On the Poetry of Brendan Galvin: Habitat, New & Selected Poems (LSU Press)

Brendan Galvin has published twelve books of poetry starting with No Time for Good Reasons (Pittsburgh, 1974). Although he has written very little criticism, his piquant point of view of his contemporaries is more than apparent. In 1978, Ploughshares published his essay “The Mumbling of Young Werther: Angst by Blueprint in Contemporary Poetry.” By that time, several critics had detected an “aesthetic of transparency” among the first few waves of poets that followed Lowell, Plath and Berryman. “There’s a type of poem very much among us which means to sound compassionate and which tries to tell the reader how he ought to feel about the nonspecific predicament of an often unspecified person,” grumbled Galvin. “No particulars of their experience are given in a coherent way that might make us assent … Instead, the situations of these people are mumbled over, covered with a blanket of impersonal neo-surrealist clichés … Portentousness is introduced … but by poem’s end one is hard put to say just what the mystery is about.” Towards the end of the piece, Galvin specified what is missing from this faulty poetry: “Few of these poets write out of a sense of place, a location, a concrete set of external circumstances which might tempt concentration on something other than their own cerebrations. There is no eye close on the subject, because external objects are appropriated merely as glosses for the mind.”

Galvin.jpegGalvin named names and gave examples, but his indictment was a carpet bombing, not a laser-shot: something is rotten in the MFA writing programs, and the enemy’s writing is treasonous. (Even so, place his comments next to your copy of Claudia Rankine’s and Lisa Sewell’s new anthology, American Poets in the 21st Century. Not much has changed, decade to decade, either in the nature of the poetry or the terms of its critique.) Fourteen years later, Galvin was still perturbed about the state of things poetic, as became clear in “The Contemporary Poet and the Natural World,” published in 1992 in The Georgia Review. He reiterated the profile of sub-standard poems “that appear to be baring the author’s troubled psyche but which are so intangible that the reader often can’t decipher the problem.” And again, the antidote: “But although the poetry has to deal with the life of the mind and body, it also needs to deal with what’s outside the mind and body … Poetry has to stop playing word games with itself … and begin to recapture the regard it used to have for nature as the central focus of experience.”

Galvin’s argument was strident, narrow-minded, and self-righteous. It also has some appeal. The type of poetry Galvin described, still prevalent today, advises us implicitly that it is the reader and not the author who must submit to evaluation. But in effect, all Galvin did in these essays was to reinforce the foundation of his own sensibilities for the purpose of defining and staking out the ground he wanted to cover in his poetry. The churlishness is pertinent, however. It has always been intriguing to me that Galvin, the uppity moralist, the sneering recluse on the dunes, the barnacled misanthrope, sublimates this excess of self-regard into an engaging, dominant, hyper-credible narrative self in his work. Demanding a poetry of outsidedness, Galvin simply won’t accept the notion of a poetry that claims completeness in and of itself through bland or inexact statement and blurry personae. Furthermore, there is little room in his ethos for the oracular, the privileging of tone and suggestion over the hard facts of story, the sights and smells of place, and the stark profile of the narrator. In Galvin's world, this amounts to a purification.

If it is still true that we prefer poets who can provide fresh and immediate insights into our humanity through language that connects the eloquently written line with the spoken tongue, then one must consider Brendan Galvin among the most important poets of his generation, even if he disavows membership in it. For all his emphasis on scene and sight, animal and ocean, boat and seawind, it is misleading to call him a “nature poet,” as if he were poet laureate of Greenpeace. Stripping out what he thinks of as the vagaries of the maundering psyche, Galvin nevertheless packs a good deal of the human into his work, even though his speakers seem more comfortable with a gull than a girlfriend.

Galvin’s Habitat, New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006. It includes this early poem, “Fear of Gray’s Anatomy”:

I will not look in it again.
There the heart in section is a gas mask,
its windows gone, its hoses severed.
The spinal cord is a zipper
& the lower digestive tract
has been squeezed from a tube like toothpaste.
All my life I had hoped someday to own
at least myself, only to find I am
Flood’s ligaments, the areola of Mamma,
& zonule of Zinn. Ruffini’s endings
end in me, & thye band of Gennari lies near
the island of Reil. Though I am a geography
greater than even I surmised, containing as I do
spaces & systems, promontories & at least
one reservoir, pits, tunnels, crescents,
demilunes & a daughter star, how can I celebrate
my incomplete fissures, my hippocampus &
inferior mental processes, my depressions
& internal extremities? I encompass also
ploughshare & gladiolus, iris & wing,
& the bird’s nest of my cerebellum,
yet wherever I go I bear the crypts of Lieberkühn,
& among the possible malfunctionaries,
floating ribs & wandering cells, Pott’s fracture,
mottles, abductors, lachrymal bones & aberrant ducts.
I will ask my wife to knot a jacket for this book,
& pretend it’s a brick doorstop.
I will not open Gray’s Anatomy again.

This poem represents Galvin’s most focused incursion into the human in Habitat. Having tried to describe the body as a catalog of parts, the way he might examine the items in his tackle box, he rejects the human. But also, once the body is depicted as a list of alien parts, "my inferior mental processes, my depressions" become tawdry things, no longer worth one's lingering attention. Yet, even as Galvin's speaker prefers to be perceived as an individual among birds and artifacts, he makes himself into an icon of the human – the one who more deeply matters. You have to package your arrogance handsomely in order to pull off years of successful verse like Galvin has done.

galvin1.jpgThe human artifact in Galvin’s work is often an imprecise, provisional thing, indicating through its inept nature another truth. In “Old Map of Barnstable County” (originally in Atlantic Flyway [1980]), the speaker tells us everything the map fails to show. “A red dot for each vessel lost / would turn this map / to a rash like scarlet fever … and the griefs that went by the names / beside the black squares / would move on to other squares, // as on later maps / even the black squares / will have moved on.” The map, the human, insensitive to the deeper truth, is conveyed by the speaker, who claims a view from a higher plateau. In "The Soul Is Not Colorless" (from , 1999), the branch manager of a bank unthinkingly opens for business "without even a glance / at the morning" -- and then both he and we are lectured about this unforgiveable lapse of attention: "For the soul is never colorless: / it can move through its time as a great / purple hairstreak over a meadow, / go flopping and lurching, a checkerspot / through milkweed." The human soul is accessible for inspection if we see it as a plant. Galvin once complained about poets who “patronize the reader by telling him how to feel rather than showing him the coherent particulars and letting him judge for himself.” A specious argument, it seems to me. Galvin doesn’t have a light touch when it comes to telling you how to feel. He builds his poems concretion by concretion, yet he succeeds not mainly by details (always carefully selected) but by the force of a stubborn conviction that he is seeing things clearly – more clearly than you and I. But Galvin would rather see us saved than damned; he is the crusty Irish priest of the seashore, turning brackish water to blood and chowder crackers to body.

Observe the animal and the human in “Great Blue,” one of Galvin’s signature poems, from the book by that title, published in 1990:

around certain backwaters
like the ponds behind the oyster shacks,
I hope for a heron,

and sometimes I’m granted
that wood-silver,
crooked-stick, channel-marker effect
of the loosened neck,

and that silence, humped like
an overburden of experience,
the weight it hauls in flight
from river to pond above a highway

when I look up at the mere
abstract silhouette bird but am taken
by the dragged beat of wings

translucent at their tips,
and the cocked spurs trawled behind,
and have to swerve to hold the lane.

But I never expected it this morning,
Mother, on the wall of this room
you share with strangers:

the Egyptian sign for the generation
of life, its wisp of feather
hairlike off the nape, among the old
in their own humped solitudes.

Reason, that chain-store item,
can deny this forever, but that bird
shadows us, at key moments is there,

its gumped-up look guarding justice,
longevity, the journey
of the good and diligent soul.

The venting in the essays about gratuitous, unearned portentousness is converted in the poetry to a full-throated withholding, a replacement of easy emotion with a lavishness of significance placed in the object (wallpaper heron). The human ultimately is sanctified by its relation to the thing outside itself and its realm. Even "Mother" can't be presented unless she is positioned relative to the natural, the non-human. Galvin the critic says: The natural world is our ticket to both a less selfish and self-referential poetry that demands a qualified response from the reader. But I experience something else from his poetry. I get the sense that the vividness of his objects actually obscures the problem of knowing. This is where the interest lies for me.

Galvin2.jpegIn a more recent poem, “Testament,” from Placekeepers (1993), Galvin begins, “As for me, I’m going to keep shoving these fists / full of sickle asters in your face. Especially / when your car’s broken down at the roadside / and you’re quaking because you don’t know / what’s waiting for you beyond the asphalt.” A fist, exactly. The gesture, of course, is generous, instructive, informed. And it is extended to a reader who is broken down, not yet comprehending (but about to be!), a person on asphalt not the holy ground.

“The true risk is still in presenting felt expressions of the way things are, statements that move the inner life of the hearer because they offer him a truth deeper than one he previously knew,” wrote Galvin in 1979. Later, he said, “Whatever happened to the idea that one of the uses of literature is to help educate both author and reader?” Saved by the good works of his poems, Brendan Galvin’s most difficult task isn’t the one most poets take up today, namely tracking the emergence of substantive thought through a sense of incompleteness. For Galvin, the hard work is the discovery of the right descriptors, the elevation of the appropriate moment. Galvin the speaker comes packaged whole, salvaged, deeply appreciative of and moved by what flies or crawls or swims through his gaze. His care is genuine. His poetry, large in spirit and ambition, asks for reverence. I’ve always given it gladly.

[NOTE: If you would like copies of the essays quoted above, send me an email with your USPS mailing address. "The Contemporary Poet and the Natural World" is also available in After Confession, Poetry as Autobiography, published by Graywolf Press.]