Brendan Galvin Essay - Critical Essays


Brendan Galvin’s work has been called passionless. The charge is groundless but understandable. The human figure, the domestic drama, does not loom in the forefront of Galvin’s work. That is not to say that his books are not peopled, but certainly he has given less attention to the themes of love, sex, family, and self than is customary. Galvin often treats nature, the town and city, and humankind in the aggregate. Moreover, much of his work on animals—birds in particular— seems to be at the expense of humans: Direct or implicit contrasts between human and animal life are made to humans’ disadvantage—“no bird violates another/ with the inflections of small print.”

For Galvin, humans are only one center of interest in the universe through which he moves, and not necessarily the most important one. Through Galvin’s work, one comes to learn that there is a passion in beholding the rest of creation, that his acts of attention—whether the subject be a heron, a thunderstorm, or “The First Night of Fall” (from Great Blue)—are more than intellectual exercises. There is a passionate humility and what might be called a passionate objectivity. There is a passionate giving of the full resources of his art to something other than himself. There is a passion felt, by the alert reader, seeping through the pressure that would control it. There is a passion in the acts of language that so rarely stoop to the mere naming of passions. There is a passion that leads the thing observed and the observer to become intertwined: “A small event at a time,/ sleep comes to the weedy pond/ at the top of your mind.” There is drama enough, too, in the small events that Galvin records so well. Small or large, the events to which he is attentive diminish, with sanity, the human ego: “I know the wind and more/ is beating down the centuries,/ and while I sit the tides go on/ rearranging the earth.”

In three of Galvin’s earlier books, there is a recurring character named Bear who is, one assumes, the more earthbound side of the poet’s nature. Galvin’s Bear is another version of the metaphor found in Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” for while Schwartz seems only embarrassed and victimized by the body’s clumsy pursuit of its appetites, Galvin has a friendly feeling toward the pull of the instinctual. He records, sympathetically, Bear’s difficulties with artists, intellectuals, high-toned women, and all of the mind’s subtleties. Bear seems to have the last word; something about him is more anchored in this world than in the world of abstraction, even while this world remains a mystery. Bear’s senses do not fail him, but his mind gets in the way.

“The Envy of Instinct”

In “The Envy of Instinct” (from The Minutes No One Owns), Galvin develops the theme of human beings’ separation from the rest of nature, a theme that he never leaves for long. The poem begins with the speaker asking, “Earth, air, or water,/ which are we natural to?” The problem is that there is no easy answer. Is a steel and glass skyscraper a natural habitat for humans? The speaker is out running in his paltry human way, “one foot/ before another.” It is as if this human running were not the real thing or were an activity that the human animal was not—or was no longer—fit for. The runner knows that before he reached this place “a deer clicked off/ the distance like a caliper.” Such movement, he realizes, is true running.

Under the strain of this now unnatural exercise, the runner seems to break down into his more primitive animal parts:

My heart beats red as the pouch of a horny frigate bird. My lungs are sponges working for more air.

The speaker wonders which of the many distinctions between humans and the lower orders is the crucial one: speech, perhaps, or the complexity of his nervous system. He is amazed at the freedom that the absence of reason allows. A bird he sees skimming along the shore “could go without reason/ to Venezuela tomorrow.” By contrast, the complexity of human life is felt to be a series of unsatisfactory compromises, a collection of disparate and trivial indulgences of the mind.

The poem concludes with an earnest yet comic longing for “the energy ants save the world with.” Galvin would store it up until he had enough of it to redirect natural history so that humanity became a properly subordinate phase, not a thing unto itself: “A decimal at a time, to carry off/ whole silos, nudging the origin/ of species my way.”


In “Running (from The Minutes No One Owns), the speaker is reduced by exhaustion to the status of a mere physical presence. The keen celebrant of nature, observing while he runs, seems to be casting off his human difference and becoming suffused with the essential physicality of existence. One might think of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (pr. 1921) turned into a true comedy. Galvin’s skill at capturing this process is impressive: “By mile four/ I’m only the framework a breeze passes through.” At the end of the run, there is a chant of victory in the blood, a half-silly song of belonging: “. . . my pulse begins its/ shorebird glossolalia. It says/ dowitcher coot yellow-legs/ brant bufflehead knot.” The catalog of birds’ names is a self-mocking description of the runner’s delirium as well as that echo in the blood that joins him, for the moment, to his fellow creatures.

“The Winter Runner”

An earlier poem, “The Winter Runner” (from No Time for Good Reasons), gives the humans-in-nature interest a mythic dimension. This poem is told in the third person, depicting the runner (an American Indian, perhaps, or a hunter) as a small figure crossing a richly evocative terrain that changes constantly. There is no war between the mind and the body here, but rather a vital harmony. Galvin finds just the right words to bring mind and object together: “the low hills afterthoughts/ between the sky and sea.” Looking over the runner’s shoulder, the reader shares direct sensory experience: “the orange, thumbnail tip of sun/ and last fruits of day: eelgrass softening/ from tan to plum.” This poem is distanced in a bygone golden age; even though the imagination can re-create it, such a state is an illusive goal for contemporary humans. That is Galvin’s complaint.

Atlantic Flyway

Galvin’s naturalist’s eye and conservationist impulse in both theme and language are clearly visible in “Pitch Pines” from Atlantic Flyway. In “Pitch Pines,” Galvin alludes to John Brereton (or Brierton) and Bartholomew Gosnold, two Englishmen who followed Giovanni Verrazano’s path across the Atlantic and in May, 1602, founded a short-lived colony on an island off Cape Cod. Brereton’s A Briefe and True Relation of the Discouerie of the North Part of Virginia (1602) is the record of that voyage. In imagining Brereton’s view “from Bartholomew Gosnold’s deck,” Galvin reveals not only his growing interest in regional history but also his love of names. An opportunity to get the sounds of “Bartholomew Gosnold” into a poem is not to be missed. This historical interest is felt elsewhere in Atlantic Flyway: in “Homage to Henry Beston,” in two poems about old maps, and, in terms of family, in the Irish American focus of “1847” and “Himself.”

“Pitch Pines” begins by sketching the unpromising appearance of trees that are “blown one sided/ by winds salted out of the northeast.” The unusual use of “salted” in this passage is characteristic of Galvin’s spare diction, gaining richness through compression and suggestion. These pines are derelicts of trees, with “limbs flaking and dying/ to ribs, to antlers and spidery twigs,/ scaly plates slipping off the trunks.” The sharp picture is accompanied by a sharpness of sounds: plosive consonants—b, k, p, g, t, and d—allowing the reader to hear the branches breaking and striking the ground. Nothing about the pitch pines is hopeful. They are “blamed for a history of cellar holes” and they “thin out by dropping sour needles/ on acid soil.” Although the sound patterns are less aggressive here, one should note the high density of repeated sounds in these phrases: in “history of cellar holes” the bonding on h, s, r, and l sounds is accompanied by a pleasant modulation of vowels; in “dropping sour needles/ on acid soil” the d, r, s, and l links are carried along Galvin’s movement up and down the vowel scale. Galvin’s skillful manipulation of sounds and rhythms continues as he describes the result of the pines’ pollination: “a shower/ that curdles water to a golden scum.”

At this point, the poem’s perspective becomes historical. Brereton, the reader is told, had known a Cape Cod “timbered to its shores/ with hardwoods.” The demand for buildings and ships, however, began the process of denuding the cape. The swamp cedars were “split to shakes” or used for foundations “while sheep cropped/ elm and cherry sprouts/ and plows broke the cleancut fields.” Birch, maple, elm, beech, and oak were all put to use as firewood for various enterprises, notably the iron and glass industries, “till the desert floundered/ out of the backlands and knocked/ on the rear door of towns.” Only the ugly, useless pitch pines were left, unlikely survivors of the “brushfire” of progress.

“Pitch Pines” raises the question of the price of progress, but it does so in a way that avoids the usual harangue associated with such subjects. The facts, as Galvin selects and presents them, are left to speak for themselves, and they speak with an eloquence born of restraint. The tenacious pitch pines are a stunted note of hope; they remind readers that whatever they see around them in nature is what is left after the toll of humanity’s actions has been taken. (One might compare this poem to Galvin’s earlier “Ward’s Grove,” in which the rhetoric is more heated; the poem includes the splendid simile of “the oil derrick offshore like Triton’s middle finger.”)

Atlantic Flyway contains some of Galvin’s most imaginative poems of small-town life. “Shoveling Out” and “Hometown” evoke a bracing nostalgia for the flavor of growing up in these comfortable places where a mixture of boredom and dread gives life a special balance: “we lived with that town/ like a man lives with a trick heart” (“Hometown”). Most of these poems of the small town, like much of Galvin’s achievement, use the device of the catalog or inventory. Item by item, his strategic accumulation of telling details reaches out for a total vision: The parts are important, but the whole is more than their sum.

Galvin’s vision of the small town is particularly clear in “Defending the Provinces.” This poem begins with a contrast between the scale of...

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