Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

7. Tess Gallagher, 1943–

In his essay The Tree, the English writer John Fowles argues, in a luxurious line, that artists aren’t really born, at least not in their parents’ image. The argument seems luxurious because it doesn’t consider the dulling effects of poverty on children, and regards, instead, parents who imagine “making” an artist, rather than parents who can’t afford even to offer their children fine art, or imagine art’s utilities. Fowles writes:

Successful artistic parents seem very rarely to give birth to equally successful artistic sons and daughters, and I suspect it may be because the urge to create, which must always be partly the need to escape everyday reality, is better fostered—despite modern educational theory—not by a sympathetic and “creative” childhood environment, but the very opposite, by pruning and confining natural instinct….[But] the fact that the two branches grow in different directions and ways does not mean that they do not share a same mechanism of need, a same set of deeper rules (Fowles 1983:21-22).

Tess Gallagher, the Port Angeles–born writer, may exemplify a form of Fowles’s horticultural model. Though her father and mother were money-short, independent loggers, Tess was writing for her city paper while in high school, and found her way to Theodore Roethke’s last workshop while she was still in her teens. In her essay “My Father’s Love Letters” (Gallagher 1986:1-23), Gallagher constructs the idea that an artist’s childhood influences are sometimes untraceable, except in the imagination of the remembering artist. The poor often die early, or leave little trace. But the roots are set in their child, and if the child has brains, drive, luck, and instruction, the family tree can spread in directions the writer’s parents may never have imagined nor condoned.

Work itself may make the bridge between logger and poet. One learns to produce whatever is called for. Gallagher is the daughter of gyppo loggers; her mother was a choker-setter, her father a spar-tree rigger. The trees, she remembered in a 2001 classroom conversation, were amazing presences, and their falling “cut your heart.” After her mother took a falling tree’s limb through her thigh, Gallagher’s father joined the longshoreman’s union and supported the family by loading and unloading the ships that sailed into Port Angeles from all over the world. Her family took pride in hard work, and it made Gallagher into a romantic, one who dreamed and yearned to get to the better thing. “I learned to want to represent lives that had no written expression. My family had good verbal skills, but no child was allowed to speak.” She also says, “I learned about language by keeping bullies from my brothers, but poetry and writing separated me from my family. I never knew poetry’s gypsy ride would take me so far from home” (Gallagher 2001).

If a common image can characterize the Northwest writer, it might be rain. This image privileges the writers along the Vancouver—Seattle— Portland—San Francisco stretch of the American Northwest, the strip with the most people. But rain does make an easy one-to-one tie between growth outside and growth inside the human interior. Rain helps make reading and writing a more conscionable activity than it may be for those who live on the other side of the Northwest’s mountains where there is more sun. But Gallagher’s family worked in the rain—the famous Pacific Coast rain soaked the poor as they worked in it, wet all the time. Still, the writer Gallagher branched out from her family with the help of rain. The rain, she says, the water, and the subdued colors of cloud gray and the forest’s green “are what bind me to the will to write poems” (Gallagher 1986:3).

Gallagher still lives where she grew up, near her mother’s home, near her logger brother, above the Strait of Juan de Fuca and backed up against the Olympic Rain Forest. It was here she heard her drunk father fight with her mother and, as Fowles argues, where she felt “the need to escape everyday reality” (Fowles 1983:22). Gallagher (1986:3) says it this way: “And if coping with terror and anxiety are necessary to the psychic stamina of a poet, I had them in steady doses—just as inevitably as I had the rain.” Gallagher, here, stands for other poets in our anthology—for her husband Raymond Carver, for Richard Hugo—poets who, like her, grew up from apparently nothing like art at all, but rather with art’s antagonists: silence, abuse, desperation, although love may still be the unspoken thing to bring these remarkable people to the page at last. So Gallagher says:

All through my attempts in the poems, I have needed to forge a language that would give these dead and living lives a way to speak…. The images of these two primal figures, mother and father, condense now into a vision of my father’s work-thickened hands, and my mother’s back, turned in hopeless anger at the stove where she fixed eggs for my father in silence. My father gets up from the table, shows me the palms of his hands, “Threasie,” he says, “get an education. Don’t get hands like these” (Gallagher 1986:5-6).

Gallagher knows about influence: the influence of weather, of anxiety, the influence of unspoken words held in tense air. Poets work in a language that somehow wedges its way in. Always, it can be home that helps. Gallagher got through her freshman year at the University of Washington on her family’s store of elk-meat and apples; she waitressed; in 1963 she joined Theodore Roethke’s hand-picked, highly competitive workshop. She wrote her first poem for Roethke about following the blood of a hunt-gunned deer. Whatever she got from home stayed with her, but she went in a direction she’d not imagined until she left her family for school. To meet people who made their living writing, she said, was “off the planet” (Gallagher 1998a). She learned that “words=more than physical power=freedom from enslavement to job-life=power to direct and make meaning in your own life” (Gallagher 1986:6).

Gallagher is frequently credited as a teacher, mentor, and supporter, by students and by those who’ve been the very closest to her, especially her husband Raymond Carver, whose dedication to A New Path to the Waterfall (1989:ix) reads simply, powerfully, “Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess.” Gallagher and Carver collaborated profoundly. They wrote two short plays together, Can I Get You Anything and Favor, as they drove across America (Henry, Carver, and Gallagher 1998:413-437). But more frequently they wrote to one another, giving different versions or treatments to a story as they did with Carver’s “Cathedral” and Gallagher’s “The Harvest” and “Rain Flooding Your Campfire.” Perhaps, they both wrote as well to their stories’ characters, as Carver told William Stull, but the two writers shared such similar backgrounds that their fictional characters came from very compatible memories (Gentry and Stull 1990:185).

Gallagher has written often of her work with Carver and of his continued influence on her life. Her introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, to Carver Country (1990), and her essay “A Nightshine Beyond Memory: Ten More Years With Ray” (Gallagher 1998b), are three good examples. Her book Moon Crossing Bridge (1992) is a sustained meditation on the deep love and loss she felt following Carver’s death. Their 140 boxes of archives in the Ohio State University library show the man and woman working together, trying each other’s forms, testing bridges between common speech and art, between what is said, what is imagined, and what is written. After Carver’s death in 1988, Gallagher stayed both loyal and irrepressible. Gallagher’s partner of the past few years is the Irish story-teller and painter Josie Gray. Her home is decorated with his artwork, and she has helped him arrange shows in America as well as in Ireland. She is also collaborating with Gray on The Courtship Stories, a collection of his Irish tales; two of these, “A Lake in the Boat” and “The Rate Collector,” appeared in DoubleTake in 2002.

Gallagher is very well read, well traveled, and widely published. She is translated into countries from Italy to Hungary to Japan. Her selected poems were first published in England. Gallagher’s poetry, essays and prose range wide. She can hold a narrative line wonderfully; she can be Lorca-like, challenging and surreal; she can be, as in Portable Kisses (1978), very funny. Her 1995 book of poems, My Black Horse, displays lines that vary from these direct ones to her brother: “Our father is three months dead / from lung cancer and you light another Camel, / ease the chainsaw into the log. You / don’t need habits to tell us / you’re the one most like him” (from “Woodcutting on Lost Mountain”); to these delicately impressionist lines in “No, Not Paradise” that ask, “When the mouth of the lion unhinges / in paradise, do his teeth gleam / with a frenzied trembling left over / from death, that unripe windowpane / we press our faces against to admire / the roofless serenity of beings at ease / with the perpetual?” (Gallagher 1995:107,236). Two books of her essays, A Concert of Tenses (1986) and Soul Barnacles (2000), detail her long experience  with the facts of poetry and her mastery of the craft, her apprenticeship with Theodore Roethke, and, most, with Raymond Carver. As with her poems and essays, her book of stories, At the Owl Woman Saloon (1997), tells just how much Gallagher loves the people around her—her hairdresser, her mother, and all their long-lived tales. Tess Gallagher, truly, is a woman who has traveled far and still stays rooted in the deep ground of her immediate home and family, forces with whom she shares the mechanisms of need, the sets of deeper rules. 


Tess Gallagher – The Academy of American Poets

An Atlantic Monthly conversation with Tess Gallagher

A collection of Tess Gallagher links from the book publisher, Bedford St. Martins Press

Tess Gallagher, “Last Class with Roethke” and "My Father's Love Letters" in A Concert of Tenses: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986.

Tess Gallagher, "For Certain Foreign Anthologists of Raymond Carver," "Legend with Sea Breeze," and "Northwest by Northwest" in My Black Horse: New and Selected Poems. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1995.

Tess Gallagher, "I Have Never Wanted to March," in Poets Against the War, ed. Sam Hamill with Sally Anderson. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.

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