Paint It Plain as Dirt: On Everything We Always Knew Was True by James Galvin

Sean Patrick Hill

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 78 pages. $16.00.

Perhaps more than any other living American poet, James Galvin understands the decline of the American West. The trajectory of his poetic career, beginning with 1980’s Imaginary Timber, has documented—at least to some extent—the undermining of the land, but more frequently the deterioration of the people who made lives in that country and were, for better or for worse, intimately affixed to it. In fact, the speakers of the poems become so intertwined with the land, both literally and figuratively, that his body of work becomes a long lament for the individual’s death. His newest book, Everything We Always Knew Was True, directly confronts this idea, given the poet’s own aging.

Galvin’s style, over the course of eight books, has remained remarkably consistent. That the speakers of these poems are growing—and again, despite any argument to the contrary, much of the joy in Galvin’s poems is that they are from a real person in a real world, the artifice rarely apparent—is undeniable. That he grows towards an unavoidable despair, in the face of a dying region and a nearly redundant way of life, offers the reader little optimism but abundant realism.

For steady readers of Galvin, it’s a pleasure to see one of his most important characters, the long dead Lyle Van Waning, appear in the poem “Bet.” His character, along with Pat, enters the new book, emphatically, as nearly invisible, small points in the shadow of the mountains that the speaker must point out because “you wouldn’t see them if I didn’t.” The poem begins with the classic description of the Galvinesque landscape, both surreal and sublime, a description taking nearly half the poem’s length, before arriving at a far point where “two men, motionless, study / The last snowdrift.” The drift, set in a meadow, is an object of diminishment that “looks / Like a homeless man, lying, half-fetal with / A dirty sheet thrown over him” but that a month ago “looked more / Like a barn, and was bigger than one.”

The poet confronts a snowdrift emblematic of the West, and also of people. In it, he sees the human figured as impoverished though formerly—in its equation with the barn, where one’s grain and draft horses might be housed—it was rich. It was also big against a landscape that would shrink it by mere proportion. This is a consistent and recurring theme of Galvin’s across each of his collections: the smallness of man against the earth and sky.

But remembering, too, that Galvin equates himself with the landscape—and make no mistake, there are many examinations of men and women both in these poems—the snowdrift turns to a harsh metaphor for himself. The bet between Pat and Lyle concerns “whether that snowdrift / Will survive,” and the drift is pointedly gendered by Pat and Lyle as masculine:

“I don’t think he will make it till the Fourth.”
“I do. You betting against yourself?”
                                                                           “Are you?”
“Not yet. There’s still a chance that he could make it
Till the Fourth, depending on cold nights.”

Clearly, the homeless snowdrift is the speaker projected into the meadow: literally melting, but who nonetheless stands a chance, however slim. The book engages with this struggle for survival repeatedly, and also the question of whether memory itself can survive. The speaker often dissolves in Galvin’s West, a harsh metaphysical terrain where the land obliterates both men and the memory of them. These are, by any measure, disturbing poems.

Many of Galvin’s themes in this book refer to his own aging, and in many ways his own aging reflects that of the changing landscape and, more importantly, a dying culture associated with the high ranges. The book is frankly elegiac, not only for what Galvin once called “the small self” but also for the writing of poems at all: “All those poems I wrote / About living in the sky / Were wrong” (“On First Seeing a US Forest Service Aerial Photo of Where I Live”). Doom is impending in nearly every poem, whether it’s the “black blizzard” of turkey vultures in “Natura Morta,” or the auditorium being torn down in “Bringing Down the House,” or even his address book in “Giving Up the Ghosts”:

Every time I opened it
Friends, dead and alive,
Fell out together.
My address book was deciduous.
My address book was a tree
Full of falling leaves,
Full of butterflies, dead and dying.

In light of all this loss, what can one do? The book insists: make art, despite the possibility that art can fail from the beginning—or not. In “Roadside Ditch Natura Morta,” the speaker observes an artist, presumably a lover, trying through drawing to “capture the cut / Iris before its form falls / From its former self,” though it’s almost defeated from the start because “No one can draw fast enough.” The second stanza, though, begins with the woman, regardless, telling the man to stop upon seeing the patch of irises so she can retrieve one.

Once home
She rendered in a careful hurry.
She drew into the night as the iris died.

Again, the speaker’s projections make clear the poet’s concern, certainly throughout his career but particularly in this book: to preserve in the face of history and nature’s erasure. Much as he did in his book The Meadow, Galvin constantly brings the past to life if only to allow it to speak once more. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem “Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning.”

Longtime readers will know Clara Van Waning (Lyle’s sister) as the deeply troubled young woman who grew up in the spare sod house on the plains, and whose life, obsessed as it was with painting, ended in suicide. That the ekphrastic poem explores someone known to so few, but certainly to his readers, makes Galvin’s choice one of no small genius. Clara becomes a mask, one that Yeats would certainly appreciate, for the poet. “I only paint landscapes,” it begins. “People are just / Too sad.” Of course Galvin has often written about the people of that country, and in like fashion:

Sometimes I paint folks turning away,
Hiding their faces. Faces are too sad.
The loveliest are saddest, so says me.
That’s why we turn away, ashamed.

And then there is, as always in Galvin’s poems, the desire for love and the unremitting loss of that love. In this book, he portrays the women as ghostly and unspecific. We get traces of a personality of the lover, but more often we get the full-blown flare of the speaker’s grief. The penultimate poem “Arohanui” is a three-page lament, spilling out memories that encompass the globe, each stanza closing with the refrain “Arohanui,” a Maori word for “big love.” “My life will never be richer” than such moments, he says, and the sentiment is evidenced by the majority of the poems that precede this one. “No more,” he ends the poem,

The last thing we do together
Is disappear to each other
Into the ether called
No more, no more.
Arohanui.

What is left to say after that? Indeed, what is left of life, and what meaning can we assign the remnants? Galvin closes the book with “Why I Am Like New Zealand” with its images of death and ache, despite his insistence that “I am right side up.”

No one survives.
There is a bridge to nowhere, and it’s mine.
I count on being left alone.
I love the Abel Tasman Sea.
I can’t remember my discovery.

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