“We love life whenever we can.”: A review of “Acres of Light” – a collection of poetry by Katherine Gallagher…

Katherine Gallagher’s latest collection, Acres of Light, makes us sigh wistfully, laugh out loud and remember why life is worth living. Gallagher’s poems are divided into five whimsically titled sections: Green Groves and Flowering Almond, Love Songs From Afar,  Storms and the Breath of Owls, Constellations and a Dream of Oceans and Acres of Light.

The first poem Elan transports us to an English park on an April day.  In five short stanzas we are drawn into a halcyon afternoon complete with leafing chestnuts, flowering almond, cherry and the silky, / lissom sound of Summertime and Scarborough Fair being played on a sax. Like the poet we walk lightheaded, heels / gliding, in love with all this. Every element in this scene is perfect – the dazzling peacock, tail fanned, children’s voices, the warming breeze. This is the magic of Gallagher’s poetry – she pulls us completely into the moment and rinses us clean.

…something is happening – a season / emptying into the moment, rinsing clean.

I am filled with delight and ready to embark on a voyage through words that will take me from sun dappled English countryside to the spare, harsh landscape of rural Australia. We travel with Gallagher from oceans to suburbs, from small moments of gladness to harrowing global realities.

Gallagher’s enormous love for the world around her is reflected in splendid random lists of unlikely things in poems like Credo, Quotidian and The Spell of Fireflies. The quirky and fantastical, the exquisite and comical are slung together in a glorious grab bag of objects and instances which make up an ordinary life. This is a poet who delights in robins, children, bees and gardens, believes in witches, flying fish and stars and likes mirrors, miracles and handouts. This is a poet who relies on the bedrock of rice and raspberries and who is not afraid to rhyme moons with macaroons, the Goons and prunes. In Gallagher’s world vitamin pills and Arctic skies are given the same weight. Nothing is insignificant and everything has its place.

Gallagher’s poetry ranges from tanka and haiku that are as delicate as the print on shibori fabric:  inside the robin’s / pure song – / evening walk and winter solstice – / the darkness closes in / against church bells to brutal and horrific truths about bullies, refugees and war: her hands are not allowed / to speak for her / The interrogator lays his knife / across her throat. (Photograph – Mekong Delta, South Vietnam, 1965)

This collection offers us the svelte branches of lemon gums; the bluest of blue draw of the sea; the lights of a hundred cities; water’s grey face / on bedraggled stone. Gallagher takes us into shearing sheds and cathedrals, we climb mountains and swim in dams, we feel the visceral terror of hanging on to a runaway horse, we smile at the way in which the music of four young men changed the world: John, Paul, Ringo and George…soon / all over the planet, no one was too young or too old / anymore. No one would walk on air quite the same way again.

These are poems that draw us into tiny moments of silent connection (between poet and blackbird): …two eyes / fix mine. Not a sound passes between us, / but we understand each other. / The blackbird on her nest is intent. And offer us lines of lyrical wisdom: When you hear the words that chase and race your days / along new shores, believe.  It must be fire. / Don’t hesitate and bait the silence, there’s no recipe / for those who wait for love…

Gallagher’s sharp observation of life is delivered in language that is unaffected, clear and controlled yet richly laced with breathtaking metaphors:

Snow is prodigal / like someone / with loose money / showering gifts / on passing landscapes.

 forsythia hikes its yellow skyward

light follows, takes you / across borders / that dissolve into / the measure of your days.

While much of Gallagher’s poetry is playful, humorous and happy, there are also many poignant, bitter sweet, sad and unsettling poems in the anthology. Gallagher’s tender reminiscences about her mother are tinged with regret and uncertainty: …She’d laugh, / say she’d missed us – her schoolgirl daughters…She was proud of us… / It was what we wanted to hear, / we believed her.  Her use of an innocent child’s voice to deliver the sinister narrative in Owl on the Nursery Window Sill – a fable is positively chilling  –  Mummy had been gone for days. / I faced Owl; it only stared / and blinked. And the poems about her farmer brother are filled with deep, unadulterated sorrow. I knew your condition / was worsening…farmer-brother, still young; / planter of twenty thousand wattles, / she-oaks, banksias, / ironbarks. / Be brave, believe. / The omens aren’t good, you said.

Alison Brackenbury’s statement about Gallagher’s poetry, “These are poems that love our world,” is absolutely correct. Katherine Gallagher’s poems are a reminder that the only way to navigate this world (in all its smallness, grandeur, beauty and terror) is by loving it. She sings her love in joyful cadences and simple rhymes:  The ocean calls the dolphin / The dolphin calls the wave…The deep calls the dolphin / The dolphin calls the dream / The dream is the ocean. And she speaks her love in heart breaking stanzas of pure grief: …Under the fiercest sun, / you have worn the beauty of flowers: / gum blossom, mimosa, banksias, that the sun bakes / thorough acres of light. / I imagine you here, being yourself, striding / beneath a theatre of stars.


Sharing thoughts and words with the wonderful Katherine Gallagher…

© Anita Patel, 2017

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