Given this week’s news of Galway Kinnell’s passing, I find myself heading into Dia de los Muertos this weekend with him on my mind.
I had the pleasure of attending a reading he gave alongside Phil Levine in NYC. The two great poets chatted at their table before the reading. When the time came to start, Galway walked up to the mic and in his booming, majestic baritone gave a stellar reading of Phil’s poem “They Feed They Lion.” The room was collectively knocked out. Phil then walked up and replaced Galway at the podium, and said: “Gee, that was pretty good.”
They then proceeded to take turns, poem by poem, reading each other’s work. I remember how well the two voices complimented each other’s work, Phil adding some lyric subtlety to his reading of Galway’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of the Christ into the New World,” and Galway delivering the grit and grace behind Phil’s poems.
Grit and grace are two solid words to remember Galway Kinnell by, words exemplified in the meditation in the poem below.
The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak – Galway Kinnell
The man splitting wood in the daybreak
looks strong, as though, if one weakened,
one could turn to him and he would help.
Gus Newland was strong. When he split wood
he struck hard, flashing the bright steel
through the air so hard the hard maple
leapt apart, as it’s feared marriages will do
in countries reluctant to permit divorce,
and even willow, which, though stacked
to dry a full year, on being split
actually weeps—totem wood, therefore,
to the married-until-death—sunders
with many little lip-wetting gasp-noises.
But Gus is dead. We could turn to our fathers,
but they help us only by the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can’t, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold our children up to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn’t arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That was me.