Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 451 words.)