Galvin, Brendan

views updated

GALVIN, Brendan

Nationality: American. Born: Everett, Massachusetts, 20 October 1938. Education: Malden Catholic High School; Boston College, 1956–60, B.S. in natural sciences 1960; Northeastern University, Boston, 1962–64, M.A. in English 1964; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1965–70, M.F.A. 1967, Ph.D. in English 1970. Family: Married Ellen Baer in 1968; one son and two daughters. Career: Instructor in English, Northeastern University, 1964–65; assistant professor of English, Slippery Rock State College, Pennsylvania, 1968–69. Assistant professor, 1969–74, associate professor, 1974–80, and since 1980 professor of English, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain. Visiting professor, Connecticut College, New London, 1975–76; Coal Royalty Chairholder in Creative Writing, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, spring 1993. Since 1981 editor, with George Garrett, Poultry: A Magazine of Voice, Truro, Massachusetts. Founder and director, Connecticut Writers Conference. Awards: Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, 1971; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1974, 1988; Artists' Foundation grant, 1978; Connecticut Commission on the Arts fellowship, 1981, 1984; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1988; Sotheby prize, Arvon International Foundation, 1988; Levinson prize, Poetry (Chicago) magazine, 1989; O B Hardison Jr. Poetry prize, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1991; Charity Randall Citation, International Poetry Forum, 1994. Address: P.O. Box 54, Durham, Connecticut 06422, U.S.A.



The Narrow Land. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1971.

The Salt Farm. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1972.

No Time for Good Reasons. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.

The Minutes No One Owns. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Atlantic Flyway. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Winter Oysters. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1983.

A Birder's Dozen. Bristol, Rhode Island, Ampersand Press, 1984.

Seals in the Inner Harbor. Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1985.

Wampanoag Traveler. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Raising Irish Walls. Bristol, Rhode Island, Ampersand Press, 1989.

Great Blue: New and Selected Poems. Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Early Returns. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1992.

Saints in their Ox-Hide Boat. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University, 1992.

Islands. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Druid Press, 1993.

Sky and Island Light: Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Hotel Malabar: A Narrative Poem. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1998.

The Strength of a Named Thing: Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999.


Screenplay: Massachusetts Story, 1978.


Critical Studies: Article in American Poets Since World War II edited by Donald J. Greiner, Detroit, Gale, 1980, and "This Business of Getting the World Right: The Poetry of Brendan Galvin," in Three Rivers Poetry Journal 19–20 (Pittsburgh), 1982, both by George Garrett; by Philip Jason, in Critical Survey of Poetry edited by Frank N. Magill, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Salem Press, 1982; "Galvin's Outer Reaches" by Peter Makuck, in Texas Review (Huntsville, Texas), 8(3–4), 1987; "Singing What's out There" by Mary Calahan, in Boston College Magazine, winter 1988; Outer Life: The Poetry of Brendan Galvin, edited by Martha Christina, Bristol, Rhode Island, Ampersand Press, 1991; "The Masked Muse" by David Barber, in Parnassus, 17(2), 18(1), 1992; by Philip Paradis, in Prairie Schooner, 67(1), spring 1993.

Brendan Galvin comments:

Critics have noted a rural-urban conflict in my work, where Cape Cod and its austere landscape, and particularly its bird life, are seen in positive terms and cities are seen as destructive to the possibility of community. Where rural and urban themes overlap, the poems sometimes point up how development and "city values" corrupt the environment. I have also been identified as having a quick sense of the comic, of having my attention always on the rhythm of the experience at hand, of having language and imagery always organically functional in the immediate scene and emotion. For better or worse, my poems are often compared with those of Theodore Roethke, D.H. Lawrence, Frost, William Stafford, James Dickey, and James Wright. The main thrust of my work is topical, and I tend to use catalogues, reveal my subjects immediately, and try to leave plenty of clues that will admit the reader without straining his credibility. "Clarity" is a key word here, and I abhor much of the recent neosurrealist verse. Trained in the natural sciences originally, I have tried to maintain accurate scientific description as much as possible, and the psychic center of my work continues to be Cape Cod, where I live part of each year and which is the "natural bed" out of which my poems grow. The journey motif is also strong in much of my work, and recently I have been experimenting with voices other than my own in narrative poems, trying to extend my range into longer poems.

*  *  *

"There are times when you see / farthest," to the "outskirts / of awareness," writes Brendan Galvin in "Those Times," from Seals in the Inner Harbor, and the poet, as in the poem "The Mockingbird," "must bring it all back / alive as the repertoire / of [his] inner ear … to someone awake on the outskirts …"

Short-lined, crowding the left margin, Galvin's poems speak the rich vocabulary of an authentic New England voice, puritanism mixing with sensuality under the watchful eye of irony, sometimes spiked with a dry sense of humor. Galvin's poems tend to be located on Cape Cod, where he has a home, and he is at his best giving witness to the abundance of nature that he sharply and shrewdly observes there. In the varied lives of birds, trees, raccoons, vegetables, oysters, and scallops Galvin finds metaphors for the human condition.

Birds hold a special affinity for Galvin. He knows birds in great detail—their habits, movements, markings—and his work is studded with fine passages about them. Associating birds with the freedom of instinct and the mystery of the life force, Galvin writes about them with wonder, as in "The Birds," from Atlantic Flyway:

   Seeing them corner above fields,
   black stars across the morning,
   sometimes you'd gladly relinquish
   weight of your self-possession
   to hover three feet from anything
   and be classified rare-to-occasional …

The presence of birds is almost always salutary, leading Galvin's reader to the "outskirts / of awareness" and often to a renewed sense of priorities, a process that—Thoreau-like—may take place in one's backyard. Addressing an owl, for instance, Galvin observes, "you drag me / home to the poetry under my nose." In "The Migrants" a man turns from trivial conversation to recall that the birds "would be coming on": "Thinking of them, he thought how a man / / can turn back to the world of men, as though / the blue book of fall had opened in his hands." Similarly, the great blue heron of the title poem of Galvin's Great Blue: New and Selected Poems becomes totemic; it is guide, protector, and condition to be aspired to:

   Reason, that chain-store item,
   can deny this forever, but that bird
   shadows us, at key moments is there,
   its gumped-up look guarding justice,
   longevity, the journey
   of the good and diligent soul.

It is appropriate that Galvin choose the shy, "gumped-up" heron as his totem, for, "loving / the nerve of a common place / that's holy," he locates many of his poems in such out-of-the-way places as marshes, fields, dumps, compost heaps, and tidal pools, noticing in their myriad changing forms and systems the constant surge of life, "the urgency / we can't explain." "On the still life of the mulch" in "A Triptych for Snowlight," for instance, "sun ignites citrus and apple skins," readying them to burst forth into new life. Like the naturalist Henry Beston, Galvin reads "in de-creation / creation's pretext." In a number of the poems, admiring "an economy I don't understand," Galvin comes close to the Whitman of "This Compost" in his affirmation of reincorporation. Life lived out contributes to new life, as in "Transmigration," where a newly "changed" soul begins "to see from above / how a breeze / ignites marsh grass every-whichway / to new greens …"

One way of seeking to comprehend these processes is by approaching them in reverse, and Galvin occasionally uses a technique analogous to reverse-motion photography, forcing the reader to imagine backwards from effect to cause. Thus, in "Fall Squashes" the final squash of the season prompts Galvin to reflect back to leaf, to vine, and finally "to the flat seed / with its journey packed in, / as deep as anything." In "Glass" the flight of a warbler into a window provokes a meditation upon how "in our last seconds, / we are swung round / to live ourselves back through each particular":

   whole snows lifting skyward
   becoming autumn leaves lifting
   back into green trees,
   the dead stepping out of
   crumbling loam,
   at the last, seed and egg
   unraveling, falling away.

The natural world is to be observed, learned from, its lessons appropriated to the sphere of human activities. Galvin writes with similar acumen about small town and family life, the thrill of early romance, and the hardscrabble lives of the working class. He shows particular insight into childhood, as in "A Green Evening," which employs the pattern of reversal noted above to strip away layers of complex experience as the speaker attempts to reexperience a particular evening from his childhood, realizing that he would have to

   … be able to erase
   acres of asphalt slots
   until scrub pine
   reappeared, and the ancient clock
   in an Esso station window,
   to hold that central moment,
   green and unbreakable, until
   this fraying twist comes undone
   and that evening
   spreads everywhere, and I follow
   the others over that fence
   into the orchard again.

Wampanoag Traveler, drawing upon the surviving correspondence of the eighteenth-century American natural historian Loranzo Newcomb, extends Galvin's range, providing an innovative framework upon which to exercise his interest in biology and human character as well as his facility for unusual words. Newcomb's dispatches to Europe regarding his discoveries in the New World ("pilfering / this New World for the Old") are always passionate, by turns boastful, humorous, and often breathtakingly lyrical, as in his evocation of an apple that, he writes, he "robbed of such wine / the northern lights swam in my eyes." The poems of this sequence are among Galvin's most generous, and Newcomb's concerns and self-revelations seem remarkably close to Galvin's own. Newcomb's reasons for gardening, for instance, resemble those of Galvin's for writing:

                  For the surety
   of plenty, or the images such growth
   alone provides, or because I do better
   with vegetable kind than human,
   no easy admission …

Clearly "gaffed by the hook" of Cape Cod but not confined to it, Galvin writes intelligent, well-crafted poems. Convinced of the amplitude of this world, which "sends from its least places … a heron flying in, just blue enough / to be separate from fog," Galvin has a voice that serves as a bracing tonic for these commercialized, overstimulated, ecologically troubled times.

—Robert Gaspar