I wrote these reviews for Staple back in late 2010. I hope the magazine will appear soon and perhaps then it will be appropriate to take them off the website.
You are Her immediately engages the reader. It’s full of the instant pleasures given by brilliant sound patterning and imagery, evocative description, arresting single lines, formal inventiveness and an alert responsiveness to the world around the poet. Some of these things are easily illustrated. For example, the startling first line of the book is “When I woke up I was dead.” The third poem, “Waiting with my Yellow Dog”, is set in a hospital. Its second stanza, a lovely little fantasy of an old lady’s zimmer frame dreaming, illustrates the deftness and grace of France’s phonetic patterning and her sympathetic engagement with the world as well as the imaginative fertility of her imagery:
Her neighbour’s zimmer
kicks its rubber hooves, dreaming
of gentle jockeys with white hair.
But what really makes this collection stand out is something deeper. You are Her is very much a book built to last, one designed for rereading, one that holds the mind and imagination by the more gradual, cumulative pleasures that it offers through obliquities of suggestion and veiled implications, and through a thoughtfulness that circles around situations and ideas, exploring them in a way that goes beyond the meaning one grasps immediately, both involving the reader in the further building of meanings and taking the reader’s mind in many different directions. Where many poets would have told us why they were in hospital with the old women, France doesn’t mention the riding accident (referred to on the dust jacket) in which she fractured her spine. However, she does conclude the poem with
All night long I lie there
waiting for my hair to turn white.
So much unspoken agony lies between the lines, and stays active in our minds precisely because it is unspoken and because its darkness is so hauntingly out of key with the humour and sweetness of the stanza about the zimmer.
As these multilayered poems converge with and radiate apart from each other, the volume is both richly diverse and powerfully cohesive. Each poem is self-contained but each accrues meaning in relation to the others. This is as true of the smaller poems as of the longer ones. For example, on its own “Knitbone” is a beautiful little poem about (and voiced for) a comfrey plant. It’s complete in itself and in itself describes a large imaginative trajectory in 14 short lines. Beyond this, its second line, “I feed the earth and fix bones” connects it both with the many fine poems in the volume suggesting the poet’s rootedness in the landscapes of Northumberland and with the poems of physical damage and healing. Still more, though, it is a poem about emotional and spiritual restoration, suggesting how this is to be found in a perception of beauty and an opening of the self to its influence:
Let me bring my way
with bones to all your blindness.
Look again at my pleated creams:
See how I am bell and lantern.
Breathe in the smell of morning rain.
As you read further into the volume you see how this opening of the self itself relates to poems of overtly Buddhist inspiration, like the lovely “Tara” and the excellent haiku sequence “On Not Going to Kyoto”. Finally, perhaps more tenuously, the poem’s echo of sonnet form in the number of its lines and in the delicate weave of rhyme, half rhyme and assonance at their ends is appropriate to the way its argument and tone link it to the fine poems of love and friendship sprinkled through the book.
A kind of selflessness is one of the most attractive and I think most important features of the volume. There’s something paradoxical about this. France makes very frequent use of the first person, sometimes with reference to things or people outside herself, as when she gives a voice to the comfrey, but often when she is (apparently) speaking in propria persona. And yet her poetry comes across as wholly unegotistical. Her ‘I’ is a point of contact, an eye, a gateway into what really matters, which is out there. Her grasp of the world is physically robust, muscular and at the same time acutely sensitive to sensuous impressions both delicate and carnal, whether what she is describing is the greasy roughness of a piece of bone, a lover’s flesh “warm as a fresh-baked loaf” in a Frida Kahlo painting, a landscape, a flower or a bird. Her attitude is full of love and empathy (as in the brilliant “Falling”) but completely unsentimental. The poems are shot through with humour which can be bawdy, as in the poem that begins “My mother did it in secret in our kitchen, / wreathed in vapours of steam and grease” (did what? Baked a leak pudding, of course) or which can be a matter of playfulness with language, metaphor or form. All this reflects both the rich resources of emotion, imagination and intelligence that lead her to see things in the round, from many different angles and in many different connections, and the considerable technical resources needed to express such seeing. If I can use a metaphor suggested by the poems on France’s beloved Capability Brown, reading the book through is to follow an emotional and spiritual path whose main lines of development seem clear as one travels, but is also to become aware of a multitude of side-paths and vistas awaiting future exploration. It’s a book I’m sure of revisiting.
Katherine Gallagher’s poetry is strikingly visual. Many pieces are explicitly inspired by paintings. Almost as many again use markedly pictorial techniques even though they are drawn directly from life. Gallagher seems to have been conscious of this bias of her sensibility from the beginning: the first volume represented in the selection is called The Eye’s Circle and the first poem is “Shapes within a Pattern”. One of the consistent pleasures of her work is the evocativeness and skill with which she makes us see scenes of widely varying kinds, reflecting the contrasts between her early life on a farm in pre-War Central Victoria, her years in Paris in the seventies and her residence in London since 1979, as well as the stimulus of much apparent travel to other places. She writes well about human relationships, about her parents and wider family, about a brother who died, about her son and husband. There’s a poignant sequence, “Poinsettias”, about a woman dying of cancer. Good poems about hero-victims like Mandela and Bram Fischer and about the horrors of starvation and war reflect her sensitive engagement with the wider world.
Scattered throughout the selection, poems like “Shapes within a Pattern”, “Wimmera Windscreen” or several in the New Poems section show a more experimental approach to language and style, whether through syntactical elision, omission of punctuation, more demanding use of metaphor or tinges of surrealism. I liked the sense of the poet’s pushing her boundaries in these poems. On the whole, though, the way in which Gallagher writes seems to be dominated by a desire to be true to what she really feels, and to present scenes as clearly and directly as possible. This gives her style an essential limpidity and plainness, even under ornamental flourishes of metaphor. I liked the sense of poetic honesty this brought and found most of the poems easy to absorb and enjoy on a first reading. Sometimes I enjoyed them very much. A style in which developments occur step by step in a linear progression is obviously well adapted to public reading, and I’d very much like to hear many of these poems being read. At the same time, when I’d finished the book I didn’t feel an intense urge to go back over many of them, whether for the music they made in the head or in the expectation of discovering meanings and resonances I’d missed the first time through. In this way there’s a sharp contrast with You are Her.