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:
the Atlantic (Broadkill River Press, 2010)
Out (Finishing Line Press, 2007)
(Bogg Publications, 2000)
Beds (Sedwick House, 1989)
Card (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 1989), winner of the
Columbia Prize, judged by Howard
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
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
Got nose to nose with ants, I did,
to get our signals straight about our needs.
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
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.
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
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
winter breath had come up behind and passed
on the boardwalk, her bare feet whispering
different and more serious than the slap
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:
stories are as true as clocks
there are some in this town
I would make up the goings-on
so I would have my say.
we are about is partly underground
partly overhead, or that what was.
and Me and Hazel")
curious bird invaded our vacant space
early spring, made the usual mockery
the screen door's need to keep
outside out, slipped through and killed
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
remember the miniature and plastic saints when
was a kid better than the names of soldiers I met
the maybe war and I remember those men better than
children's friends and I remember those lads
than the man I talked to last week on the telephone
may buy five thousand pair of the underwear I have
sell to meet my quota for the month. Or else.
I have to meet that man tonight, among people
I do know and do remember and he doesn't
I have to introduce him as if I knew his name
well as I know my brother's, who I sometimes
hardly remember at all anymore, he having left home with
the toys and half our parents' lives before I had a chance
tell him goodbye and went off and didn't remember one night
I have heard, so the story goes, so I tell my kids)
put his flak jacket on before he went out to take a piss
instead took a bullet through his stomach that took
week's worth of pain to realize he was never going to digest
died and I remember better even than my children's names
day we got his mess kit back from the U.S. ARMY, courtesy
the RED CROSS, and inside it was tucked this three-
plastic Blessed Virgin Mary, the same one that one of us,
can't remember which, got as a prize for selling the most
card chances for some gigantic gift that I forget
probably had to do with a Chocolate Easter Bunny
with jelly beans or a subscription to Boy's Life,
or The Messenger of the Sacred Heart.
tonight, when it's all on the line, when I am about
be hung out to dry like those 5,000 jockey shorts I will
sell after this insult, I'll lean back on the air
if my brother were there holding me up, I'll reach
my watch pocket of the vest I only wear
it's all on the line and fondle for luck the three-inch
BVM that I have kept for more years
I can remember and then I will remember
fool's name just like that. Or else, like that, I won't.
Poetry, Best American Poetry
Sounds of an Afternoon
The room is intent on the
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,
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
You've four minutes to go
before it's done,
this haunting work you've
a distance in your life to
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
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
The sound is just enough to
wake the sneeze
and stir the itch, which now
and threatens disaster whole
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,
them in the driveway, run
the son of a bitch every day.
The first six months, Friday
I'd set the wash machine on
and talk myself through a
talk it silly, talk until I'd
Same as always, I make the
drinks at six,
Vodka Gimlets on the
rocks. We work
things out as the dinner
I finish mine, toss his in
Didn't anyone tell me how to,
spell it out,
what I'm supposed to do I'm
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
and climb into his pj's,
first. It's like
entering a flower
and wrapping it around me,
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
As we might overlap a coat,
Had some surprises for being
Sure, he meant no harm, just
The terrain, scoping out
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
You risk some damage to your
That Rover wasn't taught about
His handlers fixed him as
well as they could,
told him to try to behave
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,
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
a weedbreak so the daisies
could have a chance in this
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
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
slowly, ever so slowly,
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
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
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
who was too old in her
to be afraid of God, needles,
or children's nagging
We tried to mother her the
way grown sons
think they have the right,
the supporting arm
around the folded wings, the
out of Jimmy Stewart or Henry
I'd never use that voice with
my own kids,
they'd laugh me out of the
I know enough I'd never try
with my history classes of
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
water that had been someplace
and a couple answers to a
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
We'll win some money too,
some of us, and those who lose will say
See you next week God willing and the creek
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
riddance is what I say.
My teacher says
there's not enough of them
and young boys
get first dibs on crazy bones.
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
pimples, whenever I would get mesmerized
some showoff run the nine times table,
little devils, all red and dancing toe and heel,
tiny ball bearings upon that crazy bone
and you would
know it: nobbled toes and heels
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
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.
last time the word ensconse
used successfully in America,
to Woester's Book
of Last Things, was in the late
great war between the ducks
the drakes, when one fine-tongued
fathered free the still harked cry:
are besieged by knaves and nuts
would knee you if they could.
first time the word appeared, as noted
Infamous First Flings, at least among
settle-tongued of our elders, has been
to a certain Lady of a shaky manor
describing to her dinner guests
certain forebearing act of a narrow sect
what was then the Right, is said to have said
should have kept it in sconse
left her guests to wonder what she meant.
the readers of such obscure texts,
full well how drily wry such Ladies are
their pronouncements on religion, sex,
other dibbledabblements of the spirit-
world. We note that the high middle mark
the word occurred in Ohio in the 19th mid-
as recorded in Mediocrities Miscellany ,
ensconsed was voted the favorite word
describe virginity in no fewer than sixty-
discrete religious communities. The fact
discussed at some length in The Etiology
of Etymologies, a dissertation accepted
evidence by the English Department
a principled municipality of the aforesaid
there being much to be gained and lost
the birth and death of such a word. We note
sadness its passing, folded into itself
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
a boy in every city where I am like at.
It's just so totally like I do this. Kiss.
So I am like last year? in Florence?
Italy? So weird.
I mean totally it was like so weird
I hadn't like kissed like one of them?
And I was so totally like bummed.
So I see this really like old man
at the airport and like it's what
I do so I go totally up to him and like
kiss him and it was totally like weird.
He was like twenty-seven and his wife—
it was like Like. She was like
so passive aggressive. Like sulked.
I was just like. It was like I did it?
Like totally kept my kiss list going? Weird.
The Atlantic Monthly
Find a strange familiar way to harbor,
This touching in the night, the two of
Separate in sleep, seconding each other
Back to front, then spinning like
Two at a time, going home up fast
Wrapping ourselves in inhospitable air
So the turning dive to deep will be the
This rapids' climbing is our way to
By doing what we have to do against the
The spawning makes its blind demands
and so does sleep.
What makes this touching good is that
Have learned to make a beauty out of
And we, somehow, have found a way of
Of time when we are not much else but
for Terry, who does and does
Holding things together.
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.