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James Galvin

It’s Beautiful, Not Sad

Although James Galvin’s often portrays a harsh country that is inhabited by tough characters, I’m also impressed by the gentle characters who manage to survive in the harsh world he portrays:

PRACTICE

The world arrived
so carefully packed
in time,
in time to open,
it could have been
God’s parachute.
We booby-trapped it.
God, you will remember
from the Old Testament,
was a terrorist.
Now He’s a generalization.
We’ve taken to scaring ourselves.
We scare the ozone layer.
But today, still spinning
around the world’s axis,
which is imaginary,
I was permitted to walk home
again through writhing spring.
Leafy things and flowers
in earnest everywhere,
ignoring fear.
If it was anything

it was a garden.
Then, by the gymnasium
I saw a girl
in a green leotard with long sleeves.
She wasn’t just any girl,
she was a dancer,
which is to say only
she didn’t regret her body.
She moved in it
and it moved.
She spun herself around.
She wasn’t dancing, exactly,
more like she was practicing a dance,
getting the moves right,
which moved me
even more.

Sure I wanted her,
but I stood quietly
as she practiced dancing
alone, without music,
and then I continued on.
It wouldn’t have been a good thing
to interrupt that solitude,
identical with her body,
or risk frightening her
with speech.

Like many of his poems, the first stanza establishes a rather bleak picture of our world, a world that man has managed to “booby-trap” while destroying the ozone layer. However, the stanza ends with the poet re-establishing a “new Eden,” with “Leafy things and flowers/ in earnest everywhere.”

The second stanza introduces the image of a dancer who “didn’t regret her body,” but, instead, moved in it. Although she is “practicing a dance,” the poet implies that she is practicing more than a dance, she is practicing life. At first this seems to be a sexual image, and it is, but it is more than that. There seems to be something sacred about a solitude that is “identical with her body,” as if she is somehow caught up in a form of bodily meditation.

“Sara” focuses on a very different kind of woman, but like the dancer Sara seems to have found herself in “somber landscapes:

SARA

Sara stays at home.
Her looks are plain.
She paints somber landscapes with sleeping horses.
She hears voices.

She’s going to stop living later this afternoon.

Now she’s painting the uncut hay waiting in the meadow,
that her father and brothers used to mow
when they were alive.

Sara knows from observation
how it is with trees – without a forest
they can’t go on.
Her mother tells Sara not to paint so sad.

Look, she says, standing at the bay window,
cleaning the glass with a white cloth,

It’s beautiful, not sad!
The walls of the house are covered with Sara’s landscapes.
It’s like not having any walls.

The sun is hot on the brim of her straw hat,
and the valley can’t imagine itself
without her.
She paints the hay barn, leaning a little,

the snowfence, also leaning,
the pines behind the house and barn
a sadder green than pine trees are.

The house, from the outside, is plain.
Sara paints her mother standing at the window,

a white cloth against the glass.

Although Sara is “plain” and “hears voices,” she paints landscapes that manage to transform her bleak landscape into beauty. Although the uncut hay is “sad” because it reminds her of her father and brother’s death, she manages to transform it, like everything else, into beauty. By looking directly at the bleak landscape, Sara is able to transform it into art. In turn, when the art is mounted, it’s "like not having any walls.” Reminiscent of Wallace Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” Galvin suggests that “the valley can’t imagine itself/ without her.”

The house, like Sara herself, “from the outside, is plain,” but inside both of them are beautiful.