Some Notes on Galway Kinnell’s “Burning the Brush Pile”

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The industry of poetry has dropped the art of the close reading in favor of talking about talking about “Art.” In general, the critics we have who also write poetry focus on redefinition – rather than the reader seeking the pleasure in the work they love. For this reason, I like to go old school. I like to pay attention to what’s going on in a poem I love— particularly poems (and sometimes poets) that are out of fashion.

This shift of the writer writing about writing from seeking duende to the art of talking about the acceptable (metaphorically speaking) “religion” of the industry leave behind what for me is the very reason I read and write. I read and write to feel that sense of the infinite that I desire to explain but can ultimately only allude to. When the discussion about poetry is limited to the politics that inform a writer’s aesthetics, I feel like the poet and their poetry play second fiddle to the critic’s agenda.

In Pinsky’s “Singing School,” we lot get a bit of a scolding – not directly – but indirectly in that the way Pinsky approaches the poems and approaches talking about poetry exposes the pleasure of the poems without fear of the insight being simple or the pleasure being mundane. I think of Pinsky’s “Singing School” as a primer for any contemporary poet that hasn’t sat down and written down why they like their favorite poem or poems.

How often do we look closely, intensely, at a favorite poem and live with just that one poem turning it over and over in our fingers like a favorite stone? How often do we then simply sit down and connect and share our noticings? In my experience with other poets— not often. Perhaps we believe this is the domain of the specialist, of the Ph.D, the lit major? 

One might ask, isn’t this the domain of the review?  Reviewers typically review books with a broad sweep of their hand. The formula is something like say something generally smart, say something about the circumstance of the poet, say something smart again, highlight a line or two from a poem or two and conclude the something smart you said about the poet is accurate.

In contrast, and as a contrast to the book review, I’d like to take on an explication of the curse and benedictions of Kinnell’s “Burning the Brush Pile” as an example of what I mean by a “close reading.” I adore Kinnell – so I want to express my bias up front. His now distant death saddened so many of us. That said, I want to try and explore why I love Kinnell through a deep look at one poem and the movements in this poem, “Burning the Brush Pile.”

“Burning the Brush Pile” – a lesser known Kinnell poem – a poem neglected I think because we fear Kinnell, when he published it, had his best behind him. Yet in this poem, I sensed, even as he aged, a new development in his writing – and this poem as a standalone object, inspiring. This poem ranks with his best and really, only, age-ism dissuades us from considering the work otherwise.

In Kinnell’s “Burning the Brush Pile,” the biblical Isaac makes an appearance as a half-charred, infuriated black rat snake. Kinnell’s Isaac has been burnt half away and strikes furiously at the huge hand holding the amputated reptile. In Kinnell’s work, hell and heaven often make some sort of appearance. Neither fare particularly well.

When Abraham drags Isaac to the top of the hill to sacrifice him to God—I find myself thinking both Abraham and God insane. What God would test the faith of a follower by asking him to kill his son? This is the stuff of true crime stories and serial killers. This is the stuff of the Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer.

In “Burning the Brush Pile” Kinnell’s speaker inserts a fecund pile of “chainsaw chaff well-soaked / in old gasoline gone sticky…” into a brush pile making a sort of “homemade napalm.”  The language right out of the gate grates and grinds, Kinnell’s ear is still flawless, for here the poem starts out in a regular pentameter line and then wildly varies.

I found myself reminded of some of the irregular wildnesses of Kinnell’s early work, especially some of the Book of Nightmares. Just prior, much of Kinnell’s work (as in Imperfect Thirst) while still exciting had fallen into a state of graceful repose enamored with its own flawlessness.

In “Burning the Brush Pile,” right away in the first stanza we get some of that old Kinellian haphazardness—invigorating to say the least. In the second stanza, Kinnell’s speaker we get more of the off-kilterism Kinnell can bring to any poem. When the speaker goes to pour diesel fuel over the top of the brush pile bracing his knees “against the next- / to-the-top roundel of the twelve-foot / apple-picker stepladder,” we lean as if losing our own balance. 

Kinnell is loading up the poem, like the brush pile. Gas-soaked chaff within, diesel fuel poured over the top of the “stumps, broken boards, vines, crambles.” All the stuff of poetry—if you will. As if that weren’t enough the speaker splashes the perimeter with “kerosene and sludge.” Do you think it will light?

The brush pile compounded with flammables—what is this thing? The speaker overindulges in the act of brush-burning—Kinnell has set the stage with a kind of controlled pyromania –the speaker’s and the poem’s. I flash back to that second stanza’s ladder step compared to a roundel—that bull’s eye, the oculus, the militarism of its insignia. The roundel, the napalm as well, give the poem a WWII air. Napalm, while associated with Vietnam, was first dropped in 1944 in France.

When the speaker lights “the oil rag knotted to the thick end / of a thick stick” and hurls it into the “core of the pile.” We get exactly what we might expect—a little Hiroshima. For a “small flame came curling out from either / side of the pile and quietly wavered there.” For anyone who has burnt brush piles doused in fuel—if not think of when you light your backyard grill and the charcoal is doused in lighter fluid—one expects this odd sucking in,  the brief glow of small flame, before the petrochemical explosion of oxygen and fuel thrown into elemental reaction. But we know better, for “suddenly the great loaded shinicle roared / into flames that leapt up sixty, seventy feet.”  A shinicle is an old Scottish word for something tall and shiny seen from a distance—here, in this case, you might think of everything the opposite of an icicle, as the flames shot “through the hole they had heated / open in the chill air to be their chimney.”

The speaker returns later in the day to work the edges of the burnt down stack “with a pitchfork / and flicked into the snapping flames / a lot of charred boughs, twig ends burnt off, / that lay around the edges of the fire.” At first I was taken aback that the speaker had lit the conflagration and walked away. Satisfied with the explosion the speaker turns his back on the burning—only to return once the flames have burned to wick all that was once there.

But isn’t that the way of an appetite for destruction? After the explosion who wants to watch the chaff burn? Isn’t part of the pleasure of the speaker not only the combustion of the chaff but also the god-like turn of the back on the incendiary monolith? We are not good people. We have shadow selves. The shadow self is evident here.

There, upon his return, is an “elephantine porcupine” or at least the suggestion of one. He sees it “bludgeoned on its snout, on this spot, / and then, rotting away, had left a rough circle / of black quills pointing to where it had been.” The comedy is not lost on me. Like a sticker of a bullet hole you can put on a car door—or like a Roadrunner cartoon when Wil E. Coyote blows himself up leaving but a black charred circle and its rays of black splatter.  The image is comic, even laughable.

But the scene is darkened by the tail phrase, “pointing to where it had been.” The tonal shift achieves a kind of pause to the scene, guiding the reader to absence, a sense of what is gone forever. There is even a building wave of nostalgia pulled back to the fore of the poem by the phrase. Another twist, at the center of the black quills pointing at where the porcupine had been, embers, burning embers, still licking the air with flame. A beautiful hell hole glowing with the angry essence of the porcupine’s spirit.

As the poem shifts toward the crepuscular our speaker rakes at the char, snagging “black clarts out of the smoking dirt.”  I usually think of clarts as daubs of butter, though I like the idea of the black char as a black butter but I think the real intent here is to use the word clart as a chunk or clump of dirt.

The “tine” of the speaker’s rake “snagged on large lump.” The speaker finds a “small blackened snake, the rear half/ burnt away, the forepart alive.” One should be surprised that anything could survive our speaker’s inferno. Yet, the speaker and even the reader gets the sense one need not be too shocked to find this angry vestige of the blaze. The snake strikes the speaker’s hand several times, and he lets it. He does nothing to stop the harmless rat snake from striking, and striking again. The speaker may feel just sorry enough to let the snake have its small piece of his hand—as if the snake could feel relief at impotently striking at its gauntlet. The speaker calls this snake his “poor Isaac.”  The unfortunate slave to the battle over faith between an insane father and an insane god. If Abraham’s faith is proven and God’s faith in Abraham is restored—what of Isaac? How pissed is he to be a toy in the unfortunate battle of ideology and power?

Push this poem just an inch further and one begins to stumble backwards over the sociology of the symbols. I think a curious reader might push Hiroshima into the poem as easily as one might push man’s failure as gods.  One can even take a May Swenson swing at the poem—the psychosexuality of man and nature. Blaze as orgasm? The poem doesn’t resist this play of mind; but I hesitate to axe off part of its movement to favor one axiomatic read over another. 

The snake is already healing itself, “fusing shut the way we cauterize unraveling / nylon line by using its hot oozings / as glue.” And the speaker lowers the snake he has amputated into the grass—his creation—a byproduct of his deeds. After all what is faith without deeds?

His deeds done, the speaker lowers the snake into the grass “where it waggled but didn’t get very far. / Gone the swift lateral undulation, the whip-tail, the grip that snakes bring into the world.” Man’s work, well at least this speaker’s work, takes away what was “God” given—and this might be a thing worse than death. To live on, severed from the part of the self, the part that was god-given –perhaps the thing that connects us to our god—the gift of our inherent self—seared away.

The speaker imagines the snake’s tongue sniping at him with either a curse or a benediction to escape its own pain. But that is the speaker self-admittedly making too much of himself for “Most likely it was trying to find / its whereabouts, and perhaps get one last take / of this unknown being also reeking of fire.” To the snake, the man is the unknown being, perhaps mistaking him for a god. The speaker, like the snake can misapprehend god in the same way. Blame God that is not god at all for the pyromania of  the universe. In this way, by parallel man may be a whole order of magnitude of life from the conception of God.

Angry at its god? Not angry at God. Incapable of expressing anger at God, it expresses anger at what it mistakes for God, and then it “hirpled away into the secrecy of the grass.” Severed, angered, but alive—Isaac, the rat snake, me, you, we hirple away into the godless grass waiting to heal, seeking to be hidden away from all the fireworks of curse and benediction. The well-defended porcupine has no defense against the raze. The snake, the ouroboros of our lives severed, as metaphor leaves us maligned. 

So why in addition to providing the close read, talk about close reading? I do this because I believe most poets writing about poetry fear close readings because they fear being wrong. They fear that their shortcomings as a reader will be exposed. They fear that what they find endearing or pleasurable others will find laughable. To state, to declare, to express clarity of thought and feeling hides behind a desire to not be vulnerable. Do we fear that their insights will be considered self-evident? For these reasons, we sometimes steer clear of explaining why we love the poems we love – and why.

Who can’t find pleasure in work from a late stage poet in a poem that shocks us and draws us to attention— against an implicit assumption that older poets lose their vigor. 

Yet these personal limitations and these quirks of interpretation provide the very dot-to-dot that make close readings so intense and enjoyable. The very certainty that my assertion in my close reading of Kinnell will fly in the face of another’s makes for even more interesting reading and will lead me to even greater fireworks within the poem I have not yet lit the fuse to reveal, even to myself.