Opening Worlds: A review of John Gallaher’s Brand New Spacesuit by Cat Sar

Opening John Gallaher’s most recent book of poetry is an act that opens worlds. Like the vast expanse of space, these poems are far flung and near all at once. Brand New Spacesuit is published by BOA Editions Ltd., and is part of the American Poets Continuum Series, which has published collections from “mid-career” poets since 1977. Gallaher’s previous publications include Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (Spuyten Duyvil, 2000); The Little Book of Guesses (Four Way Books, 2007); Map of the Folded World (Akron, 2009); Your Father on a Train of Ghosts (with G. C. Waldrep, BOA, 2011); and In a Landscape (BOA, 2014). He is the co-editor of Time Is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt (Akron, 2012) and The Laurel Review. His poems have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, FIELD, Kenyon Review, The Best American Poetry, and Boston Review. Gallaher received the Levis Poetry Prize for The Little Book of Guesses, and won the Boston Review Poetry Contest, judged by Rae Armantrout.

In Brand New Spacesuit, Gallaher utilizes large blocks of verse. Each line extends nearly across the page, enacting the subject range of this body of work. Gallaher is not afraid to make connections in every corner of the world, from the “unity of soul and universe,” to “Fabergé Organic Shampoo” in the poem “Elegy for the Asteroid Bennu,” or the secret to happiness—“distraction,” in “Why Watching Where You’re Going is Only One Part of the Equation.” Just as he casually drops existential truths—“death is always raining down,”—in his work, Gallaher has no qualms about laying claim to the whole page. Readers are along for a ride that will surprise them at every turn.

“The New Formality” opens the collection, placing the reader at “a great distance” from the world, and dictating a loving address. The reader slowly makes their way to the backyard, the car, the garage, where “identical boxes on a shelf” hold two ideas: “one grows through nurture,” and “one grows through strife.” It is this turn, from the quotidian to the biggest questions about love and life that places Gallaher’s gleaming work among the stars that he references so dearly. When the “you,” which is both speaker and the reader, asks the road ahead for the return of memory, Gallaher is both recalling a happy past and rewriting the present. As “thoughts unspool beneath you,” the orange stripe in the road serves as a thread of memory connecting the past, present and into the future. This is a theme that reoccurs throughout the collection, but not always with the glow of “the best orange you’ve ever seen.” 

The titular poem, “Brand New Spacesuit,” struggles with questions of morality, self-awareness, and service to others. Gallaher points out the wavering quality of truth, as it changes with the clothes one chooses to wear. “History’s a collage,” the speaker claims, pasting bits and pieces from different eras that he calls “moody, flawed creatures,” and so this poem is a collage too—autobiographical, abstract, observational. In a striking situation in which he is tasked with killing a cat that has ingested anti-freeze, the speaker’s finger won’t bend to pull the trigger. Is it goodness or competence that stays the “wooden finger”? Does it matter? With each piece in this book, even with each line in a poem, the reader is faced again and again with provocative inquiries into memory that transcend the bounds of the speaker. Gallaher takes on the task of a poet and succeeds—extending particular parts of his world into a universal claim for his readers to dwell in.

In the exception to the golden rule of reading, the figure on the cover sums up Gallaher’s work: it is partially rooted in the everyday and partially in the wilderness of the mind. Themes of memory, loss, mortality, chaos, and the sheer fragility of life on earth fill the pages of Brand New Spacesuit with heartbreak, hope, and the effort of experiencing everything in between. Even with the frustration of this claim: “[i]f we refused every futile task, / we’d do very little in this life,” Gallaher chooses to leave his readers with love, just as he opened the collection. “You throw your heart / and you keep throwing your heart. You lose people and things, / and this is how they come back. They leave you no choice.” Readers will keep coming back to Gallaher’s work. His stellar (pun intended) imagery and wild contemplation leaves them no choice.

Brand New Spacesuit, published in April 2020, is cover-priced at $17 US and can be purchased or ordered from BOA Editions Ltd., Amazon, or Barnes and Noble. Gallaher’s verse fills the space between the mundane and the cosmic, allowing readers to arrive at this collection with their heads in the stars and their feet on the ground. To read the writer's work in Miracle Monocle, visit issue 10.

CAT SAR is a graduate editor of Miracle Monocle.