Tess Gallagher's "Opening"
Thoughts on passing through.
I entered this world not wanting to come. I'll leave it not wanting to go. All this while, when it seemed there were two doors, there was only one—this passing through. from Is, Is Not (Graywolf, 2019)
It’s funny. Doors, it seems, have been popping up in my imagination so frequently these past few weeks. Toward the end of a recent whole-class discussion that followed a creative writing project where my students wrote pieces that engaged with themes of love, fear, self-care, and toxicity, one of my students turned to me and asked what does it feel like to be almost married?
I had mostly been a fly on the wall, hanging in the periphery and listening to my students, and I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of such a question. I paused for a second, and then I said something about doors. I said that, for a long time, especially when I was younger, I thought of the ongoing commitment of love as a door frame. That I only saw the frame, and nothing else. At the time, viewed in such a way, a door seemed like a narrow thing. Why squeeze a body between it? It might get stuck. But, I told my students, what I didn’t imagine then, and only realized later, was that a door is a thing you walk through — that it is not an end, but rather an entryway into an ongoingness. So much of our life is framed. It must be. We walk through things and among things. Maybe we often see a frame as a limiting thing. Or limited. But that can’t be it. A frame is perhaps simply a guide for our vision. The imaginative still exists, on either side of the frame, and within it, and in how we hold it.
And so I stumbled across this poem this week, and now I am writing about it. I love Tess Gallagher’s work. I have written about it before for this newsletter, which makes two weeks in a row of repeat-poets, which I am forgiving myself for, because, well, that’s fine. I came to Gallagher’s work through Raymond Carver’s, seeing her name on the dedication page of books like Fires and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water, or at the forefront of his poems, such as “Hummingbird,” which reads in full:
for Tess Suppose I say summer, write the word “hummingbird,” put it in an envelope, take it down the hill to the box. When you open my letter you will recall those days and how much, just how much, I love you.
In the final poem of Where Water Comes Together With Other Water, Carver does away with the title and simply leads with the dedication — titling it “For Tess.” That poem ends beautifully:
As I was laying there with my eyes closed, just after I’d imagined what it might be like if in fact I never got up again, I thought of you. I opened my eyes then and got right up and went back to being happy again I’m grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you.
I remember reading these poems and wanting to know what prompted this love, this gratitude. I knew in some sense about his life, and in another about his fiction. I wanted to know about his love. And then I bought Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and was absolutely stunned. Here’s “Now that I am Never Alone”:
In the bath I look up and see the brown moth pressed like a pair of unpredictable lips against the white wall. I heat up the water, running as much hot in as I can stand. These handfuls over my shoulder—how once he pulled my head against his thigh and dipped a rivulet down my neck of coldest water from the spring we were drinking from. Beautiful mischief that stills a moment so I can never look back. Only now, brightest now, and the water never hot enough to drive that shiver out. But I remember solitude—no other presence and each thing what it was. Not this raw fluttering I make of you as you have made of me your watch-fire, your killing light.
Beautiful mischief. Brightest now. Raw fluttering. Killing light. Gallagher’s work lives. It really lives. Even — and perhaps especially — when written, as this poem was, in the aftermath of incalculable loss.
And so, when I think of today’s poem, and those final words — this / passing through — I am struck by how palpably such a poem contains the desire to live. It’s not just in the phrase not / wanting to go; it’s also in the unsaid. If coming into this world was a kind of not-wanting, and if leaving this world will be a kind of not-wanting, then staying in it, in that space in between, that space where life is — that act must be, despite and because of everything, full of wanting. It is that space that is full of beautiful mischief, of the brightest now, of raw fluttering and killing light. It is that space — a passing through — that is not bookended by two doors, but is rather an extended ongoingness until it is not.
And it’s that kind of ongoingness that allows for life to be viewed in full, rather than in a series of locked-away rooms. That kind of perspective is on display in one of Gallagher’s poems from Is, Is Not — “Almost Lost Moment”:
coming back in an incidental way, claiming to be the most beautiful moment of my life: braiding her waist-length white hair by the Pacific at LaPush. Hand over hand, the three-way crossings of apportioned strands, and quiet, her head braced against my gentle pull as she gazes out. Both in our sea-minds. And quiet. Quiet.
In a world where we live transitorily and yet still within the same passageway, a moment can do this. It can come back incidentally. We can be surprised. The most beautiful moment of our lives can roll into our vision in the same way that, while driving along a highway, a field can surprise you until you become a body and soul full of yellow, or that a kitchen window — the one light lit for miles — can invite you in, gentle and gold and full of don’t-want-to-be-strangers in the dark.
It’s funny, too. I came across this poem earlier this week and carried it around in my bag and then was reminded of it again on Friday, before I sat down to write this little essay about it. I was teaching my AP Literature class and had given them a creative writing prompt to start the period. We are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God — a book I grow gleefully excited to teach year after year — and I asked students to write about their relationship to the world using an extended metaphor rooted in the natural world, a prompt modeled after the opening sentence to the book’s second chapter:
Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.
As students read aloud, I heard about passageways and tunnels, avalanches and snow, meteor showers and light, all sorts of brilliant and wonderful relationships between the self and the places our selves inhabit. And I thought of this poem again. I thought of the staying-power implied in passing through. The way such a phrase does not necessarily imply leaving. The way it instead embodies a refusal to exit just yet. A desire to say this is my life. And so I read today’s poem aloud to my students, and we continued on with class.
Yes, what I am struck by in today’s poem is how that phrase — passing through — almost paradoxically implies that we must linger. That there must be stillness even in this movement of our lives. I say that because Gallagher’s poem resists the idea of there being two doors to life, one to enter and one to leave.
Such a resistance, I’d argue, requires a kind of stillness. It requires one not to go reaching for entrances and exits. It requires a recognition that, just like the word passing, which contains so many meanings, whether of moving (I’m just passing through) or denying (I’ll pass) or offering (can you pass me that) or dying (they passed on), so too does life, which is also full of all of this moving and denying and offering and dying and so much else, all at once bumping up against each other. It requires staying even in the midst of it all. It requires one to say this — this ongoing moment — is it. Such a statement is an acknowledgment of our passing-through-ness, yes, but it is also an acknowledgment borne from stillness. And stillness, to me, requires a kind of grace. Even that word grace, with all of its meanings from so long ago — gratitude, thanks, favor, mercy — requires someone to linger, as if in a doorway, before saying goodbye. In order to say thank you, you must pause to say it. And so you must be able to pause while still passing through.
This reminds me of the conversation between Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan in The Raft Is Not the Shore. In it, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Most people think a way presupposes a distance and is like a rope linking one to a point in space, in time. Between two points, there is a distance and a link. When we detect a way to arrive at our destination, it is as though we made reservations on a flight.
But it is commonly thought that we remain the same, here and there. That is not the case, I believe. Because if you are not transformed on the way, you remain at the point of departure all the time; you never arrive at the destination. So, the way must be in you; the destination also must be in you and not somewhere else in space or time.
Berrigan echoes those words by using Thomas Merton’s: We must stay where we are. There’s something wildly remarkable about that. Earlier in the conversation, Berrigan laments the “mobility and pace which simply break people apart.” And it must be that same mobility and pace and urgency that pushes us toward a vision of the world that sees only entrances and exits, rather than the broad, communal present — beautiful and bright and sad and full of so much — where we all live together. We must stay where we are.
It’s something echoed in Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through” — originally by Dick Blakeslee:
Passing through, passing through,
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
Glad that I ran into you.
Gallagher writes about a way of living in such a way, with stillness and recognition and gladness. In “Instead of Dying,” an essay that will almost certainly make you cry, Gallagher writes about the “wounded grace” of Raymond Carver’s life, how such grace allowed him to find freedom from addiction, freedom toward revelation. She describes their life together in the following way:
Ray and I got to be like two mountain climbers rigged to each other on a glacier face. There was a heady exhilaration in everything we did, because of how far we’d come to get there.
I think that such a description is a testament to the fullness offered by today’s poem. Instead of believing in a view of life that allows one to escape towards doors and into rooms, there is just this one life. But that one life is not final. It is full of how far we have come, full of the beautiful moments that come back in incidental ways, full of vulnerabilities made and unmade, revealed and hardened and cracked and hardened again. “The real experience,” as the artist Nan Goldin says in the recent documentary The Beauty and the Bloodshed, “has a smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings.” To live must mean to contain all of what this living is.
I’m reminded of that in this paragraph from the aforementioned essay:
Even in his sobriety, there were skittery times. Shortly after Ray learned that his lung cancer had accelerated, I watched him set out to attend an AA meeting in a nearby town. A half-hour later the phone rang. It was Ray. He was in a bar. “I didn’t drink anything,” he said, “but I’ve ordered something. It’s still sitting on the bar.” I took a breath and, like a hypnotist, told him: “Just get to your car and drive straight home. I’ll be waiting in the driveway.” He drove home, stopped the car before he reached the house, and got out to hold me, like a man clutching a life raft.
When we are passing through, we resist finality until we meet it. Think Rilke: No feeling is final. And so we must make a choice, then, each day. A choice to see this life as the door we have walked through and still walk through. The long passageway that becomes a field or becomes the starlight-starbright or becomes the winding road or becomes the river curving round the bend and carving the canyon rock. The long passageway that becomes what it is each day until we become no longer. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? That there is just this one door, and that each day is the act of walking through it? And that we can wonder and wander toward what we find in this long passageway, this place where both you and I can also find each other, where we are together, in this one world, in this extended moment of light?
A Recurring Note:
If you’ve read any of the recent newsletters, you’ve perhaps noticed that I am offering a subscription option. This is functioning as a kind of “tip jar.” If you would like to offer your monetary support as a form of generosity, please consider becoming a paid subscriber below. There is no difference in what you receive as a free or paid subscriber; to choose the latter is simply an option to exercise your generosity if you feel willing. I am grateful for you either way. Thanks for your readership.
Ordinary Plots: Meditations on Poems + Verse is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.