In Biophilia, his grand work on the stewardship of environment, Edward O. Wilson has famously said, “Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.” Intrinsic to Brendan Galvin’s power and authority in his sixteen books of poetry across five decades is a generous sense of our common cause with the animal kingdom. The Air’s Accomplices takes us once again to Cape Cod with its topography, weather, flora and fauna; with its natives as well as the inevitable tourists. There he has made his home and found his home truths in the quotidian and the visionary, in the crossings between, the transactions. Witness the title of the volume’s concluding poem, “We Live in the Largesse of Our Nickle-Dime Moments.” There he says “The quotidian is no one’s birthright” to be taken for granted. We have to earn it, enter it by paying attention. Perhaps then it will flare into full meaning, dailiness given its due. Three-quarters of the poems are set on the outer reaches of the Cape, with most of the rest having to do, as in many of the earlier books, with Irish locales, history, and folkways. Across his publishing career Galvin has given his poems imaginative standing by means of an adaptive, enabling style characterized by breadth of tone, adroitness of metaphor, and astonishingly exact notation. No departure from that here. Skillfully balanced, these poems bring out grace and light without shorting the germinating darkness in nature and human behavior.
Brendan Galvin has taken his place among the meditative poet-walkers. His are slyly casual walks during which places become portals. He knows there’s a special signature in the mundane, that observing nature closely teaches relation, proportion, order, and an appreciation of mystery. In other words, to the right imagination nature instructs in poetics. Once again, Edward O. Wilson on “elevat[ing] the very concept of life.” In “Walking Will Solve It,” the speaker has taken to the river flats near the sea because “the bills, taxes / and toxins” of keeping up a house have made him feel he’s
a man up there on a steel span
over the river, painting each beam
with a small brush, doing it all alone.
Gradually the walk brings a solution, however provisional. He recalls walking these dunes and finding
a woman’s footprints, toes flawless, mild arch,
heel slender, going side-by-side with a set of paws
whose arrowhead shape and flat heel
Then the tracks of a blue heron are visible beside hers, calling up
a Norse mapmaker’s sign for forest. Girl with Heron,
Girl and Coyote, as in a myth like the Boy and
Imaginative riffing before reason can interject itself. The day’s walk brings him back to the situation, the impasse, of the man on the bridge “who sooner or later has to begin again / where he started.” Repetition, but not unvarying, not stasis. The solution is that each outing is a new outing, and the only failure is to return unchanged.
“This Morning’s Pep Talk at Egg Island” contains advice that goes outward to the reader as well as inward to deal with daily quandaries in the speaker’s life. The hallmark objective of any walk is “To see things / as they are, keep your eyes open.” Deceptively simple, that, and it would be simplistic if not for the pressure the poet puts on “are.” Experiences are not single-celled. To all appearances they may be what they are literally, but they also can act as triggers for imaginative play, the past coexisting with the present, each modifying the other. As this poet of great empathy knows, the process of any alert walk is to enter if possible the other-than-human in order to more clearly understand what it means to be human. To go out to such creatures is to have them enter us. “Who do they think we are?” the poet asks in “Wild Guesses.” What set off the questioning?
It took a crab bald as a baby
to start it, stranded by
low tide and studying me—
What am I? It could never have seen
anything like me upright
on the sea’s floor. An unchildlike
glow of assessment
lit those eyes as it raised
the whole carapace of its head.
The speaker is one who had “set out walking his route / and come to himself in a new place” (“Covey”). A dimensional self, for Galvin is no soft, blinkered pastoralist. Life in the context of death is a primary home truth.
Deliverer and undertaker, a full moon tide
dropped the harbor seal on the flats,
already thick with gasses
begins “The Evidence of Four March Mornings.” On the second morning “a red gut pile / was extruded.” By day four
the ribs were a ruddy basket.
The skull was eye sockets and a mouth
that recalled Munch’s The Scream.
On the fourth morning all evidence was gone, the process of life ended yet on-going in the creatures that fed on the seal.
Giving a human voice to the unexpected has always interested Galvin. Nature is not subverted when the poet finds among creatures likenesses to ourselves. Metaphors can bind us to the natural order by perceived moral likeness. In his previous books, for example, we’d had words from weeds and from a well-tended garden. In this collection advice on poetry from spadefoot toads and from a beast of burden whose wonderfully evocative monologue “I Am the Donkey of Blind Raftery” begins with this matter-of-factness:
I lugged panniers of turf and scutched corn,
hay on the hay-bogy, manure in a tip-cart,
seaweed for mulching, practical loads all,
but now this tramp poet sings
in a failing tongue at my shoulder,
leaning across me toward every
ignorant ear on the roads of Galway.
Then the question, “Who were you expecting, Pegasus?” Put aside your preconceptions and listen, he tells the walker who has unintentionally gotten in his way. This is my dailiness. His name, he tells us, is Poteen Jack. “Look at me, shaggy and mean-mouthed / enough to support poetry.” Yes, tenor and vehicle. Art is where you find it, described in “Sprezzatura” as
the skill and recklessness that releases grace, a seemingly offhand act that conceals the pains taken.
One of Galvin’s greatest assets has proven to be his arraying of urgent and reflective and emotive tones by means of the sound stream in a given poem, sculpted into lines and sentences. In this case, Poteen Jack’s gift for monologue.
The Air’s Accomplices is a work of high ambition and matching accomplishment. How great our pleasure and instruction when Brendan Galvin brings us with him, imaginations at the ready, on an open-ended walk. In his company, to draw briefly from “Night Flight,” each of us may become “a welcome traveler of the synapses / between leaps of being.”