Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares
Essay by Meagan Marshall


“To celebrate beauty we must swallow all of death.” –Czeslaw Milosz

Galway Kinnell’s punchy ten-part visionary poem, The Book of Nightmares, burrows deep into paradigmatic tropes of madness, social torment, nature, death, and birth. Influenced by Rilke’s inquiries into the effervescent sense of life derived from a full awareness of mortality, Galway renders a world in which elation and sorrow, and life and death become interwoven- a subconscious dream world that manifests a dynamic compilation of images, harmonizing in a gem of craft and voice:


effigies pressed into grass,

mummy windings,


sags incinerated mattresses gave back to the world,

memories left in mirrors on whorehouse ceilings,

angel’s wings

flagged down into the snows of yesteryear,


on the scorched earth

in the shapes of men and animals:

do not let this last hour pass,

do not remove this last, poison cup from our lips.

In brewing this surrealistic mix, this hyperbolic realm of the ‘nightmare,’ Kinnell repeatedly challenges our perceptions with a barrage of poetic idiosyncrasies, pressing us, like naïve Alice, through the looking glass of our own human experience. Yet he does not allow us to traverse alone, and rather universalizes the experience- we are all subject to night terrors, we are sometimes happy, sometimes sad, we were all born, and we will all die: “Can it ever be true—/all bodies, one body, one light/made of everyone’s darkness.”

It is in no way ironic that Kinnell chose to dedicate The Book of Nightmares to his own two children, Maud and Fergus; it is through them, through the act of witnessing their births and assuming a sense of mortal culpability, that Kinnell approaches the subject of death. In the opening section, “Under the Maud Moon,” Kinnell marks the arrival of his daughter, and is already pondering the impact that his eminent death may have upon her:

And in the days

when you find yourself orphaned,


of all wind-singing, of light,

the pieces of cursed bread on your tongue,

may there come back to you

a voice,

spectral, calling you


from everything that dies.

And then

you shall open

this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.

In this spectral world, there is life in death, the ability for “everything that dies” to call out, or perhaps to leave a trace of the life lost- perhaps a timeless book of poetry. With the invocation of an exposed, visceral urgency, Kinnell reveals that although he may wish to, he cannot shield his children from his own mortality:

Little sleep’s –head sprouting hair in the moonlight,

when I comeback

we will go out together,

we will walk out together among

the ten thousand things,

each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages

of dying is love.

Kinnell arrives at a staunch resolution in these lines, seeking a brand of salvation in the ‘knowledge’ that often comes too late. Just as there is life in death, there is also love in having lost. He cannot truly experience one emotion without the other. This soursweet love will seemingly continue into the afterlife where, in time, we may stroll with what once was lost, “among the ten thousand things.”

In the last section of his ‘nightmarish’ adventure of prose and images, Kinnell speaks to his son, urging him to find the ability to smile in the wake of death:

Sancho Fergus! Don’t cry!

Or else, cry.

On the body,

on the blued flesh, when it is

laid out, see if you can find

the one flea which is laughing.

The haunting beauty of these lines reiterates the concept of death’s duality, spiriting this carefully crafted sequence. Kinnell’s intention is not to startle or turn an indifferent shoulder to the “blued flesh,” but rather to heal the soul by owning mortality, to find every small element that is laughable, and embrace it. As Kinnell remarked in an interview for NPR, “Mortality makes everything worth more to us,”- an assertion which continues to ring true, even if it happens to be realized through a book of nightmares.