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A groundbreaking film-industry worker turns impressive poet

Former gaffer Celeste Gainey's debut collection is bright with authenticity

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The Gaffer Celeste Gainey
  • Book-cover art by Bec Young

A gaffer is the person in charge of the lights used when making films and TV shows. In Celeste Gainey's highly anticipated debut poetry collection, the GAFFER (Arktoi Books, $18.95), illumination, both personal and professional, makes a powerful running theme. From movie sets to '70s fashion, lesbian sex and family memories, it's 100 pages that rightly tries to cover some ground.

Gainey, who now lives in Pittsburgh, spent more than 35 years working in architectural lighting design and on seminal films like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. A groundbreaker, she was the first woman electrician admitted to the stagehands union; more recently, she earned a master's of fine arts degree at Carlow University.

the GAFFER's effectiveness lies in its frequent use of specialized language, grounding the book in authenticity. A nice example is "best boy" (the term for an electrician's apprentice), in which the speaker struggles with identity: "In high school I meet a boy / I either love or want to be." The poem moves toward inclusion in this "band of brothers," where she'll "trim their brute arcs, / run their stingers, scrim their broads, / wrap their 9-light fays; / let them make me a man." The on-set idiom inspires deft wordplay, a Gainey strength.

While some might be drawn to the sexually provocative "a field guide to muff diving," equally educational moments of experience and sharp-eyed expertise abound, most concerning the nature of lighting. "in the lobby of the five star hotel" shows a meditative side where the speaker notices shoddy work: "they ... / didn't overlap the lamps six inches, so the line / appears even, harmonious, uninterrupted. / How we like our light to be." Poems like "the seventh avenue line" and "the gaffer's invocation" cement the speaker's authority by noticing what laypeople don't.

This eye for detail and willingness to examine memory are well-rendered in "woodland 7-2257," where comforting recollections of a long-dead mother and childhood home are described with precise imagery: "the Peace roses are in bloom. / Beyond, the Pacific blankets out, / sun staccatos through the white shutters / of the breakfast room. / You are seated at the round Saarinen table / in that bright 60's print dress / working a double-crostic." With Gainey's ability to capture emotion through small moments played big, the GAFFER burns bright.

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