Poetry Reading: Galway Kinell’s, “Why Regret?”

2 Dec

Why Regret?

by Galway Kinnell
Didn't you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn't it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn't you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster's New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid's ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
"The perfected lover does not eat."
As a child, didn't you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn't you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren't you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring's offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?

This mid-length poem is so dense in delightful imagery, it’s what I used to think all poems should be.  In fact Galway Kinell was one of those poets introduced to me as an undergrad where I felt like YES, he got it.  He understood where I was coming from, and there’s a hugeness to him–watching the parade of life.   His parade is not all pleasant–after all he has pinworms and Casanova as well as other things, but he paints the urgency of life, of the now, of the simple, of the life of  the mind.  One which many people profess admiration for, but few really delve into these little moments.  Even though all our lives, from the poorest scavenger to the strongest head of state, ALL of our lives are made from these little moments.

I imagine him talking to someone at the end of a love affair–and the question “why regret?” why end love affairs in such awful ways, wishing they had never been, sinking into depression?  Why cannot we sometimes enjoy a short relationship as well as a long one, and leave it like one would leave summer camp?   Isn’t that enjoying something because of precisely what it is?

Notice the constant reference to things that are very fleeting and small–on second reading, you can see how the speaker is probably much better at words than the lover, who is full of regret.   His Carpe Diem message is a bit self serving, and as he shows us these images you can’t help but think that this guy’s probably a rascal.  However, even while being a rascal, even knowing this, you still hear these words and get a little thrill from them.

My favorite line?

Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
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