James Galvin – Everything We Always Knew Was True
Copper Canyon 2016
Page Length: 75
How is it possible for the work of James Galvin, the face of the most famous poetry program in the world, to be so wildly underappreciated? One could spend a lot of time trying to understand this: is it because of his association with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that critics have largely ignored his work, especially over the last twenty or so years? Or is it because his style walks so boldly in the footsteps of the many celebrated American poets who have taken as their central subject the natural world, and have done so with a language we can loosely call “plainspoken”?
A combination of these theories would view Galvin as the inheritor of a tradition of Iowa faculty poets (Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, not to mention recurring faculty members like Galway Kinnell and Robert Hass) who represent some “old guard” of American Poetry. But if this is Galvin’s inheritance, where are his deserved awards? Of the four just mentioned, three won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them all four have won many of the most distinguished awards in American letters. This is not to downplay his CV, which includes a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship, but Galvin is one of America’s most important living poets, and his oeuvre is as impressive as anyone in his generation, yet critics continue to leave him on the periphery as though he hasn’t published anything of note since 1997’s Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. He has.
In fact, Galvin’s work has since blossomed in a manner that none of the aforementioned poets’ has. But the evolution didn’t come without struggle. 2001’s X was a clear departure from Galvin’s previous work, retaining his singular mastery of the Western landscape, but filtering it through a decidedly broken subjectivity demonstrably ravaged by a crushing divorce. X is wildly uneven. It is the work of a poet struggling to find a new frequency. It includes some of Galvin’s greatest poems—“Fire Season,” “Promises Are for Liars,” “Heat Waves in Winter Distance,” “Depending on the Wind,” and the collection’s finale: a Dantesque sequence that culminates with a Paradiso of parental love.
None of these poems could have appeared in Galvin’s earlier work, for they demonstrate a speaker who is as unsettled by life’s ruthlessness as he is certain of its beauty. This ambivalence is certainly present in Galvin’s earlier work, but in X we find a poet whose faith has been radically shaken: a self-effacing quiver begins to trouble the line; existential anguish seems the book’s undertow. On the whole, X is one of Galvin’s best collections, but its unevenness is evident in a poem like “Ought,” which foregrounds wordplay and wit, anticipating Galvin’s evolution over his next two collections to relatively underwhelming effect.
In 2009, Galvin published As Is, his weakest book. To be fair: Galvin at his worst is better than most at their best, but As Is will stand in Galvin’s oeuvre as a document of transition between what he perfected in his early work—a brutally beautiful naturalism with remarkable metaphysicality—and a new, decidedly postmodern idiom that balances his faith in the image with a disarming tonal looseness marked by charming self-deprecation. In early Galvin: either everything matters or nothing matters. In the new Galvin: everything matters and nothing matters, and the causal relationship between these facts is perfectly circular.
The growing pains of As Is can be found in poems like “The Music” and “The Red Telephone,” where Galvin’s courageous departure from the natural world is awkwardly met with a kind of un-tethered wit. What is clever in a poem must be rooted in something outside its own self-satisfaction. And Galvin’s cleverness, though clear, seemed forced: like he was trying to squeeze into hand-me-down shoes. This was troubling to see in a world-class dancer.
But whatever aesthetic hiccups were introduced in As Is have paid off handsomely in Galvin’s new collection, which is, remarkably and decidedly, his best. Everything We Always Knew Was True is a miraculous, self-performed open-heart surgery in which everything we always loved about James Galvin is exposed and made new by self-deprecating charm and dead black humor. Never has an American poet so seamlessly fused the superficially opposite impulses of the deep image and the talky self-awareness of a particular strain of the Western avant-garde. We certainly see the fingerprints of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin, but not without the whimsy of Apollinaire and John Ashbery.
The few critics who have written on Galvin can only think of one thing to say: that he has a firm grasp on the American West. He certainly does: he is the single greatest writer about horses in American literature. But what makes Galvin great is the subterranean intensity beneath the scenes he paints. Consider the following poem from the new book, included here in its entirety:
My father coughed up a few bats
And that was that.
With a smithy’s hammer,
I broke and flattened his gold heraldic ring.
“Hit it again,” my sister said,
And I did.
There were three of us.
We stashed the ashes with the ring
In a cairn of black rocks.
My niece piped up,
“Isn’t anybody going to say something?”
I looked at my sister,
Who shook her head.
“Nope,” I said,
And the three of us walked away. (65)
Galvin’s signature here is not the hammer or the “cairn of black rocks,” but rather the blunt force of the final five lines, when the human milieu is laid bare in an exposure equal parts revealing and concealed. The genius of the poem lies in what its silence says and the cleanliness of its annunciation.
Or consider the following pair of ekphrastic poems, a genre Galvin has certainly mastered. The first reads in Galvin’s oldest style: tonally demotic; image-driven; remarkably restrained.
I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them
To come home. You have to tell the truth. (“Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning,” 22)
Much of the poem would fit nicely into Galvin’s first four books, but the explosive presence of “I’m not telling,” is something Galvin had to earn post-Resurrection Update. It takes an otherwise lovely poem and sets it ablaze with the complicated strike of a withholding, self-aware speaker, which then flickers against the surface of the haunted, “You have to tell the truth,” which, when it lands, feels inevitable.
One of the collection’s most dynamic poems, “The Newlywed Acrobats,” written after Marc Chagall, manages to capture an astounding amount of Chagall’s romantic abandon and dreamy hover.
He sports gold-sequined tights and
The bride is decked out in a gold bikini.
Her breasts are
Her smile is, well, blinding.
On the steps,
an avalanche of confetti.
Clowns are shot from cannons to the
right and to the left.
They spring each other higher and
higher and scarily higher until he vaults into a fourth-floor window
and she follows like a comet’s tail.
They look deeply into each other’s eyes, his bleary, hers
fierce with determination.
She says, “You’re not gonna believe this
The weightlessness here is astounding for its palpable joy. In it we find an exuberance missing almost entirely from Galvin’s early work, and here, combined with his singular grip on the image, we are taken into a slipstream of what feels like true love.
When considering twentieth-century comparisons, one must mention Frost, Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Charles Wright (as well as the “Iowa Poets” mentioned above). What none of these masters was able to do, however, was to successfully and truly transform, over time, their aesthetic. Galvin has done that. The exception may be James Wright, whose early formalism is nothing to sneeze at, but whose later deep imagism transformed a generation.
The closest comparison, I would argue, is James Merrill: perhaps the twentieth-century’s single greatest poet. Like Galvin, Merrill is inexplicably underappreciated, and he is very highly appreciated. Like Merrill, Galvin combines a deceptively smooth formalism with a postmodern playfulness that refuses to take itself too seriously, which is, of course, perfectly serious. Like Merrill, Galvin exudes a hopelessly charming, dead-serious romantic streak, a brutal self-awareness, and a potent metaphysics in which the visible and invisible exert upon each other enormous counter-pressure.
The critics who are content to call Galvin a “nature poet” fail to grasp how utterly metaphysical his nature is. Galvin’s natural world is not unlike Melville’s white whale: elusive; beautiful; deadly; metonymic. It is the closest thing to the divine that its author can hope to approach, and even trying to see it involves significant risk.
One of the collection’s highlights, and one of its most contemporary features, is a nonconsecutive series of short poems titled, “What It’s Like,” which refuse to identify the “it” of the simile, leaving it appropriately open for nothing less than just about anything. The following are presented in their entirety:
What It’s Like
Horseback in an old burn.
No way forward.
No way to turn around. (25)
What It’s Like
A freight elevator in free fall.
A grand piano in it. (37)
The series is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press 2011). The openness is haunting; the vision unflinching.
It is a rare enough thing for a poet to write a breathtaking body of work. James Galvin had accomplished this by the mid-nineties, and were he a lesser artist, he’d have continued to write in that style forever. Of the poets who manage to cultivate a discernible voice, the ones who try to modify it often do so awkwardly and, too often, into courageous disaster. When considering Galvin’s oeuvre, there is a distinct new frequency that enters with X and then wobbles uncomfortably through As Is. The new voice, though, has blossomed fully in Everything We Always Knew Was True, which marks Galvin’s greatest collection to date and may one day stand as the defining book of his career. More importantly, it demonstrates that sometimes—although rarely, and never without struggle—a great poet can somehow become even greater.