The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Martin Galvin
Just as our imaginations are fired by the big hitters of the PGA—Nicklaus, Palmer, and Woods—we are transported along the fairways of poetry with the long strides of the Merwins and Kinnells, Szymborskas and Glücks, Strands and Heaneys. Their poems rise with graceful power, seemingly destined from the start for long and lofty flight. In the first cut of rough, however, there lie the poems of other poets, poets with a bit of draw in their pen or slice in their imagination, poets whose work gives off a sometimes more quirky, faceted glint that reveals itself to the lucky reader and fan huddled behind the ropes as the proverbial diamond in the rough. One such gem is Martin Galvin.
During the past forty years, Martin Galvin has taught literature to college and high school students and conducted poetry workshops with D.C.-area adults at The Writer's Center (full disclosure: your editor's interest in poetry was sparked by one such class with Martin Galvin, reading and appreciating Eliot, Frost, Bishop, et al.). Over those years, Galvin has quietly followed his own creative path, tackling the ways of the world large and small in voices that leap off the page to engage the reader by the throat as well as the heart.
Martin George Galvin grew up in Mount Airy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended Catholic schools including St. John's High School in Manayunk, Pennsylvania, where he graduated in a class of fifteen. After graduating from Villanova University with a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts, he earned his Masters and his Ph.D. degrees in American Literature from the University of Maryland, while teaching literature at St. Joseph's College. After moving to the Washington, D.C., area in the early 1970s, he continued teaching creative writing and poetry at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. He and his wife Theresa have two daughters, Brenna, married to Chris Sidhall, and Tara, married to Greg Curry, and four grandchildren. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The New Republic, Commonweal, Poet Lore, and many other literary journals, including Innisfree (for more of his poetry, please go to Innisfree's Contributors link).
Martin Galvin has published five collections of poems:
Sounding the Atlantic (Broadkill River Press, 2010)
Circling Out (Finishing Line Press, 2007)
Appetites (Bogg Publications, 2000)
Making Beds (Sedwick House, 1989)
Card (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 1989), winner of the
Columbia Prize, judged by Howard Nemerov
Rod Jellema, himself the subject of our Closer Look (Innisfree 12), as well as longtime friend in poetry with Martin Galvin, here shares an appreciation of the poet and the man, which also serves as an introduction to a selection of twenty-one poems by Martin Galvin:
Take the Soundings
by Rod Jellema
Getting to Know Martin Galvin
Hesitantly, Galvin reveals parts of himself in his poems. He has kept the lilt of voice that he learned in his old Irish neighborhood in Philadelphia. The love of humor, too, sounds slightly Irish. And the love of tale-telling. He's the too-short outfielder whose strike zone is so low that opposing pitchers have to walk him. He's the kid with the sharp eye that sees into the slapstick sadness of his blue-collar father. He loves writing tenderly about what is often overlooked:
Got nose to nose with ants, I did,
to get our signals straight about our needs.
But beyond the occasional poem that's biographical, it's very much the person Marty Galvin who creates the obsessive wild pleasure of "The Blueberry Woman" who almost drowns her family in purple one week every year. There's an Irish twinkle in the eye that accompanies insight and compassion as he makes for us a clown resigning from the circus; the uncle, a priest, who gathers eggs in monastic dawn silence and sends them in wartime to the urban Galvin family; a tattooed biker warily approached on the ocean beach; an Iranian hod-carrier who quietly resists the state; the holy cows as known to the girl who milks them. They are "the dumb power a gentle hum on the earth"; she thinks to lie down among them as she sees them, "grouped under a tree as if for a painting," and upon waking will find that
. . . In her hands
the warm teats will swell and gush.
She will wash like the queen of hearts in cream.
He knows how to ride the currents of words to take himself inside of elsewhere. The very sounds of words and his passion for mining and arranging them produce in his work some very personal moments of wistfulness and whimsy. But they also sharpen his social conscience and deepen his sense of history.
He writes concretely and movingly about such "distant" things as the Warsaw ghetto uprising (1943) and even two battles in the American Civil War. He cuts his way into, and takes us into, where we have almost-but-never-quite been before. Like all real poems, his poems—these embodied voices—are making little discoveries about our world and ourselves to which we have no other access. The way to know Martin Galvin is to get more and more acquainted with his poems.
Still, and even so, there are some interesting facts. He published more than 400 poems in journals and magazines; he published three poetry chapbooks; he published two full-length books of poems, the first of which, Wild Card (1989), was selected by Howard Nemerov for that year's Columbia Prize. The second, perhaps his finest published work so far, appeared in 2010 as Sounding the Atlantic. I know for a fact there are fat notebooks holding hundreds of poems that await final realization and their right places in the lineups. He is entitled to some procrastination about marketing these: his very healthy output is from that rare thing, a teacher with a Ph.D. who filled out his whole busy career teaching high school kids. That means that his workload as a teacher would have required 25 hours a week in classrooms. Compare that to the classroom schedules of poets teaching in colleges—usually nine hours, sometimes only six. If Whitman High School wasn't enough, his happy dedication to poetry led him into teaching several evening poetry workshops at The Writer's Center in Bethesda. But you can know all this and know almost nothing of Galvin. The poems are what you want.
And Two Notes on Reading Him
You have to like the way sharp, rough edges play against a smooth, glassy flow, or vice versa. The unity sculptors sometimes try for. He may skid off into a word or phrase just for love of its shock or sizzle. The poem will adjust to it. Call it creative process. I forgive him the way I forgive a jazz soloist who hits an off-key note and then uses it instantaneously to launch a fresh new phrase that extends the melodic line. Watch how the word threats leads to slap and a change of cadence, easing the lines into a u-turn:
. . . a girl with hair as long
as winter breath had come up behind and passed
him on the boardwalk, her bare feet whispering
threats different and more serious than the slap
and pause slap and pause of his loose sandals.
You can tell that Galvin spent long years as a teacher. He was notoriously a good one. Students by the hundreds surely would have said to him, as though it explained or forgave weak writing, "I'm looking for my voice." That may have helped to drive him to exceed his own voice, even in the minority of poems spoken in first person. Whether the narrator is that old textbook omniscient one or a character he invented or Galvin's personal "I," you can feel the frequent insistence that a good poem works uniquely to have its voice. Compare the following, each an opening stanza:
These stories are as true as clocks
though there are some in this town
think I would make up the goings-on
just so I would have my say.
What we are about is partly underground
And partly overhead, or that what was.
("Hilda and Me and Hazel")
A curious bird invaded our vacant space
This early spring, made the usual mockery
Of the screen door's need to keep
The outside out, slipped through and killed
Herself for the vision that she had.
Neither example limits itself to sounding like Martin Galvin's voice. Such poetry invites us to read with the ears—a very good idea. Let the stuff sound itself out. We readers and teachers often say that poets assume masks. Martin Galvin shows us poems the best of which have their own unique and revelatory voices, sounding out, with no need for hiding behind anything.
A Selection of
Martin Galvin's Poems
I remember the miniature and plastic saints when
I was a kid better than the names of soldiers I met
in the maybe war and I remember those men better than
my children's friends and I remember those lads
better than the man I talked to last week on the telephone
who may buy five thousand pair of the underwear I have
to sell to meet my quota for the month. Or else.
And I have to meet that man tonight, among people
that I do know and do remember and he doesn't
and I have to introduce him as if I knew his name
as well as I know my brother's, who I sometimes
can hardly remember at all anymore, he having left home with
all the toys and half our parents' lives before I had a chance
to tell him goodbye and went off and didn't remember one night
(so I have heard, so the story goes, so I tell my kids)
to put his flak jacket on before he went out to take a piss
and instead took a bullet through his stomach that took
one week's worth of pain to realize he was never going to digest
and died and I remember better even than my children's names
the day we got his mess kit back from the U.S. ARMY, courtesy
of the RED CROSS, and inside it was tucked this three-
inch plastic Blessed Virgin Mary, the same one that one of us,
I can't remember which, got as a prize for selling the most
punch-out card chances for some gigantic gift that I forget
but probably had to do with a Chocolate Easter Bunny
stuffed with jelly beans or a subscription to Boy's Life,
or The Messenger of the Sacred Heart.
So tonight, when it's all on the line, when I am about
to be hung out to dry like those 5,000 jockey shorts I will
never sell after this insult, I'll lean back on the air
as if my brother were there holding me up, I'll reach
inside my watch pocket of the vest I only wear
when it's all on the line and fondle for luck the three-inch
plastic BVM that I have kept for more years
than I can remember and then I will remember
the fool's name just like that. Or else, like that, I won't.
Poetry, Best American Poetry 1997
Sounds of an Afternoon
The room is intent on the pianist's work.
Should you sneeze, the whole hall would stir
and the afternoon turn into the morning buzz
of irritated commuters and hurried young men
convinced that the mission on which they are intent
will relieve a world besieged by aches and pains.
So the sneeze, which would have brought you
dollops of pleasure and pain in equal measure
is conquered, subdued, suppressed, pulled back
into the dark interior. But then the itch starts,
insistent, intolerable, mysterious, and makes
you want to squirm, to rub your back the way
an old horse rubs his flank on a post. You shift
in your seat the little that concert-goers are allowed
but that doesn't do, only intensifies the need
the more impelling, the more it is thought upon.
And then, like that, it's gone.
You've four minutes to go before it's done,
this haunting work you've come
a distance in your life to hear. Needled
by fears your private devils will awake again
and together, a bright duet of sneeze and itch,
you do what men have done since Brahms's time.
You go to sleep. Discreet as a winter dawn
you fall off, as men do at important moments,
and into the music of your dream comes a snort,
wanting out. Noble swineherd. You try to cut it off
but your neighbor knows. She can hear the snuffle
of a spirit at war with his breath.
The sound is just enough to wake the sneeze
and stir the itch, which now has multiplied
and threatens disaster whole and entire.
As anyone you know might guess, the day
does not end well. The juddering horse
of yourself needs, more than harmony, his feed.
Grieving, for Five Voices
I want to get his ass cremated
quick, get the ashes back, spread
them in the driveway, run over
the son of a bitch every day.
The first six months, Friday nights,
I'd set the wash machine on heavy load
and talk myself through a couple cycles,
talk it silly, talk until I'd spun dry.
Same as always, I make the drinks at six,
Vodka Gimlets on the rocks. We work
things out as the dinner cooks.
I finish mine, toss his in the sink.
Didn't anyone tell me how to, spell it out,
what I'm supposed to do I'm lucky enough
the bastard dies before me, didn't a one
give me the book on what to do about it.
Every night, I take off all my clothes
and climb into his pj's, bottoms
first. It's like entering a flower
and wrapping it around me, close.
Poet & Critic
How it might have been:
the softness growing inside her
like a melon, sweet swelling
toward September, doors opening
like rich farmland, welcoming seeds.
How it was:
she, thirteen and in love
with everything, her lilac lungs
cleaning the air, the lights
in her all on like a waiting house
bright against the gathering dusk.
They, five who were less
than one, dirt farmers, drunk
and done with an old curse, making
of nightmare only a set of sweats
and mutterings and stooped slinkings
off, like empty coats,
to a thirteen year old's unseaming.
How it will be:
she, like Medusa sprouting snakes
from her fertile head, she
with flat eyes spitting men out like
split seeds or waiting, snake-patient,
her cold belly pressed to the ground,
for any traveler's thickened, earthbound vein.
Sex and the Single Rover
The first Rover to find the object of his desire,
A piece of Mars rock folded on itself
As we might overlap a coat,
Had some surprises for being so forward.
Sure, he meant no harm, just testing
The terrain, scoping out what's what
On the red planet, not even his own fault
When his arm moved out to touch the rock.
But he did. And, as many an earthman knows,
You touch a woman without invitation
You risk some damage to your softer parts.
That Rover wasn't taught about the law.
His handlers fixed him as well as they could,
told him to try to behave himself
and said, Go on now, boy, and find some water.
Bring us word we can figure in to mean
What we want it to. And stay away from rocks.
Growing a fruit salad for dessert,
the stolid apples, being first and hard,
the heart of them gone, as base,
he daydreamed about the seamstress
who pinned his left ankle to the cuff
and smiled up at him with orange lips.
The plump grapes as complacent
as churchgoers, the kiwi bragging
their wide smiles of fertility,
all that sweetness, so many seeds,
he sliced the tip of his index finger off
and couldn't find it anywhere,
guessed what was beginning.
The New Republic
Army Burn Ward
First the doctor peels dead skin away.
"Debriding," like a teacher, names it.
(Like a virgin, like a pockmarked whore.)
Then the whirlpool, pain-pull spiraling down
like fire, like broken birds inside him.
(Like a winter wedded to the bone.)
Then the grafting, four long strips of skin.
"Rebriding," in his shock he giggles,
(Gagging like a schoolboy, like a groom.),
gagging as his new skin wrinkles, worms,
rejecting him. Again the whirlpool
(Like an April pain in soft swarms twirled.)
wheels and stops. The sink-plug pulled, he stares
(Like an empty coat, a burned-out star.)
unblinking as the brides inside him die.
He hammered his heart until it was ready,
smeared some ointment where it was meant
to be and where it wasn't, laved it on his breath,
his child's favorite soap pipe, his eyes, his teeth,
the belly he'd sooner not have, the spooned meat
for the dog that had to come with him.
He flexed the bald soles of his bottommost bones,
his toes curling in as though afraid
of what was coming, then accepting the burden.
He did the required elongations, the rotations
his training manual forgot, readied his suspensions
of disbelief at what he was about to do,
steeled his eye and the muscles he could reach,
said his kneeldown prayers and faretheewells
and set off, as if a gun had told him, Go.
The Toad in the Garden
I started up a toad as I dug out
a weedbreak so the daisies and roses
could have a chance in this rapacious world,
A toad the size of an infant's thumb, maybe the first
of her time to be startled into memory this spring,
She squat-jumped toward the neutral ground,
welcoming her hungers the way teen-agers do,
keeping her unblinking eyes on me, who must
have seemed a monster mouth and on his turf.
And then, like tightly funneled sand, she began
her backing into the camouflaging dirt,
slowly, ever so slowly, taking
her haunches underground while those eyes,
wise as survival, kept track of hungers she
might have guessed were bigger than hers.
She wriggled until the darkness took her in
and though my earthbent stare tried hard to hold her,
she became in a wink a hint of browner dirt.
As I watched she left me there alone,
and let me know a secret for my eyes:
how, earth tied by gravity, we are allowed to see
a little bit, then nothing much, then everything at once.
Delaware Poetry Journal
Water and Words
with thanks to Emily Dickinson
The only thing my mother feared of death
was the pain she wasn't sure
a woman her age should have to take
who was too old in her stooping years
to be afraid of God, needles, enemas,
or children's nagging tongues.
We tried to mother her the way grown sons
think they have the right, the supporting arm
around the folded wings, the voice straight
out of Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda.
I'd never use that voice with my own kids,
they'd laugh me out of the neighborhood.
I know enough I'd never try such guddle
with my history classes of oldfaced high-
schoolers chewing on the lessons of the past
with certain smirks before they rested their fore-
heads on the kidneyed desks they'd about outgrown.
But with a mother I never understood would die
I used forgive me life the sickly touch of sons
when all she wanted was a cool glass of spring
water to wash away the fog in her throat,
water that had been someplace holy, that
and a couple answers to a crossword puzzle,
just a couple hints so she could finish off
the Sunday Times for once, for good and all,
and guess that it and all things else were right.
There's one thing many doctors hate enough to say.
Ask yours about his own preoccupying pain.
If you promise to pay, he will tell you that it's pure
and as fragile as a spinster aunt, grown poor
and speckled gray with ancient losses.
My psychiatrist protests that there is less
to his problem than he wanted. He would rather
every habit would be worse than his father's.
How the smell of his nurse curls into his hair
makes my bone man shave his arms and wish her
Ivory clean. He tells me his wife has a passion
for manifest pistils and manifold stamens
and makes him poison that would kill her blooms.
My podiatrist hates his fingernails and blames
Their length on old blood. He means to have the roots
Routed by a finger and toe man he has heard about.
When she hears her knife-hand knuckles creak,
my surgeon thinks of vises and the cracking
voice she has and means to lose. The radiologist
has a smile tucked inside her dimple, detests
the multiplying malignant cells of men
who would like what she would like to tell them.
My neurologist tells me only what is certain:
The two of us will go to many doctors in our time.
He hopes I have the craft to mute my rage
and the art to suffer his with grace.
Biker at Rehoboth Beach
He's crippled up from what I would not want
to guess, looks piratical, standing on this soft
coast, his weathered eyes sharpened by
the motorcycle's brute mutiny.
I try to read the scars he wears as map
enough to tell me where he has been.
What's broken into me doesn't like
the tattoos that he has stitched into his chest,
just above the nipples. Born to Die, one boasts,
the other Hell Hound. That night, she whispers
nothings in my ear of how it feels
to sleep with a hell hound born to die.
Next day, I stand beside him in the surf,
trading stories of other Mains, a storm
that lasted days and finally tossed us up,
the way a Harley can hurt a man.
March 3, 1998
You turn to show your grandson how to lift
and lean into the wheelbarrow that before
held nothing as heavy as you, light as you are.
Not a big job though the boy is thin, half-fed
on days-old zeljanica and flat pivo, but his mother
is dead and his father taken by the soldiers.
You have tried to explain how to use the dark horse
of loss, how it strengthens the sinews of lift and push,
how for his parents' love they must go on, must
learn a way to deal with what has happened
by living with the stars. The next thing you
must teach him is plants, the ways they heal,
then rocks and river flow and how to call back
the old stories you have to tell about Serbia,
about the gods you had almost forgiven,
and the things he must memorize of you
to get from where he is to where his life waits
through a terra incognito as though you know
exactly what surprises the new land and water
hold for him, the way that spring can break the heart,
how far away your home and his will always be.
D.C. Poets vs. War
Some callers are so slow we've got
to speed them up. One of us will say
You couldn't go any slower, could you?
They're smart, they'll get it. They don't,
they're gone. Enough's, we say, enough.
We lay our cards out in a square
three deep, hitch our chairs toward
the long wobble of a table. We're here
to play Bingo. B-I-N-G-O.
God's game. We'll win some money too,
some of us, and those who lose will say
See you next week God willing and the creek
don't rise. There's one or two of us
has said that every time but once.
That once, the creek by God did rise.
There's one of us, just one, but one
is all we need, will say God Bless You
loud enough when anybody'd sneeze to where
we none of us could hear the number called
and then we have to yell repeat, repeat.
We used to use sunflower seeds to mark
the numbers we had luck enough to have.
Now plastic's mostly what they've got,
not worth a darn for chewing on but good
enough for keeping track of where we are.
Sometimes she'll say God Bless so much
one of us will tell her, that's enough.
She'll simmer down then but we can hear
her lips working overtime, blessing us
who came to lose what we can't keep.
One time she won three straight Bingos
in a row. You'd think her husband
—which she hasn't got—had hit the lottery
for real. One more, that's all I ask,
she said. Well, we hoped for her enough
she should have won all night, that time.
We leaned toward her, each and all of us,
wishing her a card she'd never drawn,
wishing her seeds enough to fill the letter X,
the letter Y, the letter Z, just everything.
Poets & Critics
They are gone for tonight, gone and never did say
where they were going, when they would be back
and good riddance is what I say.
My teacher says there's not enough of them
and young boys get first dibs on crazy bones.
Hah! First dibs. That teacher is kooky or he's tricking us.
I would not wish them on a monkey's uncle.
They used to make me shout out loud at the sting,
same as that bonehead play I made at second base.
There is exactly nothing funny about crazy bones.
You let your elbow slide off the desk, the way I did
regular as pimples, whenever I would get mesmerized
listening to some showoff run the nine times table,
a thousand little devils, all red and dancing toe and heel,
a thousand tiny ball bearings upon that crazy bone
and you would know it: nobbled toes and heels
dancing like crazy on the elbow. Part of you thinks
you want to laugh out loud, part of you thinks e-ow.
That's how they got their name. Same exact feeling,
every boy I know. Girls ignore those crazy bones,
same as they ignore the other aches boys get,
same as they never get the knocks that make you cry
and laugh simultaneous. That's how girls grow the look
that makes a boy shiver when he wants to hoot.
Maybe I'll tell the swami that girls are crazy bones.
A girl I liked as much as lemonade made my elbow slip
Off the desk just by looking at her, slip fast and slow
Enough to set a devil dancing up and down my arm.
That taught me something real about the world,
How sweet a pain can be, how various.
She likes to remember the cows
for the steam that rises from them
autumn and spring as if their mouths
were all of them, as if their bodies
were locomotives, starting up again,
as if they were the earth itself,
rising into clouds, becoming rain,
machines, as clean and right as when
machines were new and quiet in the world,
knew when to move and when to rest,
spent much of their being waiting to be,
the dumb power a gentle hum on the earth,
making a name by simply being there.
She likes to think of them as sisters to her,
lying down, half-drowsed
in pasture, ready to be something else,
and rising together to walk with her
into the houses of men, another life.
She sees them now, their large heads
placid and heavy on their settled bodies,
grouped under a tree as if for a painting,
their browns and whites blending into the soft
shades of spring the painter has made for them,
and moves herself as in a dream of cow,
across the fence, across the meadow.
She means to lie down in their midst,
the hot flanks breathing on her skin,
and go to sleep. When she wakes, her face
will be licked clean and in her hands
the warm teats will swell and gush.
She will wash like the queen of hearts in cream.
Sow's Ear Poetry Review
The night we heard the news from space,
my daughter, who is three, remarks
with no surprise but careful to instruct:
"The moon is like a doorknob,"
to that other self all children seem
to have and have to answer to.
I sit trying to construct a poem of praise.
Spacemen and women stumble down the page.
She says again, impatient to be gone,
"The moon's a doorknob," and,
already dressed to play outside,
waits for me to open up the sky.
The last time the word ensconse
was used successfully in America,
according to Woester's Book
of Last Things, was in the late
and great war between the ducks
and the drakes, when one fine-tongued
fellow fathered free the still harked cry:
Ensconse yourself, good friend,
you are besieged by knaves and nuts
who would knee you if they could.
The first time the word appeared, as noted
in Infamous First Flings, at least among
the settle-tongued of our elders, has been
attributed to a certain Lady of a shaky manor
who, describing to her dinner guests
a certain forebearing act of a narrow sect
of what was then the Right, is said to have said
they should have kept it in sconse
and left her guests to wonder what she meant.
We, the readers of such obscure texts,
know full well how drily wry such Ladies are
in their pronouncements on religion, sex,
and other dibbledabblements of the spirit-
ual world. We note that the high middle mark
of the word occurred in Ohio in the 19th mid-
century, as recorded in Mediocrities Miscellany ,
when ensconsed was voted the favorite word
to describe virginity in no fewer than sixty-
two discrete religious communities. The fact
is discussed at some length in The Etiology
of Etymologies, a dissertation accepted
in evidence by the English Department
of a principled municipality of the aforesaid
State, there being much to be gained and lost
by the birth and death of such a word. We note
with sadness its passing, folded into itself
as its only haven. Requiescat in pace,
Ensconce, you are your own best testament.
On the Bus, 2002
It's like I just like have to
The Atlantic Monthly
Gravity does that—and rainbows
And the man who figured out
That gravity needs rainbows
As much as the other way around.
Safety pins do that—you happen
To have trousers falling down
Around you, you happen to be
A baby in the days before velcro.
Mothers too. They're safety pins,
The lot of them, holding things together
That otherwise would fly apart,
Putting back in shape the ripped and torn.
Bracelets too, the way they hold the wrist
At peace, the way they add a little grace
To the hand's need to give and take.
You find a bracelet made of safety pins,
Dressed in rainbow, bound by gravity,
You've got a thing worth holding on to,
An ornament to hold the day in place.
Copyright 2006-2012 by Cook Communication