Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

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“Transmigration” first appeared in The New Yorker but has been reprinted in three collections. In each case, it occupies a significant position in relation to the collection as a whole. In Winter Oysters (1983), for example, “Transmigration” occupies a separate section unto itself; in Great Blue (1990), it occupies the final place in the first section. Most significant is its appearance in A Birder’s Dozen (1984), in which it is the thirteenth and final poem. All the poems in Birder’s Dozen are about birds: “The Birds,” “Chickadee,” and “The Grackles” are representative titles. However, “Transmigration” comes last and is about a man’s transformation into something that he had previously only observed. Galvin’s point in positioning the poem at the end seems to be a desire to migrate, through poetry, from observer to participant. Reading his twelve poems about birds, the reader becomes transformed into one in the thirteenth.

In some sense, however, the poem is not about a man becoming a bird but about what it feels like to become a soul. The contrast between the man’s physical heaviness and the bird’s lightness is a significant one. The heaviness suggests the burden of being human, of the “weighty” decisions and responsibilities. The lightness of the bird is a removal of those things, and, unchained, the soul is free to fly in a kind of immediate contact with the natural world. The new relation to space and time is part of that contact, as the bird has no real concept of time passing other than flying higher in the sky so the sun will stay out longer. It is no wonder that the poet watches longingly and asks, “What are you, a soul?”

Near the end of the poem, the bird listens and watches as his funeral procession leaves the church and wends its way to Memorial Lawn cemetery. Although the bird knows the “simple rightness of things” the transmigration has caused, he cannot entirely forsake his human life and thoughts. In the dramatic climax of the poem, the soul sees his wife and children below, but they become “that veiled woman” and the “downcast kids.” His connection to them is severed, and he knows that he could say no words of comfort to explain the “rightness” of things as they are. Still, though his existence as a bird is liberating, he knows he will never be able to leave his human life behind. He will haunt Main Street “for snatches of the inconsequential/ that bind person to person/ and day to day below.” Though liberated, his soul is still bound, and the poem ends with the man/seagull/soul flying with exhilaration and sadness into the night sky.