James Galvin et al, Part 3

A third posting from Jack Anders’ essay…this section explores Galvin’s poetics in more detail. I particularly like Anders’ line—“poetry always tries to show raw flux in frozen form”:

In any event, in X, all revolves around the elemental subject matter which is the end of the marriage. Each poem represents an effort to embrace the following paradox: how to be true to the emotional situation which is uncontrolled, and at the same time, somehow show formal control. It is, in a sense, just a more extreme example of one of the basic situations of poetry, since poetry always tries to show raw flux in frozen form.

The process can be therapeutic. As Galvin said in an interview regarding X, “Most art springs from anxiety in the artist,” however, “If you take some source of anxiety and formalize it, it makes it more bearable, not less bearable.” In the same interview, Galvin also explains that X is “a book about getting to a certain point in my life when I realize many of the things I believed in turned out not to be true.” You can hear the pain and anger still simmering in his comment. Then he adds, regarding the title of the book, that is concerns “the cancellation, the mathematical unknown, the betrayal.” Here, you can see his mind trying to formalize, capture in form, in language, the emotions. (This is typical of good poets, that even in their casual speech, you can see their poetics at work).

Poetic form is necessary in order to bridge the gap between writer and reader. Although I may have powerful feelings inside of me, because you are a separate person, if I am just standing facing you, you may have no sense of my feelings. To get my feelings (or my intuitions, or my thoughts), over to you, I must use language, communication. That language is an agreed-upon code. Form is the laws of that code. More generally, poetic form is the laws that allow me to capture and transpose the feelings within me, out onto neutral turf, out onto the white slate of the poem—where potentially if all goes well, you can come along and read it and feel those feelings in you. This space between me and you, where the poem is, is exceedingly mysterious. My self has ended there. I am dead there: it is dead air, past my being, past the limit of my self. Somehow, though, form gets the job done. Form does not make the poem a living thing in itself, but does make it an artifact excreted by my life, which your life can pick up on. Poetic form is thus a vehicle for the movement of messages between two lives, through the entire abyss of nothingness and death. This might help explain the pull of poetry for some of us: every successful poem, whether it’s one you write or one you read, is a movement of life across death, a reincarnation of sorts. But form is necessary to make this transference possible.

Galvin appears to agree with the traditional notion of poetry as a communication in this way. He says in one interview, “The idea of writing poetry is making a connection with others or nature that starts from a personal place.” Ideally in his poems he seeks a double connection. His best poems connect both with the raw landscape around him, and with us, the readers, fellow humanity, at the same time. His best poems have two directions in this way. It is again a traditional poetics, which certainly can be seen in the Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, who sought to connect both to nature and other people. Galvin adds, “Love is a part of nature and it is often a reflection of nature. . .”

So in a poem such as the following, we see the double movement, toward the landscape, and toward other people:

A score of years ago I felled a hundred pines to build a house.
Two stories, seven rooms in all.
I built my love a home.
daughter was in orbit in the womb.

(“Depending on the Wind”).

There is a connection here between the poet and the “hundred pines” which make up nature; and, a second connection, between the poet and his wife and coming daughter.

In another poem, he sings a lonely cowboy lament, the “cowboy poetry” sense of the piece enhanced by the throwback form, with its ballad a/b/a/b stanzas:

What did you expect
Threadbare me to do
With nothing to deflect
The gale of your remove?

The scanty sacred secret
Tries to thumb a ride
Through drubbed, irresolute,
And famously slippery light.

Like a spooky spark from an anvil
The sun makes a teary streak
Across the almost tranquil,
Which is the almost bleak.

What is threadbare me to do
When wind cleaves your summer dress
To almost all of you?

(“Dear Nobody’s Business”).

I think what makes a poem like this inherently dramatic is the sense that what we have here is the spectacle of a man who would rather be reticent, spilling his guts. Since he has always been a poet who mines his subject matter from his own everyday life, he has no choice but write about the breakup. To avoid the subject would be to betray his own poetic. But in a sense he’d rather not talk about it, it makes him uncomfortable, because the content is so private. He has no mastery over the content: she left him, not the other way around. And, since he does not use irony, he cannot deploy that most basic of emotional shields. So he is left vulnerable and exposed, but at the same time, his basic character is that of a pretty tough, self-reliant guy. So in these poems it is fascinating to watch this dramatic dynamic unfold:

Stars leak mixed feelings
Over sheet lightning’s weft of echoes.
You, I can’t get over your shoulder blades,
Like music from the center of the earth.
I want to live happily.
You can have the ever and the after.
You are quite life-like, but you can’t fool me.
I know the unearthly when I die from it.
I’m not talking about the body’s mutable components—
I’m not talking.
Look— wild irises, like every spring,
In the salacious green of Dirty Woman Creek

(“Wild Irises on Dirty Woman Creek”).

Here, the vanished and remembered lover-figure mixes in with and unites with the surrounding landscape. The poem could be viewed as a rumination on how place names come to be. The tone and thought-direction shifts in every line, reflecting the stress of the form fighting its way through rough feelings, “mixed feelings,” as the poem says. The voice changes registers from one moment to the next, from the common talk idiom of “you can’t fool me” to the highfalutin sound of “the body’s mutable components.” The voice here and elsewhere combines a kind of cowboy plainspokenness, with weird words and vectors one imagines have been picked up over years of kicking around the U. of Iowa English Department. The tone is somewhat spooky because the more highfalutin effects sound like echoes of Jorie herself, of his long immersion in her mind, looking at drafts of her poems, etc., over their long marriage. Again, there is nary a whiff of irony. He protects himself through break-off and change-up. The roughness of the emotions causes the learned mind to react by going back down to basics and elementals in an effort to figure it out, resolve and get through it:

Being in love isn’t about being happy.
Here’s a good idea: let’s live some more.

After bad things happen we always live
A little more. Good timing, bad timing,

The people against me were probably right:
You can’t step in front of the same bus twice.

From here on out, honesty’s its own
Intelligence, which may, or may not involve

Philosophy. Try to understand
The world, and leave the mind to darkness where

It thrives. Werner Herzog, for example, says
The mind is a room, better dimly lit

For livable ambiance, some lively music
For habitability — than floodlit, mute

For self-knowledge — a bogus notion, anyway.
According to the quarterback from Cedar

Rapids, Iowa, Jesus is a
Football fan, without whose intervention

The Rams could not have won the Super Bowl.
Aren’t you ashamed at refusing love

Like an hors d’oeuvre (outside the work — which was?).
Love’s not love until it’s lost, and then

You write a corybantic poem about it.
That’s what you think. What I think — what do I think?

I think the house we lived in wept itself
All the way down. I think forgiveness mirrors

Facetious animals at play: horseplay.
Horse-sense, more what we aspire to —

Remains the province of the horses, no?

(“Winter Solstice Full Moon at Perigee”).

The poem here reads like a direct address by the poet to himself which then morphs into a direct address to Jorie, especially in the line, “You write a corybantic poem about it” followed by “That’s what you think.” (By the way, the dictionary definition of “corybantic” is “wild; frenzied; uncontrolled”). The string of particulars in the poem shows a poet who is very efficient at using and in a natural way true to the data of his daily life, i.e., what one would expect to be the stuff of the day-to-day life of a ranch nut who also happens to be a writing teacher at Iowa: remembered quotes from the German arthouse film director Herzog and the local quarterback on the sports page. This mix of high and low is appealing and feels American, in the best sense, melting-pot, unstratified.

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