When Kinnell broke onto the scene it was as a tremendously gifted observer. What a Kingdom It Was is full of poems that are the surreal journalism of a loving eye fixed on a mad corner of a twisted and gorgeous world. Take, for example, this excerpt from "The Avenue":
The garbage-disposal truck
Like a huge hunched animal
That sucks in garbage in the place
Where other animals evacuate it
In Kinnell's early poetry, things are always in the act of doing. It is a poetry of action, a poetry in which things actually happen. It is also a poetry of fantastic words. Like Seamus Heaney, with whom he is often compared, Kinnell is a great neologist. In one poem, we hear a "roofleak whucking into a pail." In a later poem, we learn that "scritch" is the sound a pen makes writing poetry.
Kinnell's second book, here represented by eight poems, was Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock. A sorrowful tone invades these poems, as it does in a great deal of Kinnell's work. But Kinnell's sorrow is one that never accepts itself. He never seems to dwell. Always the desolation and heartbreak of the poems is tinged with the possibility of redemption. The title poem of the book, one of the collection's finest, chronicles a dawn trip up Mount Monadnock to pick flowers. Kinnell writes,
The last memory I have
Is of a flower that cannot be touched,
Through the bloom of which, all day,
Fly crazed, missing bees.
This "flower that cannot be touched" is a mystical predicament that haunts his poems. Forgotten are the flowers that could be touched, and were, and picked. All that remains is the image of this unattainable bloom, which itself contains, "crazed, missing bees." And like all great poets Kinnell has a knack for the opaque line, the line that cannot be touched at first. The adjective "missing" in this line throws us when we read it, as it is not a use we are familiar with. We assume that there is something in the bloom that is missing bees. Only at a second or third reading does the meaning reveal itself, like something in nature.
The poem ends with a meditation on a single flower in a forest. "Its drift," muses the poet, "is to become nothing." It is clear that Kinnell might not make the most productive flower herder in the wood. He writes,
In its covertness it has a way
Of uttering itself in place of itself
Its blossoms claim to float in the Empyrean
The appeal to heaven breaks off.
The petals begin to fall, in self-forgiveness.
It is a flower. On this mountainside it is dying.
Never one to state directly what he intends to mean, Kinnell here turns the flower, the pursued object of the poem, again into the thing that cannot be had. The flower turns away from the herder, and dies, in self-forgiveness. One gets the sense that the poet was holding his breath, knowing he was wandering among sacred happenings.
A beautiful short poem in the third book here collected ruminates on the poet's lost loves, the "ashes of old volcanoes." Having traced a leisurely course over some old nostalgic ground, Kinnell comes to this,
And yet I can rejoice
that everything changes, that
we go from life
and enter ourselves
like the tadpole, its time come, tumbling toward the slime.
This is characteristic of a great deal of Kinnell's sentiment. He rarely skirts a sorrowful thought or memory, but rather he lunges at it, takes it in his arms, unfolds each corner of it, lays it bare before us, and then comes to an "and yet." Always there is a sense of hope that springs from an understanding taken from the pathos. Yet even this hope is seldom left to serve as an uncomplicated finale. Though this poem must be said to end on a redemptive note, its literal end is in a tumble toward the slime.
In the more recent poems in this collection, Kinnell's voice softens and simplifies. He has several wonderful poems in later books about his son Fergus, including the oft-anthologized "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps," a poem about how Fergus, wakened by the sound of his parents' lovemaking, would appear in the doorway and crawl into bed with them, propelled by "habit of memory"to the ground of his making,/sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,/this blessing love gives again into our arms."
It is a pleasure to have here collected a great body of life-spanning work and to be able to watch as Kinnell's distinctive voice slowly pares itself down, in self-forgiveness, its drift to become nothing.