Mechanical Mythologies: A Tour of Rachel Galvin’s First Book

By Kyle Martindale



            I read Rachel Galvin’s first book, Pulleys & Locomotion, as a metaphysical tour of a tangible world.  In this strange world of machinations she invents intimate mythologies in the voice of theoretical science.  What is remarkable about this book is it offers our generation a new image of the poem: a new possibility for poetry, which is the poem as reverse-artifice, the poem as an un-curtained machine, or engine, popping and humming and naked on the stage. What’s more, this machine of the poem churns out human emotion and mythology, just as its very processes are myths themselves.  In her poems, Galvin’s lines interact as joints and levers bolted to one another, fastened by her voice.


            In moments of true poetic magic, Galvin builds these various mechanisms out of abstractions, and commits her language to showing us exactly what is going on, and precisely how things work.  She builds the poem, “When the Vision Comes, the Eye’s Engine Will Sequence Clarity,” with the unique voice of a daughter whose mother is an engineer/physicist and whose father is a prophet: “Inventive eye, that through this narrow slit / joins world to world. ... I blink binary into pulsation, / hummingbird’s thrum unaccounted, / static points of light smoothed / into motion, suspension, nexus.”  Through diction concerned with the cosmic, with birds, human blinking and the science of experience, Galvin describes and navigates the machinery of a moment, and passes into it towards origin, a divine seeking. 


            At times her diction juts into our mind so strongly that the poem is without artifice: but rather naked and beautiful as a humming engine without covering or casing, clanking like harmonic beams of steel.  What is more, these machines are greased with the personal voice, constructed by the human spirit.  She writes, “Overnight clocks had regained authority, took / metronomes for brides.”  Rarely in human history have such beautiful and inventive constructions extend so intimately from the human heart.


            In the opening section, the poems reduce their subjects like alchemy.  Her aesthetic is that of an exothermic chemical reaction, which releases energy and leaves us with raw elements, or origins. But Galvin does not always presume to present us with an answer, or land us safely at our destination: she often unravels her myths with inquiry and mystery, with the inherent sadness of the human will.  She writes, “And so, // unsure if he has prevailed, / he goes forth to find his brother.”  These lines end the poem, “Both Members of This Club,” which commits itself to common origins, to finding “the place where the river Yabbok // and the word struggle are of one root.”  In a similar voice that is simultaneously biblical, proverbial, intimate and scientific, Galvin exhibits a talent for exploding dichotomies; “Figures move naturally at fourteen frames / per second and if you have pictured me, / at this rate I will always run toward you ... motion lies in the eye.  The rest of us are still.”  Here Rachel Galvin’s fourteen frames are like the next step from Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen black-bird-theories of relativity.  What is striking about these lines is the way that intimate human emotion, particularly the speaker’s yearning for love, surfaces amidst scientific images and prophetic tone. 


            There is always movement in her poems, or a “locomotion” into new possibilities... and often these possibilities are a chance to return to origins, to when “language meets clay.”


            Musically, Galvin often syncopates, but beyond this she freely explores dissonances, whether spiritual, social or cosmic, and with vibrancy of image liberates as she laments.  In a short poem, “Interlude in the Insomniac Village,” Galvin describes a daughter abandoned by her family and by time and writes, “did she have two hearts, circling each other like maddened moths?”  Here we see not only the quality of the meter and rhythm of her language, but the benevolent invention of an image---which in itself embodies a mythology---which Galvin constantly pursues on behalf of her sisters and brothers: a gift of clarity and distance through transportive storytelling.


            Galvin has an affinity for lists, and is comfortable crafting entire poems that are essentially thematically guided lists or collages, conglomerations.  She may well describe her own poetry when she writes “Perhaps it is a collage that contains a live butterfly.” 


            In many of her poems, Galvin employs what I might call a ‘reverse-artifice,’ in which she animates a world with her pulleys and levers, but rather than the conventional way of dramatic productions, she pivots the stage and raises the curtain, so that every humming engine, every machine of brilliant and rusty parts alike are front and center, a revelation of a newly invented, mythology of human voice and origin.


            In a contemporary world concerned with the dissonances between science and religious mythologies, Galvin guides us down a road of thought and inquiry from every possible angle, a perspective that is altogether inclusive and inquisitive and concerned for the pluralities of secret lives, a voice “with an ear to the ignition” which tells us stories about ourselves which we have never known: “In the old stories, if you whistled, / the light would come to you out of curiosity.”  Galvin’s faith is in the soul’s speculation, in the desire “to solve, from all equations bundled, / for the genuine variable---apex--- / mathesis singularis, a voice issuing from a thicket ... transforming / pigment back to element.”