The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

“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.

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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 from above. Spiritually, the soul knows the secret that humans do not, that death is another beginning, though one of a different sort than most suppose.

Although the poem begins with the man’s soul entering the seagull’s body, there are many retrospective moments within the poem where readers glimpse his previous existence as a human. One poignant example is the memory of Ryder beach, where he and “one summer’s girl” were surprised on the shore by a construction crew. However, Galvin reminds readers that “such memories are useless,” and the beach holds no nostalgic human associations but has become a place for the bird to hunt for fish. At the end, as the bird flies above the town, he hears the organ playing at his own funeral, though from where he flies it sounds “thin as a harmonica.” He follows the cars of the funeral procession, but Galvin tells him that he “can’t feel” for what he trails. The bird, or soul, or man experiences the “simple rightness of things” and knows he could never explain it to “that veiled woman/ and downcast kids” he sees below at the cemetery.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

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 world from above for the first time, the soul still experiences things in human terms. The runway of an airport, for example, “could be/ a dropped paperclip.” The metaphor places readers in the position of the bird, which views the runway from height, but also reminds them of the man’s previous life and suggests he may have held a job in an office. Similarly, when he hears, from his position in the sky, “Crackles of speech/ as off a police radio,” the simile visually reminds readers not only where and what the man is now but also what he used to be. The police radio and the “money talk” he overhears suggest the complications of human society and contrast with the uncomplicated life he now leads. Conversely, some of the poem’s metaphors reflect on how animalistic the man was before his death and how heavy he was compared to the lightness of the bird. He jogs because he has been to “too many troughs” and is “trying to shake off a pelt.”

In writing a poem about what it feels like to become a bird, Galvin is forced by human circumstances to rely on metaphors emerging from human experience. Such a move, though perhaps necessary, is also successful and constantly keeps before the reader the transmigration that has occurred from man to bird. Some of the visual imagery places the reader firmly into the position of the bird. Readers see common things in an uncommon way, “from above” like a bird. Simple things that went unnoticed such as the beauty of a plowed field (“the art of tractors”) are now seen “for the first time.” Above all, spatial orientation has altered dramatically. The bird experiences a different relationship to the sun, moon, earth, sea, and sky. Flying so high he can sense the curvature of the earth, the seagull watches until the “last light/ drops off the planet’s/ easy curve.”

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