Anne Harding Woodworth on Martin Galvin

A Way to Home, New and Selected Poems, by Martin Galvin. Poets’ Choice Publishing, 2017. (Available at

Way Stations

We’re all looking for a way home, I suppose. Martin Galvin is for sure. But he has stopped by so many unexpected way stations that we are in awe of his journey. A Way to Home is more than a book of new and selected poems, more than a book of art, though it is both of these. It is a veritable tome, 294 pages, of unimaginable delight, surprise, color, thought-provocation, puns, rites of passage, Irishness, and memoir, to name only a few of the words that crowd the mind after one has read this book and seen Ryan Bongers’ accompanying art.

I’ve known Martin Galvin the teacher and the poet for some time. I have the feeling one profession has no precedence over the other, which is what makes the inclusion of his former student Ryan Bongers’ captivating acrylics, oils, and water colors, so appropriate and integral to this book. It would appear that Bongers practices art as if it were the poetry Galvin taught him to write. In Bongers’ own words on his art:  “[T]he performance can be both meditative and manic, demanding guts—like all creative endeavors—and a great deal of honest reflection and introspection, plus a cool capacity to eliminate non-essentials.”

No question about it: Martin Galvin has guts. You see it in his early poems (from Wild Card and Making Beds); you see it in his later and new poems (2007-2015, including Sounding the Atlantic), and the poems in between (from Appetites and Circling Out). His guts bring about a versatility of subject matter that is just one facet of this exceptional poet. He is not afraid of writing exactly what he sees and feels and wants to put down on paper. He has an uncanny ability to conflate subject matters, while seemingly to focus on one. Death, particularly death in war, often occupies Galvin’s thoughts. In the fourth section of the new work, several poems about war are fine examples of this concatenation. In “Twilight at Arlington”:
        . . . let the grass be soft

in Arlington, connect what was with what will be,
for what they hazarded and what we lost,

Where boys play sandlot ball and the runner
Caught in a rundown is always safe at home
One of the many devices Galvin uses is the persona poem. He cannot resist walking in someone else’s shoes. In “Letter from the Hunger Artist,” for instance, he writes to Edgar Allan Poe in the voice of Franz Kafka:
As you guess by this letter, I have gained
a crow myself. This afternoon, flawed by sundrop,
as if on signal, there has come a bird to roost
would put your raven’s “nevermore” to shame. He has
with single purpose broken through the bay window.
The shatter glass rings still with light applause.
Among the new poems is “Where Corsages Grew,” which is in the voice of a woman who is remembering the “grave flowers” that a friend snatched from a nearby cemetery to provide prom corsages for her friends.
                              [S]he’d shape them up
So not even we could believe they came from graves
Because beside being good-looking we
Were fairly simple too and glad to dance
At the only Senior Prom we ever hoped to see
This side of where she’d swiped those flowers
For our sheer delight from the great uncaring dead.
As in this poem, memory and childhood play expansive roles in Galvin’s poetry. “Baloney Sandwiches” has nothing and everything to do with baloney sandwiches. The speaker of the poem at age nine feared the “night fiend” under his bed.
Once I invited him to show himself and fight.
He said I’m the night fiend, Dope, and went to sleep.
. . .

The night fiend went into the army when
I turned ten. Good thing, too.
This growing up took all my wits.
This growing up might have taken all his wits, but grow up he did, and he became wise, so wise he knew the purposes of circuses, where he’d seen a man “Who could stand on one finger for a minute flat.” So he tried the stunt himself
                              . . . when I was in the Navy
And full of beans. Had a swabbie pal hold my legs

Up toward the stars and said now watch this watch
And broke my middle finger then my nose flat out.

One thing they never teach you about circus tricks:
Actually, a couple things . . . but then you grow up

And you either know or you don’t you were meant
To marry the girl on the flying trapeze or you weren’t

And that kids should show off when you’re young,
And when they get older, they shouldn’t.
The artwork that accompanies this book of beautifully diverse poetry all from the mind of one man is equally varied. Like Galvin, Bongers is not afraid to go in many different directions. At one moment he swims with gracefully moving fish deep under water, in another he lies quiet with a rich chiaroscuro in still-lifes or skies of gorgeous, almost impressionistic blurring.

Many of Galvin’s poems embrace visual art. This is not surprising. Occasionally they are ekphrastic poems, sometimes poems in which he merely refers obliquely but importantly to art. Many of these poems on art are specifically from his book, Sounding the Atlantic (2010). In the poem, “Coblentz’s Farm,” he might actually be thinking of Bongers and his paintings.
If I were you I’d get myself an artist man,
Pay him a bucket of milk warm from the teats
To put the softness of the farm in solid terms.
He will know to let the cowgate burn a little red,
to have the shade fall like tongues toward the cows
And lick the meadow to a coolness after noon sun.

So the neighbors can see how things are on your farm,
I’d have him paint that Boss cow red and white
To shine like a beacon, and shape a fence
That’s meant to keep nobody in or out . . . .
In that poem, Galvin says that art leads “us back who have been long away.” I like to think that he means “back home.” With this “new and selected” volume, A Way to Home, that is where he’s going. It’s a road not without hills and “cunning traps,” as he points out in the title poem. “I’m no Sisyphus / To be hurried along by what I cannot bear.” Galvin bears all that life gives, and he has written about it profusely, with insight, often with humor, and wisdom. We are lucky to have his work collected in this one volume, which is his home.

Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, Unattached Male (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).



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