Another Night in the Ruins

by Galway Kinnell
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1190

Section 1: Lines 1–7

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“Another Night in the Ruins” begins with a description of setting in the first two lines. It is nighttime and the narrator is outside, or looking outside, at a hilly landscape. Lines 3 and 4, “purple / of the eternal” is a light reference both to aristocracy and spirituality. Purple is a color traditionally reserved for royalty. In this phrase, Kinnell is evoking awe, which is then stirred by a casual bird that flies by in lines 4 and 5. The bird is of the mortal, secular realm, emphasized by the silly “‘flop-flop’” of its passing. The bird “crosses over” the hills in line 5, a turn of phrase that is also used colloquially to describe people who have died. This allusion to death is underlined by the frequent use of birds in death symbolism. Birds have been described as harbingers of death or as those who carry away the souls of the dead. In the last two lines of this section, the narrator says he is “adoring / only the instant,” a multilayered phrase referring both to the narrator’s admiration of the bird, of the nighttime hills, and of the amorphous presence of a higher being.

Section 2: Lines 8–16

The second section recalls an experience from nine years earlier. Nine is a number of significance and power in Western folklore because it is comprised of three threes (three also being an important number). Here the narrator remembers a trans-Atlantic flight. The airplane passes through a storm and the poet sees, as described in lines 13 and 14, a thunderhead in the shape of his brother’s face. The face is looking “nostalgically down” on the ocean as if it were a god looking down in its creation. This oblique spiritual reference reinforces those put forth in the first section. The layers of meaning here suggest the narrator’s close (even familial) relationship to his own deity; the love and sorrow inherent in nostalgia; the storm as reference to the biblical story of Noah wherein the Earth was flooded for forty days and forty nights.

Section 3: Lines 17–23

Having remembered his brother, the narrator dwells on him further in the third section of the poem. The narrator remembers, in line 18, his brother scoffing, “What good is the day?” Lines 19 through 21 describe a bonfire that lights the nighttime sky. This image is reminiscent of the lightning over the Atlantic Ocean in the second section. The fire imagery of the second and third sections in connection with the narrator’s brother invites an interpretation of the brother as a kind of fire god (for example, Zeus). The bonfire the brother speaks of is lit on “some hill of despair” although what causes the despair is not identified. Lines 22 and 23 introduce fear and excitement when the narrator’s brother explains that one must jump into the fire to keep it burning. Literally this implies suicide by self-immolation. (Self-immolation is an extreme form of protest in which a person commits suicide in a public place by setting himself on fire and thus bringing attention to some injustice.) Figuratively, throwing oneself into the fire can be understood as giving into passion or even seeking release from despair through rash action.

Section 4: Lines 24–30

Line 24, the beginning of section 4, personifies the wind in the act of tearing “itself hollow.” Carrying on into line 25, the narrator places this harsh wind in the abstract location of “my ruins.” Ruined structures may be created by neglect over time and exposure to the natural elements, of which one is the wind. In this instance, the narrator refers to his own internal ruins, ravaged by a vicious wind. He then brings sound into this illustration with the words “ghost-flute,” which evokes the eerie whistle of a hard-blowing wind, particularly when it catches on an edge or whips through a hollow structure. The narrator is building, line by line, a cold, wintry, wind-swept scene that is old, aged. Lines 28 and 29 describe the “upside-down ravines” of snowdrifts which capture this howling wind and amplify it. These hollowed-out drifts also capture the narrator’s night-swept “ink-spattered feathers,” drawing forth layered imagery of quills and of an old bird that is black or has black markings. Ink is a reference to writing and to the color black.

Section 5: Lines 31–35

In this short section, the narrator stops to listen—to the wind, for an answer, for a message? “I hear nothing,” he reports in line 32. “Only / the cow . . . / of nothingness” has multi-layered meaning, referring simultaneously to the holiness of the cow (as exemplified in Hindi religion) and to its comical, mundane nature, a characterization more prevalent in the narrator’s own Western culture. The silliness of the cow “mooing / down the bones” in the middle of this solemn, reflective poem, is emphasized in the last two lines. The narrator is outside, pondering seriously and listening closely to the natural world, only to be struck by the humor of the lowing of a mere cow. Perhaps here the natural world is telling the narrator, whether he hears it or not, that life cannot be taken so seriously all the time.

Section 6: Lines 36–44

The narrator next sees a rooster but carries this imagery of another bird back to the serious and spiritual. He sees the rooster search for grain in the snow—what must seem an impossible quest to those who are not birds. The rooster finds his grain in lines 39 and 40 and “rips / it into / flames,” which returns the reader to the fire imagery of earlier. The last two lines describe fire coming from the rooster’s head. This strange image is another spiritual reference masked by the mundane. The mundane is the red fleshy cockscomb on a rooster’s head, which could figuratively be described as flames. Spiritually these lines are a reference to the fire in the head, a shamanistic description of one’s experience with the divine.

Section 7: Lines 45–53

The last section is the culmination of the previous six, drawing them together into a greater meaning than each had individually. In line 45, the narrator wonders “how many nights must it take”—not days, months, or years. This poem takes place at night and never departs from that setting. In like 46, the narrator uses the phrase “one such as me,” meaning a writer, as suggested earlier by the “ink-spattered feathers.” Line 48 describes the phoenix, a mythical bird that is reborn following its own fiery death. The narrator is coming to terms with the fact that humankind—such as writers—are not like the phoenix because humans are not magically reborn in the fire that consumes them. This leaves unanswered the question then of what humans are. The narrator now understands that immersion in the fire—which is the fire of creation—is a different type of transmutation than the phoenix undergoes. Instead of rebirth, a person becomes the flames, that is, the creator. Just as the Bible describes God’s creation of humankind as in His own image, so does Kinnell draw a similar circle in “Another Night in the Ruins”: the poet, the fire, and the poet’s works. His writing remakes him all the time, a never-ending cycle of change and expression.

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