Galway Kinnell, who died on Tuesday, was perhaps the second or third living poet I ever met. He had been invited to read at the University of Northern Colorado, where I was a student. I was 20. I had already witnessed the deep, wild energies of Robert Bly in performance, but based on reading Kinnell’s Body Rags I knew not to expect that kind of splash. And Kinnell’s wildness did prove to be of a quieter kind. His sensibility was resolutely earthbound, images were tactile, the the music thick and twisty like a Celtic knot. He did not stimulate; he involved. He wooed, in a way. When he recited “The Bear,” one of his dozen or more masterpieces, the lines hung and flowed and lashed like the Northern Lights over some old growth forest; but that was just the music. The words themselves he treated the way van Gogh treated paint—as substances with volume, weight, and color. Instead of looking for ways to sand their edges smooth—as Heaney, for example, seems to do—Kinnell honored their roughness, their history, their sometimes outright oddity. As a result, his poetry is substantial and humane, fresh and varied.
Kinnell’s fame around “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” (Philip Levine reads a section from it here), Body Rags, and The Book of Nightmares has not been good for his later books, which are full of fine poems. Strong Is Your Hold in particular contains the best poem I know of about the September 11 attacks, a 135-line wonder called “When the Towers Fell.” Here’s another example drawn from that extraordinary book:
Burning the Brush Pile
I shoved into the bottom of the brush
pile to large grocery bags holding
chainsaw chaff well soaked
in old gasoline gone sticky—a kind
of homemade napalm, except, of course,
without victims, other than boughs,
stumps, broken boards, vines, crambles.
Bracing my knees against the next-
to-the-top roundel of the twelve-foot
I poured diesel all gurgling
and hiccupping into the center of the pile,
then climbed down and sloshed
the perimeter with kerosene and sludge.
Stepping back, I touched a match
to the oil rag knotted to the thick end
of a thick stick and hurled it, javelin
style, into the core of the pile,
which gasped, then illuminated:
red sunset seen through winter trees.
A small flame came curling out from either
side of the pile and quietly wavered there,
as if this were simply the way matter burns.
Suddenly the great loaded shinicle roared
into flames that leapt up sixty, seventy feet,
swarming through the hole they had heated
open in the chill air to be their chimney.
At noon I came back with a pitchfork
and flicked into the snapping flames
a lot of charred boughs, twig ends burnt off,
that lay around the edges of the fire
as if some elephantine porcupine had been
bludgeoned on its snout, on this spot,
and then, rotting away, had left a rough circle
of black quills pointing to where it had been.
In the evening, when the fire had faded,
I was raking black clarts out of the smoking dirt
and felt a tine of my rake snag on a large lump.
I jerked, shook, beat it apart, and out fell
a small blackened snake, the rear half
burnt away, the forepart alive. When
I took up this poor Isaac, it flashed its tongue,
then struck my hand a few times; I let it.
Already its tail was sealing itself off,
fusing shut the way we cauterize unraveling
nylon line by using its own hot oozings
as glue. I lowered it into the cool grass,
where it waggled but didn’t get very far.
Gone the swift lateral undulation, the whip-tail,
the grip that snakes bring into the world.
It stopped where the grass grew thick
and flashed its tongue again, as if trying
to spit or to spirit away its pain,
as we do, with our growled profanities,
or as if uttering a curse, or—wild fantasy—
a benediction. Most likely it was trying to find
its whereabouts, and perhaps get one last take
on this unknown being also reeking of fire.
Then the snake zipped in its tongue
and hirpled away into the secrecy of the grass.
Crambles … shinicle … clarts … hirpled…. (And the NY Times has the gall to call Kinnell a “plain-spoken poet”!) Who will we turn to now to deepen the word-hoard?