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Whirl Is King: Poems from a Life List

By: Brendan Galvin
Reviewed by: Mary Kaiser
Louisiana State University Press, 2008
$17.95, Paperback

A birdwatcher’s life list is the record, compiled over his lifetime, of all the species he has spotted, whether in his travels or while watching his backyard feeder. But the phrase suggests other meanings too—the rolls of the living, the list of what survives. In his latest collection, Whirl Is King, subtitled Poems from a Life List, Brendan Galvin compiles the poems of a passionate birdwatcher who calls himself a “failed / teetotaler of birds,” and a poet with a passion for locating and honoring what is truly alive.

A distinguished poet, National Book Award finalist for his 2005 collection Habitat, and author of fifteen collections, Galvin has been writing for many years from Cape Cod, one of the prime locations for birding in the United States, and one with a strong history of nature writers. Galvin quotes from one of these, Henry Beston, in one of the epigraphs in Whirl Is King, but the presiding spirit of this collection is an earlier chronicler of the cape Galvin refers to as “that other puritan,” Henry David Thoreau.

Like Thoreau, Galvin’s poetic imagination is grounded in the truth of close observation, from which his metaphors develop slowly, taking a surer flight for their long run along the ground of the actual. With a birder’s sharp eye, Galvin finds plenty of drama in scenes played out just beyond his window, like the moment a young hawk “picked a sparrow off a bush and back // into the pines so quick it left a contrail / a few seconds on the air.”

Following the lure of the real bird, Galvin finds some examples never granted poetic status before, including the double-crested cormorant, known as the “stink duck” and “goo loon,” with “its green mineral eyechip / and yellow gawp,” a resonant image of the value of persistence for long-term survival.

For a birdwatcher as passionate as Galvin, it is natural to identify with the bird, and all the more if the watcher is a singer too. In a number of these poems, Galvin’s speaker finds himself reflected, but the interplay of bird and poet is most richly developed in the final poem, “Transmigration.” Here, Galvin beautifully melds bird and man, arriving at the question: “What are you, a soul?” addressed to both the bird and himself, as he reviews his life as a series of gull-like forays from earth to air.

Many of these poems explore the iconography of birds throughout culture, like the connections between owls and the dead, between herons and the afterlife. After gaining his reader’s trust with a record of what’s real about birds, Galvin more than earns his leap to the transcenddental conclusion that, “a bird is a hole / in heaven through which a man may pass.” March 2009

Mary Kaiser, whose chapbook Falling Into Velázquez won the 2006 Slapering Hol Award, teaches English at Jefferson State Community College’s Shelby campus.

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