The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

In seven stanzas of free verse, Galway Kinnell, the first-person narrator, remembers his lost brother, who died twenty-one years before. Kinnell creates an imaginary reunion he and his black-sheep brother might have in their fifties if they could meet. His brother had run off years ago, after his dream of being a pilot failed; he wandered around and eventually died as an exile from his family. Kinnell imagines that they meet and hug, and that his splintered family is momentarily reunited.

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The poem is divided onto five sections, beginning with the surfacing of a subconscious memory of the brother that Kinnell experiences as “a mouth/ speaking from under several inches of water.” This resurrected corpse of a memory brings an ugly image of the lost one as “wastreled down” with “ratty” eyes. In part 2, old photographs of World War II airplanes and of a tractor left by his brother trigger Kinnell’s memories. He remembers that his brother’s soaring dream of being a pilot was shattered when he “washed out” of pilot training in 1943. Kinnell’s brother, broken by this failure, became a wanderer for twelve years until he died in an automobile crash in the Wyoming desert. In part 3, the poet sees himself and his lost brother as both possessing traits of their unsuccessful father, Scotty. He remembers his father’s walk and “jiggling” knees, his beliefs in “divine capitalist law” even though he was starving, and his half-failures both in war and in civilian life. Also, he remembers, with some nostalgia and gentle humor, the whole family sleeping in one bed because of the cold and their poverty; when one turned, they all had to turn. This reminder of unity and warmth ends when the poet states that Scotty’s life “revealed not much/ of cowardice or courage: only medium mal.” The father, even though he shared his wife’s dreams and “bourgeois illusion,” remained only a “medium” man with some evils and weaknesses who, like the lost brother, was not successful.

At the beginning of part 4, the narrator shifts to the present tense and imagines his dead brother with him at his present home. Kinnell describes the fears he might experience in reuniting with the prodigal brother, who had become a stranger. He fears that his brother might be obnoxious, want “beer for breakfast,” or criticize his family’s “loose ways/ of raising children.” Kinnell then recalls the rebellious, snarling, and gangsterlike behavior of the black-sheep brother as a teen. Then, in contrast to the snarling teenage image, Kinnell remembers his brother being six years old and innocent, ecstatically waving to the family from the “rear cockpit” of a “Waco biplane” as his dream of being a pilot began.

The last part starts with Kinnell rejecting the fears and, in his imagination, lovingly embracing the lost brother. The brothers stand together in the doorway reunited; both are humanized as Kinnell ends by saying, “we hold each other, friends to reality,/ knowing the ordinary sadness of brothers.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

Kinnell is a confessionalist poet—that is, he writes about his own personal experience and tries to transmute it and depict it as universal human experience. True to his Whitmanesque roots, he writes in free verse and creates vivid, emotive images through repetition, analogies, irony, and poetic catalogs as he weaves his elegiac “reunion” in this poem.

In the second section, for example, Kinnell moves from the outside world of physical memorabilia—photos left by his brother—inward to the mental images formed in his own memory. Such inward motion may represent one step toward the mental reunion found at the poem’s end. Kinnell begins and ends this part of the poem by mentioning the odd photograph in the box, one of a farmer sitting on a tractor and gazing at his fields. The poet repeats the words “photograph” or “photographs” three times and implies a whole cluster of images of planes when he catalogs and lists names of World War II airplanes: “Heinkel HE70’s, Dewoitine D333/ “Antares,” Loire-et-Olivier H24-2—.” Each plane presumably had a photograph, so many photographs are implied. By listing the plane names and exact model numbers, Kinnell reveals his brother’s expert knowledge of World War II aircraft. The repetition of names also underscores the brother’s obsession with flying.

Ironically, the brother’s flying dream was dashed at the point it possibly could have been actualized in life—he went to flight school only to find that “original fear/ washed out/ all the flyingness in him.” Apparently, the lost dream destroyed the brother, who was unable to create another viable dream and “only wandered/ from then on” until he died twelve years later in 1955. At the end of this section, Kinnell transforms the snapshot of the farmer on a tractor from a physical image into mental images within “the memory of a dead man’s brother.” In this very personal stanza, the poet “confesses” his struggle with memories of his sad and unfulfilled brother’s death and imaginatively gathers his lost brother into his living memory through repetition and the catalog of old photographs.

Kinnell creates complex and affecting images. The opening simile reads, “He comes to me like a mouth/ speaking from under several inches of water.” The image is complex partly because it operates on both visual and aural (hearing) levels and partly because it generates several different associations. On a visual level, the image functions as a form of synecdoche (the use of a single part to stand for the whole or to evoke a more complex whole). Since a mouth is closely associated with a face as a whole, the image can be of a whole face, perhaps a corpse’s face, emerging from the deep. If the face is underwater, it is not quite clear and is wavering in appearance, perhaps a whitish blur in dark water. On the aural dimension, a mouth speaking from underneath water produces indistinct or burbling sounds—one imagines something just below hearing trying to bubble through to the surface. The sound is not yet understandable but becomes audible. The complex images of stifled talk and indistinct sounds linked to a bleary image of a humanlike entity striving to surface are evocative and apt representations of a repressed memory trying to break through to a person’s consciousness. It also is a memorable and somewhat frightening way to begin a poem about the power of memory to both recall and re-create the dead brother.

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Themes