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Circus Apprentice
Katherine Gallagher

Todmorden: Arc Publications 2006
₤8.99. 101pp. ISBN:1 904614 02 7.


Reviewed by Susan Ballyn


In his work Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, Barry Lopez observes:

The differing landscapes of the earth are hard to know individually. They are as difficult to engage in conversation as wild animals. The complex feelings of affinity and self-assurance one feels with one's native place rarely develop again in another landscape.
It is a convention of Western thought to believe all cultures are compelled to explore, that human beings seek new land because their economies drive them onward. Lost in this valid but nevertheless impersonal observation is the notion of a simpler longing, of a human desire for a less complicated life, for fresh intimacy and renewal. [New York: Bantam, 1986, 255-57]

Katherine Gallagher, born in Australia, and now long resident in England, has made what Lopez would assume an unusual adaptation in internalising both Australia and England as “home.” She makes this point in an interview with Lidia Vianu who asked her:

Like Fleur Adcock and Peter Porter, you were born in Australia. Do you consider yourself Australian? British? Which literature is your mother tongue?
I consider myself to be Australian, (I guess that’s evident from my replies to the previous question) but like Adcock and Porter, I have lived here for many years and am really a hybrid. A poem titled Hybrid in my forthcoming collection, Circus Apprentice, touches this question. [Interview with Lydia Vianu, Desperado Literature Accessed 10/5/07,18.20.]

I have swallowed a country,
it sits quietly inside me.
Days go by when I scarcely
realise it is there . . .
I talk to this country,
tell it, You’re not forgotten,
nor ever could be.
I depend on you –

cornucopia packed close
with daylight moons
and bony coasts,
the dust of eucalyptus

on my teeth; mudded rivers
burnished smooth
under the cobalt crystal
of a lucent sky.

It is my reference-point
for other landscapes
that, after thirty years,
have multiplied my skies. [33]

Certainly her poetry has the nostalgia that accompanies all those who leave their homeland for another chosen one, but, wherever she is, Gallagher becomes the close observer of both the personal and the natural world. She is indeed a nomad of the planet and of the word. Her poetry is unique in its apparent simplicity, in its disarmingly unassuming voice, its ability to evoke both the painful and the joyful, in its courage and tenderness. Every individual has a country of the mind through which they wander at various stages of their lives; for Gallagher her country of the mind, her true and perhaps only “home” is poetry. Although entirely different, Gallagher’s poetry reminds me of that of George Herbert, the religious minded metaphysical. The Circus Apprentice’s simplicity hides the irony, humour and deeply charged emotions that I associate with Herbert. Much as the reader may wish to remain on the surface of the text, enjoying the lyricism, for above all Gallagher is a lyrical poet, the shape of the verse on the page, the singing, the metaphors and images force the subtle undertow of deeper meaning to be sounded. In another interview Gallagher points out that:

Robert Frost said that when we write poetry, we're not trying to tell our readers something they didn't already know—we're trying to give them 'the shock of recognition.' Poetry doesn't have to be 'simple' to be understood. It is to a large extent, the art of metaphor, digging to find the power of language. [The Poetry Kit Interviews, Accessed 10/5/07, 18.00]

Like Frost, no subject is beyond Gallagher’s pen, from “Pink stalwarts” in “Winter Hyacinths,” [32] the “smells of bonfires/ backyards burning” in “Bonfire Night” [25] or the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in “The Last War” when:

The bomb entered our conversation,
A stranger who refused to leave.
Only years on did we become aware
Of the pit of ash beneath our tongues. [78]

Gallagher’s engagement with the world has led her to a contemplation of her own inner self remarking to Lydia Vianu:

I wouldn’t say my world is always ‘full and balanced.’ However, I have a lot of Zen in me and try to live ‘in the moment.’ Poetry is my refuge, my solace. [Interview with Lydia Vianu. Accessed 10/5/07 at 19.00]

It is precisely this attempt at living “in the moment” and taking refuge in her art that has led Gallagher to write a profoundly interesting cycle of poems entitled “After Kandinsky” [87-99]. Kandinsky, the great master of colour and abstraction draws the poet in on herself as she contemplates each painting in depth, moving into and beyond the canvas in her private search for inner harmony, which finds its expression on the page. It is in this section that the poet unfurls her mastery of word and song and leads the reader through adventure via the colours and shapes of Kandinsky. If through Kandinsky’s work one intuits the sounds and musical balance resonant in his chromatic geometry, Gallagher’s poetry harmonises her writing with the canvases, recreating in her poetry the spatial, psychological and reflexive tension which underlies the graphic impact of an inner world atomised in circles, lines and triangles and, above all, colour. Gallagher’s poetry and Kandinsky’s art flow together as the supreme expression of form. It is as if Gallagher’s inner world has resonated in consonance with the vibrations transmitted by Kandinsky’s colours and has converted them onto a literary plane which has enabled her to imperatively and fluidly construct these poems “After Kandinsky.”

Kandinsky is said to have stated that when he saw colours he heard music, one is reminded here of Pythagoras’s music of the planets, then it would be true to say that in this cycle Gallagher saw the colours and gives verbal form to Kandinsky’s music. It is this subtle communication of two arts that create a rapport with each other in a most remarkable way. Kandinsky’s artistic pizzicato leads Gallagher into a dynamic relationship in which she “feels” the formal emotional nucleus of each painting, internalising it into powerful, deep lyrical pieces. Gallagher “writes” a selection Kandinsky’s paintings in chronological order from 1922 to 1927, each poem bearing the same title as the paintings. Writing about the painting titled “Yellow, Red, Blue” dated from 1925 Gallagher appears to verbally scan the painters brush strokes and in so doing moves deeper towards her own inner harmony:

In the background, dark moons, resilient,
juggle patchwork squares, lines, and curves.
Light bounces off them as finally the perfect blue
you’ve been waiting for, dips, tumbles
into the still of the storm, among reds, purples
all shades—this country you keep coming back to,
that walks you home to yourself. [92]

“Tension in Red” 1926 Gallagher seems to offer us part of her own poetic aesthetics as she delves into the balance of colours and the apparent conflict of lines in Kandinsky’s work:

Every secret is a hidden box. You rein it in
and wait. Years own, you’ve stored laughter
to keep you steady. The sky flares red,
its fires savage the forest.
                      You remember
when the arsonist cried wolf
and their calls defeated you.

As the sun climbs, the sky is strummed
like a guitar—string-ladders of sound.
You see the dispute between red and black,
Light offered to travellers between moons.

Red stretches, soars, spills,
                                               tantalizes… [94]

There is much in this poem that tells us of Gallagher’s delicate sense of music, her constant movement between excitement and rhythms of joy and delight that counterpoint with other poems of nostalgia, close watching of the world around the poet as seeks her own personal poetic and inner balance. I have always found Katherine Gallagher a most rewarding poet to read and to listen to when I have the opportunity to hear her read. For those who have never read her work Circus Apprentice is ideal as it acts like a resume of so much of what all her writing is about. No poetry lover should pass this one by.



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