Everyone in line at the cafe was staring at the screen of a phone. I was scrolling through the Times, trying to kill some time, waiting. That's when I saw it: "Galway Kinnell, Plain-Spoken Poet, Is Dead at 87," the headline said.
My eyes welled with tears. That doesn't happen too often. Me crying in a cafe while reading the news. Even these days when the news is always so fucking sad.
Well, I wasn't really crying. Just tearing up for a second.
How could Kinnell be dead? I thought. How could someone who'd reckoned so thoroughly with death actually die?
A ridiculous thought, of course. As if death could be defanged by a poem.
I was 20 years old when I first encountered The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell's fragmented, hallucinatory book-length masterpiece. Published in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, it is a poem about the intimacy of opposites, of extremes: sanctity and horror, birth and decay, love and death; the transcendent and the brutally ugly are mashed up against each other.
In its sheer visceral intensity, the poem blew me away like few works of literature had.
Some years later, I went to New York University to get an MFA in fiction writing. Kinnell, who helped found the creative writing program in the early '80s, was still teaching there, but the poetry and fiction programs stayed mostly separate from each other, and I rarely crossed paths with him. Once in a while, I'd see him in the department offices or at readings, but I never overcame my shyness and went up to him to say how much The Book of Nightmares had meant to me.
At this cafe in downtown Manhattan, they throw two shots of espresso in the iced coffee, which is why I like it. It wakes me up.
I move closer to the counter. Everyone around me looks beautiful, immortal. I think of Kinnell's kids, Fergus and Maud. They were babies in the poem. They would be middle-aged now. Their names are etched into my mind.
After my own kids are asleep, after I've given them dinner and a bath and brushed their teeth and read Curious George Goes to an Ice Cream Shop five hundred times in a row to my son, I take The Book of Nightmares off the shelf and crack it open for the first time in years and read most of the poem out loud to myself in the living room.
Eighteen years later, it still strikes me as a profound, visionary work.
Rilke, perhaps the greatest modern poet of death, envisioned a poetry meant not to resurrect God, an impossible task, but to restore, independent of God, the sacred meaning of life in the face of death.
Kinnell's death-ridden poem begins with the birth of Maud and ends with the birth of Fergus. The whole poem seems to spring from a newly felt awareness upon the birth of his daughter: A child is born not only to live, but also to die—a truth as simple as it is unfathomable.
Like Rilke in the Duino Elegies, a work that shadows The Book of Nightmares, Kinnell attempts to bring death close, to restore its intimate relation with life, to peer as deeply as possible into its inescapable reality, as he hungers for some deeper, truer meaning inside a war-hungry, relentlessly commercial society.
In the morning, my 5-year-old daughter comes into the bedroom where I'm trying to write.
Why don't you get your book and read while I work? I say.
I'm reading what you're writing, she says, curling up in my lap.
I go on typing, deleting, typing until she says, I know that word.
Which word? I ask, startled. Somehow I can't get my mind around the fact that she's actually starting to read.
She points to the screen. D-I-E, she says, smiling. Why did you write that word?
Because I'm writing about a writer who died, I say as matter-of-factly as I can muster.
In his strange, brilliant book Madness and Murder (I'm all about lighthearted titles these days), the psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, "I used to imagine in New York City there should be little boxes on the street like little phone booths. They would be scream booths. People could just go into them when they needed to and scream. They would be a screaming place."
I take my daughter to her ballet class at Brooklyn College. I sit in the waiting room, while she goes into her class, and I read The Book of Nightmares.
Eighteen years ago what most captivated me about the poem was the raw disjointed flow of its intensities, its high wisdom-seeking ambitions.
This time around what hits hardest is the remarkable tenderness:
When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me hard,
as if clinging could save us. I think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
my broken arms heal themselves around you.
When my daughter comes out of class, she wants to sit at the table in the middle of the room and draw with the other kids, and I'm happy because that means I get to read some more.
After a while, she comes over to me and says, Daddy, I made you something.
What is it? I ask.
She hands me the picture.
It's a horse, she says.
Sometimes I pick my children up, and awe and terror touch. I can feel time washing over us.
It's like a nightmare.
The poets of our youth are dead. The babies are middle-aged. It's so hard to pay attention, to face reality.
The poet is there to push against delusion—there to perform his ancient poet's duty: to grab you and shake you. All of you pressed into the small deathless screens of your phones.
Wake up, he whispers in my ear.