Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1813
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 feeling brought on by knowing that love has been granted, as when the poet remembers his mother after her death and recalls:
I have always feltanointed by her love, its lightlike sunlightfalling through broken panesonto the floorof a deserted house: we may go, it remains,telling of goodness of being, of permanence.
Love’s permanence defies mortality, encumbers the living with memories and regrets, such as the lament by the poet that he was not at his mother’s bedside when she died, not holding her hand “to hand her, with more steadiness, into the future.” He knows, as a result, that “there are regrets/we can never be rid of.” At another point, Kinnell comes to the final realization that “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.” Out of despondency, a fitful wakening to mortality’s finite character, comes an affirmation, a decision to make the most of every real, fleshed encounter with the world’s beauty and the beauty of people who love. Love and the closeness generated by love are their own rewards in this gratuitous universe.
So, Kinnell’s vision is essentially tragic, a lonely searching after fulfillment, isolation that comes from being sensitive to beauties that others often do not perceive and from articulating feelings derived from those perceptions. After all, honest feeling admits to pain, admits to hopelessness and despair, admits to those recognitions that humans choose to ignore in order to remain complacently content with their illusions. Close attachment implies hurt, it seems, implies eventual loss, and only the strong are likely to survive close attachments all too soon severed by death or disillusionment. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words asserts that these feelings of loss are humanizing, in fact, help define mortal being.
Recognizing the negative liberates the soul and opens it to the grander possibilities that delight the senses. Thus, Kinnell responds to simple natural beauties and takes true delight in detail, providing a real sense of energetic mind bending images by imaginative force. Starfishes burying in mud at dawn become stars crossing heaven to fade. A gray heron approached across a salt marsh becomes a stony lizard questioning the intruder’s reality. Ripe blackberries eaten from the vine transform to words, “certain peculiar words/like strengths or squinched,/many-lettered one-syllabled lumps.” The poems from which these images come affirm the fact that beauty resides in simple observations, in passing flickers of insight that lodge in the mind and come unbidden to the receptive soul. The key, of course, is receptivity, a quality to be cultivated by patience, by waiting, by trusting the hours as Kinnell says in “Wait.” Kinnell would have us “wait a little and listen,” hours if necessary, “to hear ... the flute of [our] whole existence,/rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.” The words recall William Wordsworth’s “still, sad music” and remind us that meditation—deliberate confrontation with eternity—reveals the essence of being.
The philosophic touches that appear throughout Mortal Acts, Mortal Words anticipate the philosophic concentration in the last section’s poems. Part III’s poems all deal with death in some way, as has been noted, but the somber tone shifts significantly with the first lines of “Rainbow,” the first poem of Part IV:
The rainbow appears above usfor its minute, then vanishes, as thoughwe had wished it, making usturn more carefully to what we cantouch and feel, things and creatureswe know we haven’t dreamed.
Significantly, the philosophical discourses that follow find their origins in commonplaces, in particulars of experience encountered randomly in the course of living. Because the rainbow’s ephemeral nature renders it a part of the dreamlike portion of experience, where hopes and aspirations reside in a pristine splendor, turning from it signals people to look at “flutings on a match stick,” or “the pelvic bones of a woman lying on her back” and the birth that everyone knew there. That birth initiated one to pain and a reality that can “put terrified grooves/permanently into the throat,/which can’t relax ever again,/until the day the carcass expels/defeated desire.” The death gasp comes “in one final curve of groaning breath.” It leads to the infinite, in what Kinnell calls the “misery-arc farewelling hands have polished before each face.” It approaches “the other, unfulfilled galaxies,/to win them over, too, into time and ruin.”
Again, the note of tragedy sounds, the mournful tone generated by all too true realizations about the eventual finality everyone faces. In this last section’s poems, however, the tragic vision is balanced, even outweighed by a central buoyancy of spirit. The assertion that love is courage, coming as it does at the end of the book’s last poem, defines mortality in a seemingly positive way, in a way that moderates the essential pessimism of Kinnell’s tragic vision. The effect is to release the burden to an extent, to unfetter chains of memory and pain with the actualization of love’s embrace, the embrace that is all.
That the release remains personal and passionate is not surprising, for Kinnell’s poetry has always had these characteristics. Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, however, seems an affirmation of those parts of experience that are not necessarily part of the tragic view. It seems more of an affirmation because of the variety of voices, the multiplicity of poetic forms displayed in spontaneous lines and rhythms. Certainly Kinnell shows in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words that he is capable of numerous effects with voice, most notably the rich personal statements derived from personal tragedy. The short lines and terseness in the shorter poems in Part II, however, capture a mood worth noting for its variance from the solemnity of the longer-lined poems. Playfulness in those poems reflects in the play with lines, the changes in rhythm that can produce the delightful effect of laughter in the poem “Crying,” or the blatant wordplay that occurs in “Lava,” which incorporates several Hawaiian words in a zany collection of alliterative and assonant sounds.
In general, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words articulates a hopeful vision, one that recognizes pain brought by mortality, but that refuses to be daunted by that pain and instead strains after some solidity tangible in the world’s wealth of images. Those images, perhaps illusory, perhaps temporary, nevertheless come from experience that binds mortals together, that encompasses them in mutual understandings; and that bond is real when held to desperately, when cherished and fostered out of courage. To act at all, to reach out and touch at all when aware that “emptiness is all” takes courage. To utter words in explanation hoping they will touch some other beings in some truthful way also takes courage, and that courage sinks its roots into some hope for survival, some link with the eternal, some bond beyond mortality’s limit.
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