Names by a River [with audio]

Brendan Galvin Click to

bgalvin-40Brendan Galvin is the author of sixteen volumes of poems. His collection Habitat: New and Selected Poems 1965-2005 (LSU, 2006) was a finalist for the National Book Award. His crime novel, Wash-a-shores, is available on Amazon Kindle.  The Air’s Accomplices, a collection of new poems was released from LSU last year.  His Egg Island Almanac will appear in 2017.

Names by a River

The keels of the Speedwell and Discoverer
four hundred years ago passed over
where I am walking among the glasswort
and Hudsonia this morning, the river’s
estuary here then. Before Bradford
and Miles Standish you came
with fifty men in armor out of Bristol,
barely a man yourself, nevertheless
Captain Martin Pring, from your portrait
I’d say a handy little dude like Standish
and John Smith, your chin-beard sharp
as a poinado. Enough mitten-shaped leaves
of the sassafras here to make a homeward cargo
for both holds, you calculated — a possible cure
for the French pox. A kingbird works
the dune grasses for insects this morning,
at what you named Whitson Bay after
a prime investor in your voyage.

All that is left of 1603 has been shifted,
wind and sea, ground down, sorted, re-pummeled,
blown sideways, sea and wind, processed and
overlain with grasses and snows among the vagaries
of the river, itself renamed: Pamet now for the tribe
you pressed into flight with the mastiffs
Gallant and Fool. After a few thousand walks
among the nesters here, I call these dunes
and flats Egg Island, in part to confuse
the local hiking club, identical in their
baggy shorts and yellow T-shirts, their catalog
explorer hats, outfits absurd as those you gifted
the natives with, those “divers sorts of
meanest merchandise.”

Who do I think I am, since only change
is unchanging here: Whitson’s Bay
to Egg Island, and your Mount Aldworth
to Tom’s Hill, after a last Pamet
who lived up there? Even the French pox
has run through a litany of names,
not many as impugning, but all as colorful,
the Grandgore, the Black Lion,
and the sassafras itself went into
root beer. You stayed seven weeks, then sailed
from the August heat inimical to northern blood.

Since mariners read the birds, though
you wouldn’t have names for some, no doubt
you saw the flocks dropping down
and reforming for the south, semipalmated
plovers this morning, big name for a brief
flash of white with half-webbed feet,
their migration begun, but you didn’t
stay on for the grand transitions —
a stray albatross, wing-broken, rolled over
the dunes in a January blow, or the way
a north wind surprises a walker as he faces
about into it. Pilgrims, briefly, converting
to whalers, then trap fishermen — would you
have called them Portingales? —
and the fish houses, ice houses, coal-fired freights,
and the river forever trying new entries and
departures between Corn Hill and Fisher’s Beach,
scouring its bed into sandbars, undermining,
making runs up the valley, trying to join
the Atlantic at the farther shore.

And here, as I read the flats this morning,
going side-by-side with a set of tracks, a dog
at first, but no mastiff: feet too narrow,
heel pads flat at the back, and no splay,
so more likely a coyote, perhaps one of those
you called “dogs with sharp and long noses.”
The names never stick, as if in the naming
the thing itself is changed. These whorls
in the riverbed could be the fingerprint of God,
and the slow motion whip-cracks of the river
keep flexing over time between headlands.


Thistle, you look like another
of evolution’s jokes, impossible
as a great blue heron seems
impossible, though you both
are brilliant survivors.

Still, mixed metaphor,
it looks like someone
hung you all over with
shaving brushes nobody
soft-handed could wield,

then loaded one of those
salad shooters they
used to hawk on TV
and fired green sickles
and scimitars at you,

until, sentry at my door,
you look like a gallowglass
loyal to no one but your own
stickle-backed containment.

I dubbed you Captain Barfoot,
though I know from long
acquaintance that a change
of air will turn you to a mentor

white and silken, proof
that the pilgrim in us all
must cede his spines
and hackers to endure.


The stump looked like a medical illustration
of a heart, and its few wispy sprouts
showed me it wanted to live, so I planted it
by the door thirty years ago.

Each fall before the winds I still cut one side away
from the windows and trim out several fine
straight sticks sturdy enough for beanpoles.

So now, lopsided, a few branches looped and snaking,
it is grandly disreputable, nothing of the nursery
about it, and its three-lobed leaves, looking like
goose prints, turn yellow as October cools so it seems

fall’s counterpoint to forsythia. Called goosefoot
some places, here it is nicknamed whistlewood:
a smart kid with a jackknife can reverse it to wood whistle.

Considered a pest of the understory by foresters,
it can live to be a hundred. I have stood under it
as a two-foot baby redtail hawk grappled through its twists,
wings trapped open or akimbo, shaking down

flocks of propellering fruit upon a fleeing chipmunk
and me. And all this spring a male yellowthroat
— a warbler with a black mask like a cartoon
housebreaker’s — has been jerking its tail

as furiously as a wren and knocking at its own
reflection in the windows, defending its nest secreted
somewhere in the maple, even while showing

without knowing it that we have to look into
ourselves to look out for ourselves, and see
through our dubious aspects.


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