The Poem

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

Brendan Galvin’s “Pitch Pines” is a forty-four-line poem divided into nine stanzas of four to six lines each. Each stanza presents a series of images that culminate in the stanza’s final image. In stanza 1, for example, the trees are described as assaulted by winds and other natural forces; they are bent and twisted. In the final line of the stanza, readers see the trees as a jumble, leaning in all different directions. Stanza 4 gathers images of sourness and acidity until the final line states that the pines’ pollen “curdles water.” The cumulative effect is one of harshness, of forces constantly attacking the pitch pines and the pines barely able to withstand the attack.

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Although the predominant images in the poem are those of assault and death, the overall impression crafted by Galvin is one of awe and respect. Despite the inhospitable environment and indifferent treatment by nature (storms and fires), the harvesting of forests for human needs, and the pitch pines’ own sometimes thwarted efforts to survive (they pollinate windows and water), they do survive. While other varieties of trees—cedar, birch, elm, beech, and oak—are harvested for specific purposes, the lowly pitch pine stands neglected; it may be knocked down by accident or as a matter of course. Nevertheless, they have developed ways to hold on. The poet is as interested in looking at previous generations of trees as he is in the trees standing in front of him.

In Galvin’s landscape, trees are nearly anthropomorphized; they perform deliberate, though treelike, actions: They “loft their heads,” “rattle maroon clusters,” and “pollinate windows.” However, the poet stops short of personification. The trees do not whine, weep, or stretch; rather, they do what trees do, only more deliberately. In this way they begin to people the reader’s world.

The poem encompasses a sweeping historical panorama. From a present-day vantage point, the reader is moved back in time to the specific historical moment when the forest was first being “civilized” and its natural abundance was being gathered to build ships and meeting houses, to make shingles, and to build fires for smelting and other activities that required huge amounts of concentrated heat and energy. Images of industrious human endeavor predominate, but the unspoken reaction of the poet is one of wonder at how, amid unthinking industry and human activity, anything of the natural world survived. Galvin does not dwell on the sins of the past, however; he is fascinated by how the trees have evolved and learned to adapt. The poem concludes: “the grandfathers/ of these pines held on until/ heat popped their seeds/ to the charred ground.”

With that closing image, the poem moves outward to encompass not only the sturdy, common pitch pine but also the early colonists who settled in the New World. They too were common stock, and many fell to storms, fires, and the vagaries of nature. What has survived best in the New World, Galvin reminds readers, is not the exotic or the rich and high born, but the common, dependable, and adaptable.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

Galvin does not depend on conventional devices such as rhyme and meter to shape and control his poems. Readers must look for subtle devices that are closely tied to the subject matter and the cadence of the lines. He writes in vernacular English at its best, firmly in control of the words and how they will be read. The conversational tone of the poem holds readers’ attention as they await the next phrase, the next image. The brief lines waste no syllables. Each contains three or four stressed syllables in conversational rhythms. The no-nonsense lines and clear images command attention. Powerful, sometimes unexpected, verbs propel the lines along: Winds are “salted out of the northeast,” old branches are “knotted” and “mingleand rot,” a shower of pollen “curdles water,” and the cape is “timbered to its shores.”

The diction that shapes the terse lines and stanzas is also forceful. Repeatedly in Galvin’s work, poetic structures gather power from the transforming power of nature. In this poem a particular “[verb] to [noun]” structure is used no less than a half dozen times; it propels action and emphasizes the transformation and use of the elements involved. Three examples are “limbs flaking and dying/ to ribs,” “a shower/ that curdles water to golden scum,” and “hardwood that fell to keels.” In these very brief, consistent structures, massive natural and artificial forces are shown at work. Like much that is American, there is little time for the decorative—the elaboration of phrase, the prettification of an image or action.

Unlike the landscape that is clear-cut in the process of harvest, unlike the gigantic wastefulness that Galvin depicts, the poem itself is economical. The poet demonstrates, without explicitly lecturing his readers, that the best approach for humans is to conserve, to trim—in a sense, to edit their actions. Just as humans have the power to “[boil] the Atlantic to its salts,” they have the power to reduce and concentrate their efforts when it comes to nature. Galvin subtly advises his readers to see how the pitch pines have learned to hold on, to clutch their threatened seeds inside cones.

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Themes