Mortal Acts, Mortal Words

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Galway Kinnell’s Mortal Acts, Mortal Words affirms the claim sometimes made that poetry’s three eternal themes remain beauty, love, and death. Whatever seeming innovations and bizarre topics contemporary poetry may present, unless it deals in depth with these themes, it somehow fails to sustain our interest or make us feel that something substantive has been said. Kinnell’s success in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words derives from his varied handling of these themes, which he discovers in fleeting instants defined by human acts and accompanying words. Taking an epigraph from Plutarch—“mortal beauty, acts and words have put all their burden on my soul”—Kinnell gathers behind it particulars of experience that invest life with meaning, that lead speculative minds to organize consciousness into a desperate wisdom.

Kinnell’s poems are rich, emotional experiences, producing a current of despair. Real pain shows through but is balanced by real joy at knowing life and the beauties that can fill it. Ultimately, a philosophical strain born of fatal knowledge ties these poems together in a sort of search after wisdom, a search after serenity.

Structurally, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words might be likened to a sort of four-fold vision, a hierarchy that progresses toward awareness grounded in elemental mortal truths. Section by section, the poems seem to move along toward a place of wisdom, along a path that burdens the soul. Generally, Part I contains personal glimpses, intimate familial images, a sense of personal sensitivity and bared feeling. This part culminates in “Wait,” a meditative poem about discovery’s ephemeral nature. It accentuates the need to observe particulars, thus introducing Part II’s poems in more imagistic modes. Here nature images, verbal fun, and fantasy combine to display beauty perceived in a miscellany of voices and subjects reflecting diverse human interests. The observer steps outside himself. The somber, chastening tones of Part III’s poems signal a move toward spirituality, close encounters with the dead, and the definite constraints of mortality. All five poems in Part III return to the personal point of view, self examination gathering impetus from the truncated lives of kindred souls. In response, it seems, Part IV presents a more cosmic point of view, injecting philosophical tones and discourse, the reflective light that sheds enlightenment grounded in personal attachment and commitment.

The last stanza of the book’s last poem, “Flying Home,” seems to base that enlightenment on a realization about love:

that once the loverrecognizes the other, knows for the first timewhat is most to be valued in another,from then on, love is very much like courage,perhaps it is courage, and evenperhapsonly courage.

Thereafter, the large jet touches down, landing “all of us little thinkers,” and “with sudden, tiny, white puffs and long black rubberish smears/all its tires know the home ground.” The idea of a home ground—a place secured by love, the place where acts prove most telling on the words and feelings exchanged—runs through the whole of Mortal Acts, Mortal Words anchoring the poems to realities of space and time, but giving them a timelessness that comes with love’s endurance.

Explorations of different kinds of love constitute a major part of this volume, defining in part what it means to be mortal, to touch and hold others literally and figuratively. Carnal love gets its due, but more striking are the measures of familial love—parent toward child, child toward parent, brother toward siblings. Always these loves engender insights. For example, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” describes a feeling familiar enough to parents whose children crawl into bed between them, sharing the warmth and peace. Fergus, the poet’s son, awakes in the night while his parents lie together after making love, and he patters in to ask, “Are you loving and snuggling? May I join?” Then, he flops down, hugs his parents, and “snuggles himself to sleep.” At other points, only memories can provide the cherished love, the serene...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)