Ben Gallagher is a Toronto-based poet and essayist
Ben Galagher is the author of the poem “Thought Experiment Featuring Unchained Melody,” which appeared in The Puritan Issue 32, way back in the winter.
This poem emerged from a conversation I had with my good friends Syd and Maggie. My partner Zoë had just died, and they took me in and made sure I was eating regularly. We were discussing superstition and dreams, and this idea of a memory test emerged as one of those anxiety-inducing dream-states we all seemed to put ourselves in. Months later this merged with a playlist that featured “Unchained Melody,” and the first draft of the poem occurred. Since Zoë’s death I’ve been thinking a lot more about forebodings—the many instances every day in which the things I am afraid of don’t happen, and then this looming psychic presence of a death I didn’t think was possible until it was.
Now that I look at it again, a lot of the material for this poem was lifted from other people; from Syd and Maggie, but also lyrics from The Righteous Brothers. This is a first for me, I haven’t stolen from songs in my poetry before. I don’t feel bad about it, I think a lot of song lyrics enter a cultural consciousness and start to mean and signal more than they do inside the world of the song. It’s that larger culture I hope I’m gesturing towards, alongside the specific meaning of the lyrics I lifted. The parts of the song I use say things I have a hard time saying myself, which I think is often how music works. There’s a kind of pure sincerity in lyrics that get shouted on a dance floor, for instance, that I’d be embarrassed to say to a lover but that I nonetheless mean in my secret heart. In poetry I am drawn to more ambiguous expressions of multiple thoughts and feelings at once. Some songs take me there as well, but more often they serve as a vehicle for a kind of honesty I admire but can’t do: I wanna rock with you, all night.
… I think a lot of song lyrics enter a cultural consciousness and start to mean and signal more than they do inside the world of the song.
Since you asked, the poet I’m most jealous of right now is Matthew Rohrer. I’ve been reading through his collection Surrounded by Friends, and I’m loving every moment of it. A month ago it would have been Rose McLarney’s Its Day Being Gone, which I read ferociously. McLarney’s voice has a grim, stoic, and rural observational quality that resonates with my own experiences of farm life. Rohrer’s collection is spare and narratively elliptical, but it feels more gentle, funny, and kind. I’ve been searching for kind poems these days, I guess as an antidote to the current state of the world. More than that, he’s using short lines (which I’ve been testing out in my own writing) and tips his hat towards the haiku tradition without ever seeming lost in a vague Orientalism. The result is poetry I’ve been sharing regularly with all my friends that say they don’t get poetry.
You also asked me about silliness and seriousness. I find most purely silly poems forgettable, and most purely serious poems overburdened. But the poems that contain both at the same time strike me deeper than anything else. Because what is life if not the continuous drift of the balloon of reality towards the cactus of the absurd? Or rather, every moment of high seriousness I think of in my own experience has been surrounded by some ludicrous occurrence or another. While Zoë’s body was being prepared for organ donation, for example, we left the hospital and ordered the worst pizza I have ever eaten. This has become one of many small painful memories it feels best to laugh at. Despite my convictions though, I find this balance nearly impossible to strike in my own writing. The last couple of years have been heavy, and writing has been predominantly an attempt to trace a path out of grief. I guess the marker for me of this having happened will be when silliness finds its way into my writing again. I’m looking forward to that, whenever it arrives!
Ben Gallagher is a Toronto-based poet and essayist. He is currently landscaping and filling out PhD applications, and in the evenings he moonlights as a couch potato. You can find recent poems of his in the magazines (parenthetical) and untethered, and non-fiction at Lion’s Roar.