(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Brendan Galvin has just published his ninth collection of poetry and has many fans among poets, but almost none among anthologists. Galvin’s reputation, or lack of it, is a mystery. His poetry regularly appears in the best and best-known periodicals, his collections have been published by prestigious university presses, and his peers think highly of his work. Yet the general poetry-reading public, let alone the general public, has little awareness of Galvin’s achievement. If the bridge to a wider popularity has to do with being represented in anthologies and texts, then that may be where the problem lies Galvin belongs to no aesthetic school (and thus does not represent one), and his poetry fits into no one category. In poetry textbooks, poems are chosen in part to perform exemplary functions; they are found in chapters on topics such as “voice,” “imagery,” “sound,” “rhythm,” “structure,” and “figures of speech.” Galvin’s work is skillful in all of these areas, and yet his poems are not among the examples.

Perhaps Galvin’s poems are so rich in so many ways that these pedagogical components do not easily shake loose from the whole. More likely, the demanding intellectual level of his poems, their exemplary compactness, makes many readers struggle. Yet Galvin is not a poet-philosopher, and his ideas are not trumpeted (they are found “in things” as the modern manner demands). Perhaps too much of Galvin’s work is distanced from the dominant confessional mode of our time. His style is neither plain nor adorned, but it is sometimes terse, tough, and quirky. Finally, it is precise in unexpected ways—ways some readers may not be able to absorb.

Great Blue is a new orchestration of mostly older poems but some new ones as well, the whole collection ranging back over a very productive twenty years or more.

This is a hefty “new and selected” and yet a modest one given Galvin’s industry and his consistently high level of achievement. It is the place to begin for a first introduction, and it is certainly a “must” for any serious library of contemporary American poetry.

The poems in Great Blue are placed along a path leading from the outer world to the inner life The five divisions in the book act as signposts along this path, though the signs hold only Roman numerals and not place-names. The path itself meanders, and the features of its various sectors are not held in strict isolation from one another—themes and images echo among the divisions. There is a very pronounced sense of boundary to the early sections, with less distinct boundaries as the work progresses.

Galvin is a sharp-eyed naturalist who pays loving attention to the living world around him and renders it in astonishingly accurate and evocative detail. The first section of this book might have been called “Creatures of the Air.” It brings together many of Galvin’s best poems about birds, which are among the best poems about birds that any American poet has written. Mockingbird, warbler; chickadee, owl, grackle, and crow are painted with their characteristic motions and sounds. The way light strikes them, the way each interacts with its world, the way each seems to carry a human message—these are some of Galvin’s concerns. In this section, too, are poems about woodsmoke, bats, mayflies, wind, and—ultimately—the human dream of flight. “Transmigration,” one of Galvin’s most ambitious poems, makes that dream come true.

Galvin’s crisp, precise diction makes the language of most poets seem sloppy by comparison. He has watched and listened so carefully, has felt and pondered his subjects so intensely, that image and soundplay blend in a simple splendor; as is the case with this representative passage from “Great Horned Owls”:

His courtship gifts
are the whimper borne through the air,
the rabbit’s imprint stopped
part way across snow,
and the hone spree slung as though
from a diviner’s hand.

The focus of the second section is seaward. Only a few of the poems in this section, however, give the detailed attention to creatures of the sea that the first section gives to those of the air. Because the sea—or the coast, at least—is also human habitat, Galvin’s concerns include those human...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)