What Galway Kinnell does with descriptive language is a wonder of nuance, improvisation, and tone. In “The Quick and the Dead” for example, the poet studies the decaying corpse of a vole, with a combination of precision, gusto, and aesthetic awe that is his stylistic trademark:
When the flies’ eggs hatch, larvae squirm
in and out of the eyeholes; in and out
of the ears; in and out of the snout
which slorped the air auras
of flowers; in and out of the mouth
which even cluttered with bent choppers
snipped flowers and dragged blossoms
stem-first through gaps in the stone wall —
One feels the sponsoring presence of Whitman here, in the love of quirky vocabulary — “slorped” and “choppers” — in the rumpled muscular unfurling of syntax, the fierce fidelity to the particular, the fearlessness of feeling. Both his story and the fecundity of his language display his deep, cosmically bemused vision of the organic process itself, in which eating, breeding, and dying all happen together. Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, have always been the deep sources of Kinnell’s poetic intelligence. Faithfully relying upon them, he’s written some of the remarkable poems of the twentieth century, a dozen of which place him in the company of D. H. Lawrence, and even Frost.
In his new book, Strong Is Your Hold — the first in ten years — Kinnell’s signature skills are intact. Kinnell is a member of a generation of giant American poets that includes a dozen names as luminous as his, like W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, and Philip Levine. Now our senior living poets, they are fast approaching eighty, and we are seeing some of their last books. Which is why we are fortunate to find Strong Is Your Hold full of good poems: “Shelley,” in which the speaker ruefully reflects on the disastrous free-love legacy of the romantic poet; “It All Comes Back,” in which the speaker’s baby son tries to yank off the mask of his father’s face; and the masterful, joyful litany of “Why Regret?”
Kinnell’s poetry has over the years attained and sustained a rich holism. In his rhythmic, musically complex language, he moves through zones of feeling with marvelous grace, neither going squishy with sentimentality nor pompous with rhetoric. In “Why Regret?” the speaker makes a list of things worth living for:
Didn’t you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren’t you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable
in a row like starlings eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
It doesn’t hurt a bit that we sense the poet himself having a good time with his theme. On a more profound level perhaps, we recognize the expansive capabilities of consciousness — memory, imagination, affection — being employed as a powerful antidote to morbidity. As he says in the poem, “Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren / and how little flesh is needed to make a song.”
Though shadowed by mortality, Strong Is Your Hold also consistently offers a recognition of earthly life as paradise, of nature as bountiful, and of human desire as the great blessing and flavor of life. “I who so often wished to float free,” the speaker says, “now with all my being want to stay.”