Themes and Meanings
“The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” is a large poem that addresses large themes. Kinnell is attempting to do for twentieth century New York what T. S. Eliot did for London in The Waste Land (1922), what Guillaume Apollinaire did for Paris in “Zone,” and what Walt Whitman accomplished for nineteenth century America in Leaves of Grass (1855). By concentrating on a small area of a single city, Kinnell is trying to make a statement about the new world as a whole, and perhaps all of creation.
All of the characters in the poem seem to be suffering from one malady or another. They are all transplants, either from Africa, Puerto Rico, or Jewish ghettos in Europe, and they are not surviving terribly well in this new world. Fathers are removed from sons, and old men and women are headed toward death. The creative power of sex is not felt anywhere in the poem; Whitman’s “procreant urge” has been replaced by the sounds of despair, the “oi weih” of the poem’s close. Although in the early part of the poem God’s presence alleviated some suffering, especially in sections 2 and 4 in which the old Jewish man and woman see God in the sky, by the end of the poem, God is only a “held breath,” the Avenue bearing the initial of Christ is “God-forsaken,” and a fishmonger who lops off fish heads and nails the fish to wood “stands like Christ” in the new world.
The fault does not lie in America only. The immigrants from Europe, for example, carry the memories of the Holocaust with them. The natural laws that force humans to kill in order to survive operate in Damascus, where twelve goatheads “were lined up for sale,” as well as in New York. Kinnell is suggesting that something is wrong with the divine plan; or perhaps, there is no plan or no God. The poem catalogs all the varieties of loss a human can endure, but it offers few possibilities for redemption. The old crone who sells newspapers in section 4 offers some hope. Even though she has forgotten her husband and her children’s whereabouts and “She can’t tell one newspaper from another,” she accepts the mystery of life, and she believes “there is a Lord in the sky overhead.” After ten more sections of misery and despair, however, the reader has almost forgotten the old woman’s hopeful senility. In the end, the “brain turns and rattles/ In its own black axlegrease” trying to make some sense of the mystery of life.