128 pp., BOA Editions, ltd.
If I may, I will be so bold as to offer this declaration as my opening thought for my review: In A Landscape, by John Gallaher, is one of those books. You know―it’s one of those books which picks you up from the earth’s gravity and sets you aimlessly afloat. Gallaher starts talking to you with what initially comes off as unfocused or circumstantial thoughts, but soon reveals itself as having an agenda. Most readers want books (particularly poetry books) to shove them in some familiar direction so they will at least be able to find their way home, and that’s a shame. To quote some lyrics as Gallaher does from time to time, there is “beauty in the breakdown.” Zachary Schomburg’s Scary, No Scary lives in the realm of the semi-conscious, and so does In A Landscape. Gallaher uses a different strategy (informal conversation) but the effect is the same. In A Landscape deceptively asks all sorts of questions and does not take the easy way out by giving the reader any simple answers. There are perhaps answers for Gallaher, and even you if you are willing to think about the questions long enough, but therein lies the work set out with this stunning poem.
The physical scope of the book can be seen as an obstacle, but it soon becomes apparent to the reader there is purpose and function built into the form. It appears in my mind as an endless and almost seamless series of fences in a Home Owner’s Association, mimicking the anonymity of the suburban landscape while the book attempts to mask its poetry in an almost prosaic display of long lines and thick stanzas. Why is it essential? The questions in the book are hidden, embedded into the fabric of conversation and they demand that the reader step into the ether to find them. Certainly the important questions can be asked in a more direct and obvious way, but the beauty of this book is that both questions and answers are discovered in incidental and almost accidental ways.
The book takes the form of a long conversation. Part Socratic method, and part Hegelian dialectic, Gallaher goes about the long and complicated process of trying to discover what is essential. When beginning the book, one might feel as if entering the process in media res, joining a conversation already in progress. In some ways I am sure, Gallaher has been having this conversation with himself for years and is now asking us to join in the discussion. The book demands a different kind of attention because each poem/section is numerical in nature, and the reader cannot simply identify any of the poems by title. One cannot simply skip to a poem which differently structured or unique in appearance. The reader must start and continue on if any sense is to be made of this book. This requirement mirrors one of the central themes of the book. I for one believe it to be a worthwhile endeavor. This is another level of anonymity which can be unsettling, but ultimately makes for a better reading experience.
Gallaher picks open his life at the seams and shares with the reader (by way of personal history and recollection) his doubts, questions, and musings regarding how a person gets from point A to point B. We learn about Gallaher’s life, who plainly admits this book is factual, and we learn about ourselves because it is only natural to be sympathetic and have empathy for the many things he tells us by searching our own lives. He examines the impact events have upon his life and appears at times to want a plot to emerge from a world he knows to be void of anything resembling plot. Sewn into the book are dozens of tiny epiphanies; moments of stark realization which deliver themselves like pin-pricks to the brain. Gallaher is also quite adept with his timing of these moments. He jumps ahead and revisits themes from earlier sections with stunning precision, somehow reading the mind of the reader. Gallaher always knows what topic to speak to next and what part of the reader to address.
One of the biggest discoveries I personally made as I read the book was there seemed to be an undercurrent of unsettling or lingering doubt about all of the really big questions. Eventually I came to believe the book is asking this single question: “Knowing all we know, how do we carry on?” At every turn, Gallaher seems to be asking that question for all of us. Detailing experiences which are big and small, seemingly random and at times frightening in their connectivity. If poetry was the world of quantum mechanics, or quantum theory was perhaps meant to be expressed through poetry, I would gladly hail In A Landscape as one of the more elegant theories of how the universe operates.
Ultimately, In A Landscape asks us to join in the conversation. We may not be able to make any predictions regarding our own lives, but we can be reassured we are not the alone in what we fear and the questions we ask. There is hope in these pages, and it is the kind of hope which is lasting, because it did not take any short cuts and it did not shy away from the difficult truths. John Gallaher has given us a jumping off point which is worthy of our time and our collaboration.