(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)