Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

Words that Stun

Brendan Galvin's <i>Place Keepers</i>

There are poets whose work can be said to evolve over time, as if it were straining toward some sort of perfection; conversely, there are those poets who devolve over time, making one wonder if the poetry has been exhausted or overly expended on earlier poems. Brendan Galvin, however, is a poet whose verses have always been consistent: If you were to read his books in chronological sequence, instead of finding a poet developing or rusting over time, you would always see—as his latest book Place Keepers testifies—the perfect and polished poet that Galvin has always been.

Place Keepers
by Brendan Galvin
Louisiana State University Press, October 2003

Place Keepers lives among the rarities, as a book that I not only admire but love. It is rare to find a book that, after the first reading, lingers on as cohesive and vivid, perfectly comprehended and yet perfectly mysterious.

Galvin is a lover of both the grand and the minute, of the otherworldly and the earthly: He marvels in constellations and in the most trifling of living things, such as mushrooms (which he says are like humans in that they are “mostly water, and live upon / decay”), flora that most of us would perceive as mere weeds and birds that few of us could name. Galvin, however, does not simply offer up these sources of inspiration, but rather revels in the words that make it possible to communicate these objects.

His last book, appropriately, was titled The Strength of a Named Thing. Although Galvin writes that there might be the possibility of having “no adequate word for the mystery / that stuns him yearly,” the reader is inclined to believe that Galvin could, because of his strength in naming things, conjure up the perfect vocabulary for any mystery or occasion. In Place Keepers, the reader will find various litanies—of birds, vegetation, shellfish—that are made more beautiful through Galvin’s handling:


this bird knows the water

will freeze again, and maybe that everything
coming after—even lilacs, and shadbush ghosting
among unlit trees—depends on these yellows
it’s flipping into being with its wings.

For bracts and mayapples, for a goldfinch
knocking at a window’s conundrum,
this white-throat’s whipping up the sunlit modulations,
sulfur, citrines, gilt, canary, amber,

for pollen, and month to month across monotonous greens,
for the wings of fritillaries thinner than onionskin,
until seaside goldenrod gathers and concentrates
saffron, packing it in for cold storage.

Galvin is not only a wordsmith when it comes to nouns; his verbs are startling in their deftness, and his descriptions are made the lovelier for them. In “The Proper Name for Water,” Galvin writes that “mythic” fogs “saw and chuck out like ice.”

What I find loveliest about Galvin’s poetry is his ability to describe without forsaking rhythm, language or the justice due to the beauty of his subject. In “The Potatoes Have a Word to Say,” Galvin personifies potatoes that have survived both a burial in compost and being torn to mulch:

down in the marsh arose from their own
torn parchment and mummy cloth,
and we shoved up, thick-stemmed among
the early unfurlings of squash and beans,
and in evenings of broken thrush music
began drawing gold-centered,
lavender starbursts out of ourselves,
in concert with the sleeping trees

In “Three Places in New England,” he writes of his garden “where the emperor pole beans build their / rain forest a little higher every day and sail / their blossoms like red tropical birds above it.” In “Bullfrog,” field mice are found “strewing turds / delicate as lettuce seeds.” In “The Day Before,” Galvin describes the despondency of the speaker who knows that an approaching hurricane will take his garden before the autumn does:


I look at these pines, wondering which
I should ask for allegiance as they bow
and flex, corkscrew and curtsy to survive,
their needles on the skylight pointing
the wind’s indecisions. What lie
can I tell this garden? That the canoe
I just put away is only a peapod it might
approximate next year? It’s over.
Picking the last heavily knuckled pole beans,
and the squash striped like beach umbrellas,
all I had hoped to keep thriving another month.

“Job Description” and “Listening to the Courtship Delirium of the Great Horned Owls,” both relate how poetic labour and poetic thought are interrupted by disturbances that become, because of their temporary natures, more beautiful than what the poet intended originally to describe. In “Job Description,” Galvin describes poetic labour as “being outside / a glass telephone booth / in a strange town, the door / jammed shut and the phone / ripped out.” He then tries to recount a canoe trip he took with his wife, Ellen:


Home at this desk a year later
or the next day, it can feel like setting
a foot on that river and finding it
buoyed up, then the next step
supported, and the third. Boat, water,
bird, again these unwilled choices
from the odd, strewn lumber of
consciousness. Every time
my paddle stirs a whirl I can hear
between these lines the Segovia
you’ve put on, and among tangled
shoreplants, your dishwater’s
bump and grind. My lady,
the uncommon music of your house.

Galvin’s poems too are “uncommon music.” The sadness in these poems is also their source of beauty: The ephemeral becomes Galvin’s occasion to immortalize the minutiae and lonely moments: “this brief prime is our beauty, too soon / we deliquesce upon ourselves.” He also tells us that “eternity” can be a “spectator sport,” and the reader is thrilled that Galvin is the spectator as well as the reporter. Galvin realizes that as a poet, what he gives is merely his testimony of the world. In his coda, his closing poem, “Testament,” he writes,

I can tell you will fatten your checking account,
and there’s nothing here to lionize. There’s only
unpretending life, present and accounted for,
the cerulean warbler’s brittle stance a moment

He ends with these lines:

It wasn’t to frighten you, but to speak
of fecundity, as even this inchworm knows,
who lives in my notebook, and sometimes omega,
sometimes parenthesis, steps off the lengths of
these lines, and is strong as the guffaw
I woke myself with one night, for no reason
I could find on either side of sleep.

“Unpretending” is the key word in the above passages. Galvin’s poetry achieves the rarity of being beautiful in its poetic artifices yet absolutely sincere. There may not be a reason for the “guffaw” or for poetry, but Galvin feels the need to transmit these small moments, his Place Keepers to us. There must exist a reason, I think, for the existence of this poetry, as I in turn felt the need to give my readers not my thoughts on Galvin’s poetry, but entire poems, the entire book itself. What Galvin writes in “Epiphany” concerning his grandfather’s barn catching fire could also describe his poetry: “spontaneous combustion, / like inscape, epiphany, like love at first sight.”

Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.