Galway Kinnell’s “Gravity” was first published in the January 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.

The prophetic tone of Galway Kinnell’s “Gravity” has held my attention for the past few weeks.

Kinnell’s National Book Award and Pulitzer were awarded decades ago, and since then he has also won the Wallace Stevens Award and a MacArthur, as well as other awards and prizes. Now, at 86, with many books in print, and with 39 poems published by The New Yorker, Kinnell has earned the right to his prophetic voice. That is not to say I haven’t been fighting it this whole time I’ve been thinking about it. At first read, the poem was so bleak it felt unfinished. But after quite a few readings, I began to see the poet was expecting something more of me. I’m feeling that the poet is using his occasion to warn his audience, and he is looking for our reply.

Looking for reader engagement is au courant. This poem, however, has what most don’t, and that is a structural element that supports and proposes such an engagement. “Gravity” has as its central metaphor:

[. . .] the black hole Cygnus X-1 that wobbles
as if boffed by an invisible companion

Where is the reader and where is the poet in this duet?

In broad scientific terms, Cygnus X-1 is an unbelievably tiny, immensely compact black hole. It is not alone, however; it is one half of a binary system, its companion being a huge and bright star (HD 226868). These two are fatally linked: one orbits the other, and slowly, slowly, the black hole absorbs the bright star. Essentially, the two are an epic pair: utter darkness and utter light. Of additional importance to this poem is the way the gravity of the black hole keeps increasing as it becomes more concentrated (maybe the way the virulence of a Fascist movement becomes more dangerous with each successive silence it effects). By its nature, anything that passes across its point of no return is absorbed and disappears.

What I want to point out is that Kinnell has picked a black hole (that has a companion star) as his central metaphor, but he never mentions, or barely mentions, that star. Cygnus X-1 cannot be understood without its star; for one thing, it feeds on it. For another, the star orbits the black hole.

Metaphorically speaking, Kinnell has fashioned a poem using only one half of a binary image — the dark half. Why has he left out the star?

This poem warns, in the strongest language, in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, of the capacity we have to be so emotionally dead that we do not discern the immensity of our bad acts. He asks, at the height of the poem, that we imagine:

[. . .] the numeral keys
totting up the number of humans
humans have killed

He mentions Ypres, a Belgian city destroyed in WWI when five successive battles were fought on its soil; he mentions the children of Nagasaki running to the river, their skin in shreds; he mentions a mourner in a military cemetery, where the markers “spread to all the horizons.” Our deadness to the horror of war is the black hole of this poem. He cites the man who is “incapable of love” and he remarks upon “emotional isolation”; and he captures this deadness of the human spirit to the cries of the murdered peoples by imagining the “millions of leaves [. . .] pressed down over the contours/of earth.” It is as if the leaves mimic our human dead, and the cold earth wears them as a mask, hiding, almost, from the living humans who live on her surface.

The prophet cries out to the people: we are dying by our own hand, we are killing with our own hand, and we are deaf to the cries of those being killed. Kinnell doesn’t use these words; these are my paraphrase of the far more blunt poem.

The poet makes a point of numbers: one deer, two kvetches, a million leaves, and “the number of humans/humans have killed.” The point is emphasized by the Eskimo curlew that used to overfly New England in immense numbers on their way to “flapping through the thin air of the Andes.” But the millions and millions of Eskimo curlew are gone from the earth. Kinnell is suggesting that we, too, could be gone from the earth: he mentions the mourner who realizes “that all of existence has been destroyed/again and again.”

When Kinnell declines to include the black hole’s other half, when he obviously and purposely refuses to talk about the black hole’s companion star, I think he is asking his readers to answer. To me, it is as if we are left to write the other half of the poem. In the language of the poem, what would be this poem’s “opposite number”?

What would our “tongue” say in reply to this poet’s “tongue”? What is the answer to war, to killing, to destroying the planet?

He does pointedly remark upon the role of hesitation; in section 4, there is the question of being “one second too late.”

This is a long poem in six sections: six times, in the closing lines of each section, Kinnell echoes the title with a variation on the theme of “Gravity.” There is seriousness (gravity) in the form. There are echoes in form of the Greek chorus, and thus of Greek tragedy, but at the same time, there is a slightly unnerving mocking quality to the “gravity” refrain as well.

Starting the poem with this word, the poet alerts us to the utter seriousness of what he is pursuing. With black hole as a central theme, he is pursuing the idea of a force that just doesn’t stop, a darkness that keeps growing. Curiously, though, he uses the refrains to speak in slightly different tones. I almost have the feeling he is echoing or talking back to different arguments that people make, different rationalizations that people use. It is as if the chorus lines mimic the ways in which we hesitate, the ways in which we put off any decisive action that would actually make a difference. And then suddenly, it’s all too late; we are at the brink of destruction — again. And to use the imagery of the poem, we are, for instance, drawn into the balck hole of war — when some other, completely different action, might have prevented war in the first place. He echoes the scientist when he says, “gravity exerts the precise force needed.” Later, though, we realize that we humans are not exerting the precise force needed. War goes on; horror abides.

In a way, these refrains are making the point that in some ways we are not bound by the laws of nature; a black hole, by its nature, must consume its companion star. In contrast, though, he hints that sometimes we are able to contravene our “atavistic soul.” Meaning: killing is in our blood. It’s an atavistic response. But sometimes we are able to wake from that dark dream. Hesitation, however, is all. Once over the point of no return, time is up. Existence is destroyed all over again.

After talking about the children of Nagasaki, the poet closes section 2 by saying that “gravity shudders at its mathematical immensity.” Several things are going on in this sentence. For one thing, an atom bomb is a thing of “mathematical immensity,” something that might make gravity itself shudder. At the same time, nature itself shudders at human violence. And in a way, gravity as an image represents us; we are the ones who should shudder: we ought to shudder at the mathematical immensity of our own cruelty.

In section 3, the poet closes by saying “gravity cannot be said to impose its will,” and in section 4, he closes by saying that “gravity cannot pause to rectify matters.” These choruses are arguing against, for one thing, the people who rely upon an interventionist god. Whatever the creator/creator force is, it is not going to intervene. Thus, the world is left to us to be the “neighbors” who offer to catch the child, or the caretakers who protect the world.

Section 5 has at its heart a wounded soldier, and for his sake “gravity/grips us to earth, and crosses its fingers.” This line talks back to the ineffectiveness of superstition, and it also echoes the power of nature, and the power of our “atavistic soul.” Gravity grips us, nature grips us, the yen for violence grips us. But there’s more to us than that, I think I hear him saying, such as when the neighbors gather to catch the child.

Curiously, just as the poet has chosen to use the image of the black hole but has chosen to omit any discussion of the black hole’s companion star, the poet also chooses to talk about gravity, but chooses to omit discussion of the other three forces in the universe, which I read about here:

There are four fundamental forces at work in the universe: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. They work over different ranges and have different strengths. Gravity is the weakest but it has an infinite range. The electromagnetic force also has infinite range but it is many times stronger than gravity. The weak and strong forces are effective only over a very short range and dominate only at the level of subatomic particles. Despite its name, the weak force is much stronger than gravity but it is indeed the weakest of the other three. The strong force, as the name suggests, is the strongest of all four fundamental interactions.

Just as the poem does not address the black hole’s partner star, it also does not address the other forces at work in the universe, especially the electro-magnetic force, which is actually stronger than gravity. A force stronger than gravity is not mentioned, but I think it is implicit in the image. We orbit the black hole of our atavistic impulses to kill, but there are stronger forces upon which we could rely.

I am no physicist, but I do know that nature is a balancing act. One star balances itself against another; one force is balanced by another. Kinnell only very slightly addresses this when he mentions the 74 beats a minute of the hummingbird’s wings.

But look at the lines in section 1. Kinnell celebrates,

[. . .] the tongue that slowly drifts
into the other’s mouth and chats
there with her opposite number

Here we have the poem’s resolution in its beginning, so to speak. There is love; there is physical love represented by the communing tongues; and there is communication in the tongues — the languages that people speak. There is hope in the tongues that people speak to one another, and when one “chats/there with her opposite number,” number is in human terms — one to one. Here is the black hole’s opposite and opposition. But Kinnell leaves it mostly to us to imagine the nature of this conversation.

If Galway Kinnell is the thundering prophet who speaks in the language of the grave, of seriousness, of gravity and its progress towards infinite gravity at the center of the black hole, then he is awaiting our awakening: to understand that human evil collects more evil unto itself unless blocked. The proposal that I think he is making is that we must to speak in the language of the companion star — the language of light. Yes, existence may have been destroyed again and again, but we have to weigh the curlew against the hummingbird, the star against the black hole, and the kvetches against the neighbors. Whose force is brighter? Destruction is the way of nature; but so is light.

The poem opens with an image of the black hole. It closes with an image of a schoolboy trying to corral the ink he has spilled. Poets spill a lot of in in their lifetime. I think Kinnell is suggesting that we need to keep on keeping on, despite the mistakes. Writing is, in fact, the black hole’s opposite, as is language.

The poem is challenging, but accessible nonetheless. I really had to take my time with it. When I say time, I mean time. I had to write 5 pages of gibberish before I began to get a coherent sense of the poem. (I’ll admit: I still like coherent poems.) I love a poem I can grasp at one reading. This is not that. I could get bits of it in one reading. It took time to begin to get a sense of the whole, and even then, I think the individual lines each have still more to yield.

For instance, in the last section, Kinnell uses the image of the black hole’s “point of no return.” Cross this point, and there is no escape. Kinnell imagines what it might be like if a human were to cross this point:

the differential between the force on the scalp
and the force on the foot sole will stretch him
into an alimentary canal as thin as a thread

That Kinnell describes the stretched human as a gut is important: we are hungry beings — for living or killing, depending on where we happen to be. Kinnell is proposing there is a moment when we cross the point of no return, when we are so dead we are unrecognizable to ourselves. Say, when we see a muttering homeless person and her shopping cart. Say, when we are asked to “name names.” Say, when we let ourselves consider the poor as separated from ourselves as definitely as if there were “concertina wire” stretched between us. Say, when we decline to catch the baby that must either be caught or die.

I like the use of the physical world. I notice that some poets have been indulging in a flirtation with science. This poem uses its central scientific image to great poetic effect, I think. There is mystery in the science itself, and it resonates in the poetry. I don’t think it’s that easy to mesh science and poetry — and I think Kinnell succeeds — but I would love to hear from a physicist on that.

While I suppose this has nothing to do with the poem, nevertheless, I treasure the opportunity to read the words of a poet who is 86. Part of the experience of poetry is to take in the persona of the poet. Great age is suspect in the United States. So glad to have this ballast against that storm.

I appreciate having had this poem to think about. I like its voice of authority. His topic is gravely serious: that we watch each other kill each other and look the other way. Not only do we have our losses, we have to cope with the deadness that the losses almost necessitate.  No wonder earth itself in this poem is wrapped in a mask of dead leaves. The subject almost demands a voice of authority. There are those who fear authoritative speech, as if maybe we will hear in that authority a lie and a liar, another Elmer Gantry, or a Stalin, or a Madoff or a Sandusky. In “Gravity,” I am happy that this 86-year-old man has assumed a voice of thundering authority. I welcome it and am grateful for it. I am listening.

Post Script: Kinnell has used the trope of the black hole before, in his 2002 poem “When the Towers Fell” (click here):

As each tower goes down, it concentrates
into itself, transforms itself
infinitely slowly into a black hole 

infinitesimally small: mass
without space, where each light,
each life, put out, lies down within us.

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