If I Had to Name This Review I Would Call It, “Thunder”: On Sarah Galvin’s Ugly Time (2017)
I hesitate to include a name at all really, because, according to Sarah Galvin, “Meanings that can be stated directly are unworthy of ownership, and naming something forces one to express what it ‘is.’” So let me start here: Ugly Time very much needs to be owned. Nevertheless, Galvin herself appears interested in this kind of precision even as she renounces it in her second collection of poetry, and her register correspondingly wavers between the flat, direct use of philosophical abstraction illustrated above and a more intimate, playful tone characterized by unusual images. The result is surprising and delightful, a perfect alloy of provocative insight melded with visceral, often humorous description. And, though it’s hard to tell whether Galvin’s poems pivot in this way in order to concede that no language is sufficient for the unsayable truth, or whether the truth ultimately manifests through each absurdity, this is part of what makes reading them exhilarating.
As a kid, I held my own (very different) views about naming. I was always eager to size things up, to constitute them. For example, I once named all of my dolls Dana, after my dad’s blonde girlfriend. But part of Galvin’s hesitance to name seems to come from her desire to eschew such appraisals. She does not know how to pour a concept into a container—how to put “identity” or “pleasure” inside a word, or an image, or a poem—and she’s not interested in breaking things down like that. Instead, she writes, “I want everything to be like that bird, / so overwhelmingly itself / that it is its own spotlight.” She wants to render the world just like she finds it: astonishing, inconceivable.
Galvin’s poems are heartbreaking and hilarious and gorgeous and—yes—even ugly at times. If by ugly we mean a little crude, but why should she bother to sugarcoat anything? This is life, after all. Life is ugly. If we can’t manage to dig ourselves out, Galvin’s feeling is we might as well dig in. That’s exactly what she does in “The Ghost Of Christmas Present,” wherein the speaker suffers from withdrawals while watching some kids spell out “boner” in the air with sparklers. She says then, “The withdrawals were awful. / It was awful that it was Christmas, / but the sparklers took it to another level // of awful, called ‘beauty.’” I am always seeking that next level as I move through these poems. I’m always finding something new that’s worth experiencing. Beneath the humor: pain; beneath the pain: love; beneath the love: something else. I can’t quite name it.
I’ve named this review, however, after my favorite poem in the collection, “You Can Determine How Far Away A Storm Is By How Much Thunder Misses Lightning.” The piece is nuanced and balanced in all of the best ways, combining a sense of child-like wonder with her more characteristic nihilism as she maneuvers through the terrain of coming-of-age: “our conversations felt like dancing, / which I correctly identified as love— / all I could imagine anyone feeling for you then.” Galvin’s poems are strongest when they’re rooted in this kind of narrative, when there’s an experience upon which to map her associative movement. At times, some of the shorter prose poems (“Golf Course,” “Confessional”) can leave the reader feeling a bit unmoored.
Overall though, Ugly Time is nothing if not refreshing. It’s the kind of book my grandmother would have referred to by saying, “Well, that’s something else.” And I think every good library could use a little something else. In here you’ll find images that excite you, ideas that absorb you, and you might even find a speaker who somehow reflects you, “imagining [you] might be something, / and that there might even be two of us.”