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