These three poems by Shamala Gallagher present a dialectic between nothingness and somethingness: "What I want to look at is bareness, how it is not a hard stone to turn to but a wave that glitters to itself in the nothing." The speakers in these poems struggle to find a space of pure emptiness, eventually wearing themselves "down / to the hour's white pit" in their quest. None of the poems states explicitly why the speakers are contemplating or seeking nothingness, instead gesturing toward possible events: "What it is to love someone who stares at nothing." These speakers, though, are unable to find nothingness that isn't contained in somethingness, with the nothing contained in the something of an empty bowl or empty bead. This creates a discomfort that evokes a singular and poignant version of mourning and loss. These are not poems of breast-beating and wailing or elegizing; these are poems generating that moment in which we feel like we have nothing, we have lost everything, in which we want everything to be nothing, and yet everywhere we look we find only something. This something that forces itself upon us becomes both the source of our pain and the source of our eventual healing, our return to the tender world: "I moved here, horizon note of droning bugs so I could hear the time go on."
This conversation with Mark Irwin emanated from a re-reading and discussion of his essay “Poetry and Memorability,” which is part of this week’s issue. Memorability is an aspect of poetry that has guided Irwin’s own writing career as well as his teaching career. Books and works of art are chosen to populate a syllabus based on their memorability rather than their popularity or hipness or critical “depth.” Workshops are run with the central question: What will we remember from this poem? If all of this sounds like mulling over the eternal quality of poetry, then that is probably a correct assumption. It is our hope that the following questions expand upon and elucidate concepts and claims made in “Poetry and Memorability.”
"Certainly then, originality is part of the memorable. A work of art should be new, fresh, but not merely for the sake of newness, where much art loses its magic. The original must rise naturally out of its subject and the artist’s vision. This was equally true for Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Stairs in his time as it is for Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces in our time, a piece in which the hint of random violence and uncertainty today seems tantamount to the threat which the machine posed in Duchamp’s era. These pieces offer impact and resonance; both seem necessary for the memorable. Impact can be fleeting in a work of art, but resonance is more difficult to attain..."