Instructions to the Double, by Tess Gallagher

Instructions to the Double
Instructions to the Double is as mute on the subject of the soul as the oldest books of the Bible are about the afterlife. In contrast to a poet like Charles Wright, Gallagher makes little use of other people’s metaphysics; she invents her own. The double of the title is a shape-shifter: in one poem it is poet’s translated body of work, “smuggled back to you by a woman/ looking very much like yourself.” In another, it is a Platonic ideal of home:

But always,
above the town, above
the harbor, there is the town,
the harbor, the caves and hollows
when the cargo of lights
is gone.

A grandmother walking on her husband’s arm talks “into his silence/ as into some idea of yourself/ grown to his side.” “This flesh is your halo,” the narrator tells her shadow in another poem. In “Two Stories,” the author confronts a fictional version of herself in another author’s short story, based on her uncle’s murder by thieves.

Now there is the story of me
reading your story and the one
of you saying it
doesn’t deserve such care.
I say it matters
that the dog stays by the chimney
for months, and a rain
soft as the sleep of cats
enters the land, emptied
of its cows, its wire gates pulled down
by hands that never dug
the single well, this whitened field.

“Whitened field” refers I suppose to the page, but I think too of the poet’s face, round and pale and full of humor the one time I saw her read. (Years later I wrote a poem about it, Time Lapse with Tess Gallagher, the title derived from one of the poems in this book, “Time Lapse with Tulips.”)

Gallagher’s metaphysics of the double has an ethical dimension. In “the Absence,” for example, vengeance is

a hurt given to the self
in the name of another. It has to do
with becoming a purpose
which is an absence not unlike
a gun.

In “Strategy,” the narrator offers to take another’s place, placing his head on her shoulders, so she can deliver an apology he’s unable to give by himself. This kind of magic is a sleight-of-hand, “an attitude of sight/ that amounts to seeing,” she suggests in “Zero.” It allows mundane objects to acquire luminosity and become doorways to the infinite, and thereby the magician “multiplies/ himself like the doves in his hat.”

Such fruitful multiplying is fully shamanic, requiring no Abrahamic covenant with a deity. And in lieu of a Song of Songs, Instructions to the Double features an 11-part “Song of the Runaway Bride.”

Together and together —
the exact coffin of pleasure
crookedly in the blood.

[…]

Husband, all night I slept on your neck
and a man went through my dreams
and was not you. With a knife
I sliced the yellow dress
he mistook for me…

The title poem, when we finally get to it in Part IV, begins in an evangelical vein:

So now it’s your turn,
little mother of silences, little
father of half-belief. Take up
this face, these daily rounds
with a cabbage under each arm
convincing the multitudes
that a well-made anything
could save them.

She goes on to detail the poet’s mission, but I don’t want to spoil the effect of encountering the poem in context, as part of this brilliant and multifaceted collection. If you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat. If your local library doesn’t have it, there seems to be no shortage of used copies available around the web.

I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read it now, but it reminds me why I collect poetry in the first place: not just for the convenience of having favorite poems at hand, but also for the company. Who needs a double when there are so many other selves to try on?

I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month (except, I’m afraid, on days when I’m putting a podcast together). Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.

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