Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Galway Kinnell's Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight

“To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” — Galway Kinnell (1927-2014)
    You scream, waking from a nightmare.

    When I sleepwalk
    into your room, and pick you up,
    and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
    as if clinging could save us. I think
    you think
    I will never die, I think I exude
    to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
    even as
    my broken arms heal themselves around you.


    I have heard you tell
    the sun, don't go down, I have stood by
    as you told the flower, don't grow old,
    don't die. Little Maud,

    I would blow the flame out of your silver cup,
    I would suck the rot from your fingernail,
    I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light,
    I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones,
    I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body,
    I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood,
    I would let nothing of you go, ever,

    until washerwomen
    feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands,
    and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades,
    and rats walk away from the cultures of the plague,
    and iron twists weapons toward the true north,
    and grease refuses to slide in the machinery of progress,
    and men feel as free on earth as fleas on the bodies of men,
    and lovers no longer whisper to the presence beside them in the
    dark, O corpse-to-be ...

    And yet perhaps this is the reason you cry,
    this the nightmare you wake screaming from:
    being forever
    in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.


    In a restaurant once, everyone
    quietly eating, you clambered up
    on my lap: to all
    the mouthfuls rising toward
    all the mouths, at the top of your voice
    you cried
    your one word, caca! caca! caca!
    and each spoonful
    stopped, a moment, in midair, in its withering

    you cling because
    I, like you, only sooner
    than you, will go down
    the path of vanished alphabets,
    the roadlessness
    to the other side of the darkness,

    your arms
    like the shoes left behind,
    like the adjectives in the halting speech
    of old men,
    which once could call up the lost nouns.


    And you yourself,
    some impossible Tuesday
    in the year Two Thousand and Nine, will walk out
    among the black stones
    of the field, in the rain,

    and the stones saying
    over their one word, ci-gît, ci-gît, ci-gît,

    and the raindrops
    hitting you on the fontanel
    over and over, and you standing there
    unable to let them in.


    If one day it happens
    you find yourself with someone you love
    in a café at one end
    of the Pont Mirabeau, at the zinc bar
    where white wine stands in upward opening glasses,

    and if you commit then, as we did, the error
    of thinking,
    one day all this will only be memory,

    as you stand
    at this end of the bridge which arcs,
    from love, you think, into enduring love,
    learn to reach deeper
    into the sorrows
    to come – to touch
    the almost imaginary bones
    under the face, to hear under the laughter
    the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
    the mouth
    which tells you, here,
    here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.

    The still undanced cadence of vanishing.


    In the light the moon
    sends back, I can see in your eyes

    the hand that waved once
    in my father's eyes, a tiny kite
    wobbling far up in the twilight of his last look:

    and the angel
    of all mortal things lets go the string.


    Back you go, into your crib.

    The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.
    Your eyes close inside your head,
    in sleep. Already
    in your dreams the hours begin to sing.

    Little sleep's-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
    when I come back
    we will go out together,
    we will walk out together among
    the ten thousand things,
    each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
    of dying is love.

— Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell burst onto the scene in 1960 with The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World. The poem is an epic study of Avenue C in New York City's Lower East Side in 14 parts. Critics compared him to Walt Whitman and the poem to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight is from his 1971 collection, The Book of Nightmares. The toll in writing The Book of Nightmares affected Kinnell profoundly. He would not published another volume of poetry for another decade.

In 1982, his Selected Poems won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was also the recipient of the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America in 2002.

Galway Kinnell died on Tuesday October 28, 2014 at his home in Sheffield, Vermont. He was 87.

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