Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Dangerous Mission

Gary Lehmann

It's a dangerous mission. You/could die out there. You /could go on forever.
Tess Gallagher from
Instructions to the Double

The act of writing poetry on a regular basis has some very profound outcomes which the writer does not always realize at the beginning of the adventure. A good poem tells a small truthful thing about the world the poet inhabits. A talented, persistent poet writes many such poems and tells many tiny truthful secrets about his or her inner existence. Taken in the main, this process finally develops a poetic voice. While the poet may write on all kinds of topics and cover any number of poetic techniques, eventually, one central theme or subject matter emerges that dominates that poet’s presence in the poetic world. It becomes that poet’s public persona.

We see this pattern over and over. Robert Frost was not all walks in the woods. He wrote love poems and sad poems. He wrote all sorts of poems, but what we remember of him are poems that seem to have been written while walking in the woods.

Mark Doty wrote all sorts of poems and probably thought he had a developed settled persona when his male lover died of AIDS in 1995. Ever since then, he has become the voice of the AIDS crisis in poetry. It will become his toe tag.

Tess Gallagher wrote thousands of poems over her lifetime, but the core, the heartland of those poems come back to that moment in 1988 when her third husband, the short story writer Raymond Carver, died. Her best books are books of poems about his death and her grief thereafter (Moon Crossing Bridge [1992]). She has occupied much of her time since then editing and seeing through publication Carver’s works. Even while she may have had an entirely different life in mind for herself when she was twenty, her poetic destiny has guided and directed what people will remember of her forever.

It is a strange thing that happens to poets who are talented, published, public and persistent. Out of that tiny habit of telling the truth in verse day after day emerges a central image as poet that takes over, becomes the “you” the public sees. It is your poetic destiny, your voice in poetry, your core being emerging into public view.

Tess Gallagher has a life aside from her two year marriage to Raymond Carver. She was born in 1943 in Port Angeles, Washington. She received a BA and an MA from the University of Washington. She studied creative writing under Theodore Roethke. Interestingly, Roethke wrote for a whole long life but is really only remembered for the poems he wrote about the years between 1920 to 1925 when he lived with is father and mother in Saginaw, Michigan operating a family greenhouse. Gallagher went on to get an MFA from the University of Iowa, to teach at a dozen well-known colleges, and to receive many grants and honors, but all these things pale into insignificance against the tidal wave that overtook her when she met and married Raymond Carver.

Her book Willingly (1984) consists of poems written to and about Carver. Carver included Gallagher as the “good woman” in his short story Gravy published in The New Yorker the year after his death. They even collaborated on two screenplays, Purple Lake and Dostoevsky.

Tess Gallagher has written many books on other topics, but her relationship with Raymond Carver has really come to define her career. In Moon Crossing Bridge [1992], she poured her heart into a book of poems that itemize in great detail the stations of her grief after his untimely loss.

Since his death, Gallagher has acted as his literary executor. She has written introductions to three books of his poetry and seen them through to posthumous publication. (Call if you Need Me [1989], A New Path to the Waterfall [1990], and All of Us [2000].) She collaborated with the film director Robert Altman to produce a film based on nine of Carver’s short stories. (Short Cuts [1993]). She has become as much the architect of Carver’s image as Donald Hall is in control of Jane Kenyon’s future in print or John Cheever’s future is in the control of his daughter, Susan. Tess Gallagher has even written a book of essays on the topic of her relationship with her lover, Soul Barnacles: On the Literature of a Relationship: Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver [2003]. The book Cathedrals [2002] shows both of them on the cover and includes a history of a single encounter and the two short stories that resulted, one from each.

In 1997, The Atlantic Monthly interviewed Tess Gallagher. It was 9 years after Carver’s death. She could have spoken about any time in her life. Many women would have moved on to other matters, but for Tess the time that comes to her lips most easily is the time she spent with Raymond Carver. The Atlantic interview illustrates the electric pull that Carver has on her consciousness. The interviewer asks a question to set her up.

"In your essay "The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief" you contend that poems are the best and oldest forms we have for attending and absolving grief." Your Moon Crossing Bridge -- a book of poetry written in the wake of the death of your husband -- puts stock in this belief. When writing this book did you experience your grief as images and words, or as something even more abstract that you then struggled to pin down with language?"

"'The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief' was written in 1984, eight years before Moon Crossing Bridge, and although I didn't know it at the time, much of what I was writing in that essay was preparatory to those poems. At this point, I don't think the word "absolving" grief is what my work is about in Moon Crossing Bridge. That book was written partly in order to sustain the grieving process long enough for me to absorb the loss. I think the word "attending" is more true to what I was doing. I was noticing all the different inflections in the process of grieving and how lively and varied that experience is, how it quickens everything around you. In the epigraph I say that I'm going to carry the grief, and you have to get hold of an amorphous entity before you can carry it. I would say the book is about discovering a form you can use to move with the experience on its terms, instead of merely constructing a container. "
"I don't think I was looking to pin anything down with my language. In fact I didn't have language at all as I'd once known it; what I had at first was silence. I was certainly unseated by this void. Those poems were just waiting for language as it would come. I had to stay open and leave time and try to be receptive. I was reforming my way of being in language, or it was reforming me. "

Can you feel its pull? There is a sort of tractor beam that draws her attention and her commentary into a line. While she is exploring all aspects of her life, there is at the same time a kind of central focus that is carving out of a mound of words a monumental image of which she is probably only partially aware. Invisible forces are drawing her to these conclusions, these topics, these answers, and this process happens to all poets who chose to tell the truth in print for any length of time. Gallagher continues,

"'She Who Is Untouched by Fire' is a story in my new collection that has also affected space and time. The action of the prose -- a woman having what amounts to an out-of-body experience -- is wave-like. Certain elements keep repeating only to come back slightly changed, which becomes more and more absorbing, until you are really inside her experience and have been lifted out of yourself in the same way that the most wonderful poems can lift you, almost physically, leaving you to hover above the earth. If I've told it right, by the end of that story you feel you're in an afterlife that is also life; it makes a flesh-and-blood ghost of you. Still, I don't know if I'm as inventive with tense in fiction as I might yet become."
In another interview, she said in answer to a question by Daniel Bourne,
"I think it was preparatory to my book, Moon Crossing Bridge, actually. I'm not sure exactly when that poem was written, whether my father had died at that point or not. But we're mortal, our death is inevitable. We're always going to have our nose to that window. Later, I went very, very deeply into the disappearance of my companion and love, Raymond Carver, in Moon Crossing Bridge. And in doing so, of course, you go into your own death space, too. "
There is something in our protoplasm that lines things up for us and makes sense out of the chaos of existence. It defines and refines certain central themes which we cannot release by any conscious act. Carl Jung said that the issues which remain unresolved in our lives return over and over demanding reinvestigation. As poets, who write down little moments of truth everyday, we are more susceptible to these invisible magnetic forces. We tend to emerge with more self-definition after a lifetime of self-examination. There’s no way around it.

1598 words


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