So close — so close — mere hours from Samhain, with the veils as thin as spider lace, as thin as an Autumn leaf all gone but the veins, as thin as woodsmoke. One of America’s great poets, Gallway Kinnell has slipped away. If it is every truly said of any of us, then he goes forth shining, then his memory will be a blessing, then when he is remembered, he shall live.
NTodd has already posted one of my very favorite of Mr. Kinnell’s poems, St. Francis and the Sow. And how can you not love a poem with the line, “everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing”?
St. Francis and the Sow always reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s poem, St. Kevin and the Blackbird:
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
How can you not love a poem with the line: “A prayer his body makes entirely”?
As we writhe, all of us, within the death throws of Patriarchy, it’s so wonderfully helpful to have these images of strong men, men doing difficult things that affirm and support life, men who limn male strength, men who co-create the world.
Mr. Kinnell wrote about eating blackberries for breakfast:
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry — eating in late September.
How can you not love a poem with the lines: “the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge”?
And now that he’s slipped between the veils, I think of his poem, How Could You Not, for the poet Jane Kenyon
It is a day after many days of storms.
Having been washed and washed, the air glitters;
small heaped cumuli blow across the sky; a shower
visible against the firs douses the crocuses.
We knew it would happen one day this week.
Now, when I learn you have died, I go
to the open door and look across at New Hampshire
and see that there, too, the sun is bright
and clouds are making their shadowy ways along the horizon;
and I think: How could it not have been today?
In another room, Keri Te Kanawa is singing
the Laudate Dominum of Mozart, very faintly,as if in the past, to those who once sat
in the steel seat of the old mowing machine,
cheerful descendent of the scythe of the grim reaper,
and drew the cutter bars little
reciprocating triangles through the grass
to make the stalks lie down in sunshine.
Could you have walked in the dark early this morning
and found yourself grown completely tired
of the successes and failures of medicine,
of your year of pain and despair remitted briefly
now and then by hope that had that leaden taste?
Did you glimpse in first light the world as you loved it
and see that, now, it was not wrong to die
and that, on dying, you would leave
your beloved in a day like paradise?
Near sunrise did you loosen your hold a little?
How could you not already have felt blessed for good,
having these last days spoken your whole heart to him,
who spoke his whole heart to you, so that in the silence
he would not feel a single word was missing?
How could you not have slipped into a spell,in full daylight, as he lay next to you,
with his arms around you, as they have been,it must have seemed, all your life?
How could your cheek not press a moment to his cheek,
which presses itself to yours from now on?
How could you not rise and go, with all that light
at the window, those arms around you, and the sound,
coming or going, hard to say, of a single-engine
plane in the distance that no one else hears?
How can you not love a poem of death with the lines: “Now, when I learn you have died, I go to the open door and look across at New Hampshire and see that there, too, the sun is bright inside it, giving it light?”
Mr. Kinnell was sometimes compared to the American poet Walt Whitman. His obituary, from his own state of Vermont, says that he “embraced difficult issues. He protested the war in Vietnam. He protested the war in Iraq. He fought for civil rights. He argued against scarring the landscape of his beloved Northeast Kingdom.” The obit continues:
Kinnell was known for mixing the beauty of words with the harshness of social and political struggle. He was an outspoken critic of war, from Vietnam in the 1960s to the Iraq War in 2003. He joined a group of Vermont poets that year for a reading in Manchester after the White House called off a planned national literary symposium because some of the poets planned to read work opposing the Iraq War. A Rhode Island native, Kinnell recited the poetry of Whitman at that Manchester event.
“His bitterness is not because he was a bitter person or because he was anti-American or unpatriotic,” Kinnell said of Whitman in a 2003 Associated Press article. “It was because he loved America so much that he was continually disappointed.”
One of the things that I most love about Mr. Kinnell’s poetry is how willing he was to write about the hard truths. And so, since NTodd has already blogged St. Francis and the Sow, I’ll leave you with my second-favorite Galway Kinnell poem, The Bear:
In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.
I take a wolf’s rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.
And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.
And I set out
running, following the splashes
of blood wandering over the world.
At the cut, gashed resting places
I stop and rest,
at the crawl-marks
where he lay out on his belly
to overpass some stretch of bauchy ice
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.
On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and go on running.
On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.
I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
perhaps the first taint of me as he
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
of lumbering flatfooted
over the tundra,
stabbed twice from within,
splattering a trail behind me,
splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.
Until one day I totter and fall—
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: and now the breeze
blows over me, blows off
the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood
and rotted stomach
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,
my sore, lolled tongue a song
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.
I awaken I think. Marshlights
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue. And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the rest of my days I spend
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?
How can you not love a poem with the lines: “what, anyway, was that sticky insfusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?”
And, of course, he wrote what I think is likely THE great poem to the Great Rite: Last Gods.
She sits naked on a rock
a few yards out in the water.He stands on the shore,
also naked, picking blueberries.She calls. He turns. she opens
her legs showing him her great beauty,
and smiles, a bow of lips
seeming to tie together
the ends of the earth.
Splashing her image
to pieces, he wades out
and stands before her, sunk
to the anklebones in leaf-mush
and bottom-slime—the intimacy
of the geographical. He puts
a berry in its shirt
of mist into her mouth
She swallows it. He puts in another.
She swallows it. Over the lake
two swallows whim, juke jink,and when one snatches
an insect they both whirl up and exult. He is swollen
not with ichor but with blood.
She takes him and talks him
more swollen. He kneels, opens
the dark, vertical smile
linking heaven with the underearth
and murmurs her smoothest flesh more smooth.
On top of the rock they join.
Somewhere a frog moans, a crow screams.
The hair of their bodies
startles up. They cry
in the tongue of the last gods,
who refused to go,
chose death, and shuddered
in joy and shattered in pieces,
bequeathing their cries
into the human breast. Now in the lake
two faces, floating, see up
a great maternal pine whose branches
open out in all directions
How can you not love a poem like that?
I’ll always believe that Mr. Kinnell wrote the poems for the passing of Patriarchy, in all its forms.
Do you have a favorite poem?
Picture found here.