“Trouble on the way, and great joy”

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gallahercoverIn a place where names are lost like household objects, and white noise supplants meaningful distinctions between voices and people, why the need for singularity (or personhood) at all?

Any poetry collection that begins with a stuttering epigraph by Donald Rumsfeld (“There are things that we now know we don’t know… But… there are things we do not know we don’t know”) already deviates from the established norms of contemporary poetry, which tends to limit its intertextual references to works of other writers, or, at the farthest reach of literary influence, 19th and 20th century philosophers.

Map of the Folded World, John Gallaher’s third collection of verse, delights in subverting expectations. The influence of modernist great Wallace Stevens and über-ironist John Ashbery on his work are immediately apparent: the metaphysical drive, sang-froid detachment and consciousness of world as text permeate Gallaher’s work. But the chief marker of a poet who perceives the world textually is the attention paid to the causalities, rather than the manifestations, of the created world—in Map of the Folded World, this attention is present in book’s title, which suggests a blueprint for a world that has been halved—and that could potentially, upon opening, be redoubled.

Thus, in Gallaher, one finds stunning poems such as “Poem for the End of January”: “Which is dark against light. Which is/ that I don’t mean any of this./ It’s winter. I’m reading from the script.” What is most compelling about this taut stanza is how it equates “reading from the script” (a programmatic experience vs. one of self-invention) with a loss of semantic value. When reading from the script, in other words, it is impossible to truly “mean” what one says; the implications of this idea for the speaker’s identity and the identities of the personages in his work are vast, and troubling. This movement is echoed in increasingly vague terms in the antepenultimate stanza of “More Versions of It’s Real If You Say It Is”: “And sometimes we say things/ only because they sound good,/ when you think perhaps it’s building to something,/ and then that’s all there is.”

Gallaher’s epistemological concerns and preoccupation with the problems of perception and subjectivity can be found in many of his poems. Unnervingly, however, for the speaker this approach culminates not in an assertion of value or presence (human or divine), but in the validation of transience as the only authentic (or positively known) reality: “only movement is real.” He reestablishes this position of logical positivism elsewhere throughout Map of the Folded World, particularly in “Minneapolis is a Fine City”:

gallaher…eclipse as a wet bar of sorrow, and all these other ways
no one feels special
on which we hadn’t counted.
Because it’s all you can know.
Because it’s all you can touch. Here
are your enigmatic draperies.
Here are your pejorative sunsets.
And so why be a body at all?
Why be anything?”

It’s important to take poets such as Gallaher, who are working with major philosophical ideas seriously, for these poets are the seismologists of the shifting values of our evolving (or devolving, depending on one’s perspective) world. The epigraph by Rumsfeld clues the reader into the overarching question of this collection: we can speculate on the unknown, but what if, in the end, the unknown’s true nature is revealed to be opaque, or, for better or worse, too obvious to be perceived by the naked eye?

Regardless, to watch, in any context, the very argument for existence (manifested through form) break down is frightening. In a place where names are lost like household objects, and white noise supplants meaningful distinctions between voices and people, why the need for singularity (or personhood) at all? Poet-physician William Carlos Williams’ adage “No ideas but in things” also haunts this collection, a phrase that Gallaher recasts as “Things, not emotions,” in “It’s Any Move. It’s that People are Places.”

Wariness of emotion established, the speaker’s anticipation of the future’s apocalyptic envoy takes on a distinctly postmodern cast in his poem “The Rejected House”: “Can this really be what all the fuss is about?/ Just something with a little blood on it?” There are several moments, though, where the speaker reveals a depth of connection to the pain involved in the journey from “seeming” to “becoming”: “And the earth is not touched,” he notes in “Work for Killing Time.” “And the earth under the earth is not touched./ It will be revealed in a deeper eroding./ In a harsher, more devastating renewal.”

Ironically, what is most moving in Map of the Folded World is the point the poet’s stance on the “point” of poetic practice: its aim is not to move, but to gesture toward signposts, or their erosion. Glancing through the table of contents at poem titles such as “Keys to Successful Disappearing,” “Fetish of the Former Life,” or “In the Direction of X. In the City of Zero” reveals as much. This skepticism toward emotion (read: nostalgia) makes the book’s meditative moments that much more poignant: “A picture’s worth so many words,” the speaker of “Tonight’s the Night” muses. “Maybe you could help me.” (The dilemma of relationship is equally fraught in “& Generally the Future is Uncertain”: “I only want/ what you’re unable to give . . . Anything else/ isn’t worth wanting.”)

This paradoxical twist elevates only impossible attainments as worthy objects of desire: what else to deduce, here, but despair? Yet, the speaker’s final argument, after rejecting memory’s ritualization, and the hope that accompanies the desire for attainment, whether of assistance or certainty of location or belief, seems to be for a wholehearted embrace of the future, replete with watermelons, the X-factor, and other glorious if quotidian aspects of existence: From “The Danger in Plans”: “Trouble on the way, and great joy.”

Read “And Then At the Boat Show” by John Gallaher in Rumpus Original Poems.

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →