A Saving Grace

Last year as I hunted for a “Christmas poem” I was surprised by the dearth of such poems in my rather extensive collection of poetry. Of course, right after Christmas I was reading Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems and was immediately struck by the following poem, which, to me, seemed to reflect man’s condition here on earth:

To Christ Our Lord

The legs of the elk punctured the snow's crust
And wolves floated lightfooted on the land
Hunting Christmas elk living and frozen;
Inside snow melted in a basin, and a woman basted
A bird spread over coals by its wings and head.

Snow had sealed the windows; candles lit
The Christmas meal. The Christmas grace chilled
The cooked bird, being long-winded and the room cold.
During the words a boy thought, is it fitting
To eat this creature killed on the wing?

He had killed it himself, climbing out
Alone on snowshoes in the Christmas dawn,
The fallen snow swirling and the snowfall gone,
Heard its throat scream as the gunshot scattered,
Watched it drop, and fished from the snow the dead.

He had not wanted to shoot. The sound
Of wings beating into the hushed air
Had stirred his love, and his fingers
Froze in his gloves, and he wondered,
Famishing, could he fire? Then he fired.

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its end
The bird on the plate
Stared at his stricken appetite.
There had been nothing to do but surrender,
To kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed, with wonder.

At night on snowshoes on the drifting field
He wondered again, for whom had love stirred?
The stars glittered on the snow and nothing answered.
Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north,
The pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.

While I don’t necessarily consider myself a “Christian,” I certainly empathize with the dilemma of the poet caught between the desire for a sacred world and an imperfect world where man is forced to kill to survive.

The opening stanza presents a chilling image of a world where only the fittest survive and where death haunts the earth. In such a world killing is a necessary part of the celebration of life itself.

And the boy, being the one who had killed the bird that provides the feast for the Christmas dinner, wonders whether the act of killing in and of itself negates the “grace” prayed for before the meal, “the grace [that] praised his wicked act.”

The boy's only hope is that his “wonder” at having “to kill and to eat” somehow transcends the very act of killing. Like the Indians who believed that one had to satisfy the soul of the animals they had killed, the boy seems to be asking for the bird’s forgiveness.

Perhaps in this imperfect world all that we can hope for is that our prayers for forgiveness and for more perfect selves, our celebration of the love that is our only hope for redemption, can somehow redeem us.

Galway Kinnell

In keeping with my resolve to catch up with my reading of unread books before I buy new ones, I just finished reading Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems published in 1982. Considering I bought it at the University of Washington bookstore for $12.50, that’s probably about the year I bought it. I knew I had fallen behind in my reading, and I know those Greek tragedies I bought in college keep calling me, but this is ridiculous.

I doubt it’s fair to judge a poet by a book published nearly twenty years ago, but it does cover poems published from 1946 to 1982, and I’ve been unable to find anything much newer on the web. So, I’m going to venture a guess that these poems are representative of his works, especially since they’re all I have to judge by at the moment.

Considering how much difficulty I had getting through this collection, I can imagine why I put off reading it for so long. Simply put, Kinnell has a Master’s degree in Despair, with a minor in “Death.” At his best, a poem like “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” rivals, in my opinion, T.S. Eliots’ more famous “The Wasteland.” In fact, I prefer it to Eliot’s poem because it seems more immediate, more graphic, more relevant, and, yes, less pretentious. Ah, but I never did like poems very much that required more footnotes than lines to understand.

“The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” requires no footnotes. It shatters through graphic image after graphic image the myth that America offers immediate wealth and happiness to its immigrants, as summarized in these lines that appear near the end of the poem:

From the blind gut Pitt to the East River of Fishes
The Avenue cobbles a swath through the discolored air,
A roadway of refuse from the teeming shores and ghettos
And the Caribbean Paradise, into the new ghetto and new paradise,
This God-forsaken Avenue bearing the initial of Christ
Through the haste and carelessness of the ages,
The sea standing in heaps, which keeps on collapsing,
Where the drowned suffer a C-change,
And remain the common poor.

The poem is a brutally honest portrayal of a brutal, dehumanizing environment. It’s hard not to flinch as you read it. Yet, unfortunately, it rings true.

In a later poem Kinnell manages to take a famous line from Whitman and transform it into a very different view of America:

And I hear,
coming over the hills, America singing,
her varied carols I hear:
crack of deputies' rifles practicing their aim on stray dogs
at night,
sput of cattleprod,
TV groaning at the smells of the human body,
curses of the soldier as he poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs
the rice of the world,
with open mouth, crying strong, hysterical curses

Undoubtedly this brilliant allusion to Whitman makes these images more striking, and the poem captures images that dominated the 70’s. But it also reaffirms Kinnell’s image as a cynical portraitist of America’s dark side, one who offers little light from the other side to balance this view.

Even what should be a tender moment comforting a daughter who has awakened in the middle of the night is turned into a meditation on the fragility of life:

You cry, waking from a nightmare.

When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me hard,
as if clinging could save us. I think you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars, even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.

The tender thoughts of the last line certainly provide a tender touch to the vignette, but I can’t remember ever having feelings like this when I woke up to comfort my daughter in the middle of the night. Thank, God. (But, maybe that’s why he’s a famous poet and I’m not.)

Fortunately, for me, at least, the collection ends on a more positive note with a number of poems that seem to emphasize what we can hope to learn from this despair:

Goodbye
1
My mother, poor woman, lies tonight
in her last bed. It's snowing, for her, in her darkness.
I swallow down the goodbyes I won't get to use,
tasteless, with wretched mouth-water;
whatever we are, she and I, we're nearly cured.

The night years ago when I walked away
from that final class of junior high school students
in Pittsburgh, the youngest of them ran
after me down the dark street. "Goodbye!" she called,
snow swirling across her face, tears falling.

2
Tears have kept on falling. History
has taught them its slanted understanding
of the human face. At each last embrace
the snow brings down its disintegrating curtain.
The mind shreds the present, once the past is over.

In the Derry graveyard where only her longings sleep
and armfuls of flowers go out in the drizzle
the bodies not yet risen must lie nearly forever...
"Sprouting good Irish grass," the graveskeeper blarneys,
he can't help it, "A sprig of shamrock, if they were young."

3
In Pittsburgh tonight, those who were young
will be less young, those who were old, more old, or more likely
no more; and the street where Syllest,
fleetest of my darlings, caught up with me
and bugged me and said goodbye, will be empty. Well,

one day the streets all over the world will be empty—
already in heaven, listen the golden cobblestones have fallen still—
everyone’s arms will be empty, everyone’s mouth, the Derry earth.
It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all.
That is how we learned, the embrace is all.

The American Academy has a short biography and a recorded poem by Kinnell.
Here are two poems by Kinnell.
Modern American Poetry includes poems and more.