The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World

by Galway Kinnell
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426

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“The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” a long poem in free verse, is divided into fourteen sections of varying lengths. The title suggests the setting for the poem, Avenue C in New York City’s Lower East Side.

Although a first-person narrator does appear in section 9, essentially, the poem’s concern is larger than a single consciousness: Galway Kinnell is more interested in revealing the complexities of urban life in twentieth century America than he is in telling secrets about his own personal life.

Kinnell begins the poem with sounds: “pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek.” These are the sounds of recently hatched birds demanding their due; their mothers then “thieve the air/ To appease them.” The first section continues to provide a variety of sounds not necessarily specific to the area of Avenue C: A tug on the East River “Blasts the bass-note of its passage”; a broom “Swishes over the sidewalk”; a pushcart moves “clack/ clack/ clack/ On a broken wheelrim”; and a man leaves a doorway, and the sounds he makes walking enter the poem and bring the notion of time with them: “tic toc tic toc tic.” The section concludes without any pontificating by the poet; he is there, and he watches and records. Time passes, “the babybirds pipe down,” and the poem’s overture concludes.

Section 2 introduces two characters: an unnamed Orthodox or Hasidic Jew “near burial” and a Catholic, Bunko, who is a certified embalmer. The Jew has twelve sons, eleven of whom are named: They bear the names of eleven of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The old man, however, mourns his one lost son, probably Ephraim or Manasseh, and his wives “who bore him sons/ And are past bearing, mourn for the son/ And for the father.” Kinnell pairs the Jew and the embalmer Bunko because the “sad-faced” Jew is close to death, but the funeral parlor near him is not for Jews. In the new world, the Jew and the Catholic live side by side, but there is no link between them; in fact, the Jew’s final words in the section are: “Bury me not Bunko damned Catholic I pray you in Egypt.”

There is one moment of happiness in this second section. The Jew “Confronts the sun” that was introduced in section 1, and he nearly has a religious experience staring at it: “he does not understand/ Fruits and vegetables live by the sun” because he is no mere lover of nature, but “he sees/ A blinding signal in the sky” and smiles. The new world does not prevent the old world values from surviving; his faith in Judaism and God sustains him.

Section 3 begins with a list similar to the epic catalogs in the poems by Homer or Vergil, but instead of naming families on a journey or warriors preparing for battle, Kinnell lists the signs along the avenue that the “Jews, Negroes, Puerto Ricans” might see as they “Walk in the spring sunlight”: everything from “Nathan Kugler Chicken Store Fresh Killed Daily” to an advertisement in Spanish promising death to the most poison-resistant cockroaches. Kinnell then, interestingly, moves to the old women living “in the cockroached rooms” above the stores, and he has them consuming nearly all the products and services the previous lines named; the Avenue is a closed circle. Even when a small boy is introduced watching the pigeons’ flight from a rooftop, the pigeons and boy transmogrify into chickens hanging “In Kugler’s glass headdown dangling by yellow legs.”

The poem moves oddly in section 4 from the first “Sun Day of the year” to the future tense and the nighttime when “The crone who sells the News and the Mirror” will appear. She has forgotten her dead husband and her children, she has no idea what the papers are reporting, and she is “sure only of the look of a nickel/ And that there is a Lord in the sky overhead.” Yahweh lives in the firmament and in the streetlights of the avenue or in the “feeble bulb/ That lights her face”; in her dementia, she is able to see God clearly.

Section 5 returns to the birds whose “pcheek” sounds opened the poem. Now Kinnell wonders if they have matured enough to take up flight, and whether the mother birds are now dead. The mystery of life and death, the cycles of nature, are referred to here. The pushcart market on a Sunday is the focus of section 6. Here Kinnell glories, momentarily, in the beauty of the fruits and vegetables in the sun, but he also realizes they too have been “uprooted,/ Maimed, lopped, shucked, and misaimed,” perhaps like the inhabitants of the Lower East Side.

The poet, in section 7, wonders why “Of all places on earth inhabited by men,” he finds himself on Avenue C among all the people with “wiped-out lives.” The poet is obviously not trapped in the city the way others must be; he has memories of the beauty of nature in New Hampshire and in France. He moves away from these personal memories and returns to the street and an “ancient Negro . . ./ Outside the Happy Days Bar & Grill.” The man starts to sing but then is silenced as he “Stares into the polaroid Wilderness” of “Villages,/on the far side of the river” because the towns are sites of World War II concentration camps: Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Buchenwald, Auschwitz.

Section 8 brings to a close the pushcart market as the “merchants infold their stores.” More importantly, Kinnell comments on the lives of the people on the avenue. The Jews who survived the Holocaust live in this neighborhood where they survive like “cedars on a cliff, roots/ Hooked in any crevice they can find.”

In section 9, Kinnell appears in the first person in perhaps the angriest section of the poem. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is transformed: God turns away while Isaac burns in the flames. Walt Whitman appears as a believer in a harmonious cosmos, but Kinnell’s friend Isaac, the week before he dies, reads Whitman and can only say, “Oi!/ What shit!”

Gold’s junkhouse goes up in flames in section 10, and no one mourns as it burns. In the evening, however, after the conflagration has gone out, the people appear to witness the destruction: After each person sees the power of the past—the “Carriages we were babies in,/ Springs that used to resist love”—reduced to rubble, “Nobody knows for sure what is left of him.”

In section 11, the fish market is described horribly. The varieties of fish for sale are listed, but they are described with such tenderness that the carnage becomes awful. The fish lose their spirit and become flesh only when the store owner “lops off the heads” and “Shakes out the guts as if they did not belong in the first place.” The inclusion of a form letter from a concentration camp is incongruously placed in this section. Is the reader somehow to equate the fish deaths with the Holocaust?

Night officially arrives in section 12, and the poet can only imagine what is taking place outside by the sounds he hears from his bedroom; this brings the reader back to the sounds of morning from section 1. In the sentence framing the section, Kinnell hears the “Carols of the Caribbean, plinkings of guitars” outside the Bodega Hispano, but inside the parenthesis there are uncomfortable images: A child cries, “wailing/ As if it could foresee everything”; a hook and ladder truck moves “with an explosion of mufflers”; and a cat caterwauls a “hair-raising shriek.” The joy of morning is gone.

The noises of the trash truck arrive in section 13 as it “sucks in garbage in the place/ Where other animals evacuate it.” Again, the poet only hears sounds in the darkness. He says, bleakly, “If it is raining outside/It would be the spring rain.” There really is no spring in this poem, however: Death lives too close to life.

The concluding section is as dismal as the previous ones. The street bearing the initial of Christ is a “God-forsaken Avenue,” and in the entire neighborhood of the poem, “instants of transcendence/ Drift in oceans of loathing and fear.” There is a hint of nostalgia in the last few lines of the poem, as if a paradise has been lost. The people say, “what a kingdom it was!” as if, at some point, life was good. The Yiddish expression of grief is an appropriate place for the poem to end: “oi weih, oi weih.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274

The principal device employed by Kinnell to create meaning through form is the poem’s movement from the possibilities of morning to the hopelessness of night. He also transforms traditionally positive stories, such as the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, by allowing the innocent Isaac to burn while a useless God turns away and washes his hands like “a common housefly.” The avenue that bears the initial of Christ as its name offers a sign to the denizens of the Lower East Side, but the signs are only advertisements for roach killers or a Happy Days Bar. These twists allow the reader to see what has happened to the pure, new world: It has been corrupted.

Humans are not the only ones who are forced to endure in this world. Through metaphor, Kinnell allows the animal and vegetable worlds to also participate in the suffering. Porgies on sale have their “jaws hinged apart/ In a grimace of dejection”; onions sit in the sun “with their shirts ripped”; and cabbages lie about “like sea-green brains/ The skulls have been shucked from.” Through personification, the reader is able to sense the suffering of all living things on earth.

In a poem that from the beginning is filled with sounds of birds and brooms and carts, Kinnell accentuates the absence of sound when, in section 12, he lies in bed “Expecting a visitation” of some sort, but hears nothing at all. In addition, the final image of God in section 14 is not one of an immanent deity or a concerned parent figure; instead, “God is a held breath,” an absence of sound, a zero in the world.