Sunday, November 26, 2006
Why is so much poetry gloomy?
There are many good answers to that question. Any day's newspaper is full of them. Shakespeare, mythology and the Bible are not always cheerful. And happiness is very hard to write about convincingly. So is delight. But Galway Kinnell manages a successful catalogue of redeeming delights in "Why Regret?" the final poem in his new book:
Didn't you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn't it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn't you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster's New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-pans vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid's ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
"The perfected lover does not eat."
As a child, didn't you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn't you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren't you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring's offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?
A winning candor includes, along with what the senses perceive, the poet's happy custom of dictionary-browsing. The speed of the list makes it more effective: lingering too long on the mayfly's brief search for a mate would be sentimental; instead, the poem dashes ahead through the outrageous brio of Casanova's gesture and the child's imagination re-assigning the discomfort of pinworms. And like dictionary-grubbing among the glaim and gleet, the image of the monarch butterflies maintaining the ways of their ancestors acknowledges memory. The poem counters the weight of certain mortality with the comfort of things that continue: life that is alimentary, sexual, intellectual and imaginative as well. The poem is less about its razzle-dazzle images, pleasurable though they are, than about the process that moves through them, and keeps moving: the restless, always-surprising process of life, and of the mind keeping up, for as long as it can.
(Galway Kinnell's poem "Why Regret?" is from his book "Strong is Your Hold." Houghton Mifflin. Copyright 2006 by Galway Kinnell.)