In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.
I take a wolf's rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.
And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.
And I set out
running, following the splashes
of blood wandering over the world.
At the cut, gashed resting places
I stop and rest,
at the crawl-marks
where he lay out on his belly
to overpass some stretch of bauchy ice
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.
On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and go on running.
On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.
I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
perhaps the first taint of me as he
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,
of lumbering flatfooted
over the tundra,
stabbed twice from within,
splattering a trail behind me,
splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.
Until one day I totter and fall --
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: 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,
my sore, lolled tongue a song
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.
I awaken I think. Marshlights
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue. And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the rest of my days I spend
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood,
that poetry, by which I lived?
from Body Rags, Galway Kinnell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967).
Here is the biographical info on Kinnell from The American Academy of Poets:
Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1927. He studied at Princeton University and the University of Rochester. His volumes of poetry include A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990); Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980); The Book of Nightmares (1971); Body Rags (1968); Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964); and What a Kingdom It Was (1960). He has also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, and Francois Villon, and, this year, Rainer Maria Rilke. Galway Kinnell divides his time between Vermont and New York City, where he is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. He is currently a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.
Galway Kinnell shares with William Everson the unique status of poet-shaman. Both men sought to delve beneath the Christian ethos to find the raw nature of humanity. It is through nature, for both poets, that humans can find their meaning in the world. For Kinnell, in particular, the need propelled him toward an experiential poetry that relied on vivid images and short chanting lines, and that retained the sacramental elements of his early Christian poetry in What a Kingdom It Was (1960).
Both Kinnell and Everson sought transcendence through regression, and were therefore doomed to failure. But what we get with Kinnell, and the above poem is a perfect example, is a revitalization of the lower Memes of the spiral, especially Beige and Purple. In both "The Porcupine" and "The Bear" (these are companion poems from the same book), death is a literal and figurative emptiness, an egoless void in which we become one with the earth.
In "The Porcupine," Kinnell offers a series of images suggesting parallels between humans and animals. However, in "The Bear" Kinnell transcends the separation, speaking as both man and bear--is he the bear dreaming his life as a man, or is he the man dreaming his life as a bear?
The deeper religious element of this poem is the ritualistic elements. What we have in this poem is a primal initiation ceremony. The poet who once focused on a God in the heavens is now seeking the God of Earth. The bear is symbolic of earth energy, often revered as a powerful shaman by Native Americans. To ritually kill and consume the bear, then wear its body/skin is the symbolic act of assuming the bear's power. The bear is associated with introspection, medicine and magic, and the role of the psychopomp.
The gritty detail of this poem grounds it in the real world even as we know the poet only imagines or dreams the events it describes. With this poem, Kinnell's career changed direction to an extent, moving toward a much greater focus on the interior life and a quest for the transcendent God in nature.
For further reading:
"Fergus Falling" -- From Selected Poems, reprinted at the Why Vermont? site
"Telephoning in Mexican Sunlight" -- With a statement by Kinnell, at Salon.com
Kinnell Exhibit from the Academy of American Poets
A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell