Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792
Galway Kinnell’s latest collection of poetry is generally elegiac in tone, in keeping with the direction his poetry has taken with The Past (1985)—less visceral and hard-edged, more introspective and subtle, yet still a vigorous play of sound and sensuousness. Esoterica are less in evidence. Whitmanesque expansiveness has given way to an interior universe of memory and relationship. Kinnell’s poetry, after crashing upon the world with powerful, salty force, is drawing back into the rich sea from which it came. The intensity of these poems lies in the delicate balance between the shimmering transparency of the present and the inescapable presence of memory. Their long, quiet lines draw out a moment over time, or draw time into a moment, and achieve an overall sense of place and continuance.
Imperfect Thirst is divided into five parts of five poems each. The whole is preceded by a proem called “The Pen,” which introduces the themes to be explored: memory, relationship, youth, age, love, regret, death, regeneration. In Kinnell’s hand, the pen becomes an organism. Its heartbeat is an “alternation of lifts and strokes.” At the end of a line its direction of movement is that of memory—“backward and downward.” Its blood is ink, the blood of fallen gods—Adam, Icarus—who sacrificed immortality for the “clarity of knowing.” The ink sometimes proves inadequate to the task of revealing what it knows, speaking nonsense sometimes, or imposing comprehension on things, like death, that are incomprehensible. The curse is that the ink runs dry.
The blessing, although bound by death, is that the ink is replenished by common humanity. Another poet speaks of her grief, and Kinnell is again able to write about his own. Ink, agent of thought, transcends loss, enabling the poet to continue “to speak the unspeakable.”
Part 1 invokes the ghosts of Kinnell’s parents. Two poems about his mother frame three about his father; all reveal estrangement, repression, and loss. Two are particularly poignant. “Showing My Father Through Freedom” illuminates the moment in which a child’s innocence begins to dissolve in the sudden light of knowing—a knowing that, in its infancy, is more a glimmer than a glare. Something open and free becomes a secret; that which has been spoken of becomes unspeakable. The irony of freedom is clear.
“The Man in the Chair” carries further the tragedy of that which is unspoken. An allusion to an earlier poem identifies the man in the chair as Kinnell’s father. “Memories of My Father” (When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, 1990) opens with the image of driving “a spike too weak into wood too hard.” This image is carried over in the form of a hammer trying to extract a spike from lignum vitae—the tropical “wood of life” characterized by extraordinary hardness. The man’s rigidity, slackness of the neck, shaking, and jerking also identify him with the man of “Parkinson’s Disease,” found in part 4. The latter poem is a soft portrait of an aged father who totters on the edge of bliss in the gentle care of a daughter. Yet the detached acceptance in “Parkinson’s Disease” is not evident in “The Man in the Chair.” The point of view here is that of a boy who struggles to suppress the complexities of his need for his father, who is absent both physically and emotionally. This neediness is counterbalanced by a recognition of the father’s struggle, although the boy, like the father, is powerless to speak. The pen that bears down through the paper to dark realms below recalls the pen of the proem, which presses down, “thickening the words that attempt to speak the unspeakable,” words that have “a mineral glint, given by clarity of knowing, even in hell.”
Part 2 continues the theme of relationship on a more earthy plane. The connections are those of love, although differing in kind and in degree, and in each there is an element of danger, violence, or betrayal. Violence and ecstasy are juxtaposed in “Running on Silk,” where a voice behind the escaping couple calls “bop! bop! like a stun gun, or a pet name,” and again in “The Cellist,” where “The music seems to rise from the crater left/ when heaven was torn up and taken off the earth,” and where the particulars of the manufacture of catgut cello strings are deftly and remorselessly conveyed. “The Night” ascribes to lovemaking the utter and dangerous vulnerability of children and hatchlings. In “Trees,” an oak’s maternal care of the boy overrides what the man knows and the boy does not—that the boy will grow into a man, and men will rape the forest.
The middle poem of this group, “The Deconstruction of Emily Dickinson,” at first seems out of place. The setting is a classroom in Amherst; at issue between professor and protagonist is the reason why Dickinson’s poems were not published in her lifetime. The protagonist has a personal relationship with Dickinson that recalls breakfast with John Keats in “Oatmeal” (When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone); however, “Dickinson” takes a much darker turn. The professor is imperious, his language incomprehensible. The protagonist, despite coaching from his muse, cannot articulate the truth. The violence is intellectual. The professor violates the language and denigrates Dickinson’s intent—deconstruction as rape. The protagonist betrays Dickinson with silence, and is punished with desertion.
In the poems of part 2, the lines that separate human from animal, or animal from plant, are blurred, recalling “The Bear” and “The Porcupine” (Body Rags, 1968). Also blurred are the lines between past, present, and future. The lovers of “The Night” “have been lying on this bed since before the earth began.” In “Trees,” the oak is an hourglass, and time “falls, and does not fly.” “Running on Silk” jumps a span of forty years in memory. In “The Deconstruction of Emily Dickinson,” Emily speaks to the protagonist across a century, and the tragedy hangs on forcing a word to assume a meaning that is out of time.
The blurring of time carries over to part 3, a group of poems that take the form of Persian ghazals. This group, the book’s centerpiece, is probably the most difficult, and ultimately the most compelling, of the collection. The prevailing theme is death. The poems are paradoxical and deeply personal, as Kinnell’s invocation of his own name in each signifies. The lines are of varying lengths; each line is self-contained, a complete sentence. The images presented in each line are seemingly out of joint, yet taken as a whole they create a fabric of images that transcend time, place, and linear thought, approaching a state of “pure poetry,” that washes over, rather than speaks to, the reader. This is “to speak the unspeakable” in the highest sense, requiring the poet’s utmost skill, authenticity and courage.
Part 4 is a collection of love poems that balances those of part 2. The element of danger does not appear; rather, it is replaced by a sense of connection with things larger than the things at hand. In “Parkinson’s Disease,” past, present, and future arrive at a stillpoint in the image of the daughter walking backward, supporting her father as he walks forward, tottering on the edge of heaven: “At this moment, he glints and shines,/ as if it will be only a small dislocation/ for him to pass from this paradise into the next.” “Telephoning in Mexican Sunlight,” a delightful reprieve, binds birds, words, and technology in a shimmering moment of correlation. “The Music of Poetry” is a tour-de-force of connections, both ontological and grammatical; the entire poem is one sentence. “Rapture” links lovemaking with the movement of the earth—a tired metaphor—so sweetly that we don’t mind; besides, Kinnell makes it obvious that he knows what he is doing: “The two mounds of muscles for walking, leaping, lovemaking,/ lift toward the east—what can I say?/ Simile is useless; there is nothing like them on earth.” The final poem of the section, “The Road Across Skye,” like the ghazals, is a temporal spillway where disparate images join and merge to elicit a pure, nonverbal response. Taken altogether, the soft and steady luminosity of these poems relieves the shadowed contours of the others.
The longer poems of part 5 are a curious mixture of silliness and sublimity. They revisit the subjects of the proem and part 1, finishing what was begun there. “Flies” and “Holy Shit” forsake elegy for highbrow humor, but stop short of nonsense. “Flies” touches with delicate fingers the source of familial pain—a mother’s “craving for love in her own life” and a father who “righted himself out of the muck” of a war knowing that “no one who rights himself out of it/ and walks and feels OK/ is OK.” “Holy Shit” puts a wry finger on the cure for human arrogance: “Let us sit bent forward slightly, and be opened a moment,/ as earth’s holy matter passes through us.” “Lackawanna” is a tortuous, courageous exploration of sexual abuse, where salvation is achieved in the singing of the poem. “The Striped Snake and the Goldfinch” is another time-traveling poem in which the child of the Seekonk Woods, for whom “the lights in the valley/ seem farther away than the stars,” reconciles himself to the adult in the Garden, who knows that a wine-filled glass is “the upper bell of the glass/ that will hold the last hour we have to live.”
The final poem, “Neverland,” is a stunning memorial for his sister Wendy, the “little mother” of the proem. Where an early and moving elegy for his brother (“Freedom, New Hampshire” in What a Kingdom It Was, 1960) searches memory for an afterlife, and finds none, “Neverland” looks closely and tenderly at the moments just before death, and then moves ahead to “the region she passes through.” He goes as far as he can go, in lines that intermingle sight and sound:
I hear her voice,
calling back across the region she passes through,
in prolonged, even notes, which swell and diminish,
a far landscape I seem to see as if from above,
much light, much darkness, tumbling clouds,
sounding back to us from its farthest edge.
Now her voice comes from under the horizon,
and now it grows faint, and now I cannot hear it.
Imperfect Thirst is an extraordinary book. Graceful, grieving, relational, solitary, earthbound, visionary—these poems are figures for what is profoundly and deeply human. Kinnell stands again in the fragile space between here and there, singing of what is with great skill, integrity, and compassion.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, October 15, 1994, p. 395.
Library Journal. CXIX, November 1, 1994, p. 80.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 5, 1994, p. 56.
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