James Galvin’s Later Poems



I’ve struggled through the final section of James Galvin’s Resurrection Update, the poems published in 1995 and 1996. Some of that is probably due to a cold, but I’ve done some of my best reading while home in bed with a cold. I suspect it has more to do with a shift in the style of poems.

Although there has often been a touch of surrealism in Galvin’s poetry, that style becomes dominant in the last two sections, as suggested by the title poem of this volume:

RESURRECTION UPDATE

And then it happened.
Amidst cosmic busting and booming
Gravity snapped,
That galactic rack and pinion.

Trees took off like rockets.
Cemeteries exploded.
The living and the dead
Flew straight up together.

Only up was gone. Up was away.
Earth still spun
As it stalled and drifted darkward,
Sublime,

An aspirin in a glass of water.

While the poem offers an interesting “interpretation” of “Resurrection,” with a physical “miracle” taking the place of a spiritual one, somehow it holds very little appeal to me, at least not enough appeal that I care to go to the work of “interpreting” it. Why “an aspirin in a glass of water?”

Fortunately, there are still a few gems interspersed even in this section. There’s a long poem called “Stories Are Made of Mistakes” that describes the narrator’s experience with a black mare that is delightful, and more reminiscent of the earlier poems in the book. Another of my favorites is called “The Giants of History:”

THE GIANTS OF HISTORY

The little people behind the scenes are getting ugly.
They are seizing their own destiny.
They are plotting
crimes against the big people in the scenes.
They spite
the holy and the hoi polloi alike.
They've had enough
of us.
The little people behind the scenes become tourists.

They want to meet other little people behind other scenes,
but their only friends are the giants of history, who are
no good to them now, in their hour of need.

While I’m not sure I actually believe the poem’s message, at the very least it reminds me of what I would like to see happen. It is the promise of democracy, after all. I’d love to believe that the little people are finally getting fed up with the lies they’re being fed by the Bush administration and are plotting how to get even with the Enron executives.

Of course, as the last stanza suggests, the little people right now only know how to act through the “giants of history,” the “Washingtons, Lincolns, and the Roosevelts.” Learning how to connect with the rest of the people will take something new. If I were a Cluetrain devotee, I might suggest that the web offers that opportunity. At the very least, though, the internet offers new possibilities.

4 thoughts on “James Galvin’s Later Poems

  1. I really like your reading of this poem (“Giants of History”) Before I read your comments, the poem struck me as an imitation of sorts of Cavafy’s style and voice. I am thinking here of that seemingly detached and somewhat jaded voice that has the advantage of focusing on a moral issue without appearing too personal … and yet, the whole occasion for the utterance (or the poem) is a passionate personal desire to speak in such a way as to inspire action. Your take on Galvin’s closure suggests that it may well be a subtle call to action, not just a condemnation of the “tourists” of history.

    Just to show you what I meant by the Cavafy influence, let me include a poem by Cavafy, one that made me think of Galvin’s as being similar in some respect:

    But Wise Men Perceive Approaching Things
    “For the gods perceive future events, men what is
    happening now, but wise men approaching things.”
    PHILOSTRATUS, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, viii, 7

    People know what is happening now.
    The Gods know things of the future,
    the entire and sole possessors of all the lights.
    Of the things of the future, wise men perceive
    approaching events. At times

    during hours of serious mediations
    their hearing is disturbed. The mysterious clamor
    of approaching events reaches them.
    And they listen with reverence. Although outside
    on the street, the peoples hear nothing at all.

    from the Complete Poems of Cavafy, tans. by Rae Dalven

  2. i think I’m going to have to buy a copy of Cavafy’s poems if I keep running into references to them like this, Maria.

    Amazingly, I just ran into a reference and poem by him on Jonathon Delacour’s page earlier today.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a single poem by him in any of my many poetry collections.

  3. I own two copies of his poems, one, translated by Rae Dalven, is the book I already quoted from, and the other, “C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” was translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. All I can say is that these two translations give us almost two different poets in English. For example, the Dalven translation that begins with this:

    People know what is happening now.
    The gods know things of the future,
    the entire and sole possesors of all the lights.

    is translated as this by Keeley & Sherrard:

    Ordinary people know what’s happening now,
    the gods know future things
    because they alone are totally enlightened.

    So, before you buy, you might want to compare translations … for some reason, that interjection of the “because” in the Keeley & Sherrard translation really bothers me, but, for all I know, their version might be closer to the original that is the Dalven version.

    Now I am off to check out Jonathon Delacour’s references.

  4. Obituary

    I am dead at 22.
    The souls of my unborn children strain at the boundries of the universe screaming for release,
    demanding their days in the sun.
    They are pursued by the progeny of dead generations lurking in the shadows and swallowed
    by the black hole of my early death,
    Never to witness the star fire and comet glitz
    Of their own passing.
    Their light will never shine.
    I am dead
    And so are they.
    Did they see me?
    Did anyone?

    Bob Flournoy
    Nashville, Tn
    September, 2001

What do you think?