John Gallaher's finely crafted poetry collection, In a Landscape, reads as an exercise in blurring boundaries, an effort to challenge the received models of writing, reading, and authorship that we have become accustomed to. Presented as a book-length sequence of linked lyric pieces, which appear in long, Whitman-esque lines, the work in this stunning new book asks the reader to consider the myriad ways that poetry overlaps and intersects with memoir writing, particularly as Gallaher strives to eliminate any distance between the speaker of the poems and the author. In many ways, Gallaher's work gestures at the artifice inherent in the lyric "I," offering instead poems that allow the reader to observe the inner workings of memory and consciousness experience.
Gallaher's work is perhaps most impressive in moments when he creates an expectation on the part of the reader that the work will read like prose, then proceeds to undermine that readerly expectation. For instance, the work is presented in long lines that look, at first glance, like prose, leading the reader to expect a linear narrative, filled with exposition, that creates an orderly progression from one event to the next. As the poems unfold, one is surprised and delighted to discover the poems' elliptical and associative logic. By creating this provocative relationship between form and content, Gallaher suggests the artifice of the narratives we create to lend a sense of order to the world around us. He writes,
I just forgot how to count Roman numerals, and had to look it up.
I used to be good at them, and would always wait for the end of T.V. shows,
where I'd get to count the date. The game was: figure out the date
before it blinked away...
Here Gallaher presents us with lines that look like prose on the page, but remind us that consciousness and memory are inevitably fragmentary, no matter what narratives we construct around them. In many ways, Gallaher prompts the reader to see the beauty inherent in fragmentation, suggesting that these brief episodic narratives and associative leaps remain closer to the truth than the clear linear progression that one finds so often in prose. In a Landscape is filled with poems like this one, which remind the reader of the artifice inherent in the creation of narrative, which offers only an illusion of wholeness and coherence.
Along these lines, Gallaher's associative and elliptical narratives suggest that consciousness itself is fragmentary, and memory represents only our efforts to lend a sense of continuity to our experience of the world around us. The poems in this carefully crafted collection frequently use the style of the work to make this ambitious philosophical argument, offering the reader a perfect matching of form and content. Consider this passage,
The other night we drove downtown and something was on fire
somewhere. We could smell it and see smoke, but
we couldn't tell exactly where it was. A little to the east and south
of the parking lot, I think?
What's most intriguing about this passage is Gallaher's use of enjambment. By breaking the line after "fire," and beginning next line with "somewhere," Gallaher suggests that the uncertainty and subjectivity of narrative increase as it's made more and more elaborate. This idea comes across most noticeably in the phrase, "A little to the east and south...", which evokes a sense of certainty through its specificity, a sentiment that is undermined as the sentence unfolds in the next line ("of the parking lot, I think?"). I find Gallaher's use of style and technique to convey to evoke the subjectivity and artifice of narrative to be artful and compelling. In short, In a Landscape is a finely crafted book, and a wonderful addition to this writer's already accomplished body of work.