Whatever May Be Glowing In Our Lives

We are arriving in that time of the year’s cycle when the trees turn towards their sleep and the animals slow and altogether too much is a metaphor of death. And the poet Galway Kinnell has died today, and that is not a metaphor at all.

Back in about 1982, I was a student of English at Chico State, presumably working on a paper on death in the poetry of Galway Kinnell. I had been reading his poems over and over, for days, I’m sure. I remember, vaguely, being pulled along by the words, surprised and baffled by the strange places they were taking me. This was very special art.

Deep in the stacks of obscure books in the university library, I found a little 20 page book containing the text of a lecture that Kinnell gave at Colorado State in 1969. And it seems I found a couple of helpful passages, which I sat down and transcribed by hand on yellow paper.

Tonight I was going to write to you about how much Kinnell’s poetry meant to me, and quote from a couple of poems. But taking one of his books from the shelf, I found that transcription I made back in college, folded between the pages. You can see a scan of it here:

Galway Kinnell notes re 1969 lecture at Colorado State

“It is perhaps true that a poem entails a struggle with one’s own nature, that it comes partially out of our hunger to be changed – and so may be an act of longing for what we are unable to be…. We can also perhaps feel the suicidal presence, feel it as an essential element in the (his) hymn to earthly life. I doubt that, in serious poems, death and life can be separated at all. It is obvious that poems craving heaven involve a certain death-wish. But in the great poems affirming life we may be even more clearly in the presence of some kind of will to die.” (Page 18.)

“It is part of whatever may be glowing in our lives that we have been able to dream of paradise, that we have glimpsed eternity. It is as much a part of this glory that we are unable to enter paradise or live in eternity. That we endure only for a time, that everyone and everything around us endures only for a time, that we know this, is the thrilling element in every creature, every relationship, every moment.” (Page 20.)

I decided to share this because, while many are undoubtedly quoting his poems, you won’t find this material mentioned. You can’t really find this anywhere, without great difficulty. A bookseller in Wadsworth IL has a copy for sale for $50. I’m sure there are copies in college collections, but it’s obscure and out of print.

Fast forward a dozen years to the release of Imperfect Thirst in 1994. Galway Kinnell came to Santa Barbara to read. I was asked to pick up the cake for the reception at a bakery and take it to the reading. It was a massive sheet cake, the perfect likeness of the cover of his new book.

The reading was at the Victoria Street Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was raining. A few blocks away at the Arlington, Toad the Wet Sprocket was playing. There was nowhere to park. At the front of the Arlington, I couldn’t find anyone to help get the big cake inside. So I had to park far away and carry Galway’s cake in the rain. I know what you’re thinking… no, the cake and I both made it there intact.

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The poet had a cold that night but he soldiered on. He read wonderful poems for us, and signed my book that was the perfect likeness of his cake. I remember he was kind and patient, stayed a while to chat before returning to his hotel to battle his cold.

Galway Kinnel Inscription

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the best we can expect from our poets: that they explore what’s common to us all, give us a chance to contribute a verse (or carry the cake), and leave us something to remember them by.

I have to say that in reading Galway Kinnell’s poems, I’ve always felt the presence of death but not as a terminal imperative; more as a continuum of Being. He hasn’t convinced me that we die, even today.

“I say ‘God'; I believe,
rather, in a music of grace
that we hear, sometimes, playing to us
from the other side of happiness.
When we hear it, when it flows
through our bodies, it lets us live
these days lighted by their vanity
worshipping — as the other animals do,
who live and die in the spirit
of the end — that backward-spreading
brightness.”

- Galway Kinnell
from There Are Things I Tell No One

Galway_Kinnell

Garden Window

roses_delano_1960s_1

I always loved music. Trumpets and guitars especially, or a nice clear piano. Dance music or grave ballads, it didn’t matter. But here, only scratching sounds come through my window, like when the record ends and the needle skips against the label. Rats’ feet on dry boards. Not so much sound as the impression of it, the idea of someone whispering about me in a faraway room, about my problems and how I am nothing. So if a sound like music came through, perhaps two or three notes as from a tuba or a vibrating pipe, I could try to have hope.

I remember Saturdays. We would work in the garden with our mother, mow the grass and rake the fallen leaves and fruit. She would give us money, and we children would walk into town. The black tar road was warm, with the smells of wild radish, fennel and dog shit from the verge. The sun would glint from the sides of mobile homes, and bees droned in the bottlebrush. Sometimes we were stung. The road went on, but we left it and took the footpath that dropped along the canal, then crossed beneath the highway.

There was shade and it was cooler there. The traffic over our heads was rhythmic; a great bellows, a groaning of trucks. The water in the stone canal was brackish and warm, jumping with waterbugs, dragonflies.

Coming up beyond the highway, there was a stand of dense bamboo. Once I cut my way to its interior and made a place to hide. Three times I took a girl with me, the summer we were seventeen. We were quiet. We heard the traffic, children throwing stones in the bald and sour canal, airplanes overhead. And no one ever knew.

It’s not far beyond the highway to the town, with its shops and people. Then the flat glassy sea, the smell of which hung and drifted. The sky was painted with oil and salt.

We rode little ponies that walked in a circle, their corral strewn with hay to cut the dust and smell of pony dung. Around and around, four bits a ticket for a ten minute ride, and cowboy music from a speaker on the center pole. We left when the ponies were led away to drink and rest. Everything gets tired.

We went to the café for ice cream, rootbeer floats. The radio on the counter played swing – bright brass, clarinets and drums.

Then the days got shorter and Autumn came, and no one walked the road to town. They closed up the windows of the houses in town and Mother took us shopping in the car. Everything was quieter, except for dogs and crickets, and the calling of crows heading east for their home.

So we came home. For many years, we slept and ate and went to work, and on Saturdays we forgot about the path, the sea and the pony rides. We filled the bird baths in the garden and listened to the footsteps of blue jays on the porch rails, gathering the nuts we set out for them.

We grew old. We sat in the shade outside and let the bushes go wild. I would doze in the afternoon and hear the falling oranges.

In time, everyone else was gone. I stayed inside. I sat on the sofas and chairs and tried to hear songbirds. I moved to the bed and listened for the neighbors’ barking dog and the stale breath of cars going by.

The last time I heard people, I had to stand and try to see. I crossed the room and became the glass panes of this window. There are new people now in my house, but I hide in the glass as I hid in the thicket, and watch their reflections come and go. We do not trouble each other. I just want to stay here a while, and look down on the guava hedge, on the jasmine and bloodleaf begonias, remembering.

J. Kyle Kimberlin
Creative Commons Licensed
Download – PDF

Note on the photo:

The picture of the roses was taken in my grandparents’ back yard in Delano, CA., in the mid-1960s, either by my grandfather or my Dad.
Click the image to see the full size original scan.

Nightland

Scan-023b_back_yard_delano (Medium)

We lived for years and everything
was easy. Our fingers understood
thorns, so we could touch each
other’s hair and roses had a scent
that the mind wasn’t forced to imagine.
Clouds appeared and passed slowly,
so we only had to look up.
In life — Dear God — there were oranges,
rivers, violins, and hours just
waiting for the bread to rise.

In the Nightland, years go by
as we struggle just to remember
those gifts. There is no fruit
no sense of taste, no gentle breeze
to bring the clouds toward us
from the sea. We spend a century
imagining brown hair tucked
behind a girl’s ear, then go on thinking
of papers tacked to a crumbling wall.
Because now we are merely dreams
that never end, forever fading,
slowly forgetting the living world.

J. Kyle Kimberlin
Download in PDF
Creative Commons Licensed

I took the photo above about 30 years ago, in the back yard of my grandparents’ home in Delano, California. As I was editing the poem I began to think about the photo, which I hadn’t seen in years, and about trying to find it in the old albums. All photos start out as images of places, things, or people. But over time, some become images of memories.

The photo has been cropped above. See the original here.

Tiny Kites

These are my words.
See how each lines up
behind another and they wait
like tiny kites to be lifted
by the wind. I think
maybe they are nervous,
shocked by the fall to earth.
So they lie among shards
of paperbark in the long grass,
strangely happy, just glad
to see that I am near.

J. Kyle Kimberlin
4th Draft, 10.05.2014
Creative Commons Licensed

Hate Distractions?

Me too. I’d rather have writers block – I prefer the term writer’s clog – than be set upon by distractions when I’m trying to write, read, study, pray, or simply cogitate. Maybe ideate is a better word. You know, ponder the next few most fitting words and their best order.

Here’s a nice little common sense article on minimizing distraction.

I’m a big fan of distraction-free full screen plain text writing apps. My favorite, as I’ve said before, is WriteMonkey. It’s free and it’s awesome.

I notice that there’s no mention of trying to influence other people not to create unnecessary distractions. It’s highly unlikely to do any good. We all know that there are ways to engage – such as email – that merge with a person’s workflow instead of stopping it. But there are always things that seem for the moment to be too urgent to wait for the next email check. So it goes.

Don’t get me started on voicemail. Too late. If I had my druthers, we’d all stop using that neolithic timesuck tomorrow and never look back. … Oh, I suppose I can see where it’s still needed to get contact from people who are using a landline phone. But why anyone with a smartphone leaves a voice recording for another person with a smartphone is beyond me. But I have digressed.

The article’s suggestion not to listen to music you especially like isn’t a surprise to me. I usually don’t. Not only is the desire to listen closely a distraction in itself, but I find song lyrics influence what I’m doing, for better or worse. So I like to have white noise – nature sounds – playing in the background when I’m trying to concentrate.

Tonight I have the sounds of thunder and rain, which nature has all but forgotten here in southern California. I don’t think it has helped me write a very good blog post, but maybe it will bring us good luck otherwise.

Wish for Rain

I wish it would rain
every morning
while we have coffee.

There the dog waits
in cool shadow, there
the fountains rise and fall.

Heavy gray drops
the size of grapes.

Pray for blue skies
each afternoon
with the birds singing,

eating seeds as the rain
moves away. And a following
wind on the sea.

J. Kyle Kimberlin
September 17, 2014

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