Making sense

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Aug. 16, 2007

Dear Pat,

Galway Kinnell is 80 now. The title of his latest book of poems, "Strong is Your Hold," is taken from lines Walt Whitman wrote: "Strong is your hold O mortal flesh, Strong is your hold O love."

At 80, Galway Kinnell writes of body parts that no longer cooperate and heroes of youth who turned out not to know what they were talking about. But his love of being alive if anything seems stronger.

When you and I heard him read at the theater in Laguna Beach 20 years ago now I didn't know who he was, that he'd already won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He didn't look like poets I knew. He resembled one of the workmen in a Thomas Hart Benton mural, a rough-hewn man who'd swung a hammer and perhaps fed a cow.

He'd dressed up in a white sport coat that day, the kind boys wore to high school dances in the 1950s. His black shoes looked like the shoes the janitors at my grade school wore. They looked like they would last awhile and were comfortable.

The handwritten words he read were on loose pages of yellow paper. I imagined these to be the original manuscripts he copied at the library for his publisher. His voice was unvarnished and solid, like New England furniture.

Art and artists occasionally create moments that get into your bloodstream and never leave. One of mine is his reading of his poem, "Daybreak."

"Dozens of starfishes

were creeping. It was

as though the mud were a sky

and enormous, imperfect stars

moved across it as slowly

as the actual stars cross heaven.

All at once they stopped,

and, as if they had simply

increased their receptivity

to gravity, they sank down

into the mud, faded down

into it and lay still, and by the time

pink of sunset broke across them

they were as invisible

as the true stars at daybreak."

The hundreds of people in the theater gasped when the poem ended and then clapped and whistled like an audience at a rock concert. Galway Kinnell became immortal for me that day. He made sense of life on earth.

Do you remember it this way, too? Or do you remember a different poem, a different moment, a different poet?

I'm afraid I remember the past the way I want to remember it now. I make it make sense, like a story. I make it mean something, even the ugly parts and moments I would rather forget.

I think whatever we remember means something to each of our stories. Whether starfish on a beach or a poet reading in a theater, memories themselves are immortal. They exist for the rememberer as truly as this very moment and intimate that the cycle of life and death that preoccupies us and sometimes terrifies us is a love story with no beginning and no end.

In the new poem "Everyone Was in Love," Kinnell remembers the day his naked young children Maud and Fergus appeared in the doorway "mirthful, with a dozen long garter snakes draped over each of them like brand-new clothes."

Even the snakes seemed pleased. "We were enchanted. Everyone was in love."

Then Maud showed him a snake with a lump in it. "Inside the double-hinged jaw, a frog's green webbed hind feet were being drawn, like a diver's very slowly as if into deepest waters. Perhaps thinking I might be considering rescue, Maud said, 'Don't. Frog is already elsewhere.'"

Much as Galway Kinnell loves being alive and will inhale every moment of this existence all the way to the end, he knows, like children know, that when we are not here we are somewhere else.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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