29 October 2014

Galway Kinnell (1927-2014): A Memory

Galway Kinnell, NY Times, 29 October 2014
Galway Kinnell died yesterday, at his home in Vermont.

I found this out in the same way I learn about all too many things. Not by reading the New York Times, although I do, and I did find his obituary there; but rather in a friend’s Facebook status.

I am not a poet – not a published one, at least. I was an upstart, a somewhat overly self-confident English minor at a small college in Virginia. That was in 1982 – or was it 1981? – when I met Galway Kinnell.

I was the sort of young woman who, at age 19-ish, was wallowing happily in Shakespeare, modern poetry, writing, medieval history, Guinevere, Civil War battles, modern dance, and Bach.

I was part of the happy, smart, slightly self-absorbed and rather lucky band of students assigned to pick up the poet who was coming to read. Galway Kinnell. We read his work in class and I proudly owned his newest compilation, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (published just a year or two before in 1980).

His reading was a holy event. We listened, rapt. When Kinnell read, it was always in a deep voice. He delivered from memory, even the longest of his poems:

In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of stream
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
and know
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.

I take a wolf’s rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.

And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.

[The opening lines of “The Bear,” from Body Rags, first published in 1965]

That evening we had dinner with this celebrated man and the next day that lucky few of us were invited to meet with him. I can remember the classroom and the window. Perhaps it was autumn. Perhaps not. We offered up short critiques of one of his poems and he commented on some of our work. I asked him about one of his nature poems – I don’t remember which, possibly “Blackberry Eating”, or “Kissing the Toad.” I remember watching every move on his face as he pulled out and read my little poem. Where my professor had been somewhat critical, Kinnell defended my work. As I look back, it was clearly a rather trite piece – much what one might expect from a young woman in my place and time.  But, he defended it. He noticed the best bits – the words that worked – and he quietly advised me on how I could make it better.

He signed my book that afternoon “To Anne, my best explicator and critic. Galway Kinnell.” I glowed.

Needless to say I treasured that little book. I don’t have it anymore. I do have a signed copy, but not the same one. A couple of years after his reading, my roommate borrowed it and didn’t return it or maybe spilled coffee on it. I don’t recall. I suspect she lost it. When she heard of my distress at losing a favorite book, she mailed him a fresh copy with a long letter of explanation – presumably in her flowery, almost Victorian handwriting – and asked him to re-sign it for me.

It came back to me, by post, but not quite the same. My roommate must have thought I wouldn’t notice that the signature was a little bit different and that it included my last name, slightly misspelled: “To Anne Baeber, my best explicator and critic and faithful friend. Galway Kinnell.” Now, when I see it, I replay my memories, but am a little ashamed by the misspelling that was my roommate's fault, not his, and I wish I could remember the glosses I made in the margins in that long ago time when I was so sure about everything.

On my bookshelf here in Iowa I have several of his books, all well-read, some worn and handled, all aged; including one with a recording that I may never have listened to – I do not want the memory of his voice ruined by hearing it burned onto a CD. I hear it in my head now, again, when I read about his children, Maud and Fergus, coming home with snakes crawling from their pockets; about blackberries in September; and bear blood.

Galway Kinnell, poet, died yesterday at his home in Vermont.