December 2009

Sean Patrick Hill


As Is by James Galvin

I confess that I have grown to love -- grown accustomed to, really -- a certain kind of poetry by James Galvin. For me, Resurrection Update will always be the seminal text, encompassing his first four books with their American Western overtures: the landscape, the people, the sometimes brutal life associated with both. Yet even by the end of that book one could see the slow changes in the poetry, a moving away from that landscape into a world more, perhaps, abstract, or at least of a slight postmodernism.

As much as modern poetry wants to distance itself from the self, the “self” of James Galvin is hard to separate from the poetry, especially coming from a life so intertwined with those very landscapes (the Neversummer Mountains and so on) and the characters (Lyle, et al.). Thus, the early-to-middle poetry of Galvin becomes more like a personal narrative that, no matter how distant from my own experience, is incredibly immediate, realistic, accessible, authentic.

As a reader of Galvin, it was X that threw me for the first time. The poetry itself was consistent with the author’s voice and style, but it was the subject matter that proved unremittingly dark and heavy, making for a grinding and harrowing read. And I did read the book numerous times, but it never quite caught me as did those first four books. This is due, I suspect, largely to other aspects of his life increasingly evident in the poems intruding on the sensibility that informed the previous books -- the politics of working at the Iowa Writers Workshop, for one. And then there was the split with the wife, of course.

So it was with great anxiety and expectation that I approached As Is, Galvin’s seventh book of poems. From the outset, this tome carries a different tone: new life is breathed into this text, as is abundantly evident from the dedication to Dora Malech (no need to get into the personal stories here) and the final release of the poet’s psyche from the grip of his former relationship. It’s tempting to call Galvin’s poetry “confessional” in this sense, though it owes more, as it always has, to James Wright more than, say, Robert Lowell.

It’s equally tempting to call this a collection of love poems, even at its grimmest. “All poems are love poems,” he says in “Blue or Green,” though he quickly counters with “Some poems are better off dead,” What falls throughout the book is the total spectrum of light and emotion within this range.

It’s the influence of surrealism (Galvin claims Mallarmé as an influence, as well as so-called American Surrealists like Merwin) that carries throughout much of his new work; maybe not strict surrealism as we’ve come to know it, but certainly a reliance on fantastic imagery, as is scattered throughout poems such as “Nike,” which introduces the “Mastermind” as a recurring character. Whatever the Mastermind represents -- and it shifts around, for certain -- it is somewhat of a departure for Galvin to move from a world grounded in the Wyoming landscape to a shifting world utterly of the mind. Not that his older poetry isn’t equally grounded in the mind, but I’m suggesting that his new poems sometimes subtly rely more on ideas as image, or at least that is how these poems feel to me.

Which doesn’t preclude those obvious Galvin touches, considering lines as exquisite as “It wasn’t supposed to be beautiful, just true.” Of course there are touching poems like “Still and All” with its pointed declaration of the brief loveliness of life: “And one of these days one of these days // Will just be one of these days.” In other poems, as in the past, the natural world is evoked to great effect through personification and vivid description that brings me back to what I most love of Galvin.

I further confess that I do miss those Western poems with their simplicity and Frost-like narratives (remembering that James Wright, a major influence on Galvin, was likewise influenced by Frost), though the book doesn’t necessarily let me down. Poems like “A Cast of Thousands” brings us right back to that ground, to the deer caught on the barbed wire, to the ants “busy living” in a bit of fur blown off the carcass. And coming right back to the family life and the cabin-as-ruptured-home visited previously, “In My Daughter’s Room” is a whirlwind poem (which features a whirlwind) and stands out in this volume as one of the strongest poems, where the black plastic bag used to clean out the daughter’s room becomes a black hole swallowing the whole of his life, but also saving him: “I stood in the middle of my daughter’s swirling room, / The black bag in one hand, / And in the other a small glass horse from Murano, / A piece of tourist kitsch, / Which I kept, and keep.”

Overall, I find it hard to separate my vision of Galvin’s poetry from the past, though I know ultimately I must let that go in order to approach the new work. If viewed from the angle of a narrative, I can do this easier: the poems document a life, however poeticized or even distorted. As a whole, As Is resembles all of Galvin’s poetry, but feels too as if it is feeling its way awkwardly and with uncertainty into a new sensibility, into an unfamiliar landscape that grows further from its home ground, like a lengthening shadow. Perhaps that represents as much a discomfort for the poet as for myself. I am willing, either way, to map that territory, or at least to be guided through the dark.

As Is by James Galvin
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 1556592965
80 Pages