Instructions to The Double by Tess Gallagher


Instructions to the Double
Tess Gallagher
Graywolf Press

There’s a magic town in the poetry universe called Port Townsend. This Washington state blip on the map is the original home to two absolutely essential North American independent publishers–Copper Canyon Press and Graywolf Press (originally called The Graywolf Press). Copper Canyon was co-founded by visionaries Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson in 1972, and has established itself as the largest, and perhaps most influential, poetry publisher in the US. Graywolf was started by Scott Walker in 1974 as a letterpress chapbook publisher and has since morphed into a popular, well-respected home for a broad spectrum of poets and fiction writers including William Stafford, John Haines, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Charles Baxter, and Tomas Tranströmer. Scott Walker resigned from Graywolf in 1994, whereupon Fiona McCrae (of Faber and Faber) took the reigns. Both Copper Canyon and Graywolf have reputations for publishing beautifully-designed, thoughtfully-printed books from a wide variety of authors. Graywolf currently resides in another independent-publishing mecca, Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Graywolf is in close proximity to Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press. And New Rivers Press is just a few hours away in Moorhead. Not shabby.

Instructions to the Double was a groundbreaking publication. Not only was it Gallagher’s first full-length collection, it was Graywolf’s first title. This book is the perfect storm of book art and poetic achievement. The book image pictured above is a first paperback printing from the first edition. It’s often a gross misstep to romanticize the past as a better, or more simple, or more pure time for book publishing, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the implications of the Instructions to the Double colophon page:

This volume is published in an edition / of 1,500, 150 of which are bound into / quarter cloth and paper over boards. The Kennerley type / was set by hand, and the Curtis Tweedweave text / was hand-fed through a 1904 C&P platen press. / Frontispiece drawing is by Laura Battle, and / based on a photograph by Helen Morse. / November 1975-June 1976

What the colophon page tells us is that this book was chosen with care and enthusiasm, for to hand-set a 86-page book is nothing less than a labor of love. The commitment and time involved must have been massive, and as the colophon indicates, the process took 8 months to complete. The trend in current desktop publishing is to make ’em cheap and crank ’em out. Many contemporary poetry titles are selected through book contests, which means that the revenue raised for the book is done exclusively through submission fees, which in turn suggests that the title might not be one the publisher has any moral, ethical, or artistic commitment to. This is not to disparage desktop publishing–the advantage of desktop technology is that it offers publishers the platform to produce many more books at much lower prices with fewer working hours. In fact, desktop publishing can now be a simple one-woman operation. And The Olives of Oblivion supports the efforts of bookmakers everywhere. There is, however, one remarkable aspect of handmade books that surpasses all other forms of book-making: the knowledge that the book you hold in your hands was, at every turn in its process, assembled and cared for by another’s hands. In this sense, the book literally passes from one set of hands to another.

Pictured to the upper left is the cover of Instructions to the Double in its second edition (paperback). Pictured below is Laura Battle’s drawing that appears in the first edition’s frontispiece, which is based on the Helen Morse photograph.

The poems in Instructions to the Double continue to be regarded as some of Gallagher’s finest. Not only did the writing in this book establish Gallagher as a promising poet, it helped establish Graywolf as a serious and important new press. Throughout her career, Gallagher has surprised her readers with a broad range of styles and subject matter (check out Moon Crossing Bridge). From unabashed, autobiographical love poems to dark elegies, from linear narratives to dense and philosophical meditations, Gallagher’s poems leap from the beautiful to the violent and back again in the quick turn of a phrase. The working-class Pacific Northwest of Gallagher’s childhood also plays an essential role in shaping the poems found in Instructions to the Double. Indeed, landscape and industry are the backdrop to this unflinching, lyrical collection.

This title reminds us that the best poetry of our time will likely find itself in the hands of very small publishers willing to spend countless unpaid hours (and willing to risk financial ruin) making and supporting the books they believe in. The next time you see someone turning their nose up at an independently-made book from a no-name press, just imagine that person holding a copy of Instructions to the Double.


His lungs heaving all day in a sulphur mist,
then dusk, the lunch pail torn from him
before he reaches the house, his children
a cloud of swallows about him.
At the stove in the tumbled rooms, the wife,
her back the wall he fights most, and she
with no weapon but silence
and to keep him from the bed.

In their sleep the mill hums and turns
at the edge of water. Blue smoke
swells the night and they drift
from the graves they have made for each other,
float out from the open-mouthed sleep
of their children, past banks and businesses,
the used car lots, liquor store, the swings in the park.

The mill burns on, now a burst of cinders,
now whistles screaming down the bay, saws jagged
in half light. Then like a whip
the sun across the bed, windows high with mountains
and the sleepers fallen to pillows
as gulls fall, tilting
against their shadows on the log booms.
Again the trucks shudder the wood framed houses
passing the mill. My father
snorts, splashes in the bathroom,
throws open our doors to cowboy music
on the radio, hearts are cheating,
somebody is alone, there’s blood in Tulsa.
Out the back yard the night-shift men rattle
the gravel in the alley going home.
My father fits goggles to his head.

From his pocket he takes anything metal,
the pearl-handled jack knife, a ring of keys,
and for us, black money shoveled
from the sulphur pyramids heaped in the distance
like yellow gold. Coffee bottle tucked in his armpit
he swaggers past the chicken coop,
a pack of cards at his breast.
In a fan of light beyond him
the Kino Maru pulls out for Seattle,
some black star climbing
the deep globe of his eye.



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. Take up
most of all, these hands
trained to an ornate piano
in a house on the other side
of the country.

I’m staying here
without music, without
applause. I’m not going
to wait up for you. Take
your time. Take mine
too. Get into some trouble
I’ll have to account for. Walk
into some bars alone
with a slit in your skirt. Let
the men follow you on the street
with their clumsy propositions, their
loud hatreds of this and that. Keep
walking. Keep your head
up. They are calling to you–slut, mother,
virgin, whore, daughter, adultress, lover,
mistress, bitch, wife, cunt, harlot,
betrothed, Jezebel, Messalina, Diana,
Bethsheba, Rebecca, Lucretia, Mary,
Magdelena, Ruth, you–Niobe,
woman of the tombs.

Don’t stop for anything, not
a caress or a promise. Go
to the temple of the poets, not
the one like a run-down country club,
but the one on fire
with so much it wants
to be done with. Say all the last words
and the first: hello, goodbye, yes,
I, no, please, always, never.

If anyone from the country club
asks if you write poems, say
your name is Lizzie Borden.
Show him your axe, the one
they gave you with a silver
blade, your name engraved there
like a whisper of their own.

If anyone calls you a witch,
burn for him; if anyone calls you
less or more than you are
let him burn for you.

It’s a dangerous mission. You
could die out there. You
could live forever.


There are several copies of Instructions to the Double on abebooks for less than 10 dollars. In fact, there are several first editions (the paperback, not the signed-limited hardcover) for under 20. Thanks to the good folks at Carnegie-Mellon University Press, Instructions to the Double is available as a new reprint in their Classic Contemporaries Series. There are two excellent selections of Gallagher’s work currently in print–Amplitude (Graywolf) and My Black Horse (Bloodaxe). For those with a pocketbook the size of Texas, consult The Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame for Gallagher’s first publication, Stepping Outside (Penumbra Press, 1974). Stepping Outside is very scarce, and ranges in price from 800 to several thousand dollars. If you look long enough, any book you’re after tends to find its way to a yard sale or to the cramped shelves of your local Goodwill Inc. The next time you’re at your favorite local bookseller, ask the resident bibliophile about the rarest book he or she ever found at the Goodwill. You’ll be amazed.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


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