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:


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,

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 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.

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:


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 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.

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.” <

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.

James Galvin’s Resurrection Update

When I was five years old, my mother, my brother, and I moved from the urban Seattle area to a small, rural area in Eastern Washington called Goldendale because my mother had relatives there and because the doctors said that my brother needed to move to a drier area if he was going to overcome his asthma.

Even for a five-year old, it was a tremendous change. I remember wondering how anyone could scratch a living out of this rocky soil, and obviously few had because nearly all the farms had been abandoned by the time we moved there. I vividly remember seeing deserted one-room houses that had somehow been dug into the earth with excavated rocks stacked to form walls. As a child I had believed that dwarfs must have lived in those houses because the roofs were so low. As an adult, I’m simply amazed that anyone ever attempted to live under such harsh conditions.

I’m convinced that if those settlers had written poetry they would have written poetry like James Galvin does in Resurrection Update, particularly in the section entitled "Imaginary Timber." His poetry somehow manages to capture both the harshness and beauty of the rural West. Although the scene described in “What I’ve Believed In” is unique, it is also reminiscent of many rural farms I have visited:

What I’ve Believed In

propped on blocks, the front half of a Packard car rides the hillside like a chip of wood on the crest of a wave. It’s part of the sawmill. That packard engine runs it, or did. The rest, the belt, the Belsaw carriage and blade, stands aside in disrepair. Except for the pine seeds gophers have stashed in the tailpipe, there’s no sign of anything living. The gull-wing hood is rusted cinnamon, latched over chrome priming cocks, one for each cylinder. Every board in every building here was milled on power from that old car, out of timber cut here too. Even shingles. It’s been here since 1925, winters piling onto its forehead like a mother’s hands. It’s weathered them like a son. Just because it hasn’t been run since 1956 is no reason to think it won’t run now: waves have traveled thousands of miles to give us small gifts; pine seeds have waited years to be asked.

I don’t know if Galvin’s ranch every really had a Belsaw powered by a Packard, but Galvin makes me believe that it did. More importantly, the poem symbolizes the complex life that ranchers live. Because money is scarce, they must often improvise in order to succeed. However, it often seems that it’s faith, more than anything, that really keeps the rancher going.

There’s little surprise that a land as hard as this, in turn produces people that are tough enough to measure up to the land:


These afternoons seem to occur more
In geologic time than in one’s life.
Under the blue fresh snowfall,
Sandstone outcrops generate heat.
I count fifteen kinds of tracks,
Like runes, and nothing living.

Drifted snow, an ethered gauze,
Muffles the land, creaks under my skis,
Animals sleep among the roots,
Without doors, without dreams.
Seven miles for a phone
And even the wires have gone under.

Another day knowing nothing more
Than when I last saw you,
That stainless-steel shadow
Vigilant over your bed.
It followed you down the hospital halls,
Arms hung with surgical fruit.

I slide down the last drift to the house,
Slap my skis together.
A small avalanche, shaped like a continent,
Drifts off the roof and falls into a heap,
And some chinking falls from the eaves.

We each inhabit our own
Small flesh, our tract.
Each tries to keep his own
Doors from creaking, like news,
As each night slams shut, and each dawn opens
Like a sudden flow of blood from the mouth.

Those who have personally lived on the high plains would immediately identify with the bleak, snow-covered plains that begin the poem and that are reflected in the hospital halls that follow. The clever metaphor comparing the “drifted snow” to the hospital’s “ethered gauze” provides a seamless transition between the barren opening scene and the feeling of emptiness that accompanies the hospitalization of a loved one. Equally effective is the image of the many miles without a phone and with the wires “gone under,” even if there were a phone.

At a time like this, most of us, like the narrator, feel alone and cut off, inhabiting “our own small flesh,” trying to resist the pain that follows as each day begins like a smack to the mouth. And, yet, somehow we manage to go on, trying to keep our “own/ Doors from creaking.”

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