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spacer.gif   VARELA REVIEWS GALLAHER
Posted by : cj on Monday, December 06, 2004 - 11:28 AM
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Chicago Poetry Archives: Click Headlines FRANKLY CHICAGO

This Month Varela Takes On: Cynthia Gallaher, Earth Elegance, MARCH/Abrazo Press, P.O. Box 2890, Chicago, Illinois 60690-2890, ISBN 1-877636-17-7, illustrated by Lonnie Poco, 80 pp., $10.95.

I resist books from the read-it-because-it's-good-for-you school of poetry. Fortunately, Chicago-based Cynthia Gallaher's new book of environmental poetry, Earth Elegance, isn't one of those annoying publications. In fact, Earth Elegance is remarkably free of
the self-righteous rhetoric that has soured me to some sectors of the environmental movement. This observation begs the question, "Is this book worth reading?"

When I review a poet's work, I often rely on two criteria to measure its value: Can this author write convincingly of love? And can this writer portray nature in new and interesting ways? Cynthia Gallaher has
labored with quiet dedication, but with admirable results, in both fields.

Earth Elegance captures the essence of Gallaher's style, which combines tightly drawn images with the flowing quality of water. Gallaher populates her landscapes with fauna, both of feral and domesticated varieties. In "Armadillo," she ponders evolutionary resilience:

You put up the prehistoric
fight of fights
thanks to
your small and
easy-to-tuck-away size....

"Armadillo" is typical of what she accomplishes, first soothing with a stream of nature-based images, which we assume will set us up for more of the same, but then--she becomes subversive.

In "Coyote," she starts off by playing on the traditional Southwestern take on the Coyote myth, then switches gears and places the reader in an urban setting:

Once, Coyote's baby woke to dirty exhaust fumes traveling through the window every morning. Coyote went down to the parking lot, threw sugar cubes into the
offending car's gas tank, and the next day, Coyote's baby slept late, dreaming of rocking in a cradle from a tall spruce in a windy forest.

I believe that one of the functions of art is to be subversive, working on many different levels to transform in ways great and small. Earth Elegance is supposed to be a departure from Gallaher's urban focus to a panoramic view of animals and international environmental issues. In actuality, it is an
expansion of themes seeded throughout her prior books, but now--blossoming
in this current effort. I have come to appreciate nature poetry in my old age. Ted Hughes, the former British poet laureate, now deceased, and, of course, the reviled husband of Sylvia Plath, is one of the finest pastoral poets of his or any generation. When I read a Hughes' poem, I feel that I am getting under an animal's skin, obtaining secret knowledge from my reading, perhaps gaining a deeper appreciation of the psychology behind an animal's behavior--if nothing else, an understanding of the dark menace behind the survival of the fittest, as displayed in the astonishing poem "Hawk Roosting," as well as in such books as Season Songs, Cave Birds, Under the North Star,
and Flowers and Insects.

Gallaher's poetry does attempt to reach this deeper exploration, not altogether successfully, due in my opinion, to the book's broad range of styles, from verses suitable for children (White on White: Polar Bear), folksy whimsy (Chicken Machines), and outright meditations (Colorful Colorado). The more I read into it, the more I'm inclined to categorize the book as being one that is suitable for young adult readers, which is not insignificant, because this is a particularly difficult age group to write for.

Although she handles environmental issues with care and sensitivity, she also knows when to cut with laser beam precision:

Those who maintain
Wisconsin golf greens
forget that 'Grass was caused to grow
for cattle.'
Third World thousands
who might have been fed
never see the grain"

(Cow).

Nature poetry and environmental poetry are not really the same thing. Although they share many themes, their purposes are very different. Such poems as "Whale Song" ("My ears ride/ the back of whale songs,"), "Spider" (It's as if someone tore/ a sequined shoulder/ from a cocktail dress"), and
"Jaguar/El Tigre" ("People say God made man/ because he already made jaguar")
strike a pleasing balance between mood, texture, and feeling.

Lonnie Poco complements Earth Elegance with eight delightful scratchboard drawings. If you are into nature poetry, with an environmental flavor, Gallaher's book should be in your library of contemporary poets. Gallaher's prior work includes the critically acclaimed Swimmer's Prayer (Missing Spoke Press) and Night Ribbons (Polar Bear Press).

--Frank Varela



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