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Posts Tagged ‘Tess Gallagher Ambition’


“Ambition,” by Tess Gallagher in the Mar 25 issue of The New Yorker, is the best poem of hers I’ve read to date. “We had our heads down / baiting hooks — three wild salmon / already turned back…” A slick and subtle opening: Absolutely immediate, but from those first words we anticipate something about to happen. And boy, are we rewarded. “under our small boat the sea / gave a roll… lifting us so high I thought / an ocean liner…” A moment of confusion, perfectly described, then the rapture: “a pair of gray whales not two hundred / yards away.” The shift from this in-the-moment to the greater view gives us shivers. “It was all beauty and / mystery…” She displays great skill here in connecting that short moment to the profound, then just as quickly lets it pass, returning to the common world. That’s how epiphanies happen, how the sacred touches our world. A brilliant poem, to capture that truth.

The other poem here, “Pickpocket, Naples,” by Angela Leighton, slides rapidly through many more images to make her point. “Lost for a subject… among flaking billboards, unemptied bins, / pickings for a light touch… an angel’s wing flexed at my back.” We get a sense of how quickly such a moment goes by, a sense of the desperation of the world that might incite such a theft, as the poem’s form highlights its intent. What’s fun, though, is that in the next stanza she then goes right back and… well, not re-imagines the moment, but revisits it, or maybe has the moment repeat: “Or think another: I walk in a dream / past double-parked lots, boarded-up shops… chase the ghost of a child… and so miss the touch.” Just so we might ourselves repeatedly revisit such a moment in our memories, reviewing what happened from different angles, trying to understand what may be unknowable. Brava.

In the April 1 issue, Carol Muske-Dukes presents us with “Daphne, After.” “So Spring blossomed in spite of itself. / Uniform skirts up-rolled high by wild girls,” she starts. Note how the slight tilt of the language keeps us intrigued, the words come in a slightly different cadence than we are used to, emphasizing the wildness. But in fact, these are school girls, centered in their usual world. “two of us, heads // together, translating. Our selves as Stoic / teens.” We sense the yearning of these two to find adventure, to experience change, something important. And then, without warning: “He demanded her name first. Just / steps from the bus stop.” So the poet interleafs the current world with the classic myth. How beautifully it is done: “She told me only. The great wings of / aloneness closed in on us.” Wow. Boy, that’s why we read poetry, for moments like that.

Finally, Christian Wiman has “I Don’t Want To Be A Spice Store.” A much lighter, but no less notable work. “I don’t want to carry handcrafted Marseille soap, / or tsampa and yak butter.” The exotic nature of the goods giving us the sense of how the narrator rejects the exotic, the arch, for a more common usefulness: “I want to be the one store that’s open all night.” It’s a sweet way to characterize, and our imaginations flow right along with him. “I want to wait / brightly lit… for my father to find me open on Christmas morning in his last-ditch… drive for gifts.” And just like that, we have a greater depth, a poignancy, a loneliness. And the last line is especially brilliant (so go look up the poem and see what it is!)  A whole pile of great poems in these two issues.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Feb 11 2019

Rattle 63 – Spring 2019

Nimrod International Journal – Winter 2018

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