A River Runs Through It



James Galvin’s poems taken from "Elements," published in 1988, seem rather different from earlier poems, less concrete, more philosophical, many lacking the sense of place of the earlier poems. Although I tend to like concrete poems more than abstract poems, there are a number of delightful poems in this section that expand on earlier themes.

The river is a recurring image in Galvin’s poetry, and “Testimony” makes good use of the “river” as metaphor for life:

TESTIMONY

You can't step into the same
River even once,
And why would you want to? You can't
Lie down without turning your back
On someone. The sun slips
Like butter in a pan.

The eastern sky arrives
On the back stoop in its dark
Suit. It draws itself up
Full height to present its double
Rainbow like an armful of flowers.
Thank you, they're lovely.

I step outside where the wind
Lifts my hair and it's just
Beginning to rain in the sun,
And the earth silvers like a river
We're in, I swear to God,
And you can't step out of a river

Either. Not once.

Plainly put, life refuses to stand still, and you either live in the moment or you lose it, for the moment can never be held or resurrected. This is Galvin’s carpe diem poem, almost reminiscent of the metaphysical poets, particularly the delightful metaphor comparing the sun to “butter in a pan.” It’s true, days do melt away, just like that, particularly in the Pacific Northwest where a sunny day is sure to give way to a rainy one. While not particularly new, the image of the rainbow “like an armful of flowers” beautifully conveys the necessity of living in the moment.

The last stanza captures an even rarer moment, even for the Pacific Northwest, where it often rains, but seldom rains while the sun shines brightly. There is something magical about a moment like this. As if, for just a moment, life forces were magically in balance. And the sky does shimmer just like reflected light off the rippling river.

Though it does not use the river as a metaphor for life, “The Uncertainty Principle” conveys the same sense of immediacy that “Testimony” did:

THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE

The real is not what happens but what is
About to happen,

Whatever you were dying for before.

Knowing is just feeling
With a sense of direction, and
Thinking tags after like a string of tin cans

Annoying everyone.
Something was about to happen.
Really.

My mother said I'd never make it back
In time by the way she looked at me forever.

She wasn't thinking.

I pledge allegiance to her eyes,
Don't envy me.

When you reach the North Pole the idea of north
Becomes unrealized, free.

Which north was true?
Which south was home?
What is it you are dying for?

Only the stars, which do not know, can tell,
Only the stars, which do not know, can tell.

I’m not sure why I was so drawn to this particular poem other than a strong feeling for the lines, “Knowing is just feeling/ With a sense of direction, and/ Thinking tags after like a string of tin cans/ Annoying everyone.” Now that’s a pretty standard romantic notion, but it’s not often stated this succinctly. Maybe it’s the iNtp in me, but I do believe that true “knowing” is “just feeling” and that, all too often, excessive “thinking” does little more than annoyingly detract from the real truth. Of course, that may explain why I’m drawn to poetry, not linguistics.

Most of us have reached an “unattainable” goal only to discover it no longer has meaning, at least not the meaning that it had before you achieved it. Too often, I wonder why I was dying to do something once I’ve done it.

And then there’s that wonderfully ambiguous line, “Only the stars, which do not know, can tell.” <

What do you think?