“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 entire section is 1426 words.)