Get Excited: Eleanor Cummins on Sarah Galvin

Posted Tue, 9/08/2015 - 11:53am by  |  Category:

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The Science of Sarah

Hugo House marketing intern Eleanor Cummins discusses the work of Seattle poet Sarah Galvin, who reads at the Hugo Literary Series on Sept. 11.

There is no real science of poetry, but if there were, Sarah Galvin’s The Three Einsteins would make a mad scientist out of me.

The Seattle-based poet’s first book, Einsteins was published in 2014, the same year Galvin graduated from the University of Washington’s MFA program.

I first heard an excerpt this past February while also attending UW; I was an undergrad out of my league in an introductory poetry course. That quarter, we read classic works, which combined beautiful words with the weight of universals, clever movement with truths of the human experience. We also read contemporary authors, some of whom rivaled their predecessors, but most of whom came up short either on syntax, sensitivity, or both.

Galvin’s “Victorian Ladies,” the first of her poems I encountered, felt different. From the basic premise (“a well-dressed Victorian lady burst[s] out of the floor”) to the twisted end (“you should take off your shirt”), the piece was both alienatingly alive and wondrously resonant.

I purchased the small, colorless book from Open Books at the end of the same, short month and began a months-long study of her work. I have read it at least half a dozen times since. I’ve had it read to me, in bits and pieces, by creative writing teachers and students, by Galvin herself—and, recently, I’ve begun reading it to others. The line “I used to think I was crazy / but now I think I’m kind of European” is written on a wall of important words in my room. Though in print that line is completed by a period, I wrote it on my wall like Galvin delivers it: as a question.

The first few months of data collection were futile; her writing remained beyond my comprehension or capacity for analysis. Though it was obvious that behind the dazzling lights of her nuclear explosion, there was a center to Galvin’s work, it was also clear that in order to transcend the open-mouth stupor the split-atom show spurred, I would have to put in the time.

It wasn’t until my most recent reading of The Three Einsteins, in preparation for this post just a few days ago, that I found myself finally able to analyze and articulate some components of the book’s elusive magic.

Though certain poems remain beyond reach, others, such as “My Favorite Season,” begin to open themselves up like an origami flower.

Spring time feels like masturbating
with national flags for hands,
the way I spend it, frantic
and oddly proportioned
on top of a building,
accidentally symbolizing
things I don’t understand.
That’s why it’s my favorite season.
The rest of the year my hands return
to their usual shape, accidentally
symbolizing something familiar.
The inexplicable cherry tree that blossoms
in the middle of winter
is the color of your skin
when my hands come closest
to describing to it
their frenzy at the equinox.

Six months ago, I heard only “masturbating” and “flags for hands” before my cognitive processing was corrupted. Now I can read the poem to the end, all the while drawing connections between the sentences and appreciating the craftsmanship. On first read, I also experienced a lingering loneliness, seemingly without cause. Now I know it’s because I’ve been that national flag, trying to explain myself to a cherry tree.

This is Galvin’s sly secret: her poems always work, on the first read and the twelfth. Satisfaction is always achievable in her work, even if it comes from a yearning for more. Whether her audience walks away dumbfounded—save for the the lingering impression of fireworks cat-daddying across their corneas—or clear-eyed and determined to understand her work more deeply, no one is untouched by the shrapnel blasting from Sarah’s stanzas.

Reach marketing intern Eleanor Cummins at marketingintern@hugohouse.org. Twitter: @elliepses