Dear Ghosts,

By Tess Gallagher

129 ratings - 3.96* vote

The long-awaited and resplendent new poetry collection by Tess Gallagher, whose poems "are a gift of a poet's heart and soul to her readers" (Robert Coles)Don't sharpen them.Expectation, more dangerousthan any blade.—"Knives in the Borrowed House"Fourteen years after Moon Crossing Bridge—Tess Gallagher's powerful elegies for her husband, Raymond Carver—Dear Ghosts, is the The long-awaited and resplendent new poetry collection by Tess Gallagher, whose

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Book details

Hardcover, 80 pages
May 2nd 2006 by Graywolf Press

(first published 2006)

Original Title
Dear Ghosts,: Poems
1555974430 (ISBN13: 9781555974435)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


I struggled with a handful of these poems, didn't like (at all) a few. Most of them, however, intrigued me aesthetically or intellectually. My favorites tended to be expressly anti-war plus one about her father and two about Raymond Chandler, her famous dead spouse.

I doubt it would come to mind, even in a reality in which many people read poetry and one of them wanted a recommendation. But if someone (in that aforementioned bizarre world) asked about this book, i would not suggest avoiding it.


Dear Ghosts, is a collection of poetry long awaited since Tess Gallagher’s previous poetry book, Moon Crossing Bridge. I analyzed the book’s theme, motifs, and poetical elements in order to understand Gallagher’s intentions behind them. These elegies are incredibly powerful and personal, with the author sharing many emotional events within her own life. Gallagher brings her readers on a journey through suffering, loss, nostalgia, and even hope, but she does so in a way that is commentative and poetical. She invites the reader and draws their attention to major events and minor details in her life, as well as the memories and stories of some of her loved ones. Gallagher does not ask for the sympathy of others, however, especially not of her readers, which makes this collection strong and overall empowering.
Many of her poems are in dedication to one of her ghosts: a loved one, though lost. In the acknowledgements of Dear Ghosts, she says, “to the ghosts / in and out of the flesh / who accompany me” (Gallagher). The collection was awaited by many of her readers for fourteen years, following the death of her husband Raymond Carver. She concludes her list of dedications in the acknowledgements with “To all, bountiful thanks. And Ray, always Ray” (Gallagher). Her letters include memories of all kinds, even her imagined life with Raymond, had they been given more time together. In “Sixteenth Anniversary”, Gallagher’s piece “for Raymond Carver”, she says, “so at last the door / swings open and we’re both / on the same side of it / for a while” (134). In this poem, she is reliving the day of Ray’s funeral, where she rushed to place flowers on his chest in memory of when she used to lay them on his desk as he worked. She relates the physical door between them then to the metaphorical or spiritual one now.
Birds are a recurring image throughout Dear Ghosts, introduced from the very beginning in “My Unopened Life” as “Hadn’t I done enough with the life / I’d seized, sure as a cat with / its mouthful of bird, bird with its / belly full of worm” (Gallagher, 1). Gallagher feels her life has been fulfilled an and eventful, yet she is still left with darkness and lingering questions: “And even in the belly of the bird: why / only darkness?” (1). In the following piece, “Not a Sparrow”, she says, “Just when I think the Buddhists / are wrong and life is not mostly suffering, / I find a dead finch near the feeder” and continues with “That same afternoon, having restored balance, / I discover a junco fallen on its back” (Gallagher, 5). I think that birds are reminiscent of the innocent, and maybe their death depict the loss of her own innocence. They cause no harm nor foul, yet they still suffer. In “Sah Sin”, she catches a hummingbird in her blouse “as [she] heard / South American women do” and cared for its lifeless body until another burial (Gallagher, 7). Just as well, the birds may be indicative of loved ones she has lost, a motif closely related to the central theme of the collection.
I think that Gallagher brought a lot of her poems to life with the imagery that she provided. “Dream Doughnuts” is a poem about dreams, as it suggests in the title, and Gallagher shares one of her own about Ray. She says, “Time is funny, he says, biting into the doughnut / so the hole breaks open to the entire air supply / of the planet. Powdered sugar clings to the corners / of his lips” (Gallagher, 78). She describes her surrounds through images, allowing her reader to see the moment with her, not only read it. Although, there were poems that did not settle with me as well as the rest because of their lack of imagery, like “Lie Down with the Lamb”, though one of my favorite poems in the collection because of the story that it tells and the way it ties connections to her country fighting war, it is not the most imaginative. Similarly, “Cultivation” is obscure with only “She said she had made the garden / for the garden. Not her own pleasure. / Flowers. The wildest I ever saw”, though its lack of imagery does not delineate from what the poem is trying to say (Gallagher, 108).
Gallagher’s use of rhetorical questions becomes redundant and loses its emphasis and power after its prolonged use, as seen in “Lie Down with the Lamb” by “but a sign / of what? That in helplessness before / atrocities any innocence is oasis? … So are we all / bought and sold in the coin of the realm” (54). I believe the point is to address those in which her poems are being sent to directly, but it also persuades the reader to ask the same question. She also uses figurative language like “Like a thumb print / on glass, you hover / in daylight, marking the sky / with a scar of midnight” in “Moon’s Rainbow Body” (Gallagher, 85). The character she describes has a prominent presence, lingering very noticeably. Her use of figurative language is clear and concise, which is effective beside her poems’ realism and physical images.
One of the most noticeable technical aspects of Dear Ghosts, was the lineation and form of its poems. There was an abundant mix of pieces three or four pages long, placed beside some consuming just one page or even only three or four lines long. Immediately, the theme of the book is apparent: letters to her ghosts as a form of storytelling and her own way of coping through different people and cultures. The central idea creates a sort of friendship or intertwining of the dead and the living.

Works Cited
Gallagher, Tess. Dear Ghosts,. Graywolf Press, 2006.


These poems deal with death, for the most part, but are full of life, humor, quirky details, hope, mystery, and grace. A fantastic collection that's humble, honest, and spiritual without being didactic or implying any sort of superior tone. These poems unearth meaning and pattern from both unusual experiences as well as the everyday. Keenly observed, with a voice you can hear as if she were in the room speaking directly to you - poems whittled to near-perfection.


Not altogether the vibe I usually go for, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do what it does well. Was not expecting to like this as much as I do.




The comma in the book title “Dear Ghosts,” establishes the context for this collection of narrative poetry. That comma implies letters. This is a collection, however, in which the sum is much greater than the individual poems. It is not a morose book of letters to deceased loved ones, but a testament to living. Letters connect people, bridging geographical as well as metaphorical gaps. The ghosts are personal and universal; Gallagher’s father and mother, her husband, the writer Raymond Carver, as well as victims of the Holocaust and other wars.

Gallagher also addresses her own mortality with poems about her experience with cancer. In “The Women of Auschwitz,” Gallagher compares having her hair cut during treatment for cancer to the “shorn heads” of the women in the camp.
Before she cuts the braid
Teresa twines the red ribbon
bordered with gold into my hair.
The scissors stutter against the thick
black hank of it, though for its part,
the hair is mute.

When it was done
to them they stood next to each other.
Maybe they leaned
into each other’s necks afterward. Or
simply gazed back with the incredulity
of their night-blooming souls.
Note the powerful line breaks in the first and third line of this stanza.

Most of the poems in this collection are long, two to three pages. The writing is dense, heavy with descriptions and meaning.
Some nights go on in an afterwards so secure
they don’t need us, though sometimes one exactly
corresponds to its own powers of elemental tirelessness.
A prodigious heaviness comes over it that upswings it
into taking us, like the seizure knowing is,
back into its mouth. One blue-violet night in Hawaii during
the Vietnam War pinions me against

Some images appear throughout the collection. Doorways come to mind; the passage between life and death, the transition from one phase of living-a daughter, a wife-to another-an orphan, a widow.
“Sixteenth Anniversary” is an elegy to the anniversary of Carver’s death. It starts with Gallagher “observing the anniversary/alone in a cabin at La Push.” She encounters a Quileute carver-interesting metaphor there.
Before heading to the cemetery
I made them leave the lid up
while I ran out to the garden
and picked one more bouquet
of sweet peas to fan onto your
chest, remembering how you
beamed when I placed them
on your writing desk in
the mornings. You’d draw
the scent in deeply,
then I’d kiss you on the brow,
go out, and quietly close
the door.

We survive on ritual, on
sweet peas in August, letting
the scent carry us, so at last the door
swings open and we’re both
on the same side of it
for a while.

The first two stanzas of “Oil Spill” give a taste of Gallagher’s powers of description, and her skilllful use of imagery.
A blue-black planet, it falls from
the chainsaw into rainwater
puddled where the earthquake
left its shoulders in the driveway,
the depression in gravel
reminding us we walk on waves.

The droplet flings itself down, radiates
like a jellyfish unfurling its
mantle-filtrating, rippling.
At its core, a violet eye,
magenta-lashed, its milky skirting


I'd hoped I would like these poems, although I really wasn't sure what kind of poetry to expect from Tess Gallagher. Turns out I should expect good poetry from her! This collection, as far as I can tell, is organized around a very loose theme: the poems are mostly directed to people in her life, or they communicate something related to other people in her life. I liked them a lot, because they were thoughtful and moving (I actually cried at some of the ones about Raymond Carver, but I am a soft touch for that), and because they had an unexpectedly deep range. Gallagher understands language - always important for a poet. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.


Just read through the first of seven sections. I do not know how to criticize poems.

If our task as writers is to defamiliarize, then how is this (from "My Unopened Life"):

The bowl of the spoon
collects entire rooms just lying there next
to the knife. It makes brief forays into
the mouth delivering cargoes of ceilings
and convex portraits of teeth
posing as stalactites of
a serially extinguished cave.

I like the enjambments: the odd use of the prepositional "next" and "into" at the ends of lines 2 and 3 of this stanza seems to add energy to the movement of the line.

Mark Valentine

Reading Gallagher's poems have a mixed effect with me: On one hand, I am inspired and moved and emotionally charged to see the things that lie around me as quickened and energized, having profound implications; and on the other hand, I fascinated by how basic, sincere, truthful, and real she writes. Some of the people she writes about in her poems, I know too, and the places, I know too. (I have stood next to her husband's gravesite and said my own silent prayer too.) To sum, Gallagher's poems are ethereal and real.

Judith Shadford

My appreciation of poetry has come late in the game and tends to be rather more visceral than intellectual. But o my, Dear Ghosts is a collection rising from all the losses in Gallagher's life...her mother, her husband, Raymond Carver, her own ordeal with cancer. To link that much courage with such feather brushes of loveliness is a stunning gift to all of us. Awestruck seems to be as accurate as a non-poet can register.