Purposeful Noticing in the Poems of Brendan Galvin

by Susan Ludvigson Issue: Spring 2018

Review of The Air's Accomplices (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois UP, 2015), 80 pgs., $15.95 and Egg Island Almanac (LSU Press, 2016), 80 pgs., $11.

In Brendan Galvin’s recent collections, The Air’s Accomplices (2015) and Egg Island Almanac (2016), the poet continues his ecstatic engagement with the natural world, an engagement, based on the evidence of the poems, that never falters.  His language remains, as it has been throughout his writing career, passionate and playful, rich in observation, and often reflecting his Irish heritage.  

The Air’s Accomplices begins with a section comprised of a single long poem, “Old Age Begins,” addressed to his late wife, Ellen, whose demise had begun with a stroke.  Gently mocking himself as well as her, he recounts the process of her partial recovery, when her words get tangled: “Don’t overload my washington machine,” and when he takes over duties that had mostly been hers.   He writes of his teasing her, and then coming to enjoy household chores, how at a certain point, “after a year of this / I’m learning the pleasures of process/ otherwise than on the page.”  There is a sense, in this poem, of a closeness that increases as he feels himself relating to her in unexpected dimensions, and even a kind of melding:   “While I was aimed at poems / in another room, you had made poetry / of these household steps toward order, / which now in your illness  I try, / neither in drudgery nor / for the piling up of chits in heaven.” 

There’s also a sense in this introductory poem of a gentling on his part—a softening of habitual teasing, an homage to the life they’d lived together.   The poet had encouraged his wife, according to the poem, to drink a bit of wine with dinner after her stroke, assuring her (possibly against doctor’s orders) that it wouldn’t lead to worrisome dreams.   It seems fitting that the entire first section of the collection should be devoted to a single poem of praise of Ellen.

I admire Galvin’s choice of details, his love and knowledge of the natural world so keen and fulsome that he finds precise language for everything he encounters.  I don’t picture him consulting the dictionary, as I sometimes have to do, in reading him.  In “Names by a River,” for example, he introduces the reader to glasswort (a traditional Korean herbal powder) and hudsonia (goldenheather, poverty grass), a small genus of three species of flowering plants in the family Cistaceae, native to North America, typical of sand dune habitats.  Scientific name.  English name.  Hudsonia ericoides, Pine barren .  .  .  .    He is addressing a Captain Martin Pring in the poem, whom he imagines as “a handly little dude like Standish and John Smith, your chin- beard sharp/ as ado.” (Poinado: a small dagger). I scrolled through several references indicating that last term as a word used in scrabble, but the actual definition was tucked in at the end of one entry.

I want to quote a fairly long portion of “Names by the River,” in part because it so beautifully exemplifies Galvin’s attention to details unfamiliar, I’m guessing, to most readers, and his meticulous noticing and naming—an approach he uses in tandem with a generally ironic view. 

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, absurd as those you gifted
the natives with, those “divers sort of
meanest merchandise."

Galvin switches gears through this section.  His affection for the land he knows so intimately leads to wholly understandable annoyance precipitated by the silliness of people we might call Sunday Afternoon Explorers.  Naming is clearly one of his distinct pleasures, as it becomes the reader’s too.

Naming—the significance of names, the mutability of names, the sounds of names, the choice of names—all part of the pleasure in writing, and certainly in reading the poems.  Galvin doesn’t let us assume anything about where he’s going—just when we think we know, he takes a switchback.  Even what he has “named” the most carefully can be, in a trice, revised, reversed.

In Section IV, of The Air’s Accomplices we find poems about working men in West Virginia, glass blowers who go to work in cut-off jeans,  “who make it look as easy as stirring your coffee,” while in fact “it must be more like spinning a swirl of the sun.”   His admiration for these men is profound, and he uses the high Renaissance term “Sprezzatura—the skill and recklessness that releases grace” to describe them.  There is, with somewhat the same sense of awe, a poem about Evel Knievel, with the caveat that some of the men who watched him, who “stand in fire all their lives” turned away, refusing to applaud.

Throughout most of this collection, Galvin alternates between encounters with the outside world and references, sometimes subtle, often widely separated, that remind him and the reader of his loss. The last section moves from the stump of a Striped Maple with a few wispy sprouts the poet couldn’t resist planting by his door thirty years earlier, “fall’s counterpoint to forsythia,” –-“grandly disreputable,” but a bush he likes for its whistle-making possibilities and the birds that flit through when it’s grown big enough.   As he often does, the poet lets us know its other names----goosefootwhistlewood.  One of the pleasures of these poems is learning the colloquial terms for the many plants, trees, and birds, the assorted flora and fauna he has absorbed over the years of living in his part of the country. 

There is beauty and wisdom and humor in these poems.  I love the Spadefoot Toads whose tunes are “less like a song/ than like a drunk hooting gibberish,” and  “the Canada Geese homecoming through /the February dark—their cries at first/ like a pack of hounds on the distant /trace of something—wake you smiling.”  I like to think I’ll remember these lines and pay attention to their admonition:

“The quotidian is no one’s birthright.”    

                        “Our obituaries
betray no inkling of the things
we will weep for in a coming world.”

But we are nowhere near obituary, as close behind The Air’s Accomplices comes Egg Island Almanac. The new collection takes up where the previous one left off.  Always in Galvin the natural world is a paradise at risk.  His reverence for wild animals, birds, even some insects, many animals now endangered, and for landscapes continuously encroached upon by builders and defiled by careless tourists, sometimes even by residents of the area themselves, is in full play again.  There are clearly no signs of human responsibility increasing.

The first poem in Egg Island Almanac is titled “Ordnance,” its subject the carelessness of those who have no regard for actions that endanger wildlife.  Galvin’s anger is righteous and right.  Water balloons “flashing colors like visual noise / in the marshes, and in pine groves / that trap their sheen.”  .  .  .  is followed later in the poem by the restrained fury of  “this balloon / may never get to strangle a turtle / let alone get sucked down / the blowhole of a dolphin.” 

In the newest collection too are poems for Ellen, the first a brief compendium of his earlier and failed relationships, followed by,  “I needed you to pry the rocks from my hands,” and leading to:  “ Thank you / for never looking at me this forty-eight years / as though I were some fish who just / walked into our house on my new feet.”   Galvin’s sense of humor is often the leavening in his poems of complaint and disappointment, and even in love poems, wild animals often play a part.

I am in awe of this poet’s encyclopedic knowledge of his habitat, and when he says in “First Impressions,” If these were sand dunes I could tell you / which prints were a coyote’s or fox’s / or a dog’s . . .  I find myself writing in the margin, “I’m sure he could!”  I learned more about birds and other animals than I like to admit I didn’t know.  That’s not why I love the poems, or at least not the main reason, but it’s worth pointing out that one of the essential qualities that makes a superior poet is Galvin’s kind of purposeful noticing.  It leads to language like this from “The Fish Crows”:

 . . . Fish crows: usually one or two
will be traveling with their larger cousins,
who keep above it all, out of range,
or loiter in the breakdown lane.

But here for the first time in my
three quarters of a century
is a whole flock of fish crows
celebrating a new beginning.

Hard to imagine them unwrapping
grief like a gift on a morning like this,
corporeal subdividers like their
relatives, while the lilacs

prepare to announce the bluebacks
are beginning to thread their way
up the herring runs.

Passages as fine as these abound throughout the collection.   The poet’s focus is far more often concerned with the fragility and beauty of the world and especially with the fate of various animals than with the concerns of most people’s day-to-day preoccupations.

To quibble over anything in these poems would be false and artificial.  My response is one of pure pleasure and appreciation—and a bit of welcome learning.

Susan Ludvigson

Susan Ludvigson is the author of Step Carefully in Night Grass, published by John F. Blair, as well as the following volumes, all from Louisiana State University Press: Northern Lights, The Swimmer, The Beautiful Noon of No Shadow, To Find the Gold, Everything Winged Must Be Dreaming, Trinity, Sweet Confluence: New and Selected Poems, and Escaping the House of Certainty. She has received prizes for the best poem published in a given year from Virginia Quarterly Review (1984), Gettysburg Review (2000), and the James Dickey Prize from Five Points (2016). Professor Ludvigson taught at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, from 1972-2002. Over the course of her career she has received grants and fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the South Carolina Arts Commission, The Witter Bynner Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Fulbright Foundation, The Guggenheim Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation. She served as Appalachian State University's 2017-18 Rachel Rivers-Coffey Distinguished Professorship in Creative Writing.