Read A New Selected Poems
to catch Galway Kinnell's myriad fine-tunings of poems decades old; read it for the pleasure of watching his early formalism blossom into long, joyous, almost Whitmanesque lines; but most of all, read it for the eagle's-eye view it provides of one of our finest American poets. Well into his 70s, Kinnell is still producing poetry as visceral as it is philosophical, forging the universal from the fleshy, messy specifics of life. "Lieutenant! / This corpse will not stop burning!
" comes the cry in "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible," a remarkable war poem that literally embodies
his political anger. Throughout A New Selected Poems
, which Kinnell has culled from eight previous collections spanning 24 years, that corpse burns fiercely, fiercely, as if to heed the poet's own warning from "Another Night in the Ruins":
How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren't, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
to open ourselves, to be
Kinnell is a poet who feels life most keenly as it slips through his fingers. Nothing lasts, but this is less cause for lament than for celebration; after all, he tells us, "the wages / of dying is love.
" Before we break out the booze and have ourselves a ball, however, there are the poems from his brutal Book of Nightmares
to consider, with their apocalyptic howling; his Vermont poems, with their "silent, startled, icy, black language / of blackberry eating in late September"; the noise and clatter of his early New York poems, "Where instants of transcendence / Drift in oceans of loathing and fear..." Kinnell is a poet with a leg in each world, one up above where the bears and porcupines live, and one down below, in what we might call the imaginative underworld. Witness the stunning progression of "When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone," in which he is both Orpheus and a misanthropic Eurydice, singing himself back to the company of the human. How glad we are that Kinnell failed to look back! In the tender "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight," the poet advises his infant daughter, "Kiss / the mouth / that tells you, here, / here is the world.
" After reading these poems, you might feel like doing the same. --Mary Park