Cary Nelson: On "The Porcupine" and "The Bear"

"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

before

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."

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Cary Nelson: On "The Porcupine" and "The Bear" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Galway Kinnell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry
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