Rediscovering Galway Kinnell

By , July 30, 2010

More than halfway through the year, I’m managing to keep faithful to my New Year’s Resolution to read a poem a day, every day. I even kept it up when we drove to Fairbanks to visit family, trusting that I’d find poetry books at their place. I did. Not only did they have a volume of one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, but they had another book that included a poem by Galway Kinnell. I really liked his unabashedly erotic Last Gods, and learned that he’s considered a “nature” poet, so I decided to seek out more of his work. When I recently did, finding his A New Selected Poems, (check your local bookstore) I learned that this is not a discovery, but a rediscovery. Paging through the book, I found a poem I’d read many years ago, called The Bear.

I think I read this piece in a poetry class at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, probably in 1976, maybe a few years earlier. I won’t say the poem moved me, but it certainly made an impression, because I’ve remembered it ever since. I could never recall the poet (odd: his is a name likely to stick in the mind) but ever since then I’ve often read works that reminded me of that poem, from Mary Oliver’s Hunter’s Moon—Eating the Bear to Joan Armitrading’s song, Eating the Bear. I hadn’t thought of it for a long time, until I paged through Kinnell’s collection, and found it there.

So, ironically, when, in a few day’s time I sit down of a morning to read the poem, I won’t be transported to the bleak, wintry landscape the poem evokes. Instead, I’ll see, feel, and smell Sitka in full sunshine, in one of the hottest summers that town had experienced. I’ll remember the girl I loved at the time, the two of us lying together on a blanket on the warm, fragrant lawn of Sheldon Jackson College. My head will swim with the remembered aroma of Noxema from when I slow danced with her beautiful friend, holding her gently so as not to hurt her sunburn. And I’ll remember the poetry class, with its hippie instructor, who, apparently, was also a Galway Kinnell fan.

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