Manure, Garbage Pits, and Cancer Wards
A Review of Jeffrey Galbraith's Painstaker
Katie Karnehm-Esh

The cover of Painstaker, the new volume of poetry by Jeffrey Galbraith, features a figure looking up from a grey industrial scene toward an orange light, a kind of Detroit landscape where dawn is breaking. I expected to find a similar spark of light in the poems enclosed in the volume. I kept looking for it as I read, realizing the poems were more grounded in Midwestern cornfields and the western suburbs of Chicago than the shuttered factories I imagined from the cover. Perhaps my unmet expectations began to get the better of me. As I moved through the first section, I found myself growing impatient with Galbraith. Was it the titles, often awkward mouthfuls (“Who Do You Say I Am,” “Hope New Rising”)? Was it the self-aware, wry endings? Was it the clever turn of phrase used to describe mounds of manure, or simply the writing of manure itself?

Galbraith is intelligent—his poems in this volume reference Greek mythology and the poems of John Ashberry. He uses similes, metaphor, alliteration, and Robert Frost’s blank verse construction. He knows how to convert a psalm into a poem about riding a bike. He knows how gorillas groom each other, how God kills us with cancer and farming equipment, how we burn our trash and make our children a graven image, and how sometimes those children lose a thumb or a toe. So much of what Galbraith knows gets packed into dense poems with sudden, punchy conclusions. As the reader, I often felt unprepared for the poems’ ends. Yet Galbraith recognizes the connections between our stories and the universe, and explores those connections relentlessly. He is at his best when he lets those stories, as well as his readers, soften around a personal connection.

A member of Wheaton College’s English faculty, Galbraith writes poems that reflect the landscape and culture of the Midwest. This landscape includes the garbage pit at the edge of the farm (“The Garbage Fires”), and the memory of boys taunting each other “as the bus / turned from blacktop roads to gravel, past scraping / harvesters, the eaten fields, dropping us off one by one” (“When Matt’s Dad Lost His Hand”). Gradually, the location migrates from the farm to the Chicago suburbs, with references to Downers Grove and Aurora, and the litter of suburban life in “Isaiah in Chicagoland.” Further in the book, St. Louis, Lake Scituate, Michoacán, the Pacific Ocean, and even an absurdist venture into an overhead bin (“Lobster through the Heavens”) appear.

The volume is divided into three sections: section one seems grounded in the past of adolescence; section two transitions through young and current adulthood; and section three explores the present, as well as Christian culture, with poems like “Prayer,” describing a missionary kid from Kenya on a college campus; “Early Christian Advice Column,” which advises readers not to “skewer or schism or be / with others overly / harsh”; and “Elegy for Deer-Man,” which begins Psalm-like with “As the deer panteth for flowing/streams.” The poems explore the cultures that formed Galbraith, while never quite growing comfortable with them.

Galbraith describes his cultures in detail, unpacking each point. Sometimes this exactness distracts from the overall beauty and insight of a poem. In the title poem, the line “To climb into the miniature car / I catch my nail on the tiny door, / close-stooped, surgical, / as if laying open an insect wing,” confuses my mind and my tongue when I read it aloud. Sometimes, too, the description is so graphic, as when, in the poem “God as Gorilla or Wolf,” Galbraith asks us to envision a God who scrapes our scalps for lice. In “The Garbage Fires,” “flames darken cans of tin / half burn the labels pop / gristle of the chicken bones.” We watch and smell the garbage burn, admiring the verisimilitude as we hold our hands over our noses. The Frostian first line of the next poem offers no relief, describing flies descending on pig manure on the farm. In some of these poems I feel as if I’m reading James Joyce or watching Louis C.K.—the imagery is precise but unpleasant.

By the second and third sections of the book, Galbraith has traded his description of manure for descriptions of cancer wards and liquor stores. In “Hope New Rising,” Galbraith writes, “I commute both ways into the sun / past the aggregate company where gravel / and dirt pile into a mound made by / trucks backing up in low gear unloading.”  Eventually Galbraith watches the mound of dirt “begin to catch / with life as grass composes itself blade / by clump and watch what could be.” Here Galbraith’s observation, description, and expert enjambment make this reader catch a vision of the blooming dirt pile, along with her breath.

Galbraith’s description grows on me in the second section, but it takes a little longer for me to adapt to the musicality and endings of his poems. This is, perhaps, because I often feel I am reading a complicated monologue when I read his poems aloud. In “Fields a Green Wave” Galbraith writes about the smell of manure and the clods of flies that come with them. At the end of the poem, he writes, “lost to myself I think on them / how the rich dung intrudes / into nearby towns, / where the thick smells waft, come down.” This poem reminds me of William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” with a less enchanting set of farmyard tools. In “Captain of the Wrestling Team and His Best Friend, During Practice,” the poem ends with an exclamation from a speaker in the poem:  “I’ll bit it clean off, Captain! / And we rested on each other like sons.” I feel, quite frankly, befuddled and annoyed here. This emotion continues in “Metamorphosis” when he writes: “You head-fake and leap / into the end zone, wiry strong star / of the field. Anything to dull being downsized, / running a store now. Enter the haughty / former co-worker” who the speaker imagines as a deer that the “you” of the poem no longer wants to hunt. The weight of the first lines slows me down, and by the time the co-worker has become a deer bolting away, I’m just confused.

And yet, Galbraith redeems again. In the title piece, “Painstaker,” the speaker closes a mystifying poem about a medical procedure by instructing the reader to “shrink yourself to a jot, / small as a hum, serif / of ink on a miniscule of snow.” No matter how much I ponder the meaning, or even the situation in the rest of the poem, I can forgive anything because of these last beautiful lines.

Galbraith is at his best when he lets himself write something beautiful and favor personal connections over logical gymnastics. He dedicates “re Controversy,” a poem evoking the underlying anxiety of working in Christian higher education, to Larycia Hawkins, the embattled former Wheaton professor who lost her job for declaring her solidarity with Muslims. A lost poet receives his honor in “Elegy for a Poet Catching Stride.” In “Two Decades Gone, Barra de Navidad,” Galbraith imagines a long-lost, presumably long-drowned subject finally being found. “Imagine that homecoming, that looming world,” he writes, with all the wonder and loss of anyone who has tried to reimagine the dead back to life. In this third section, the poems turn more heartfelt and wonder-filled, even as they mourn. They are of friends, dead colleagues, the sick. Here it seems Galbraith has less energy for an enthusiastic description, and instead simply tells a story. As a reader, I whisper thank God. By the time I am reading about poets dying of cancer, I do not want tricks or wordplay. I want images. I want liturgy. I want the poem “Isaiah on the Promise of International Space Projects” with its layered, complicated, and beautiful imagery of praise and worship as we launch toward outer space. “It will take more than years,” he writes, “to project the heart so large, the weaving / of arms lifted up in the music of intense praise / away from the earth, braid after / braid into one glowing rope spiraling / beyond all that weighs, constricts / and blankets. / At which point will begin the age of invisible buoys / and giant stars, the era of light.”

Here at the end of the last poem, the reader has found the light Galbraith promised on his cover. It is hard-won, certainly; I have carried this volume in my backpack for two months, often pulling it out to re-read a poem and ask myself if I like it this time. I’ve realized that this act proves Galbraith has accomplished a difficult and powerful task: he has written a dynamic book of verse that changes and expands with each reading.  The poems may not be what you want in the beginning, but keep reading—you have to earn your last launch into space and the era of light.

Katie Karnehm-Esh, professor of English at Indiana Wesleyan University, graduated from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, with a Ph.D. in creative writing. She has published creative nonfiction and poetry at The Other Journal, Topology, Whale Road Review, and Windhover. She writes regularly at annesleywritersforum.com.

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