Book Review: Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore


Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other is about the modern human being and her relationship to nature.

When the poet is “walking with the ocean below” she is walking with the ocean. She asks the ocean questions, to which “the ocean blinked” in response.

This is what you get when you anthropomorphise nature: the shock of an alien response, when nature turns out to be only itself, and not your dream of it.

Say you took that step, or say you fell,

wouldn’t she move you miles in herself?

The ocean has her own purposes. Or none at all. If you let her, she will pull you into her until you can no longer breathe, until finally, lifeless, you are washed up on the shore.

The human individual is something opposed to nature. But that leaves us alone, to find our own answers. And what is a human being taken alone, in herself?

Even among human beings there is otherness.

I turn your words although

the line you spoke was simple

Language is something strange because it belongs not just to me but to all of us, and intention is often hidden behind use. And yet we must struggle with questions of meaning in order to make sense not just of others, but of ourselves.

The human individual is nothing without what is strange and other.

“I am most like myself when likened.” Because really there is no other way to be yourself. “They say it’s because I’m afraid to be alone.” But those who believe they are alone and free of others are only fooling themselves.

Galleymore is telling us throughout this book: you really only learn the deepest truths about yourself from the study of what is other than you.

Every one of these poems has some natural element in it – the ocean, a starfish, a bee – and in every poem nature has something to tell us about ourselves. The poet observes and reflects upon nature, and invites her readers to reflect upon it too.

And when we reflect, we discover the strangeness of nature. Things aren’t so simple as they first appeared, and nature is strange underneath the simple attributes humanity has bestowed upon it:

Accordingly, schoolchildren were instructed

to rip up their books, releasing

alligators from their anger,

bees from their busyness,

cats from their curiosity …

Galleymore is inviting us to see things fresh, rather than through the same old clichés. It’s important to see the real connections between things, rather than just lazily imposing attributes derived from familiar human experience.

… [T]he bridge that links

this part of earth with the next

are the final words of the final poem in Galleymore’s collection. And so fitting for a book all about the connections between things, and how the awareness of these connections can give us a deeper knowledge of ourselves.

One poem has words taken from Isabelle Stengers, philosopher of science and writer about chaos:

Each identity:

an allusion to the other


The reciprocal capture

between bee and flower

are lines that speak of difference, and the fact that there is no knowledge of anything in itself without knowledge of what is other than it. That goes for ourselves, as much as for anything else.

We live in a world now where everyone is connected, and it can seem sometimes that the quiet reflection required for self-knowledge has become impossible, or only possible if some radical action is taken – technology detox and mindfulness are preached in a desperate bid to save us from ourselves. We’re all acutely aware of the implications of chaos theory, so that the tiniest minutiae have now the greatest meaning, and the continual flitting from one object to the next is as essential and compelling as it is maddening.

Galleymore offers us a subtle investigation of the dialectic of identity and difference. On the one hand: the natural world is thoroughly other than us, and it is foolishness to anthropomorphise it. On the other hand: how can we get on (as writers, but especially as human beings) if we don’t liken ourselves to the things around us? That Galleymore never gives us a solution to the paradox is fitting: firstly, because there is none. Secondly, because it is the back and forth between one position and another that truly makes us human.

(The lines I’ve quoted are from the poems “Ocean,” “The Ash,” “Say Heart,” “No Inclination,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Nectaries.” The poems are all to be found in Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, which was published by Carcanet this year.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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1 Response to Book Review: Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore

  1. It ain’t easy being human!

    Liked by 1 person

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