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God's mistress.

God's Mistress, by James Galvin, is the winner of the open competition in this year's National Poetry Series. Galvin's style is characterized by the strikingly direct statement, often at the beginning or toward the end of a poem, the literary equivalent of the preemptive strike: "There is another kind of sleep,/We are talking in it now," or "What happens is nothing happens," or "I'll tell you what the sould is made of:/More dust." The rhetorical force of these statements derives from their boldness, and they are a challenge to the reader's understanding. But in the subtle give-and-take of reading, a writer who challenges in this way runs the risk of being rebuffed with "So what?" or "I don't believe you." The first line of "The Importance of Green" has the rhetorical suddenness I have mentioned--"Small towns are for knowing who's poor"--but the plain sense of the line is at best a half-truth.

Still, this is an attractive book with some memorable poems in it, such as the three-page "What holds Them Apart." The poem has a Western spaciousness and a sense of human aloneness in the natural scheme of things that has traditionally been the gift of poets like Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Gary Snyder and Richard Hugo. Here, seen through the boy narrator's eyes, is the poem's main character, Lyle, a jack-of-all-trades and a loner ("Lyle's name means the island,/but he doesn't know that")--the type of Westerner who arouses mixed and often hostile feelings in the urban East:

He prefers to work alone.

He used to have a family, but they're gone.

When he isn't haying he's

building things by hand.

He makes tools to make tools to

make things like hay barns and violins and muzzle-loading guns. . . .

This probably seems like a form of romanticism to readers who live in cities and pay other people for essential goods and services. But Galvin says something important here about the relationship between skilled work and independence, and about a boy's dream toward manhood. The ending is worth quoting at length:

I shade my eyes and see a redtail hawk circling the deep blue and sun above us.

I'm trying to say the kind of thing a man would say.

I put down this stone and offer, up there sure has it easy.

Lyle doesn't even look up at me.

He pushes the glasses up on his nose and turns back to work.

He says,

James Galvin has a voice and a world, perhaps the two most difficult things to achieve in poetry. His world is the West that exists not on film or in the ski-lodge condos of Vail and Aspen, but in the lives of those who live and work in the outback, who, as Galvin puts it, "haven't heard the West is over." His laconic, understand voice can be heard in lines like these:

This morning I hoofed out. It was cold as two sticks.

There should be snow by now.

The ground has had enough. It's anvil-hard.

It won't be accepting any more death till spring.

An imagination is at work here, an imagination that can describe a mine shaft as "on man's monument to hard luck, an obelisk of air pointing straight down" and a house as "a flower made of timber." Why then, does a writer with such strengths allow himself to write in the following "neo-surrealist" period style?

down where you can imagine the incomparable

piety of the schoolbus,

the wherewithal of bees,

down where you can be a drawer full of dust

as night comes on under full sail,

and the smooth rain,

in its beautiful armor,

stands by forever.

Anyone who has spent a semester in the Brand-X Poetry Writers' Workshop could have written those lines in his sleep. It's a pastiche of Mark Strand and W.S. Mervwin and a dozen others at their most facile. "Smooth rain" and "beautiful armor" are too bland to think about. The same could be said of the anaphoric stanza structure ("down . . . down . . .") and the formulaic "heightening" kicked into operation by the word "forever." James Galvin at his best (and that best is very, very good) would set those lines up on a fence post, like an old tin can, with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop, and shoot them full of holes.
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Author:Tillinghast, Richard
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 13, 1984
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