The word tilth can be defined as the condition of soil and its suitability for the planting of seeds. It is also the title of a new book of poems by west of Ireland poet Peggie Gallagher, recently published by Arlen House. Reading through the book one can readily see that Gallagher’s poetic soil is rich indeed and the poems therein flourish.
Interestingly, while Gallagher has chosen an agricultural word as her book’s title, it is the world of the sea and shoreline that provides a recurrent motif, in poems such as ‘Landfall’, ‘Peninsula’, ‘Ebb and Flow’ and ‘Sea Violet’. “That would be very much part of my life,” she tells me over a Monday afternoon phone call. “My refuge and my place of spirit is along the ocean and that would recur because it’s nearly my home. The sea always attracted me as long as I can remember, even though I was born in a small village in Mayo, on an inland farm, I’d feel more at home around the sea than I would ever have felt inland.”
Gallagher grew up near Swinford, she has lived in England and America but for the past forty years her home has been in Sligo. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and she is a past winner of both the Edgeworth Literary Competition and Allingham Poetry Competition.
Several of the poems describe the poet, or speaker, looking out from a window and I ask whether she would ever do this when seeking inspiration. “Perhaps sometimes yes and perhaps sometimes you’re absent-mindedly looking out and something will catch you,” she replies. “You could be on a train and you’re away in another world then some image will appear before you or something will come to you, it’s just the way the mind works, it’s very random. I think that’s the nature of poetry. You have no control over where a poem comes from or when it comes.”
The poems have the ability to transform the mundane into something rich and strange, as in ‘The Twins’ which begins ‘They’ve been lying in state for days / side by side on wooden biers. / Petrified elderberry eyes, tiny / feet and petal ears, dead asleep’ and is describing two mice dead in traps.
As well as her keen visual sense, Gallagher can also deftly shape the soundscape of the poems with the use of assonance and internal rhymes. “It’s not premeditated,” she states. “It’s like you’re struggling for some image and when words come to you, they are the right words. You’re trying to pin down something and if you hit on the words that pin it down you recognise it.”
The poem ‘Letter to Elizabeth’ doffs its hat toward one of Gallagher’s favourite writers, the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. “I still find her extremely fresh and I still find the poems come off the page, they are as clear and vivid as ever, her language is beautiful” she declares. “She left quite a body of work even though most people know her poetry, it’s not abundant, nevertheless she has written some excellent short stories, there are also her letters and correspondence with other poets like Anne Stevenson and Robert Lowell. So, if not prolific, her work has stood the test of time and I still love it.”
There are nuanced meditations on age and death, on the simple rituals and diversions of life, such as the old woman from ‘In Her Later Years’ consoled by her ‘mismatched delph’ or the card-playing siblings in ‘The Luck of the Draw’; ‘Late nights we play twenty-five. / It’s February again, his sixtieth year. / Stories he slips between deals / I lift like souvenirs’.
As to whether these incidents and personalities are drawn from her own life, Gallagher is not a confessional poet and deflects the query; “You make what you want of them really, I always maintain it is up to the reader to make their own judgements about the work whether or not it is biographical shouldn’t have much bearing, if the work stands up and if you can resonate with it. I often think if you read a poem a hundred years from now will it still be fresh will it still resonate and that’s the test.”
The poems in Tilth will certainly resonate with readers. The book is available now in all good bookshops.