The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Transmigration” is a mid-length narrative poem with irregular stanza lengths and meter. The poem’s title suggests the transmigration of the soul, the theological idea that after death one’s soul migrates to exist in another creature, human or animal. In the case of Brendan Galvin’s poem, the transmigration referred to is of a middle-aged man who jogs to lose a paunch gained from overeating. The jogger has “sat out easy rains” and has not worked very hard at becoming healthier. Ironically, instead of becoming healthier, he dies on the beach, and his soul enters a seagull. The title also introduces the concept of migration, an idea that Galvin plays with throughout the poem. The onset of winter is traditionally associated with death, but it is also the time when birds migrate. Thus, Galvin conjoins the idea of a soul’s migration after death with a bird’s natural instinct to migrate when the days grow shorter. The poem begins precisely at the moment of death as the jogger’s soul leaves his body and reawakens in the seagull.

Much of the poem charts the orientation of the soul to its new body. The man, now a bird, is afraid and lands immediately on a tree, its “new feet gripping.” Getting in touch with “instinct,” however, he is able to acclimate himself to the new body. The man enjoys the new perspective, which is both visual and spiritual. Visually, the soul sees things differently, looking “for the first time” at the world...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most notable poetic device in “Transmigration” is the use of the second-person pronoun “you.” Galvin addresses the soul of the man that has entered the seagull, but the effect of the “you” is to position the reader in the man’s place. Readers become the “you” that is addressed and see from the bird’s perspective, experiencing a “bird’s-eye view” of life from the position of a participant. This is the ultimate transmigration of the poem. The poet’s task is to cause readers souls to transmigrate from their own bodies to absolute identification with the “you” of the poem. The “vowels of love” Galvin refers to are, in some sense, his statement about poetry. The sound and sense experience of the poem should move one into a direct experience of it, a loving transmigration from reader into participant.

“Transmigration” is notable, as is Galvin’s work in general, for a rich use of simile and metaphor. Given the subject matter, it is interesting how human the comparisons are. The poem opens, for example, with the simile “When your bones turn/ loose and light as a deck chair.” Like the seagull, the deck chair is part of the seascape, but unlike the bird, it is part of the human world. Galvin compares the hollow-boned lightness of a bird to the tubular construction of a deck chair and, in very human terms, tries to convey what it feels like to suddenly have one’s soul reawaken within a bird. As a bird seeing the...

(The entire section is 578 words.)