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:


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 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.

11 thoughts on “It’s Beautiful, Not Sad”

  1. Absolutely beautiful poems. And wonderful writing on them. Gentle and sadly sweet. Worth a long car ride.

    But the one line in Sara, “She’s going to stop living later this afternoon”. This seemed to jar, didn’t it? Is it that the sad/sweet tone of the poem is how we experience the loss of a person who has lived a life in contentment? It was puzzling.

  2. I’m so glad the tax season is over!

    I opened up the comments to say just what Burningbird’s already written. That line struck me in the gut – trying to be optimistic I thought it might mean she would stop painting later, but I couldn’t convince myself.

    I just wondered…

    “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!”

    I just wondered if this was someone unable perhaps to deal with a grief (the deaths of her father and brothers? [where, in a war?]) which is making her entire outlook “somber”, which in turn gives a knell to the line

    “She’s going to stop living later this afternoon.”

    However it’s quite clear that under prevailing conditions that’s the sort of thing I’m far more likely to be looking for, consciously or not, so I may be getting the emphasis all out of kilter.

    Lovely poems. So interesting to see the landscape through the words, and feel how different it is to the British landscape.

  3. Sorry… missed out the:

    “Sara knows from observation
    “how it is with trees – without a forest
    “they can’t go on.”

    which I thought might refer to her, as an individual, being unable to continue without the forest of her father and brothers around her.

    Anyway, that’s enough mournfulness for one thought.

  4. I must admit that line jarred me, too, and I didn’t quite know what to do with it .

    There’s certainly a deep sadness to this poem, but some sort of recognition that the artist can help redeem that sadness, if not themselves.

  5. Possibly it’s my off neurochem talking, but I don’t have any trouble at all reading this poem as prefiguring a suicide.

    I think qB is right on in pointing out Sara’s loneliness. Her mother (no doubt from her own griefs) is no help to her at all; telling her “not to paint so sad” is a dead-on echo for the “just snap out of it already!” school of reacting to depression. And it’s mother, not Sara, who sees beauty rather than sadness in the outdoors.

    Her paintings seem to me to be efforts to create an understanding space for herself, where she has permission to be unhappy. “The valley cannot imagine itself without her.” “It’s like not having any walls.”

    Note that the mother is maintaining the walls and windows, by the way. Feels a lot like denial, to me.

    I’m sorry, Loren; I don’t read this as redemptive at all. The opposite of “plain” isn’t “beautiful;” it’s “complex and hidden.”

  6. Okay, after re-reading the original, and restoring the italics somehow lost in transcribing, I’ll have to agree that it is the mother, not the daughter, saying “It’s beautiful,” which, in turn, changes the meaning of the poem. Making the title ironic?

    This would definitely fit in with the “bleakness” I referred to in the previous post.

    Now, though, I don’t know what to do with “the valley can’t imagine itself/ without her.” I’ll have to rethink this, won’t I?

    What’s the proper way to correct a blog entry when you know you’re wrong? Just leave it and hope the reader is smart enough to read the comments?

    Damn, a virtual classroom. Without any discipline problems. I love it!

    Remember, though, the teacher is always right, blog or no blog 😉

  7. I haven’t got an apple for teacher, but I am (at some stage, when I get round to it) going to stick a sprig of honesty digitally garnered from my father’s garden on my blog (purely as a result of the ongoing “what is a blog” discussion) which I hope you’ll appreciate. Dorothea too.

  8. Never correct — the changed perception and the discussion leading to same is as much of value as the words of the poems.

    And who is to say that there isn’t beauty among the despair in Sara, which is I think the point of the poem. I value the poem even more after this discussion.

  9. I certainly agree that it would be best to leave it this way, as long as I can include the comments.

    This is precisely the reason that I wanted to include comments in my blog.

    Howeve, I would put a note in the main body to make sure that the reader looks at the comments.

    There are still parts of the poem that I need to consider in more detail.

  10. I agree that, already a beautiful poem, there’s added engagement through dialogue. And don’t change – maybe a dated update on the end of the post drawing attention to the comments or a new post linking back.

    I have a habit, which I haven’t told anyone about, which is entering poems that I really love or are really important to me in a database in my psion 5 pda – a piece of equipment now outdated but still used for that purpose because I could never transfer them onto my palm. “Sara” is on her way in there.

  11. Thanks to Dorothea, I will leave the whole thing intact with a note inserted into the main body telling the reader to be sure to consult the comments.

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