Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!
This week's poem from:
By: John Gallaher
Akron Series in Poetry
University of Akron Press
Anecdote of the Little Houses
They're folding maps out across the yards,
over the houses
on the north side of the street
and on the south.
Look, darling, they say, the houses
are all lit up.
It's a summer night, in blue.
In the houses, they've gotten new clothes
and they're trying them on.
They're saying yes,
and they're saying no,
whenever they step from a room.
They're saying, I think so, and is, or isn't.
are folding maps out
across the streets.
Time keeps running out, they say,
and there keeps being more of it
as the surfaces flash by.
after they stop at their houses,
the lines rise above the lines.
The red and blue lines
rising and falling all night
in their sleep.
The experience of reading John Gallaher’s work is a bit disconcerting in both its stick- figure familiarity and its other-world strangeness. Not surprising for a book entitled “Map of the Folded World,” there is an eerie two-dimensionality to the reality portrayed. It is as if suburban America was dropped into Plato’s cave and Gallaher is writing of the shadows. This is “our” American life but rendered from outside the houses looking in. I’m reminded a bit of the dispassionate tone of Raines in “A Martian Writes a Letter Home,” especially in the way that a lack of emotion is projected onto the anonymous inhabitants of the poem. (There are several other parallels in the poem’s subject matter as well: a discussion of time, the way the way things flash by, and ending in sleep)
But even in its strangeness this poem is also very connected to the poetry that has come before. The title alludes to Wallace Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar” and with the way a simple object reorders the perception of reality from that of wilderness to that of inhabited land. Similarly, the maps of “Anecdote of the Little Houses” create a reordering of the three dimensional world into a two-dimensional “surface” world lacking the former’s complexity and depth.
In some ways, the poem distills us to our common parts: “They’re saying, I think so, and is, or isn’t” like we all do at one point or another. But the speaker doesn't seem to connect with the other inhabitants of the poem. Perhaps he might be critical of the contemporary society that is content to sleep peacefully in a superficial world, or he may merely be looking at the landscape as an outsider, not willing to adopt for himself the way other people live. Or perhaps, more optimistically, the speaker is trying to accept the way Americans live without passing judgment. The marked dispassionate tone keeps the reader guessing.
The poems highlights as well, our human, domesticated desire to have the way mapped out for us, to only go where the lines lead us and our easy satisfaction of living between the very lines that box us in and limit us. I like the Rorschach blot ambiguity of the red and blue lines above the sleepers, which may be the telephone and cable lines which are our umbilical cords to the media–driven reality we live in, or the lines on the map of our towns and suburbs that contain and constrain us, or even lines on the monitors representing our breathing and heart-rates blinking out towards our inevitable ends. Nevertheless, we feel safe in that mapped off world; we can sleep.
Q & A with Poet John Gallaher
Q: I’m very much always looking for a poem’s “significance,” and this is a poem that is in some ways resistant to a single way of understanding. As the poet, do you subscribe to McLeish’s idea that “a poem should Be/ not mean”?
John Gallager: A teacher of mine, Wayne Dodd, used to say that a poem should “mean AND be.” I always liked that formulation, and would like to, as he would say, associate myself with those remarks. But I feel like that might be hedging, to leave it at that. I am drawn to moments where meaning is deferred, knowing that meaning is inevitable, as our lives contain meaning, or embody meaning. So yes, I would side with the “Be” if such a choice were demanded. (And again, to remind myself that there’s a lot of meaning tucked away in that “Be.”)
Q: I notice in your biography that you’re originally from Oregon and now have settled in the Mid-West. How have your many relocations affected your work?
John Gallaher: I’ve lived all over the place. From Portland, I went to Wichita, where I moved when I was adopted. Then my family moved to Orange County California, and then on to Birmingham, Alabama, and Long Island, New York. As an adult, I’ve lived in central Texas, Athens, Ohio, Conway, Arkansas, and now, finally, in Maryville, Missouri, where I’ve now been for seven years (with my wife and children).
I’m quite sure that these relocations have had a large impact on my work. They’ve certainly had a large impact on me. I always dread the question: “So, where are you from?”
Q: In “Anecdote of the Little Houses,” you’re certainly flagging Wallace Steven’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar.” Would you consider Wallace Stevens & Modernists to be a major influence on your writing? Or do you look more towards the New York School poets?
John Gallaher: The only two Library of America editions that I’ve purchased are the Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery ones. I know their work better than I know anyone else’s. So, if that might be evidence, I suppose the answer would have to be that I have a foot in each world. But, truth to tell, I read the poetry of Rae Armantrout (and Michael Palmer, Martha Ronk, and Charles Wright, as well) and numerous others nearly as much. There’s such a large world of reading out there, and I adore so much of it, I’d hate to narrow myself to one (or even two) influences. And that’s just poetry. I’m also very interested in painting. That’s probably had as much (or maybe even more) influence on the way I see things, or attend to things as poetry has had.
Q: I wonder in a “chicken versus egg way” about the creative process. Did you write the poem first and then find the title or did the title come first. How did this poem come to be?
John Gallaher: From what I can remember, the poem came to be around the image of the map rising and falling over the people as they sleep. I like looking at paintings quite a bit, and I often like to think up paintings that don’t exist. Painting can allow for a very specific, even neutral, stance toward a scene. I’m quite envious of that. Paintings are accepted more easily by viewers, I think. There’s more of a social aspect to them. They call out for the viewer to participate, and viewers usually seem fairly willing to do so. I wish poetry were more like that.
As for the title, I simply love the “anecdote” form, as it filters through Stevens. Calling a poem an “anecdote” is one of the ways I to try to get the reader into a participatory circumstance with the poem. I toyed with calling it (among other things I no longer remember) “Anecdote of the Map,” but in the end I liked the intimacy of “house.” “Map” seemed a little too abstracted to me, though now, looking back at it, I kind of wonder if that might have worked better.
I keep a little notebook with me at all times, and in it I write whatever comes to mind. That’s where I get most of the lines and titles that I use. I’m not sure in this case which came first, but I usually always write from a title first, though I often go back and revise the title later. I change things a lot. I like to revise. “You must revise your life,” as they say.
Three More Poems to Note:
"What We're Up Against"
"Poem for the End of January"
"In the Direction of X. In the City of Zero."
John Gallaher is the author of the books of poetry, Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), The Little Book of Guesses, winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, from Four Way Books, and Map of the Folded World, from The University of Akron Press, as well as the free online chapbook, Guidebook from Blue Hour Press. Other than that, he's co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press. Currently he's working on a co-authored manuscript with the poet G.C. Waldrep, titled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, which is forthcoming from BOA Editions in Spring 2011.
For more about this poet see his blog: Nothing to Say & Saying It .
Purchase Information: University of Akron Press and elsewhere on the web.
Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Brian Daldorph's From the Inside Out: Sonnets