ISBN 1556591918, 2003
Copper Canyon Press, $14.00
James Galvin’s X begins in the place where beauty glares at the untrusting mind, where words rise from heartsick landscapes. An epigraph from Dante strikes the tone from the start, triangulating remembrance and regret from the position of damage: ”There is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery.” X epitomizes Wallace Stevens’s meditations on the nascence of inspiration:
In so much misery; and yet finding it
Only in misery, the afflatus of ruin.
X represents falling and Galvin shares the experience of falling out of belief, first, out of love, second. The irony in the necessity to fell “ a hundred pines to build a house” for love only to find the rooms have all gone empty and “each closed door is panic” as the “spaces grow immense with memory,” translates from page into pain. X is not truth but a reflection on the accumulated lies that pass in regular orbits and predictable motions, “lies like wings.” They are the kind of lies we hold to when a broken landscape justifies their realness and we mistake reality for truth. In “Conflagration of Opposites,” Galvin’s existential fatigue is plain and unadorned, “So out of love with life am I / No future will have me. / How can you lose a lie? / Well, you can, Easy.” Galvin’s mythology of loss resonates to a universal pitch, not only gathering human history and experience into it but, by metaphoric extension, to trees unable to stop the course of fire and to sunsets unable to stop approaching dark. Comparing heart to heart wood in “Ponderosa,” Galvin sees the lightning spark to its resting phase in ash:
came down like knowledge, but the tree did not explode or burn.
Caught the jolt and trapped it like a mythic girl.
Its trunk was three
lightning couldn’t blow the ponderosa into splinters,
And couldn’t burn inside without some air.
A week went by and we
Forgot about it.
But lightning is a very hot and radiant girl.
Heat bled out to bark, the tree burst into flame that reared into
Silence under a cloudless sky.
Brain of ash, what can you tell me
What were your thoughts, concerning history?
X surprises us with vulnerability rather than honesty and binds us to compassion not loss. It is the making of a mythology not founded on truth but a necessity to breathe, to expel the world from lungs that are tired of holding back an exhalation, the kind that will make a room full of people turn and wonder, what cause—what reason? The necessity of breath inspires an unending wave of philosophical questions both comic and deeply sad.
Galvin perceives a divine comedy in the illusion of control. He regards human actions with a certain disdain. A pulled trigger may yield “a loose halter of stars” in the hand because the “man with a fish hook in his eye can see quite clearly.” Control depends on tested formulas of belief and morality that are unavailable to the speakers in Galvin’s poems. They turn the mirror toward darker landscapes, knowing there is no footing, no solid ground, no halter of stars, no reins at all.
In “Show and Tell” Galvin pulls the divine down to “the edge of a blighted field where God idles his tractor” and asks, “You think God doesn’t have a tractor? / You think he doesn’t have a blighted field?” The tone shifts in the growing sense of loss as Galvin asks, “Look, hear comes night. You think God can’t give up?” X picks us up at the expectant station and drops us off nowhere where “nothing is at one with nature” because “there’s no such thing as nature /… It’s just another everywhere.” From his position of nowhere, Galvin closes the distance between tree and star; as if they grew from the same infertile, uncontrollable landscape of majesty, both on fire, both ultimately burning, as disappeared voices in a wilderness asking, “What in nature qualifies as holy?”
Galvin’s deep mistrust of spring, rainbow, beauty as chaotic formulas of an unpredictable divinity inspire the questions that spill from each page, questions that find mirrors in the landscape (the design and shape of nature), that could be answered but instead retreat into a vacuous sky so full of questions you are certain a rain of answers must come sometime soon. Less in a tone of blame, stemming more from disbelief and a ubiquitous mistrust, he targets the traditional beauty of flower, spring, and woman in, “Wild Irises on Dirty Woman Creek”:
You are quite lifelike, but you can’t fool me.
I know the unearthly when I die from it.
I’m not talking about the body’s mutable components—
I’m not talking.
Look—wild irises, like every spring,
In the salacious green of Dirty Woman Creek.
Spring, in its transience, becomes an illusion; the “Double Rainbow” that appears and disappears is what Galvin terms “the harsh necessity.” He winnows sorrow, transforming it into a personal mythology inspired by a landscape that is as lost, vulnerable and resilient as a man asking, “How do I start over now, having been wrong about everything?” The desperation of “suicide trees” that make a living of nothing, on nothing, are too similar to the condition of separation and isolation that infuses Galvin’s work. “Limber Pines,” are fools of nature—yet who can help but admire the blazing effigy of their forms, “Their weakness / is their ability to take hold anywhere. / Their strength is their ability / to die.”
X is composed in three parts. The progression of discord culminates in 3 where the poem becomes a goodbye letter combining themes and images from earlier parts that, having finally extinguished the wind and flame, leave only their burnt offerings:
X is the crucifixion all embraces
Are, here at the nowhere of the rainbow’s end,
Where even light has failed its situation,
Slant the only life it ever had,
Where even the most gallant sunset can’t
Hold back for more than a nonce the rain-laden
Eastern sky of night. It’s clear. It’s clear.
X ’s are both hugs and kisses, O’s
Where stars that died gave out, gave up, gave in—
Where no one meant the promises they made.
Oh, and one more thing. I send my love
However long and far it takes—through light,
Through time, through all the faithlessness of men.”
Galvin leaves his mark in the form of X and takes no responsibility for O, as ending and lost love. Perhaps he means to give what is within the realm of human control: a kiss, an embrace, a last act of folly or wisdom before the inevitability of ash, whether tree or star. He leaves us hopeful, at least in the sense that the distance between things is a lie because “all of us have already died.” The lightning takes a week to burn through rings, the star an eternity to send its love or die, such that the spark becomes the lie and death the place where truth takes up the reins again.
Galvin takes emotional and intellectual risks with X ; by focusing the work so tightly on the loss of both belief and love, he risks sentimentality, predictability and cliché. Yet the language and wordplay elevates this collection of poems well beyond predictability and infuses the book with an authority of experience and a mastery of language that allows him to take emotional risks. He avoids sentimentality by retaining vulnerability, a refusal to back away from a sky of questions and a need to deconstruct beauty and love. Though his language is elevated and his metaphor and imagery are often lofty, Galvin achieves Williams’ ideal of a poetic that is unadorned and stripped down to the essential. Galvin does not achieve this by confining and reducing or a simplification of language but by expanding, breathing and allowing emotion to lead and language to follow.