X: Poems

by James Galvin

Published by Copper Canyon Press

96 pages, 2003








Nightingale in Montana

Reviewed by Gianmarc Manzione


A long time has passed since John Keats slouched beneath a nightingale's nest in a plum tree to bemoan a world "Where but to think is to be full of sorrow/and leaden-eyed despairs/Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes/Or new love pine at them beyond to morrow." In our cool age, merely to think of any contemporary poet attempting to revisit the themes endemic to lyric poetry since Sappho -- desire, betrayal, trust, loss, loneliness and nature -- awakens us to just how awesome a challenge it has become to say "my heart aches" without encountering a sea of guffaws.

But there is a nightingale in Montana, perched on a windowsill somewhere around James Galvin's ranch and, as his sixth volume of poetry attests, he hears it loud and clear. Throughout X: Poems a collection dwelling largely on his defunct marriage with fellow poet Jorie Graham, Galvin relies on the reader's own conscience and experience to finish each poem's meaning and affect, often transcending this basic rule of poetic law by digging deeper, excavating past losses and interrogating the difficult present, the struggle to go on. "After bad things happen we always live/A little more," Galvin observes in a language as simple as it is moving.

Routinely, Galvin steps out of the way of his poems to let them speak their way out of loss, stifling so much as a jaded chuckle in the textured silence following every final line. If the trick to conveying heartbreak convincingly in contemporary poetry is to simply tell what happened, rather than wrestling readers into feeling your pain, X provides ample instruction:

So out of love with life am I

No future will have me.

How can you lose a lie?

Well, you can. Easy.

All those years together, it seems,

Were posturings of goodbye.

For a time I raved.

Now I dwell in moods and reveries

Like frightened birds --

Galvin's bursts of thwarted longing are calculated with such tact and precise timing that they leap from the page. By the time he gets around to saying, simply, "You are in love with/someone else" or "Why aren't you in love with me," the stage has already been so patiently set for a heaving sigh of empathy that only the dead could turn the page without at least a quiver in the chin.

"Everyone drifts/in their disastrous bodies," Galvin writes in the book's first poem, "Little Dantesque." Just midway into this opening poem, the reader already has little reason to suspect that Galvin's lines are anything less than flakes chipped from a soul in smolder. "Love's not love until it's lost," he writes in a later poem. The body and its carriage of lusts has indeed proven disastrous, as the "threadbare" speaker continually "drifts" along an impasse of things that were: "I had a happy medium/Had her reading out of my palm/The circus folded up and left."

Inevitably, there are fleeting descents into mushiness and melodramatics, as when Galvin signs off the poem "Dear May Eight," "Yours, May Eighth /Sincerely/Man under influence of sky." Additionally, a couple of poems read less like verse and more like tongue-twisting transcripts from some spelling-bee:



He ciphers ciphers.

Generally, though, the poems in X demonstrate the talents of a master craftsmen, fraught with biting, alliterative moments of rhythm -- "O wretched road in rain," "an inner din unending" -- and heroic first lines that could eat through a cage, "This is the wave of gravel where she left me off the edge of my life" or "The whole night sky went bad in the knees." Further, from the villanelle "River Edged With Ice" to the end-rhymed "Dear Nobody's Business" or sprawling, long-lined masterpieces such as "Earthquake," "Leap Year" and "Depending on the Wind," Galvin's poetic range knows no end.

"Where Once I was not alone, now each/closed door is panic, and spaces grow immense with memory, like/shadows at dusk," Galvin writes in "Depending on the Wind," a spare, precise eulogy to the house he built with his hands for a family fated to leave him, "Gone that arrangement of allegiances called family/we never really know before it ends/Like love itself, it isn't true till/then." Seemingly dizzy with crestfallen lines such as these, Galvin deftly skirts the boundary between authenticity and mawkishness, and whether it's a nightingale crooning on a nearby windowsill or a case of the old heartbreak that's got him down, James Galvin's X yields some of the best poetry of his life. | June 2003


Gianmarc Manzione is a poet and music writer. He is currently working on his first book of poems, Clutter of Bones.