend to blot out a range of possibilities.” An “interconnectedness of choices” arises from the “Buddhist notion that each action we take bears importantly on the fabric of the whole…that all life is sacred and to be honored….”
These poems are almost one-sided conversations with the reader. However, they require frequent references to notes and the long, explanatory acknowledgements; so many poems are dedicated to a myriad of people significant to Gallagher, a means of acknowledging the value of each person who has come into her life.
For example, Is, Is Not is co-dedicated to Josie Gray, who, in addition to having a number of poems dedicated to him, is honored through his painting that graces the book’s cover. He is Gallagher’s Irish “companion of a quarter of a century, [who] sustained me with wit and delight in each new painting and story.” Josie was the center of Gallagher’s Irish family, congruent with her northwestern United States family. “I set about knowing my neighbors, being involved with Josie’s Gray clan….” In “Blue Eyelid Lifting,” the narrator (Gallagher) awakens in the night and marvels at “Orion’s star-slash / of welcome” and “Suddenly you are standing / behind me looking out / over my shoulder / from our back-door window / at the high display.” In this moment of grace, she realizes the world is still with them: “In the morning I’ll unlock / the double gates to let / the workmen in, trying not to / dislodge those moments when the blue eyelid / of unexpected closeness / pulled us in by the empty sleeve / of its far away.”
Some poems imbue the quotidian aspects of life with deeper meaning. “What Does It Say” meditates on the retirement of “the only shoe repairman in town.” His “surgeon-like” gaze leads to “Lazarus / revivals! For it’s feet in failing shoes / that rule the world.” More than a mender of worn out shoes and other leather goods, he was a renovator of people. More than an artist with broken shoes, he is “Someone to companion our fragile hopes / in the form of these emptied out, / unsalvageable steps.”
Her poems tell stories in a form closer to prose. Her longest poem, just over three pages, tells how Ireland’s draconian abortion law, which required that a fetus be saved even at the expense of the mother, was finally overturned. Savita Halappanavar was hospitalized with an “untenable pregnancy gone wrong” and died of sepsis because the doctors would not treat her while there was still a fetal heartbeat. The lasting image, however, is that of a young Irish girl collecting money in a “crisp bag collecting spare change to get to England” to pay for the necessary medical care. “Slow death by bureaucracy, / Civilized, remorseless.” In May of 2018 the law was changed.
These ruminations on friendships, love, and death reveal the essence of Gallagher’s life as she steps between her two worlds of America and Ireland. The title poem illustrates how one is alive and then is not: “Living step / dying step. Memory / step, no”. These poems are a summation of how love and death follow us as we are buoyed by the friendships we develop and nurture along the way. An extensive “Afterword: Writing from the Edge: A Poet of Two Northwests,” paired with acknowledgements and her notes about particular poems and the people who inspired them, are integral to understanding these works.
Even her relationship with Graywolf Press is one of long standing. Her 1976 collection, Instructions to the Double, was Graywolf’s first full-length, single author publication. This marks Gallagher’s eleventh with Graywolf.