“Saint Francis and the Sow” appeared in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words in 1980. With its sensuous language of “touch” and blessing of earthly existence, this poem has become a signature piece for Kinnell’s work in the last two decades. Nine years elapsed between The Book of Nightmares (1971) and this volume. In the “silent” interval between the two books, Kinnell took a new direction, sensing in 1972 that “a door has been closed on something.” When it opened again, Kinnell’s approach to mortality took fewer paths through the surreal and cosmic images that filled The Book of Nightmares, and more through ordinary rooms lit by day. This “Franciscan” poem and numerous others in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words—“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” “Brother of My Heart,” “Goodbye,” “There are Things I Tell to No One”—are composed out of Kinnell’s keen awareness of death-in-life.
What makes a poem such as “Saint Francis and the Sow” different from those in earlier volumes is a stronger sense that mortality is not an occasion for despair but for affirmation of life. Poet Donald Hall observes the crucial difference between simplistic affirmation, and the life-affirmation at this poem’s center. “Saint Francis and the Sow,” Hall asserts, has nothing to do with the uncritical cheerfulness of the “Booster Club,” nor does it belong to the “Nice Doggie School of Contemporary American Verse.” Rather, here is a poet, Hall says, “who understands that we live by emptying ourselves,” and that in Kinnell’s poetic cosmos, “up always summons the implication of down.”
This “transcendence downward” is especially evident in Kinnell’s numerous animal poems, with their grounding in earthy particulars. Those particulars become violent and gruesome in “The Porcupine” and “The Bear,” two poems from Body Rags in which poet and animal are closely identified. “Saint Francis and the Sow” evokes all the senses—sight, sound, touch, and smell—in its attention to the sow’s “creased forehead” and “earthen snout,” the “fodder and slops” and the noisy sucking of shoats. But there is also a bit of mystery infused in this barnyard scene, in the “spiritual curl” of the sow’s tail, and in the “blue milken dreaminess” that feeds her young. The realms of heaven and earth are co-mingled in Kinnell’s poems, and the mundane is nearly always the seat of mystery. In a later poem, “The Angel,” Kinnell inverts the usual chain of being so that a dog, not a supra-human spirit, becomes the angel “who mediates between us / and the world underneath us.”
“Saint Francis and the Sow” invokes the legendary Francis who revered all animals, even the lowly housefly. Francis was thus a natural choice for the bearer of blessing in Kinnell’s “pig” poem. By his own admission, Kinnell’s art is a “poetics of the physical world,” not of “theology and philosophy, with their large words, their formulations, their airtight systems.” Rather, as he says, “the subject of the poem is the thing which dies,” but not before the mortal acts of word and touch can call forth its essential loveliness.
“The bud / stands for all things,” are the first two lines of this poem, and in a few, simple words, makes a profound claim. It declares that this sin- gle phenomenon of nature, the bud, has an elemental, omnipresent power, and that “All things” incorporate something of its essence. Yet, powerful as “the bud” is in the universe of this poem, it stands small and vulnerable on a line by itself. There is an infant tenderness to the two-syllable line that is itself quite bud-like. Flower images are common to poetry, so it is not the presence of a “bud” that is surprising. Rather it is the unfolding juxtaposition of bud with sow, and it is on this pairing that the metaphorical power of the poem rests.
The next lines explore the meaning of “all things,”...
(The entire section is 1,635 words.)