NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The Year of the Tree by Katherine Gallagher
(Bibliotheca Universalis, Bucharest, Romania, 2015)
Originally from Central Victoria, Australia, Katherine Gallagher graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1963 and taught in Melbourne for five years before moving to Europe living first in London and then in Paris for nine years. In 1979, she moved back to London working as a secondary teacher and, after 1990, as a poetry tutor for the Open College of the Arts, Jackson’s Lane, Barnet College and Torriano, London. During this time she co-edited Poetry London and worked extensively with primary school children. She is currently a member of the Editorial Board of Writing in Education. Gallagher has been the recipient of several awards and prizes including the Brisbane Warana Poetry Prize and a Royal Literary Fund Award. She is the author of five full collections of poetry including Tigers on the Silk Road (Arc Publications, 2000) and Carnival Edge: New and Selected Poems (Arc Publications, 2010).
Her latest volume, The Year of the Tree, contains a selection of poems drawn from her previous publications together with some new ones and is a bilingual (English / Romanian) publication in the Bibliotheca Universalis series currently publishing the work of honorary contributors to Orizont Literar Contemporan (Contemporary Literary Horizon) – a multi-lingual journal of literature and the arts, published in Bucharest, Romania. Credit should be given to Iulia-Andreea Anghel, Elena Nistor and Alina-Olimpia Miron, from the University of Bucharest, for translating this book into Romanian.
The title poem is a reflection of Gallagher’s concern for the environment. It is written in the guise of a “protest” poem. On a first reading, it reminded me of the last day of the annual Chelsea Flower Show when visitors are allowed to buy plants from the show and take them home to plant in their own gardens. There are amazing scenes of people struggling with armfuls of plants, some almost as big as themselves, getting on to buses or squeezing into taxis to go through the city’s streets with their prize possessions for all to see. In this poem, Gallagher is carrying a tree through the London Underground:
A few people asked
Why a tree?
I said it was for my own
a tree always
has something to teach.
In a recent interview with Monica Manolachi for Orizont Literar Contemporan, Gallagher says that “the underlying theme is a scenario about our planet’s disappearing trees and the need to protect them (in the rainforest, for example) from the ravages of industrialisation and war represented by the comparison of a tree with a gun at the end of the poem. The poem largely depends on irony for its effects.”
Be sure to take the tree
with you, they said.
Don’t worry, I’m taking it
to my garden,
the start of a forest.
When people stared,
Relax, I said,
it’s a tree, not a gun.
Perhaps the picture that the poem conjures up is not so fantastic after all. All trees begin their life underground. Their roots spread out from the centre just like the map of the London Underground whose branch lines put out shoots into the far-flung suburbs. Every tree needs someone to nurture it as a daily rite. The tree, which in this case is an oak, is steeped in history. It is noted for its strength and its resilience. Gallagher would like it to represent every type of tree.
Gallagher writes with eloquence and restraint about her early life on the other side of the globe. In Hybrid, Australia is in her psyche:
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 –
Australia is her reference point wherever she is in the world. It is the place that speaks to her deepest self.
Poems about travel and the anticipation and excitement that it brings come to the surface in several places in this collection. Identity, belonging, displacement and hybridity are among her most important themes. Not surprisingly, much of this has to do with her transnational background – the early years in Australia, her Irish ancestry, her marriage in France and her residence in Britain. For Gallagher, experience of living among other cultures has given her an amazing strength and depth, and with that has come the recognition of the need to act responsibly towards the planet for our survival. In Itinerant the sense of expectancy brought on by a journey is almost palpable:
Polishing my square-toed brogues,
I think about journey, that measure
of breaking out of myself
which never leaves me.
I catch each venture like a living thing;
improvised, it cuts free – shoe-inviting,
pressing the day; my heart drums fast, faster.
I tell myself, Your feet have never
Whether she is describing butterflies at Delphi, the plants in her mother’s garden in Australia or skimming stones from an English shoreline, aspects of the natural world are described throughout this collection with intelligence and delight. Delve a little deeper and the reader will soon discern that these descriptors are being used to relay other, more powerful emotions that will almost unknot… unhappiness; bring the memory of a loved one closer and shed the burden of monotony by hurling it into the sea.
For Gallagher, there is clearly a close relation between poetry, art and music. This is where art and colour, love and life come together in perfect harmony whether it be in a series of love poems such as the charming Love Cinquains or some of her ekphrastic poetry. In Red, Yellow and Blue, as in so much of her poetry, she explores the colour and music of words. This is the terrain that she keeps coming back to, the place that fires her imagination so well. Gallagher enjoys the opportunity to collaborate with artists, sculptors and musicians. In an interview with Ted Slade for Poetry Kit (2000) she speaks of the special value that these collaborations offer in terms of widening the appeal of poetry and enabling it to be seen in a different context – away from the page –and in a more public arena. In the present volume, the suite of poems After Kandinsky, which has been set to music for cello and oboe, is one instance where poetry and music have come together in an artistic collaboration.
There are several references to dance in this collection. It is present in Circus Apprentice; Dancing and the Love Cinquains. To Gallagher, dancing is the nearest thing to flying. Dancing engages the whole being and makes us and others happy. It lifts our feet (and our spirits) off the ground and brings its own sense of liberation. In Dancing on the Farm, she tells us:
I wanted to dance with my father,
dance fast over dirt tracks,
dance full-flight across creeks…
She found that her father
was the master of the slow waltz
but she did not believe for one moment that the foxtrot was too fast for him:
my Dad opened up,
the weight of days holding his feet
to the boards.
In her excellent introduction, Lidia Vianu says that Gallagher inhabits “a world between England and Australia, between nature and the city, between life and death, between now and then...emotions and ideas come to life for the brief space of a few stanzas…she watches one spark of feeling glitter in a chosen word and, when the thrill has died, she squeezes a new emotion out of the page.” One thing is certain, these are very sure-footed poems from a poet who more than knows her craft.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).