Lee Zimmerman: On "The Porcupine" and "The Bear"

The real setting of these poems is the poet's consciousness ... so porcupine and bear are not integrated, separate beings out there in the world that the poet can long to be with or admire and move on. They operate both in the world and in the poet's mind. Evoking them in poetry becomes a dig into the unexplored self: "For me those animals had no specific symbolic correspondences as I wrote the poems about them. I thought of them as animals. But of course I wasn't trying simply to draw zoologically accurate portraits of them. They were animals in whom I felt I could seek my own identity, discover my own bearness and porcupinehood." Even as "our own inner life finds expression through them" the "creatures that surround us ... enter us, so that they are transformed within us." Since this is a two-way street, the porcupine seeks us out, even as we reach toward him. Like "ultra- / Rilkean angel," he is "Unimpressed--bored- / by the whirl of the stars" (by the heavenly), but "astonished" by ordinary things, salted by human use, by "hand / crafted objects / steeped in the juice of fingertips," by "clothespins that have / grabbed our body-rags by underarm and crotch."

For his part, the poet isn't so much astonished at the porcupine as he is ineluctably drawn into him. Early in the poem they merely resemble each other in seven quirky ways; they alchemize by moonlight, shit on the run, etc. But, as the mood swings from jaunty to feverish, and as Kinnell broaches his own experience directly (initially he refers to humanity in general, then to "A farmer," and finally to "I"), resemblance becomes identity: he rolls around in bed,

 

the fatty sheath of the man

melting off,

the self-stabbing coil

of bristles reversing, blossoming outward--

a red-eyed, hard-toothed, arrow-struck urchin

tossing up mattress feathers,

pricking the

woman beside me until she cries.

 

Earlier, Kinnell describes a porcupine's death in terms that accentuate its vulnerable, desperate, brutal existence but also its heroic tenacity, its Villonesque, vital lust for the salt-strewn mortal realm it leaves:

 

A farmer shot a porcupine three times

as it dozed on a tree limb. On

the way down it tore open its belly

on a broken

branch, hooked its gut,

and went on falling. On the ground

it sprang to its feet, and

paying out gut heaved

and spartled through a hundred feet of goldenrod

before

the abrupt emptiness.

 

Later, his own innards strewn over the goldenrod, glorifying the landscape, it is his own tenacity that is on display. Indeed, if the poem is self-exploration, what is discovered is the passion for earthly existence, despite its barbarousness--the Crow-like will to live.

After paying out his guts, the porcupine-poet is still dragging himself around. The death scene isn't the final one, for it enacts a death "out of which one might hope to be reborn more giving, more alive." Clearly a rebirth is imminent. Spewing his mental innards, Kinnell was "seeking home." At the moment of death he writes, "I have come to myself empty." This paradoxical conflation of selfhood and emptiness then dominates the first half of the final section:

 

And tonight I think I prowl broken

skulled or vacant as a

sucked egg in the wintry meadow, softly chuckling, blank

template of myself, dragging

a starved belly through the lichflowered acres.

 

"Shattered and essential," as Nelson interprets it, the poet "is resolved into the 'blank/template' of himself, the hollow but potent original mold that shaped him. The template is an image of renewal through regression, reminiscent of Roethke's figures for a primary and anonymous selfhood."

If Kinnell's regressions are less easeful than Roethke's, if what is left behind is relinquished with more difficulty and a sharper sense of loss, his sights nevertheless remain set on renewal, that "hope to be reborn more giving, more alive." Thus "The Porcupine" concludes with images "hollow but potent": the poet prowls

 

where

burdock looses the arks of its seed

and thistle holds up its lost blooms

and rosebushes in the wind scrape their dead limbs

for the forced-fire

of roses.

 

Out of the burdock's loss--more life. For the thistle and rosebush, death anticipates flowers. Loss and blooming balance.

At the beginning of the poem, the porcupine has had plenty to eat, but his fullness seems sterile, unnourishing--deadweight rather than lifegiving plenitude: he is "fatted," "swollen," "ballooned," and "puffed up on bast and phloem." This initial image is answered by the final ones of the poet as "sucked egg" and "blank / template," the mix of deprivation and expectancy. Pivoting on the poet-porcupine merger, enacting a renewal through regression, "The Porcupine" arcs from sterile fullness to pregnant emptiness as Kinnell comes to himself.

When he comes to himself in "The Bear," the renewal through regression takes a more straightforwardly narrative form. The poet-hunter whittles a wolf rib, hides it in blubber for the bear to ingest, and follows the trail of blood. Literally following in the bear's footsteps, resting when he does, crawling across the same stretches of bauchy ice, the hunter is guided (in some sense, taught) by his prey. And he is also sustained by it, gnashing down "a turd sopped in blood" for nourishment. Eventually he finds the carcass, eats raw flesh and drinks blood, tears the body open, crawls inside, sleeps, and in dream, becomes the bear, shamanistically reliving its ordeal of being hunted and dying. Waking reality cannot remain unchanged; indeed, he is not sure he does awake. Part hunter now, part prey, part man, part bear, he has undergone a metamorphosis--an initiation perhaps, but certainly a renewal. Winter has given way to spring. His thoughts turn to "the dam-bear" (his mate now?) and her just-born cubs. He heads off, "one / hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me" (part bear) and spends the rest of his days "wandering: wondering" (part man) about what happened.

"In the central moment of the poem," as Kinnell sees it, "the hunter opens up the bear, crawls inside, and perhaps then he becomes whole." Heavy with parataxis and anaphora, as if the poet were too weary to subordinate or vary line openings, the writing of this central moment mirrors the hunter's sheer exhaustion:

 

I hack

a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,

and tear him down his whole length

and open him and climb in

and close him up after me, against the wind,

and sleep.

 

If this essential union of the "dark, non-mental side of a person" with "the mental side" isn't easeful, neither is it merely primitive (nor, as Davie has it, literally bestial). Soul isn't bruised to pleasure body. Rather, flesh and spirit liberate each other. "Like Norman 0. Brown," Nelson observes, Kinnell "believes language can redeem the body by elevating it to consciousness. Language and consciousness can come into their own full power only by occupying the territory of the physical world. The mind's descent into the body, like the hunter's dream while he sleeps in the bear's carcass, is a submission to flesh that brings enlightenment." Though more ecstatic in mood and more attuned to the enlivening possibilities of "the mind's descent into the body," the passage Nelson quotes from The Book of Nightmares to illustrate this point reformulates the central image of "The Bear":

 

And the brain kept blossoming

all through the body, until the bones themselves could think,

and the genitals sent out wave after wave of holy desire

until even the dead brain cells

surged and fell in god-like, androgynous fantasies--

and I understood

the unicorn's phallus could have risen, after all,

directly out of thought itself.

 

The possibility of this mutual redemption is the Romantic ground of Kinnell's poetry. In "The Bear," poetry is redemption, although it is a terrible one. Kinnell returns to the key Romantic image for the organic basis of art, the Eolian harp, but what was ecstatic for Coleridge is agonizing for the hunter:

 

and now the breeze

blows over me, blows off

the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood

and rotted stomach

and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,

 

blows across

my sore, lolled tongue a song

or screech, until I think I must rise up

and dance. And I lie still.

 

"Poetry" may at first surprise in the poem's final line--made synonymous with "that sticky infusion" and "that rank flavor of blood"--but many readers will share William Heyen's impression that "on subsequent readings it seemed to me, mysteriously, what the whole poem was about." Kinnell's rhetorically climactic placement of "poetry"--the dramatic withholding, the flourish as the true subject is finally unveiled--makes strong and strange claims for his art, the power by which he lives. With "The Porcupine" and "The Bear"--watershed poems of his career--Kinnell begins to substantiate those claims. Having worked his poetic way into their wretched, vital world, he can proceed in his next book to explore this new territory with less desperation, less turd-gnashing frenzy, more love. He can bring to this hard-won, hard-bitten poetic terrain the "Tenderness toward Existence" which lighted his earlier work and which, The Book of Nightmares reveals, has always been "the dream / of all poems," his secret subject all along.

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Title Lee Zimmerman: On "The Porcupine" and "The Bear" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lee Zimmerman Criticism Target Galway Kinnell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell
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