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On "The Porcupine" and "The Bear"

John Hobbs

The problem of illustrating man's sacred bond with nature by hunting comes up in "The Wolves" and again in "The Porcupine." . . .

In "The Porcupine," a companion piece to "The Bear" in Body Rags, Kinnell describes a farmer shooting a porcupine asleep in a tree and concludes:

The Avesta
puts porcupine killers
into hell for nine generations, sentencing them
to gnaw out
each other's hearts for the
salts of desire.

The hunters are condemned to become porcupines themselves, a parallel to the ending of "The Bear." . . .

The animal dream parallels the strange transformation in "The Porcupine" from man to animal. As in "The Bear" it occurs only after the animal's death, and the identification is for the purpose of re-enacting the death but in human terms. Here it is Kinnell himself rather than a persona.

I roll
this way and that in the great bed, under
the quilt
that mimics this country of broken farms and woods,
the fatty sheath of the man
melting off,
the self-stabbing coil
of bristles reversing, blossoming outward—
a red-eyed, hard-toothed, arrow-stuck urchin
tossing up mattress feathers,
pricking the
woman beside me until she cries.

The porcupine's "self-stabbing coil/of bristles" resembles the uncoiled bone in the bear's stomach. In both cases, the injury is internally caused. Like the bloody trail of the bear, the gut of the porcupine hooks on a branch, so in running away it can only go so far. Death is emptiness. The poet imitates the porcupine's death:

and among flowers
I have come to myself empty, the rope
strung out behind me
in the fall sun
suddenly glorified with all my blood.

Blood links man and animal here as it does in "The Bear."

from "Galway Kinnell's 'The Bear': Dream and Technique." Modern Poetry Studies 5.3 (1974).

John Hobbs

In Galway Kinnell's poem "The Bear," a hunter stalks the bear to its death, falls asleep exhausted, dreams he becomes the bear, and then awakens somehow changed into a creature half-bear, half-man. The poem's strength and its problems hinge upon the hunter persona Kinnell adopts, attempting to fuse the consciousness of a modern man with that of a primitive Eskimo. This persona means that the poet must move through the technical realism of hunting to its metaphysical implications without spoiling one or the other, as he tries to illustrate man's sacred bond with nature by the simple, brutal hunting of the bear. Given the distance from Kinnell's ordinary experience, it may be helpful first to examine the literary contexts of the poem—its sources and analogues—in order to see how the poet resolves these conflicts between meaning and realism.

Speaking of the origins of "The Bear" in an interview, Kinnell said,

I guess I had just read Cummings' poem on Olaf, who says, "there is some shit I will not eat." It struck me that that rather implies that some of our diet, if not all, is shit. And then I remembered this bear story, how the bear's shit was infused with blood, so that the hunter by eating the bear's excrement was actually nourished by what the bear's wound infused into it.

Kinnell's poem transcends this excremental level, but it is worth looking at the transformation-what he got from the Cummings' poem and the bear story, and how he used it to fashion the poetic world of "The Bear." In "i sing of Olaf glad and big," E. E. Cummings tells with mocking anger the story of a C. O. who rejects patriotism as a reason for killing. For this, Olaf is savagely punished by the officers and men, and thrown into prison where he dies. Despite the anger, the poem has a strange satirical tone. For him,

and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat—
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some s. I will not eat"

For Kinnell to link Olaf's defiant phrase with actual human diets suggests a preoccupation with the interdependence of the lowest and highest forms of life. He does explore this idea in other poems of Body Rags: "The Fly" ("And yet we say our last goodbye / to the fly last") and "The Fossels" ("light-headed / as a lizard on hind legs") are examples. More relevant is an essay in which Kinnell, praising Walt Whitman's insight that "all of our being must be loved, if we are to love any of it," extends the idea:

I have often thought there should be a book called Shit, telling us that what comes out of the body is no less a part of reality, no less sacred, than what goes into it; only a little less nourishing. It's a matter of its moment in the life-cycle: food eaten is on the cross, at its moment of sacrifice, while food eliminated is at its moment of ascension.

Cummings' poem was, then, more an incidental stimulus than a source for "The Bear." Its moral is against killing while Kinnell's poem is about hunting, but its anal imagery and degrading torture do correspond to the agony first of the bear and then of the hunter in his dream.

Closer to "The Bear" is our next link between the metaphorical excrement of Cummings' poem and the actual excrement of the hunting story Kinnell recalled. Other versions of the action doubtless exist, but it appears likely that the story came from the first chapter of Top of the World, a popular adventure novel by Hans Ruesch. Ruesch fashions rudimentary characters and plots from the raw material of anthropological accounts of Eskimo life, emphasizing their most intriguing habits of diet, hygiene, and sex. In Chapter One two men come upon a polar bear while seal hunting. To them, "Bear was man's biggest prize. Man was bear's biggest prize. Here it had not yet been decided whether man or bear was the crown of creation" (p. 5), an equality of hunter and prey that underlies the exchange of being in Kinnell’s poem.

The differences between Kinnell's hunter and the two Eskimos are many. Where Kinnell's solitary hunter proceeds by careful planning, Ruesch's hunters are spontaneous, childlike, and instinctive in killing the bear. They confront it, trail it by sight, and gleefully take the bear meat back to share it with their proud families. Kinnell's hunter looks for bear signs, sets his trap, and then roams the tundra looking for the blood trail he can follow to the bear's carcass. Ruesch emphasizes the great fatigue of the Eskimos chasing the bear without rest for days, while Kinnell's hunter seems to run for a magic seven days without weariness. The novel gives the reader a much stronger sense of the actual bear. When pierced by the bone, it gave a "long anguished moan . . . turned on his heels and shuffled off yammering . . . . Stumbling and wailing" (p. 7). In the poem we don't even see the bear until it dies on the seventh day. Blood is more important to the poem than to the novel. The Eskimos drink the blood for sustenance at the end, but they don't trail it by "splashes / of blood." The blood trail seems to be a more vivid than realistic image in Kinnell's poem and one key to its meaning: "that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that / poetry, by which I lived." These differences emphasize Kinnell's attempts to go beyond the realistic limits of his persona, the primitive Eskimo hunter.

This attempt can also be seen in the two crucial points at which poem and novel overlap—eating the bear's excrement, and preparing the coiled bone. Ruesch emphasizes how little hunger bothers the hunters, for "This was the Hunt—the very essence of life."

They ate nothing but the bear’s droppings that were streaked with blood, and after the beast was gutted of everything but fear and pain, and hunger came knocking at the walls of their stomachs, Ernenek said:
        "Somebody is hungry." (p. 8)

Contrast this matter-of-fact report with Kinnell's careful description:

On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and rise
and go on running.

The verb sequence—"bend down," "hesitate," "pick it up," "thrust," "gnash it down"—extends and slows the action, showing the balance between disgust and fatalistic acceptance. If this act was the origin of the poem, it might explain the emphasis that otherwise violates by delicacy the account of a tough, native hunter.

No such delicacy intensifies the parallel descriptions of making the bait in Ruesch and Kinnell. As soon as Anarvik spots the bear, he prepares to get it "in the usual, proven fashion."

With his flint knife Anarvik had carved a long splint from his whalerib bow and sharpened the ends. He coiled the splint in his hand and released it suddenly to test its resilience. Then he pulled out a chunk of blubber he had been warming within his clothes, against his stomach. He kneaded the blubber into a ball, swiftly, before it could freeze, and pressed the tightly coiled whalebone splint into it. The blubber ball hardened instantly on the ice. (p.6)

Kinnell condenses this preparation to the basic details:

I take a wolf's rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.

Again the verb sequence controls the description—"take," "whittle," "coil," "freeze," "place." Kinnell emphasizes the techniques of hunting in the first half of the poem. The weapon to kill the bear defines the relationship between hunter and prey. A gun would violate their bond while the device carved from bone and hidden in fat is part of the arctic world they share. Furthermore, only a slow death allows the long pursuit that makes an allegory of life out of the hunting trip. It is this Eskimo realism that Kinnell apparently borrows from Ruesch's account as the metaphorical basis for his metaphysical dream.

[. . . .]

The hunting technology in "The Bear" may be primitive, but the first half focuses steadily on the hunter's preparations—making the bait, and then stalking the wounded bear. As we have already seen in two sections, Kinnell organizes the whole poem by verb sequences that sound almost like instructions. Thus, in the first section the hunter progresses from "glimpse" to "know."

In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
and know
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.

Connected by "and" without grammatical subordination, his actions all have the same importance. No step is more essential than any other; only the sequence counts. These are the plans of an experienced hunter, not a novice. He knows just how to find a bear under the snow. Later in the poem this routine leads him into a new, singular experience, but no sharp line can be drawn between the old hunter and new visionary, between habit and dream. From the beginning, Kinnell's imagination deepens realism. "Lung-colored" gives a concreteness to the bear's breath. The adjectives "chilly" and "enduring" extend the meaning of the bear's smell. Such general and metaphorical perceptions transcend the practical needs of the hunter.

Deeper meanings also surface in part two when he describes coming to "the first, tentative, dark / splash on the earth," where "tentative" sounds more like a human gesture than a bear's bleeding. He then starts to run, "following the splashes / of blood wandering over the world," an expansion of his arctic territory to give the search the status of life itself, a metaphor clarified later when he says "the rest of my days I spend / wandering." We can see why he imitates the bear's crawling over weak ice, "dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists" like claws. Why "At the cut, gashed resting places / I stop and rest" (places cut and gashed like the bear), is harder to see. The second imitation seems more magical than practical for the hunter. The longer he hunts the bear, living by the end "on bear blood alone," the more he assumes the bear's identity, a process completed when he dreams inside the bear's carcass. In an essay Kinnell quotes from, Gary Snyder defines primitive hunting magic:

To hunt means to use your body and sense to the fullest: to strain your consciousness to feel what the deer are thinking today, this moment; to sit still and let your self so into the birds and wind while waiting by a game trail. Hunting magic is designed to bring the game to you—the creature who has heard your song, witnessed your sincerity, and out of compassion comes within your range.

Perhaps an instinctive use of such imitative magic explains the hunter's actions and supports their extension to the dream later.

In another departure from realism, Kinnell rearranges time in "The Bear" to emphasize the hunter's techniques. The way to find bear under snow and to make bait take the first thirteen lines. Two days of pursuit receive ten more lines to explain his resting and the way to crawl over thin ice. One event is told from the third day—picking up the bear's excrement. Then four days are omitted. He finds the carcass on the seventh day, a symbolic end of the task. In the dream (sections 5-6) he returns in the bear's identity to the seven days of the hunt. Then the hunter half-awakens to resume the life represented by the bear when alive, moving toward its death once again when "one day I totter and fall." Even his dream moves by technique and sequence; first, how to escape the blood trail, and second, how the stomach tries to digest the bone. Time and description follow techniques until the dream doubles back to the past, yet even the dream follows a similar sequence of actions.

When he finally catches up with the dying bear, his description is cold and remote without being realistic either ("I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled, / steamy hulk."). The terms could apply to a human opponent just as well.

I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
the dismayed
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
flared, catching
perhaps the first taint of me as he died.

That the hunter's odor would be a "taint" suggests his readiness to take the bear's view of humanity. Compare Ruesch's hunters at the bear's death.

The end came suddenly. All at once the bear gave up. As though he had decided that if he had to die he might as well die with dignity, he squatted on his hindquarters, put his forepaws in his lap, and waited. Round his neck was a pink napkin of frozen froth. He held his ears flat and his teeth bared as in a sneer. No longer did he cry. Only the white clouds of respiration came fast and raspy and his little bloodshot eyes moved helplessly. (p. 10)

Ruesch makes the reader see the bear in his last agony. Kinnell conveys its generalized despair but without animal detail. The two Eskimos gut the bear, eat some brains and blood, and start right back to their village. Kinnell's hunter drinks the blood directly and then climbs into the carcass.

I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.

Again the verb sequence elaborates his simple actions. The movement from "hack" to "sleep" spans the distance between technique and dream.

Now both the hunter and the hunted, he dreams back to the bear's wounding. Instead of following the trail of blood, he now tries to escape it but can't,

splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.

The noun sequence moves from the abstract to the concrete, a progressive narrowing of possibilities: from transcendence of a state of being, to ordered loneliness, next a collapsing toward the earth, and finally nothing more than painful movement and lament.

The bear's death follows the same pattern as the other actions, progressing from the technical—here physiology—to the dream of dancing again, the transcendence of limitations. The stomach of the bear is like the self trying to cope with life.

Until one day I totter and fall—
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: and now the breeze
blows over me, blows off
hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood
and rotted stomach
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,
blows across
my sore, lolled tongue a song
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.

The human reactions to the "hideous belches" and the "wretched odor of bear" show the man within the bear—self-disgust.

[. . . .]

In both poems the transformation of man to animal remains incomplete—an animal body with a human consciousness. In "The Bear" his dream alters reality, so that "I awaken I think," uncertain about his return to everyday life. Still half-bear, his thoughts turn to his mate, the female bear the hunter first spotted under the snow (st. 1).

In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lies, licking
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue . . .

Death coincides with birth; life begins for others as he nears by sure steps the end of his. In the spring natural processes resume, and "geese / come trailing again up the flyway." But his own life continues unchanged. Instead of progressing, this sequence repeats the first step, although his trudging carries with it a dream from the past, a question of life.

                And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the next,
the next,
the next,
the rest of my days I spend
wandering: wondering
what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry,
        by which I lived?

Half-bear with its "hairy-soled trudge," he is also the hunter "wandering" again as he wandered looking for the trail of blood before (st. 2).

As he wanders, he asks himself the question with three definitions from concrete to abstract (once again technique to dream): "sticky infusion," "rank flavor of blood," "poetry." On the realistic level, no question is called for. As Kinnell explains in the interview, "the hunter by eating the bear's excrement was actually being nourished by what the bear's wound infused into it"—the "sticky infusion." Both the hunter and Kinnell seek a deeper answer, but calling this essence "poetry" may be misleading.

Judging by the ending, then, should the whole poem be interpreted as an allegory of the poet? Kinnell sees this possibility but feels ambivalent about it.

The idea that that poem was about the creative process never occurred to me until later, when I heard some people say that it might be. I don't really know what it's about. I guess it was Robert Bly who first suggested it, that the hunter was the mental person and the bear was the body and the unconscious, that when they came together then the poem was possible. He made it very persuasive to me, so that I see that it's one thing the poem must mean. But when I wrote "that poetry, by which I lived," I didn't have in mind at all the poetry which is written down on pages. I was thinking rather of poetry ill another sense.

He goes ahead to describe the nourishing excrement idea as suggested by Cummings' poem and the bear story: "It occurred to me that that is the 'poetry' in our lives; whatever allows us to flourish, that is the poetry." That a poet would name the essence of life "poetry" seems natural, however confusing. But it is a problem for Kinnell's persona, since he is the one saying it. The narrow sense of "poetry" here seems alien to the hunter's mind and experience. Throughout the poem, the verb sequences modulate between his technical approach and the dream level of perception. But to label this dream "poetry" limits the poem to Bly's allegory. Little else in the text supports this limitation, so it may be a mistake to introduce "poetry" just at the end of "The Bear" where the reader looks hardest for a meaning.

Kinnell has his own ideas on the use of a persona, how it can either lead the poet deeper into himself, or let him evade the realities of his life by oversimplification.

A persona has its uses, and also its dangers. In theory, it would be a way to get past the self, to dissolve the barrier between poet and reader. Writing in the voice of another, the poet would open himself to that person. All that would be required would be for the reader to make the same act of sympathetic identification, and, in the persona, poet and reader would meet as one.

The idea that poet and reader can merge in the persona may explain why Kinnell offers little in the way of characterization of his primitive hunter to distinguish him from modern men. Since the persona is not defined as one or the other, he can move at will between hunting and metaphysics. The reader may feel that Kinnell both complicates the hunter's problems and simplifies the poet's own view of life. For as Kinnell admits, it is hard to say just what "The Bear" is finally about. Many partial meanings enrich the text. Technique without dream is meaningless. Physicality is both man's pleasure and his ultimate agony. Man and animals are part of a single creation. The hunter can become the hunted. Etc. Yet no one of these meanings appears to dominate the others, because the hunter persona doesn't permit intellectual subordination and its resulting clarity. Like the many verbs connected by "and," everything exists on the same level for the hunter, despite KinneIl's attempts to suggest a significant hierarchy.

This intellectual confusion, however, may itself be part of the poem's theme. To the question of a conflict between the sacredness of all life and killing the bear, we can see that the hunter slowly becomes the bear, even after its death. Thus, he both causes and shares its agony as a fellow creature. In a sense, the hunter hunts and kills himself. He imitates the bear in stalking it, he climbs into its carcass to sleep, and dreams it back to life, a dream he cannot wake from completely. The bear has changed him forever, and it is not an easy change for him to accept. Half-bear, half-man, he must suffer for both kinds of being, must both kill and be killed. Kinnell, again quoting Gary Snyder, agrees that the "archaic and primitive ritual dramas, which acknowledged all sides of human nature, including the destructive, demonic, and ambivalent, were liberating and harmonizing." In its inclusion of life and death, hunting is surely one of these ritual dramas as Kinnell's hunter enacts it, a ritual of rules and careful preparations. For Kinnell’s primitive hunter experiences his own death, yet goes beyond it. This experience also fits Kinnell's idea of poetry's highest achievement:

The death of the self I seek, in poetry and out of poetry, is not a drying up or withering. It is a death, yes, but a death out of which one might hope to be reborn more giving, more alive, more open, more related to the natural life.

from "Galway Kinnell's 'The Bear': Dream and Technique." Modern Poetry Studies 5.3 (1974).

Cary Nelson

"The Porcupine" and "The Bear" are the first full fruition of his new sophistication with its harsh realism, though they deal more with American archetypes than with specific historical events. Nonetheless, Kinnell's vision now must be achieved within the poem, and he can no longer write without cost. With these two poems Kinnell abandons the pose of Whitmanesque generosity toward what he describes and openly shapes external events into rites of self-discovery. The poems are sustained by conventions of narrative; they do not attempt new forms because Kinnell is not prepared to risk the privileged status of poetic language. Yet he no longer assumes that his diction of mystical emptiness will touch the reader through a power already invested in the words themselves. He begins to concentrate on the act of writing, rather than resting satisfied with the priestly function of poetic speech.

Though the two poems have many similarities, an important further change in Kinnell's poetic practice takes place between them. Roughly, it is a change from comparison to direct statement. "The Porcupine" is a carefully constructed series of parallels between the animal and the poem's speaker; it is a structurally more sophisticated version of the mythic allusiveness in his earlier poetry. The comparisons between the porcupine and the man depend on the poem's overt mechanics, but they do succeed. In "The Bear," however, Kinnell goes further; he achieves a visionary rhetoric that speaks simultaneously from animal and man. This poem plays a decisive role in his career, more decisive than Williams's early poem "The Wanderer," in which Williams plunges into the Passaic River to be merged with it, much as Kinnell's hunter climbs into the bear's carcass. Both "The Bear" and "The Wanderer" are rites of passage that generate a spiritual metamorphosis. For Kinnell the change is also deeply physical.

To follow this development we must begin with "The Porcupine." Its comparisons between man and porcupine are initially lighthearted. Like us, the porcupine "puts his mark on outhouses" and "chuckles softly to himself when scared." Like us, he hesitates at thresholds, and "his eyes have their own inner redness." Conveniently, our paths cross unawares. The porcupine is a lover of salt, so he gnaws wood-handled tools, all "crafted objects / steeped in the juice of fingertips." For him, as for us, "the true / portion of the sweetness of earth" is a human tear. The connection also works the other way. The scriptures of Zoroastrianism sentence porcupine killers to hell, where they will "gnaw out / each other's hearts" in pursuit of a less substantial sweat--the "salts of desire." The man of the poem is himself a human porcupine, with a "self-stabbing coil / of bristles reversing, blossoming outward." His quills, apparent in feeling and action, grow out of an inward flagellation. He tosses in bed, under a quilt that mimics the patchwork countryside of farms over which the porcupine roams, and his restlessness wakes the woman beside him. The speaker describes himself as a secular Saint Sebastian, tortured by invisible arrows; his incarnation is for a more ordinary martyrdom.

The poem's descriptions of suffering are handled with graceful wistfulness, leaving us just barely wary of what is to come. The casual, openly artificial, and even gratuitous parallels between man and porcupine put us at ease for a more radical comparison. Stuffed with his varied provender, willow flowers and choice young leaves, the porcupine in the first section drags himself through "roses and goldenrod, into the stubbly high fields." Then, midway through the poem, a porcupine sleeping in a tree is shot by a farmer. [In "Galway Kinnell: A Conversation," Kinnell reports that he had killed a porcupine a few days before starting the poem]. The porcupine that was "he" becomes "it." The shift from the personal pronoun signals a moment of violent, impersonal apotheosis. As it falls, it tears open its belly on a sharp branch, hooks its gut, and goes on falling:

On the ground

it sprang to its feet, and

paying out gut heaved

and spartled through a hundred feet of goldenrod


the abupt emptiness

The porcupine's death descends like a guillotine; there is its terror, then nothing. But our own emptiness may be anticipated; we can learn to recognize its power to sustain us. We may dream of death as an indecipherable message, but its real impact strikes us in that physical vulnerability we experience in the porcupine's fleshly death. We too have "fallen from high places," but we must fall again, even embrace our own mortality, before we can truly possess our loss. Like Hopkins, another of his spiritual mentors, Kinnell would render his ecclesiastical concerns in images of earthly incarnation.

I too, he writes, have fled "over fields of goldenrod" to discover the self's true home. In the midst of those flowers among whose blossoms the porcupine's guts are scattered

I have come to myself empty, the rope
strung out behind me
in the fall sun
suddenly glorified with all my blood.

The man's wounds are psychic; the rope of his past is metaphorically intestinal. But all his pain can be transfigured by the image of himself emptied. Beyond fear, in possession of a radiant emptiness, again like the porcupine, he finds himself "softly chuckling." He discovers an image of himself "broken / skulled," shattered and essential, "or vacant as a / sucked egg in the wintry meadow." He is resolved into the "blank / template" of himself, the hollow but potent original mold that shaped him. The template is an image of renewal through regression, reminiscent of Roethke's figures for a primary and almost anonymous selfhood. The goldenrod then is replaced by images of rebirth through disavowed substance, of burdock that "looses the arks of its seed," of thistle that "holds up its lost blooms." The roses of the first stanza become images of desolate yearning: They "scrape their dead limbs / for the forced-fire / of roses." But a wind is moving over the earth, and its force gives witness to a more ethereal or transitory flame.

Both "The Porcupine" and "The Bear" generate increasing emotional intensity as they proceed. Because "The Porcupine" develops in a series of parallel passages, its movement is somewhat uneven, but "The Bear" carries us in an unbroken arc to its destination. Each depends on a highly visual narrative, but "The Bear" in particular is impossible to separate from the images of the hunt it induces in the reader. Unlike many of the more abstract poems preceding The Book of Nightmares, these two will survive as integral, self-sufficient works precisely because of their narrative and visual singularity. The special power of "The Bear" is that its very specificity makes it remarkably universal. It is an experience we are unlikely to undergo, but it nevertheless applies to all of us. As Comito observes, "Kinnell's protagonists are sometimes prototypically American in their hunger to find images of themselves in the world."

bear.jpg (32886 bytes)The solitary hunt undertaken at great risk, a recurrent American motif, traditionally serves as a rite of initiation. The poem does not, however, simply describe a passage into manhood. It is also conventional for the successful hunter to acquire, at least symbolically, some of the powers of his prey. Yet the bear's characteristics are not merely adapted to become human attributes; the figure at the end combines the perspectives of both species with superb economy. The narrative prepares us for that visionary metamorphosis in the second half of the poem. The arctic hunter first discovers the bear when he fills his lungs with its scent. It is a "chilly, enduring odor"; its source can be occupied but not eliminated. The preparations are disciplined and reverential. The hunter coils a sharpened wolf's rib and freezes it in blubber. The bear will not be found unless it willingly takes into itself this human instrument; it is a totemic figure for the man and his intent. If the bear swallows the bait, the fat will melt and the bone will pierce his gut. When the bait has vanished, the hunter wanders in circles until he finds the bear's blood staining the snow.

Now the hunter must endure his trial; the dying bear will be teacher. Where the beast rests, he will rest. Where the beast stretches out to drag itself over unsteady ice with its claws, the man too lies down to pull himself forward with bear knives. He must not only follow the bear's trail, but must also duplicate its movements. In this silent ritual, the animal is the man's dance-master. Then the hunter begins to starve, and he must make a choice--to humiliate himself or to die. If he would live, he must eat the bear's excrement; it is soaked with nourishing blood. Many readers find this scene intolerable. They will not understand the poem unless they realize that the choice not to eat the bear's excrement--and some of us may be certain we would not despite starvation--is really the more extraordinary option. He hesitates, as perhaps the bear hesitated at the blubber set out for him, gnashes it down and goes on running.

Now each has swallowed something of the other. The circle will shortly be closed. On the seventh day the hunter will rest, and when he wakens a new world will fill his senses. He sees the bear's body ahead. Possibly, he muses, the bear caught his scent before it died. He eats the flesh raw, cuts the animal open and climbs into its warm carcass to sleep. Into this tomb, which is also the womb of the earth's substance, the hunter descends to dream of death and be reborn.

He dreams "of lumbering flatfooted / over the tundra," of being "stabbed twice from within." Whatever way he lurches, whatever "parabola of bear-transcendence" or "dance of solitude" he attempts, his blood splatters a trail behind him. This is a dream of the bear's ordeal, but with a human edge. It is as though the animal is startled and terrified by a sudden consciousness of its own physicality. Ordinarily the bear is threatened only by external aggressors. Now, like man self-tortured by every gesture, the bear is wounded internally. Like a man, the animal is driven to outleap its substance. It reaches for a solitude that only men can know--in which the whole material world appears to the mind as otherness at a distance. But the bear falls back to earth; the distance can only be bridged by assimilation.

"The Bear" is a poem about American consciousness in search of its true body. It succeeds in describing a bodily consciousness that is instinctive, communal, at one with the land, but it can only offer this vision at a fatalistic distance. The poet does identify with the hunter, presumably an Eskimo, but to preserve the myth of the hunt he has to choose an arctic setting popularly known as the last wilderness. So the poem is itself a final gesture toward an option most of us have lost. It commemorates a poetic ritual in which the body is finally given to utter its own mortal speech. The poem begins in late winter, in desolation and in need, but it ends when the hunter awakens to hear migratory geese returning in the spring. The dam-bear is waking; the man's sleep has been a gestatory hibernation. When he wakes, he measures time in seasonal and bodily rhythms, not with impossible human yearnings. He now walks, it seems, with the bear's feet with a "hairy-soled trudge." And he wonders what "was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that / poetry, by which I lived?" The mystery of the poem is this--that in America blood is the spirit's true poetry. No longer, therefore, is this Christ's blood; now it is the blood of a land shared by American creatures and the American people. Poetry is now the ritual that traverses the distance between them, the ideal landscape in which they interchange a communality. What Kinnell still must learn, however, is that this violent commingling has a history more immediate and intransigent than any archetype.

By Cary Nelson. From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Lee Zimmerman

The real setting of these poems is the poet's consciousness ... so porcupine and bear are not integrated, separate beings out there in the world that the poet can long to be with or admire and move on. They operate both in the world and in the poet's mind. Evoking them in poetry becomes a dig into the unexplored self: "For me those animals had no specific symbolic correspondences as I wrote the poems about them. I thought of them as animals. But of course I wasn't trying simply to draw zoologically accurate portraits of them. They were animals in whom I felt I could seek my own identity, discover my own bearness and porcupinehood." Even as "our own inner life finds expression through them" the "creatures that surround us ... enter us, so that they are transformed within us." Since this is a two-way street, the porcupine seeks us out, even as we reach toward him. Like "ultra- / Rilkean angel," he is "Unimpressed--bored- / by the whirl of the stars" (by the heavenly), but "astonished" by ordinary things, salted by human use, by "hand / crafted objects / steeped in the juice of fingertips," by "clothespins that have / grabbed our body-rags by underarm and crotch."

For his part, the poet isn't so much astonished at the porcupine as he is ineluctably drawn into him. Early in the poem they merely resemble each other in seven quirky ways; they alchemize by moonlight, shit on the run, etc. But, as the mood swings from jaunty to feverish, and as Kinnell broaches his own experience directly (initially he refers to humanity in general, then to "A farmer," and finally to "I"), resemblance becomes identity: he rolls around in bed,

the fatty sheath of the man
melting off,
the self-stabbing coil
of bristles reversing, blossoming outward--
a red-eyed, hard-toothed, arrow-struck urchin
tossing up mattress feathers,
pricking the
woman beside me until she cries.

Earlier, Kinnell describes a porcupine's death in terms that accentuate its vulnerable, desperate, brutal existence but also its heroic tenacity, its Villonesque, vital lust for the salt-strewn mortal realm it leaves:

A farmer shot a porcupine three times
as it dozed on a tree limb. On
the way down it tore open its belly
on a broken
branch, hooked its gut,
and went on falling. On the ground
it sprang to its feet, and
paying out gut heaved
and spartled through a hundred feet of goldenrod
the abrupt emptiness.

Later, his own innards strewn over the goldenrod, glorifying the landscape, it is his own tenacity that is on display. Indeed, if the poem is self-exploration, what is discovered is the passion for earthly existence, despite its barbarousness--the Crow-like will to live.

After paying out his guts, the porcupine-poet is still dragging himself around. The death scene isn't the final one, for it enacts a death "out of which one might hope to be reborn more giving, more alive." Clearly a rebirth is imminent. Spewing his mental innards, Kinnell was "seeking home." At the moment of death he writes, "I have come to myself empty." This paradoxical conflation of selfhood and emptiness then dominates the first half of the final section:

And tonight I think I prowl broken
skulled or vacant as a
sucked egg in the wintry meadow, softly chuckling, blank
template of myself, dragging
a starved belly through the lichflowered acres.

"Shattered and essential," as Nelson interprets it, the poet "is resolved into the 'blank/template' of himself, the hollow but potent original mold that shaped him. The template is an image of renewal through regression, reminiscent of Roethke's figures for a primary and anonymous selfhood."

If Kinnell's regressions are less easeful than Roethke's, if what is left behind is relinquished with more difficulty and a sharper sense of loss, his sights nevertheless remain set on renewal, that "hope to be reborn more giving, more alive." Thus "The Porcupine" concludes with images "hollow but potent": the poet prowls

burdock looses the arks of its seed
and thistle holds up its lost blooms
and rosebushes in the wind scrape their dead limbs
for the forced-fire
of roses.

Out of the burdock's loss--more life. For the thistle and rosebush, death anticipates flowers. Loss and blooming balance.

At the beginning of the poem, the porcupine has had plenty to eat, but his fullness seems sterile, unnourishing--deadweight rather than lifegiving plenitude: he is "fatted," "swollen," "ballooned," and "puffed up on bast and phloem." This initial image is answered by the final ones of the poet as "sucked egg" and "blank / template," the mix of deprivation and expectancy. Pivoting on the poet-porcupine merger, enacting a renewal through regression, "The Porcupine" arcs from sterile fullness to pregnant emptiness as Kinnell comes to himself.

When he comes to himself in "The Bear," the renewal through regression takes a more straightforwardly narrative form. The poet-hunter whittles a wolf rib, hides it in blubber for the bear to ingest, and follows the trail of blood. Literally following in the bear's footsteps, resting when he does, crawling across the same stretches of bauchy ice, the hunter is guided (in some sense, taught) by his prey. And he is also sustained by it, gnashing down "a turd sopped in blood" for nourishment. Eventually he finds the carcass, eats raw flesh and drinks blood, tears the body open, crawls inside, sleeps, and in dream, becomes the bear, shamanistically reliving its ordeal of being hunted and dying. Waking reality cannot remain unchanged; indeed, he is not sure he does awake. Part hunter now, part prey, part man, part bear, he has undergone a metamorphosis--an initiation perhaps, but certainly a renewal. Winter has given way to spring. His thoughts turn to "the dam-bear" (his mate now?) and her just-born cubs. He heads off, "one / hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me" (part bear) and spends the rest of his days "wandering: wondering" (part man) about what happened.

"In the central moment of the poem," as Kinnell sees it, "the hunter opens up the bear, crawls inside, and perhaps then he becomes whole." Heavy with parataxis and anaphora, as if the poet were too weary to subordinate or vary line openings, the writing of this central moment mirrors the hunter's sheer exhaustion:

I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.

If this essential union of the "dark, non-mental side of a person" with "the mental side" isn't easeful, neither is it merely primitive (nor, as Davie has it, literally bestial). Soul isn't bruised to pleasure body. Rather, flesh and spirit liberate each other. "Like Norman 0. Brown," Nelson observes, Kinnell "believes language can redeem the body by elevating it to consciousness. Language and consciousness can come into their own full power only by occupying the territory of the physical world. The mind's descent into the body, like the hunter's dream while he sleeps in the bear's carcass, is a submission to flesh that brings enlightenment." Though more ecstatic in mood and more attuned to the enlivening possibilities of "the mind's descent into the body," the passage Nelson quotes from The Book of Nightmares to illustrate this point reformulates the central image of "The Bear":

And the brain kept blossoming
all through the body, until the bones themselves could think,
and the genitals sent out wave after wave of holy desire
until even the dead brain cells
surged and fell in god-like, androgynous fantasies--
and I understood
the unicorn's phallus could have risen, after all,
directly out of thought itself.

The possibility of this mutual redemption is the Romantic ground of Kinnell's poetry. In "The Bear," poetry is redemption, although it is a terrible one. Kinnell returns to the key Romantic image for the organic basis of art, the Eolian harp, but what was ecstatic for Coleridge is agonizing for the hunter:

and now the breeze

blows over me, blows off

the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood

and rotted stomach

and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,


blows across

my sore, lolled tongue a song

or screech, until I think I must rise up

and dance. And I lie still.

"Poetry" may at first surprise in the poem's final line--made synonymous with "that sticky infusion" and "that rank flavor of blood"--but many readers will share William Heyen's impression that "on subsequent readings it seemed to me, mysteriously, what the whole poem was about." Kinnell's rhetorically climactic placement of "poetry"--the dramatic withholding, the flourish as the true subject is finally unveiled--makes strong and strange claims for his art, the power by which he lives. With "The Porcupine" and "The Bear"--watershed poems of his career--Kinnell begins to substantiate those claims. Having worked his poetic way into their wretched, vital world, he can proceed in his next book to explore this new territory with less desperation, less turd-gnashing frenzy, more love. He can bring to this hard-won, hard-bitten poetic terrain the "Tenderness toward Existence" which lighted his earlier work and which, The Book of Nightmares reveals, has always been "the dream / of all poems," his secret subject all along.

By Lee Zimmerman. From Intricate and Simple Things: The Poetry of Galway Kinnell. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Daniel Schenker

But if less culturally ambitious than The Cantos or The Waste Land, Kinnell.s writing aspires to an inclusiveness lacking in these literary monuments. Western man’s two thousand year trespass on earth may be past redemption, but the horizon of Kinnell’s world extends considerably beyond Western man. Bears, porcupines, and hens, ocean waves, snowfalls, and lava flows share the space of Kinnell’s poems with men in a democracy of presence. The poet of culture searches for ways to heal the rift that isolates man from the rest of creation.


Kinnell wants to be understood as more than a social critic, however, and in other poems he seeks a corrective for these selfish and ultimately self-destructive impulses in Western culture. In one of his best known poems, "The Bear," an Eskimo hunter stalks a polar bear who eventually succumbs to the sharpened bone coiled in the hunter’s bait. When the hunter comes upon the bear's carcass he eats voraciously of the animal's flesh as we would expect. But instead of then abandoning the carcass or considering its other uses, the hunter climbs into the body and life and death of the bear. The object of the hunt thus becomes not the mere domination of the bear by the hunter, but an effort to acquire an understanding of what it's like to be something other than oneself. As if to validate his attempt to identify with the other, the hunter is granted a vision of spring at the end of the poem as geese come trailing up the flyway and a mother bear tends to a litter of newborn cubs. Although this poem comes close to presenting a mystical vision, it remains distinct from mysticism since Kinnell proposes not the elimination of desire, but the substitution of knowledge for power as the goal of human desire. Kinnell as expressed this preference more aphoristically in a recent poem in The Past entitled, significantly, "Prayer": "Whatever happens, Whatever / what is is what / I want. Only that. But that."

One problem remains with "The Bear" and the poems that succeed it in The Book of Nightmares, which carry forward Kinnell's attempt to reconcile self and other (especially when that other encompasses the frightening mystery of one's own death). While protesting the aggressive behavior of Western man, the tone of these poems often remains incantatory and evangelical. Kinnell abandoned a traditional religious vocabulary for a more rigorously naturalistic language early on but the bardic assertiveness persists. "Stop. / Stop here. / Living brings you to death, there is no other road," Kinnell writes in "Lastness." Although the message is Kinnell, the voice could almost be that of Whitman, whose prophetic stance has become untenable in a time when the American dream has become strictly a nightmare. In addition, all the poems of The Book of Nightmares (and the last three poems in Body Rags) exhibit a consistent seven part structure. Kinnell has downplayed the significance of this pattern, noting "some . . . could as easily have been in eight or six parts;" nonetheless the symmetry of these poems and perhaps the magical associations of the number seven itself convey an impression of a poet still seeking absolute mastery over experience.

from "Technology versus Technique: The Fundamental Project of Galway Kinnel's Recent Poetry." American Poetry 5:3 (Spring 1988), 53-63.

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