811: The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell

by Gerard

811.54: Kinnell, Galway. The Book of Nightmares. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. 75 pp. ISBN 0-395-12098-5.

While trying to finish another book for today, I got sidetracked and stumbled into this wonderful collection of 1970s American poetry. It’s a shame that all of American poetry gets jammed into 811. There’s so much to choose from, starting the colonial Puritans of the 1620s to current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. My selection for this section is one my favorites (my other favorites include Wallace Stevens, A.R. Ammons, and Gabriel Gudding).

A decade before he won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Galway Kinnell issued a small book-length poem entitled The Book of Nightmares. It centers around the birth of his children, their meaning to him, and the pain he sees in the world around himself. It is at once a treatise of hope and tragedy.

And she who is born,
she who sings and cries,
she who begins the passage, her hair
sprouting out,
her gums budding for her first spring on earth,
the mist still clining about
her face, puts
her hand
into her father’s mouth, to take hold of
his song.

Kinnell lives and writes in the place before disgust has a voice, before nightmares have shape. He masterfully combines his anger over the Vietnam War with his tender attention to his two children, in one movement promising to guard them until the last danger is vanquished and, in another, justifiably recoiling from the horror of war.

A piece of flesh gives off
smoke in the field–

caput mortuum,
gurry dumped from hospital trashcans.

This corpse will not stop burning!

As you can also see, you will need to have a hefty dictionary handy to parse the author’s limitless vocabulary. My regular Webster’s had a conniption trying to define some of the words, so I had to turn to my Oxford English Dictionary instead. You will have to read this a few times before the images soak in. It’s pretty heady stuff, but in the end you will be better for it.