Poetry that flutters

The jacket of this volume of poems about birds features a dazzling photo -- by Thomas Schweda -- of two broad-tailed hummingbirds, wings ablur, as motionless on paper as they often are in midair. The back of the one in focus gleams like an emerald, bronze tail feathers fanned, white tipping the first three on either side.

Jewel-like in color, hooded, striped at the eyes, epauletted, dressed in tux, as varied in song as in marking, quick and elusive -- birds are invitations and challenges to observation and awareness. They can measure movements of the soul, record and fix its moments in time, give dimension to our days. For the poet, they are a wonderfully available metaphor. Like people, birds either flaunt or retire, are graceful or blundering. Brendan Galvin has observed them closely and knows them well.

The book contains 43 poems with a wide variety of birds in the foreground, middle-distance or background. We get canvas-like descriptions of wrens, herons, owls, goldfinches, tundra swans, merlin hawks, grackles, warblers, mockingbirds and many more. Though his subjects are always birds, Galvin's themes vary widely: they include death, the miraculous, ready awareness, habitat destruction, gratitude, the importance of self-forgetfulness, and the limits of reason.

Like Robert Frost, Galvin knows "fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," and his poems name the world with a loving knowledge of the actual, placing before the reader facts of staggering voltage as in this epigraph chosen from The Scientific American: "If a blackpoll warbler were burning gasoline instead of body fat, it could boast of getting 720,000 miles to the gallon." On the literal level, Galvin's inventive and sometimes humorous descriptions are a treat: wrens are "spelunkers of hollow logs"; mockingbirds "teach killdeer / to pronounce their own names better"; woodcocks are "never walking or running, / but perambulating / as though to some avian rhumba."

More profoundly, in "Walter Anderson Sleeping on the Levee," Galvin writes, "If a bird is a hole / in heaven through which a man may pass ..."

Birds, for Galvin, provide glimpses of an earthly heaven and have the kind of importance butterflies had for Vladimir Nabokov. They become associated with mystery, if not divinity, as in a major poem like "Great Blue," where a heron materializes at crucial times of need in the speaker's life. At the poem's closure, this totemic bird uncannily appears in a framed picture on a nursing home wall and serves as a kind of guardian for the "good and diligent soul" of his dying mother.

In "One For The Lifelist," Galvin compellingly describes being chosen by a subject, the sense of glory and gratitude engendered by the sight of a yellow-throated warbler, "a lemon-bibbed ounce of / feathers." Because he has written about them so often and made promises to swear off, he now sees himself as a "failed teetotaler of birds," but better write about these tiny harbingers of grace than some "shoddy / illusion of aloneness." Or worse: "not to salute such / charity of song / though it be plain as / thumbsqueaks on clear windowpanes, / not to say their names / and the shadow of death passes / across our tongues."

Any good book has to have a design, and this one has great distances and migration built into its structural curve. In the first poem, "Skylights," we get the "great streaming freeways of the birds, / those swerves and swoopings in every / color of feather, three miles up, blurred / Crayola streaks a hemisphere long, and / Suriname, French Guiana, Venezuela / loom in a summer down there / like the eminence of a new green heart."

The final and most impressive flyer in the collection is "Transmigration," where a beach jogger, at the moment of death, discovers to his astonishment that the soul does exist, naysayers notwithstanding: "So this is it. / Who would believe, / this late, this century ..." Galvin's handling of the transitional moment is wonderfully fresh. The jogger, as he falls and flails, senses his soul, an immortal bird, shoved from its bodily nest and feels himself beginning to soar. As in other poems, the reader is given a strong sense of place -- a coastal town, tidal flats, a whiff of the ebb -- and the narrative is mined with sensuous details that surprise an awareness now "exempt from gravity" and newly born: "how a breeze / ignites marsh grass every-which-way / to new greens ..."

With its imaginative postmortem renderings, "Transmigration" reminds me, with certain differences, of Emily Dickinson "Because I Could Not Stop For Death." Both poems remove terror from the moment, but with Galvin there is a clearer line between death, the outflight of the soul, and the astonished overflight of its former "home." From the standpoint of originality alone, this last poem, like the book, is a stunner.

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