In a LandscapePoetry
Reviewed By Drew Webster
- BOA Editions (2014)
- 128 pages
Included with my review copy of John Gallaher’s In a Landscape is a “self-interview,” an interview that Gallaher evidently conducted with himself. At first, I thought this was an odd thing to include with a book. As I got further into In a Landscape, though, I began realize that while the self-interview is intended to be informative, it is also meant to be humorous. At one point he asks himself, “You and others have described this book…in many different ways, including nonfiction poetry, essay-poem, diary poem, a poetry daybook, among others.…” To which Gallaher answers himself, “Well, the book is poetry, it looks like poetry (the line breaks!), but yet, it doesn’t do a lot of the things poems usually do.” Gallaher never tells us what, in his mind, it is that poems usually do do, but we can assume from this statement and another in the interview—“I was consciously trying to not make a poem”—that these “not-poems,” for lack for a better word, exhibit that which is specifically not poetry, at least to Gallaher.
We are now treading into dangerous territory, because the construction Gallaher has given us suggests that we should define the work by what it is not; in other words, that we should move toward a negative definition of the work, rather than a positive one. This is perhaps Gallaher’s most crafty gambit in this book, one that is part red herring and one that is part necessary creative artifice. By red herring, I mean that Gallaher intends to misdirect us as readers from the poetic work that is happening in the book; by necessary creative artifice, I mean that Gallaher is misdirecting himself in order to do the poetic work of In a Landscape. After all, we know that Gallaher is, in the end, intent on writing something with a poetic quality to it, and we know this because of the way he expresses his desire to “not make a poem.” If one sits down to write something other than a poem, one does not say, “I would like to not write a poem.” Instead, one sits down with the intention to write a novel, or to write a play, or to just simply write to see where one’s thoughts might go. It is the emphasis on “not a poem” that clues us into Gallaher’s red herring. Inverting the binary, as they say, only reinforces the binary.
Furthermore, these not-poems have a pretty regular form to them. Each is catalogued under a Roman numeral, and each is broken into three stanzas. This pushes the form of In a Landscape back toward the poetic. The three-part construction suggests the movement of an ode, not so much in the celebratory tradition of the ode, but the classical tradition, as it was used by Greek dramatists. The movement of the chorus between acts—strophe, antistrophe, and epode—lends the form a dialectic feel. It is important, this dialectic, because it gives us a structure for encountering the world, a mode of organizing. Much of the content of Gallaher’s book attends to the quotidian, the seemingly banal circumstances we all deal with to some degree. What Gallaher’s able to do by using this three-stanza form is give meaning to these moments, to relieve them of their banality—or, at the very least, reckon with this banality—and give these moments some meaning: “We decide with our attention what has meaning / and what doesn’t” (“XLII”). The poem echoes the popular suggestion that death not only signals the end of change, it provides meaning: the understanding that we are temporary, temporal, is the basis for meaning making. Depending on the day, I find this either morbid or comforting. XLII’s third stanza is one line long: “What’s not to love about this world then?” The dialectic between change and ending is meaning, or the process whereby we come to meaning, but that process is informed, Gallaher suggests, by love. But that answer comes in the form of a question, so there’s an instability in the answer, as the answer itself requires an answer, and we’re off on the dialectic track yet again.
The question remains, why does Gallaher want to misdirect us? But to seek an answer to this question draws our attention away from what he is most interested in: the questions themselves. Instead, I think it might be more productive to assume that the simplest answer is the best one: the book is, at once, a poem and not a poem. It is the paradox Schrödinger expresses in his thought experiment with the cat. On page 80, after a lengthy quote from Schrödinger, Gallaher writes,
Doing an image search on “Schrödinger’s Cat” yields mostly comics.
My favorite of the few I looked at had this for a caption: “Schrödinger
was arrested for cruelty to animals. His fate is uncertain.” Is this
a realistic way to imagine fate?
Gallaher is a master of moving from punchlines to moments of real gravity. Cultural references abound in the book, and I could have chosen any one of them as an example. Gallaher’s book is about so many things that his axiom about life in general—“We decide with our attention what has meaning / and what doesn’t”—applies to his book as well.
Questions are important to Gallaher. The interrogative mode is how he pays attention. As you might expect then, questions populate the book with a high frequency (my borderline obsessive tendency to catalogue leads me to calculate that there are, on average, approximately three questions per poem). The structure of In a Landscape is as tied to questioning as it is to the three-stanza form. Gallaher lets us know that questions will play an important role from the outset. In “I,” Gallaher writes, “And they say the right question / is far more difficult to get to than the right answer.” Instead of looking for answers, Gallaher is looking for questions, starting with a simple, but loaded question. The first words of the book are “Are you happy?” It’s a question that the rest of the book silently answers: “yes and no.” If you’re looking for answers, Gallaher’s not going to give them to you. If you’re looking for questions, you’ve just stumbled on something great. Some of my favorites are
“What’s the most earnest you’ve ever been?”
“If one is admonished to do no one harm, is it implied that it’s OK to do no one any good either?”
“What would you like?”
“What else is inevitable?”
and “Being is the true subject, right?”
Questions are how Gallaher pays attention, and his capacity to attend is nearly inexhaustible. In “XXV” he writes, “I’m thinking that cataloging one’s life is a sort of other-living, / a creepiness like those people who go everywhere videotaping….” The irony, of course, is that this is exactly what Gallaher is doing. When In a Landscape is critical, you can bet that that criticism is at least partially self-reflexive. Whatever the case may be, in the spirit of this cataloging, I did some cataloging of my own. With respect to popular music, Gallaher makes reference to Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, George Michael, Neko Case, Neil Young (a lot), Chuck Berry, Jason Molina, John Lennon, the Flaming Lips, America, George Harrison, Thom Yorke, The National, Devotchka, Woody Guthrie, Elvis, the B52s, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Clem Snide—and those are just the ones that I had the presence of mind to write down. The effect is such that the book feels like it has a soundtrack, a really good soundtrack, with musicians who range from very contemporary to classic (in terms of pop music). When Gallaher remembers something from his adolescence, Neil Young is likely to pop up, but when he’s mulling over a recent memory, Gallaher will reference something more recent such as The National; however, the musician referenced most often and with the most conceptual weight is John Cage. Perhaps most famous for experimenting with silent compositions, Cage’s influence on the book is great, and in terms of its soundtrack, one might say that it is also silent.
In a Landscape is packed with allusions and stories, and it has a tendency to telescope from the everyday to the transcendent and back again with alarming speed. The book is relentlessly self-reflexive, but instead of letting this devolve into a solipsistic navel-gazing, Gallaher’s book puts a lens on the world. He lends us his perspective for a little while, and it’s a perspective that leads to some of the most interesting and necessary questions that need asking.
Drew Webster is in the MFA program at CSU.