Tess Gallagher’s 13th book, “Is, Is Not,” arrives amid a hail of celebration for both the writer and her publisher. Graywolf Press has its 45th anniversary this year, and Gallagher’s 1976 book, “Instructions to the Double,” was the publisher’s first full-length release. This newest book is Gallagher’s 11th with Graywolf.
As in much of her work, Gallagher’s imagery is exceptional in “Is, Is Not.” In “Oliver,” a poem written for a gifted Irish neighbor who attends her when she is in the country, she writes, “the brain like wild stags,/ hares terror-thrilled by/ hounds. We are each other’s/ as surely as song stitches breath.” Gallagher puts her dedication at the end of the poem rather than the beginning, inviting readers in — and preventing us from stepping back as we might if we felt, up front, that the poem isn’t for us.
Gallagher’s deftness reveals the beauty of each of the people and animals she builds into the book. She uplifts her subjects, elevating what makes them lovely. She asks each of these people to stand tall in their selfness, holding a mirror to their passions — “the deer, in its shuttlecock moment,” she writes, “to let us watch ourselves” — and reminds them they each bear deep meaning.
“We are carrying the memories and the important elements of all of those people that we love,” she explains to me in a sunny room of her Port Angeles Sky House, a room built with the intention of framing the waters of Puget Sound. “That’s why, when a person dies, you know, it’s not just that person dying. It’s all the people they love. So I’m trying to give the signs of these people in my poems because that’s a way of extending them past me. I’m going to give out at some point, so to honor those people and to say who they were and give them another life in your work, is important.”
Often, Gallagher is associated with Raymond Carver, her husband until his death in 1988. And we see Ray, as she calls him, referenced throughout this book. Moments, memories, even pre-Ray and post-Ray eras marking Gallagher’s life. In “Reaching,” about the 53 years she’s known Seattle artist Alfredo Arreguín, Gallagher refers to “art and lives, with and without Ray.”
But “Is, Is Not” is far from a memorial. There is no space for nostalgic dithering here, and not really grief or heartache, either, but instead ongoing love — and there is the transformation that poetry brings to every subject, as well as its writer.
But the book isn’t all soft and sweet, Irish ballads and Pacific Northwest deer. Gallagher is a heavy hitter who tackles topics like abortion rights in Ireland and the “[c]ivilized, remorseless” bureaucracy that killed Savita Halappanavar. Gallagher holds the tension and demands we do, too.
Gallagher is at her most agile in seeing deeply and exposing the nectar of this world. “I never put myself on the downhill side of anything, really. I think that we’re often given contradictory things to hold, and that is the job of the poet,” she says, “to hold things in contradiction and yet to come away with some elucidation.”
“Is, Is Not” by Tess Gallagher, Graywolf Press, 160 pp., $16
Tess Gallagher will read at 12:35 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles, 360-452-9277; 7 p.m. Friday, May 10, at the Port Angeles Public Library, 2210 S. Peabody St., Port Angeles, 360-417-8500; 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at BookTree, 609 Market St., Kirkland, 425-202-7791, booktreekirkland.com; and 7 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, free, 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com