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‘Getting the world right’
Brendan Galvin entered Boston College in 1956 intending to become a dentist. He graduated a poet. And 17 books and a lived life later, he’s still at it
On the Friday morning before the Labor Day weekend, I had an appointment with a poet. Brendan Galvin had invited me to come by his house in Truro, Massachusetts, “on the wrist of Cape Cod,” as he likes to say, at 10:30 for “two-bite cinnamon rolls” and coffee.
Galvin, 77, lives in a house in the woods at the end of a sandy road. It’s on high ground—a little climb up Castle Road, or up Corn Hill Road if you’re coming from the other direction. He met me at his front door, after I parked in the weedy turnaround and walked up a driveway and across a wooden footbridge. He looked hale. He’s got thinning white hair and a white beard, and he was wearing large spectacles, blue jeans, an untucked flannel shirt.
The two-bite rolls and coffee were served up, as promised. We sat in his living room, with a coffee table between us that held a few books and CDs, the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review, and The Sibley Guide to Birds. On an end table behind his armchair were two pairs of binoculars and a fading framed photo of a border collie. The living room has sliding glass doors that open onto a narrow wraparound deck. The house was built as a typical Cape cottage but was later modified with cathedral ceilings, large beams of Douglas fir, and lots of windows that provide ample views of the wildlife among the oaks and pines.
Galvin and his wife, Ellen, bought the land and had the cottage built in 1968, the year they got married. “When Ellen and I married—she’s passed away, by the way; I don’t know if you know that,” he said, soon after we sat down. The house seemed stiller in that moment, as if we could feel her sudden absence. He recounted a few of the details. The stroke she suffered in 2006. “I was her caregiver for a couple of years after that, but it got too complicated.” He found, in Chatham, a “really good rest home—that’s what we used to call them.” His eyes misted up. She died just before Thanksgiving in 2014, he said.
For the next hour and a half we talked about his career as a poet and college professor (28 years teaching at Central Connecticut State University), about his family and friends and his border collies (he’s had four), and about his love for the Cape. We could hear the chickadees and the blue jays outside. What I never heard—in that visit or in another, when I returned on Labor Day—was an electronic sound. The phone never rang. He had no computer or cellphone at hand making little bloops when messages came in. The only tweeting and twittering was at the bird feeders on his deck.
It’s not that Galvin lives as a backwoods stylite. He communicates by email. He has a Facebook page and a website. With the help of his son Peter he even made his 2012 detective novel, Wash-a-shores, available on Amazon as an e-book. But you know from his poetry, and upon stepping into his house, that the center of his being is in paying close daily attention to live creatures—winged, four-legged, biped—and their habitats. He’s often described as a naturalist poet. He’s also known as an Irish-American poet. When I asked him how his Irish heritage shows through in his poetry, he said, “Landscape. Celts are always hung up on landscapes.”
His companion now is Lefty, a five-year-old border collie. The dog is high in energy and enthusiasm, and Galvin isn’t entirely confident in Lefty’s social skills. “The trouble is, he tends to overgreet people,” he said. So Lefty was asleep in the car while we spoke. He’d had his morning walk down on Corn Hill Beach, the part of the day that by Galvin’s testimony is most vital to the health and sanity of both man and dog.
The other “presence” in the house is Galvin’s daughter, Anne. (She was born in 1971; Ellen was divorced and raising Peter when she married Galvin.) The only family photo I saw on display was a framed black-and-white of a young Galvin with his daughter by his side. He had a black bushy beard and she was in a sundress with pixie haircut, standing barely as high as his waist. She is now an anthropology professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She and her husband are regular visitors to Truro. “When Ellen got sick Anne was right there from the beginning,” Galvin said.
Galvin writes at a sun-dappled kitchen table cluttered with jars, cups, trivets, and pencils and pens—and a large spiral-bound notebook. It is an artist’s sketchpad, in fact. Ellen used to buy them in lots from a Christmas Tree Shop, he said. He works on poems by arranging some lines down the center of the page. New ones get scrawled on a slant in the margins. Arrows redirect their place. It’s a visual and tactile way of roughing out the material that will eventually, sometimes over months or even years, be crafted into a poem. “This business of getting / the world right / isn’t for dilettantes . . . ,” he once wrote, in a poem entitled “The Mockingbird.”
He likes to work in the morning, after he returns from a walk. The movement is essential: “When I get in the rhythm of a walk, my brain kind of drifts off and makes connections,” he said. In a recent poem called “Walking Will Solve It” he begins by noting the relief of getting away from his mumbling fridge and “the bills, taxes / and toxins”; he then describes a woman’s footprints in the sand, which go alongside the prints of a coyote and the tracks of a blue heron; and ends with a moment staring at a small fish that got stranded in a pool after the tide went out.
What does it mean to be a successful poet in a culture that has little patience for poetry?
As a practical matter, it means getting published and perhaps gaining—if not sales—some recognition. By that standard, Galvin is more successful than most. He’s published 17 volumes of poetry since 1974, and his 2005 collection Habitat was a finalist for the National Book Award. (Galvin’s “earthy and local poems,” read the judges’ citation, have been “quietly reminding us that the best poetry can deepen our understanding of the natural world and of each other.”) The Atlantic, New Yorker, Harper’s, and New Republic have featured his poetry.
Galvin’s idea of success, though, includes another criterion: He wants his poems to be understood. In our Labor Day conversation, he used, without embarrassment, the word “accessible” to describe his poetry. The point is to communicate, he said. He imagines a reader going home after work, taking a magazine out of the mailbox and coming across a poem. If the first few lines seem incomprehensible, what is the reader likely to do?
And here we open up that postmodern can of worms. A concern for “accessible” poetry wins you little appreciation in today’s academy, where the ideas of meaning and interpretation are often suspect. If a poet seems to be seeking a popular audience, how can the work be considered fresh, or daring? Galvin dismisses the concern with the assertion that poets’ reputations “go up and down like the stock market.” What he’s after is “sprezzatura,” which he described in a poem with that title as “the skill / and recklessness that releases grace, / a seemingly offhand act that conceals / the pains taken.”
Years ago, Galvin wrote an essay for Ploughshares in which he contended that the effect of much of the modern poetry coming out of MFA programs “is like overhearing a drunken stranger talking to himself in a bar mirror late at night, and about someone we have never met.” But that’s not a drumbeat he’s kept up. To engage in such arguments is the work of critics, and Galvin has little interest in poetry criticism. Instead, influenced early on by Robert Frost and then the naturalist poet Theodore Roethke (the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Massachusetts), Galvin went about working in the traditional form in the traditional way, putting all his effort into what excellence he could bring to it. And his attitudes about the work of poetry show through. In his most recent collection, The Air’s Accomplices (2015), you’ll find these lines in a poem called “This Morning’s Pep Talk at Egg Island”:
Knock those quotes
off “reality” and work with it.
Galvin told me that most of his literary friends are Southerners—people he’s gotten to know during visiting professorships or seminars at Southern colleges. He named a few of these colleagues, and when I returned from the Cape I spoke with them by phone. Together, they form a sort of Brendan Galvin Appreciation Club—but their way of describing his place in today’s poetrysphere also gives a sense of how poets divide nowadays.
Rod Smith, who edits the literary journal Shenandoah at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, met Galvin about 25 years ago, he said, probably at a conference at Auburn University, where Smith used to teach. “I think that Brendan is what you might call one of the ‘sons of Frost,’ or as it would be, probably, the ‘grandsons of Frost,'” Smith told me. Noting that Flaubert said the primary aim of style is clarity, Smith said, “I would say that Brendan would buy into that—not clarity without nuance, but certainly clarity.” Galvin isn’t interested in “language puzzles,” Smith said. “I think he’s more interested in clear visual imagery that connects to the end and beginning of the poem, follows an arc, has a kind of metaphorical logic to it.”
The poet Thomas Reiter met Galvin when they were both students at the University of Massachusetts. They began exchanging poems shortly after they left Amherst, for many years through the mail and more recently by email. Reiter taught for more than 30 years at Monmouth University in New Jersey. He said he and Galvin have discussed, from time to time, the effect of current MFA programs on poetry. “You can tell by subject matter and by approach that communication and accessibility are not primary concerns,” he said. “There’s a lot of discontinuity and non-sequential thinking that goes on in a lot of poetry which is now in fashion.”
Galvin’s operating principle, Reiter said, “is that the deepest mysteries and revelations that you can find in language are in clarity rather than complexity.” He added, “Clarity is not the same as simplicity. You know, clarity in the way a pool of water is clear—and yet it can be very complex, and you can see to the bottom of it.”
There’s also disagreement in poetry circles about the role of simple storytelling. Galvin’s poems have a strong narrative element, noted Allen Wier, professor of English emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “They tell stories often; they have memorable characters,” Wier said. He cited Galvin’s 1998 book, The Hotel Malabar, which is a detective story in verse. “I don’t know of anyone who has done anything quite like The Hotel Malabar,” he said. “He takes all kinds of risks and doesn’t just play that one note.”
Rod Smith said Galvin once told him that when he was a young poet “he used to go down to the newsstand, whatever day of the week it was, to get the New Yorker because he wanted to see if it had a new James Dickey poem in it. If there was a place that I knew on a given week might have a new Brendan Galvin poem that I hadn’t seen, I would go to get it every week.”
The critic Helen Vendler once wrote that she knew she would not become a poet when she realized, “I don’t live life on two planes at once as imaginative people do.”
I thought of that after spending time with Galvin. Having read some of the poems in Habitat, I had a sense of his imaginative interests: birds, dogs, the Cape Cod landscape, our own transitions through an ever-changing natural world. But in person he was not quite what I expected. For all the conciseness and discipline he brings to poetry, he is wholly unedited, unguarded, and digressive in conversation. His old friends say that’s what makes him good company: He seems able to expound about anything.
He talked about his grandparents coming from Ireland; how his maternal grandfather sailed with a friend out of Boston to deliver lumber to the Cape and was taken with the beauty of the dunes, probably because they reminded him of the landscape of Donegal, in Ireland. His grandfather bought some land in Wellfleet. When he stopped getting along with his wife, he’d stay on the Cape through the warm months and not return to the triple-decker in Everett until Thanksgiving. Galvin’s mother was born in Everett. The man she married, Galvin’s father, was from the next town over, Malden.
Brendan grew up in Everett with three younger brothers, while their father delivered mail for the U.S. Postal Service. “I’ve been coming out here since 1939,” Galvin said. He knew early in life that he wanted to be on the Cape whenever he could. Now his youngest brother lives in the old family house in Wellfleet, while his other two brothers live nearby. “You won’t see them around here, because they can’t handle what I do,” he said.
Their lives took different courses, he said, when he was sent to Malden Catholic High School, while the brothers went to Everett High. Though the brothers (a house painter, a photographer, and a newspaper reporter) have done well, they are not bookish. From the time Galvin’s career veered away from the practical and toward the literary (he was accepted to dentistry school after he completed his degree with a major in natural science at Boston College), there has been a certain amount of ribbing from the brothers about Brendan, The Poet. “I mean, in a way it’s an honor,” he said. “But I could do without it.”
You can get Galvin going about many things that amuse him: the migration of summer people to the Cape, for instance, especially the psychiatrists who flock to Wellfleet and Truro. “In the summer around here,” he says, “this place is an ego theme park.” And he’s capable of directing a working-class putdown toward inhabitants of academe. Referring to a dean he once worked for, he said, “He was kind of a Yale knucklehead, you know. He had a place in Chatham, and he used to write poems about the lobsterman’s daughter and stuff like that.”
Galvin makes such comments with equal parts derision and delight. It’s all part of the human parade. His soft spots he reserves for his poems. When I spoke with his daughter Anne by phone, she confirmed that he is anything but sentimental in person; that his poems are where he shows his heart.
I read her a part of his poem “Trying to Read the Road” that recalls a moment when he walked her to the school bus and ends with the lines “nothing to tell me which morning / I blinked and found you gone.” And there’s another one called “For a Daughter Gone Away.”
. . . For that first phrase of
unwavering soprano that came
once from your room, I’d suffer
a year of heavy metal. Let all
who believe they’re ready for
today call this sentimentality,
but I want the indelible
print of a small hand
on the knees of my chinos again . . .
And we spoke about one called “Talking to Anne from Her Dream,” which she said he wrote after she had an anxiety dream about her father walking around in the backyard with a black bear. Is it touching to find such references in her father’s poems? I asked.
“It is. It’s very nice and it’s also kind of . . . I don’t know how to explain it.”
I took a guess: Is it the strange feeling of having a private moment held up for public view?
“I think that’s exactly what it is. And oftentimes it’s the kind of private moments that only go out to that format, so you get a reflection of what his thoughts are that aren’t necessarily expressed on a day-to-day basis.”
The love that was expressed on a day-to-day basis was for her mother, she said, who often served as a first “sounding board” for poems in progress. “Frequently you would walk into the living room and he’d be reading something to her, trying to get some feedback before anybody else had heard it,” she said. “I do think he was so dedicated to her. She was in a nursing home for several years. It’s about 35 or 40 minutes from the house, and he would visit her four or five days a week there. And she would come home for holidays and for her birthday and stay over, and that kind of thing. That really shaped his days for quite a long time.
“I think there is an absence there and I know he’s thinking a lot about the phase of life that he’s in—reflecting a lot based on that.”
Galvin’s strategy for old age is simple: Stay in the present. He deflected my questions about which poems he’s most proud of. He does not have encyclopedic recall of poems he wrote many years ago. “What I’m more interested in is the poem I’m working on at the moment,” he said. I asked what he thinks when he looks at his early poems. When he sees one that seems flawed what does he think went wrong? “Didn’t take them far enough,” he said. In 1999, when he was 61, he wrote a poem called “Reading My Poems of Forty Years Ago.” The phrase he used then was “failure to follow through.” The poem concludes insistently: next time, next time.
When I sat with Galvin in his living room on Labor Day there was a moment when he recalled a poem he wrote many years ago about a woman who practiced opera singing on her back deck at the Cape. He’d have to dig it out, he said. He got up from his chair and disappeared into his book-lined study and started rummaging. He came out with his 1977 book, The Minutes No One Owns. He sat back down. But that wasn’t the one. He returned to the study. I told him he should have all his 17 volumes lined up on one shelf. He laughed. “I’ve published over 800 poems in magazines and journals,” he said. (He found the poem, “The Renting Coloratura,” in Winter Oysters, from 1983.)
Galvin said he felt he began to understand what he wanted to do with poetry when he wrote a poem called “The Bats,” published in 1974 in the New Yorker. With his background in science, he took the time to read up on bats. It’s not that there’s outward evidence of scientific research in the poem, which is included in Habitat. But he used his knowledge to illuminate the many kinds of false knowledge that have marked human interactions with bats:
If they bit you, you’d get paralyzed for life,
and they built their nests
in women’s hair, secreting goo
so you couldn’t pull them out
and had to shave it off.
He’d been writing poems since high school and then was inspired at Boston College by Robert Frost’s occasional public readings on campus and around Boston. But it wasn’t until he started work on a master’s at Northeastern University that he began to get serious, partly because of the encouragement of the poet and instructor Samuel French Morse. “He actually said to me, ‘You ought to send some of these things out.'” Soon after, he did. And by the time he was ready to move on to the Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts, he’d had two poems published in the Atlantic.
“I think I had to write for about 15 years before I finally knew what I was doing,” he said. After “Bats,” he charted a course that has been consistent in some ways over the last 40 years. In a 1991 book of essays about Galvin’s work (Outer Life: The Poetry of Brendan Galvin, Ampersand Press) several writers noted Galvin’s penchant for looking outward rather than inward. Recalling Galvin’s comment about the drunk mumbling to himself in a bar mirror, the writer Peter Makuck noted, “the mirror is an apt image, for Galvin’s poetry is always a window or a lens, never a mirror to reflect a torn self.” And the critic Neal Bowers wrote, “His poetic inclinations take him out of, not into, himself,” adding, “but the wonderful paradox, as poets from Blake to Roethke have known, is that the way out ultimately leads in.”
Makuck also observed another Galvin calling card—”his love of the odd word” and listed examples, some of which are neologisms: sneap, fleer, guggle, gumped-up, skreak, whanging, juddering. His poem “Single Malt” (from The Strength of a Named Thing, published in 1999) begins:
Bunnahabhain, Talisker, Oban, Hoy,
I have been speaking an hour
in unamerican tongues. Infused with
barley malt, textured with peat and dulse,
this glass is a conduit to Tobermory
and Muckle Flugga. . . .
After talking about poems that Labor Day, we decided to take his favorite walk. This is when I finally got to meet Lefty, who, like on my first visit, was napping in the car. He was, as advertised, an enthusiastic greeter. We led him into the house, since he had already had his morning walk, and then drove down to Corn Hill Beach.
From the beach’s windswept parking lot Galvin directed my gaze toward Corn Hill and said this was about where Edward Hopper was when he made a painting of the view. We walked on a path that parallels the shore, with a row of dunes on the shore side and an eel-grass marsh on the other. Looking into a depression in the sand, he pointed out the fiddler crabs and said that when the tide rises this is where water starts burbling up into the marsh.
In an essay in the summer 2015 Sewanee Review, Galvin describes this walk that he takes just about every day. He poses a question to himself: The same walk for 45 years? “Over the years,” he writes, “I’ve discovered that this one place, occupying maybe a square mile, is endless: I will never come close to unraveling or even understanding it.”
The path took us to a jetty where the water from the bay comes into a small Truro harbor. We headed back the way we came. Galvin recalled an occasion on this walk when a great blue heron flew up close in front of him. The poet glanced over at a man nearby outfitted with earbuds and a phone, and saw that he seemed not to notice.
Back at the parking lot he mentioned that this is where Ellen had her stroke in 2006. He describes the moment in the opening poem of The Air’s Accomplices. It’s called “Old Age Begins.”
. . . Old age begins
when you don’t remember giving me
a wrenched smile and folding
into a phrase of gibberish on the beach,
where the dog went on crouching for a ball
I wouldn’t be tossing—the odd image
registered as I punched in 911 . . .
Many of the poems in The Air’s Accomplices, I had observed when we talked, have to do with mortality. Later, in reading an essay about Galvin’s work written more than 30 years ago, I realized that Galvin’s good friend the poet George Garrett had seen the same thing in Winter Oysters, the collection from 1983. “Death and dying, and the odd joys of knowing, are recurring themes in Winter Oysters,” Garrett wrote.
That volume includes a poem called “Hitting the Wall,” which describes rescuing an injured woodpecker from a prowling cat on the same morning he had been running up a hill “to the point where a beached fish / panicked in my chest.” He addresses the bird: “We’ve been / to the edge today, / and seen the ground waiting.”
Garrett reported that he talked with Galvin about his love for the landscape. And that Galvin told him: “I don’t think that I’m exclusively pursuing the beautiful or anything. But there are so many things about this world that just absolutely knock me out. . . . It’s going to be a hard place to leave.”
Dave Denison is a writer in the Boston area.
Four who received a Boston College BA or BS in the last 25 years have been making their way as poets—while earning grants, editing, teaching, even practicing medicine. BCM asked each of them: Why, when, where, how did you choose to be a poet?
If anyone had told me in 1987, in the year I entered Boston College, that I would become a poet and writer, I am sure I would have laughed in disbelief. But in my sophomore year, I began working at the Stylus literary magazine; and soon I wanted to take, as many of the people at Stylus did, a creative writing class. Since taking the poetry workshop with Suzanne Matson in my junior year, I have never stopped writing.
I wrote while I was in medical school, while working unbelievable hours as an intern and then as a medical resident. Even now, I wake early to write before going off to my medical practice. I cannot not write. It is now how I process the world, one of the ways I interact with the world. So, a whimsical desire to take a creative writing class at Boston College helped me find one of the things without which I cannot live, something that now helps to define me as a person.
C. Dale Young’s four collections of poetry include Torn (2011) and The Halo (forthcoming in March 2016). His linked collection of stories, The Affliction, is due out in March 2018. Young practices medicine full-time and also teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. He lives in San Francisco.
Why poetry? My first thoughts linger on the sense of the why that pervades all poems. Finally I think: I don’t know, why anything at all. That might sound too existential. But both states of mind seem uniquely available from poetry. Its animadversions and doubts, echoes and recesses—while housed in language—invariably suggest the rest.
For me, poetry began through noticing my father’s private world, the one he kept in hoarding literary tomes and blues CDs, most of which contained poems in some form or another. In my adolescence, the winds of Bob Dylan, the New Testament, Keats, and Yeats collided and colluded to further me toward what I was already after. Now, in my thirties, not necessarily having arrived anywhere (no “realms of gold” yet), I can at least say I feel more in love with poetry than ever. Even so, one doesn’t choose to be a poet on such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a time. That proposition seems almost as ridiculous as asking poetry, Why me?
Adam Fitzgerald published his collection, The Late Parade, in 2013. The founding editor of the poetry journal Maggy, he is the executive director of the Home School, which runs poetry workshops. He lives in New York City.
My poet’s life began with suspicion of plagiarism.
Having chanced upon Tennyson’s lyric “The Lotos-Eaters” in my sister’s textbook, it became flashingly clear to me (at age 11) that words could do more than “point”; I wrote four lines, bringing them to my mother with a mix of moxie and quiescence. I read them aloud—what were they? I’ve forgot. The curlers steamed in her hair. She turned, dissatisfied; she said, “It’s wrong to claim you wrote something you didn’t write. Don’t do it again.”
Thus was I convinced of some gifting, and avowed (I was a kid driven by refutation, full of pluck) to make forceful, transformative things with words, and to defend words for their potential to be dangerous, forceful, estranging, beautiful like bark. Even then, I would have poems as Brendan Galvin might have his horses: “ear-points drawn by fingers / in wet charcoal, the black bristle of short mane / thumb-smeared on, [. . .] / tail arched and legs alive in flight.”
Joseph Spece is the founding editor and publisher at Fathom Books, SHARKPACK Poetry Review, and SPR Annual. His first poetry collection, Roads, was published in 2013. Spece lives outside Boston.
There are certain things you learn growing up in Michigan. You learn there’s better medicine found on the forest floor than in any pharmacy, and that red river water is fine to drink even if it tastes sharp like blood. You learn that islands spring from the bodies of bears, the dirt in a muskrat’s claw. And it’s when you ceremoniously dive into cold, clean Lake Superior each summer that you learn to breathe. Then you move away, and you learn Hemingway was right—only “in Paris could [you] write about Michigan.” (Paris being Boston, at first, then the actual Ville Lumière during a semester at the Sorbonne.) This sense of place, of leaving “elsewhere” for “somewhere,” is what inspires my poetry.
I’ve written since I was a child, but it wasn’t until I left home for BC, where I joined Stylus and met Professor Suzanne Matson, that I realized poetry could be a vocation as much as a passion. I am now working on my MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, and I find as much joy in words as ever.
Bailey Spencer held a fellowship at the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and taught English in Heppenheim, Germany, after graduating from Boston College.
Read more by Dave Denison