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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Over the course of more than a dozen previous collections,
Galvin has written about the land and waters of coastal
New England, and Ocean Effects finds him still walking
the dunes and forest roads, the beaches and pond edges
that hold him in thrall.  His passion for specific naming
of the biota and animal life he encounters is present always . . .

In an essay published in the journal Ploughshares in the late 1970s, Brendan Galvin decried a type of poem he called the “Mumbling Poem,” one that “substitutes odd imagery for direct statement, and a maundering tone for real feeling.”  The authors of such poems, he said there, fail to “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.”  Galvin asserted that in these poems, “rarely does the reader feel the rhythms of experience as one does in Lawrence’s animal poems or in Frost’s poems about work, for instance.”  Statements such as those, though they might come across as prickly and a bit too self-assured, firmly place Galvin in the ranks of poets to whom an acute understanding of the natural world—the wonders of its workings and of human interaction with it—are of first importance. 
    Over the course of more than a dozen previous collections, Galvin has written about the land and waters of coastal New England, and Ocean Effects finds him still walking the dunes and forest roads, the beaches and pond edges that hold him in thrall.  His passion for specific naming of the biota and animal life he encounters is present always, as is evident in the collection’s title poem (shortened to “Ocean Effect”), in which the speaker sees “that blur on clarity setting out across the water / a few miles off, then here,” then imagines the various forms of ice that “four below zero” will produce: “frazil ice,” a suspension of frozen spicules that is “textured like grease.”  Later, “the bay ice will build to shuga / …then to nilas / and pancake ice, floes . . ..”  Galvin revels in such naming, as the title of an earlier collection, The Strength of a Named Thing, makes explicit, and his poems resonate with the music that passion affords, whether it be literal, as with the ice, or metaphorical, the “soft stars, cog-wheels and compass roses” of snow (“Hard Evidence”), or the plant life in “Stations,” the apple trees that “look assembled out of worn-out hipbones / and warbler loopholes not long for this world,” “foxgrape that lives as long as that mossbacked / snapping turtle that floats like its own islet in the river.”
    Galvin’s facility with metaphor has not deserted him through the four decades in which he’s been publishing, nor has his gift of making those metaphors reflect his affection for the plant and animal life at the center of his work.  In “As in a Succession of Russian Dolls” the speaker finds the “hollow pelt” a molting bat has left behind, “A furry lump like the back of a brown creeper / on the side of the deck’s newel post, then / the earlets, and one stick-leg flung out / as if in afterthought…origami gone all wrong.…”  The bat in flight is “a pre-bird, post-butterfly dither / of indecision coming my way, the jittery / misdirections of bat flight, / like the heartbeat of a bad time, // as when the ingénue presses / the back of her hand to her lips and casts / a look of horror out into the audience.”   “Splash” recounts the speaker’s encounter with a river otter, that “came up blowing water / like a kid after a dive…no goofy stuffed toy, but almost / smiling, the way a salamander / turned up under a log seems to smile / as if to say, You have found me out.”  Such tropes sometimes skirt the edge of anthropomorphism, but the poems’ wry tone and the speaker’s acuity of observation help avoid the maudlin.
    It follows that a poetry so rooted in the natural world will be spoken by a solitary seer.  The speakers of Galvin’s poems that focus on that world are almost always alone, a condition that grants him the freedom to interact with its inhabitants unfettered by the possible taint or loss of focus in which interaction with another human presence might result.  But as with the peripatetic speaker who observes the natural world in so many of Mary Oliver’s poems, Galvin’s speaker needs that condition if his work of showing the reader the extraordinary in the ordinary—indeed, of demanding, at times, that we look along with him—is to be fully accomplished.  Reading these poems, we understand that the speaker is not some suburban dweller out for a breath of fresh air and perhaps a glimpse of a heron, but someone for whom life without a steady diet of accomplished interaction with birds and trees and all manner of landscapes would not be complete.  And the fact that the names of those inhabitants, a thorough knowledge of their ways, and the unforced metaphors that make them accessible to readers who are not as familiar with them are literally part of Galvin’s psyche is a big part of what makes his poems more than “nature poems.”   The speakers of Galvin’s poems might be physically apart from human contact, but they show us ways in which all of us, even city dwellers, can deepen our understanding of the natural world and the importance of acknowledging our bond with it.
    The poems described thus far comprise the first and last sections of Ocean Effects.  In the middle of the collection are three sections of poems that are composed of sequences spoken by folk as diverse as the American colonist Roger Williams and small-town police officers.  The extended sequence of dramatic monologues is ground Galvin has traversed before in such collections as Hotel Malabar and Wampanoag Traveler, and here the most successful sequences are those spoken by Sgt. Crocker Newton, a beat cop in Cape Cod, and Williams.  In the former, the sergeant recounts, often in jocular and idiomatically-rich diction, interactions between the “one-to-a-crate originals / already present and accounted for— / the homegrowns dealing joints and coke / out of their rides at the beach parking lots,”  and the “New Age lizards, washashores, blow-ins” that are drawn to the Cape as an exotic refuge “because Florida’s too far, too big a drain / on their concentration.”  Newton Crocker’s sequence shows Galvin to be as acute an observer of the inhabitants of a village as those of a dune on the Massachusetts beach.
    The sequence spoken by Roger Williams is even more ambitious.  The poems are epistolary, and all save the last are dated, covering the years from 1636 to 1678.  Vividly recounted in “The Snow Trial” is Williams’ being rescued from a snow storm by “the hands of Massasoit’s people” and led “back to the smell of mud, / and skunk cabbage melting its way out of old snow.”   In “Letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop, Jr.,” he reflects on native grasses—“Common hairgrass / and panic grass, rice grass—each is like / a trusted apprentice who goes about his business / without our notice” —and their relative usefulness for his fellow colonists (“Neither these nor the native ryes and broomstraws / I mention will compete with English hays in promoting / the girth and disposition of your beasts, however” ).  And in “A Proposal of Banishment” he bemoans the ubiquitous packs of wolves that roam the woods of the colony: “those gluttonous runnagadoes / will fasten upon a single free-ranging hog / and reduce it to ribs and trotters ere / a farmer may fire a salute in the direction / of their banquet.”   In all of this, Galvin’s knowledge of the native flora and fauna of New England serves him well.  His long delight in elaborate metaphor and his wry humor are in evidence in these sequences, but the voices are those of the personae, consistent and utterly convincing.   And it is interesting to see Galvin turning to a longer line in the dramatic monologues, while preserving the complex syntactical patterns that are consistently present in his work.  While these poems lack some of the structural tension and tight focus of the poems in the first and last sections of the book, they remind us of the breadth of Galvin’s range, and in fact they perhaps allow him to speak to his old concerns in ways that are sometimes more subtle and less insistent than in some of the poems found in the first and last sections of the book.
    Galvin is a poet who has published much but not too much; that is, many of the poems here are as fresh and powerful as the poems in such strong earlier collections as Atlantic Flyway, Seals in the Inner Harbor, and Winter Oysters.  While Galvin continues to work the same material, he manages to make it new.

Ocean Effects, Brendan Galvin. LSU Press, 2007. ISBN: 0807132675 $16.95

© by Russ Kesler


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