Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares

“I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on.”
Hamlet, I.V

Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares–in the tradition of Howl or The Wasteland–does not so much strike a nerve in the culture (as Eliot and Ginsberg did) as much as it plumbs deep into timeless archetypal motifs of death, madness and the occult. Like Glück’s The Wild Iris, or B.H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe, Kinnell’s cogent ten-part epic poem serves as an example of a book that holds together as a cohesive and unified work of art. Like Fairchild, Kinnell focuses on a single theme–here, the nightmare realm–and like Glück, he gives this book its staying power by holding to a clear and compelling voice–here, the voice of madness.

By assuming the voice of madness, Kinnell takes us into familiar territory in a strange way. He constantly upsets our sense of balance through moment after moment of poetic strangeness, which compels and propels us forward, a bit like a staggering drunk, into a disturbed and sideways view of the world. Whereas Hoagland believes, “there is truth-telling, and more, in meanness” there is a much older guise through which the truth can evade a reader’s normal defenses: madness. The voice of madness can say what the voice of reason cannot. After all, the speaker is “just crazy” or, as in the case of Shakespeare’s plays, “just the fool.”

Yet it is precisely because this speaker is excused from social constraints that he can deliver a passage as compelling as this one:

(Warning: the passage quoted hereafter contains explicit language.)

In the Twentieth Century of my trespass on earth,
having exterminated one billion heathens,
heretics, Jews, Moslems, witches, mystical seekers,
black men, Asians, and Christian brothers,
every one of them for his own good,

a whole continent of red men for living in unnatural community
and at the same time having relations with the land,
one billion species of animals for being sub-human,
and ready to take on the bloodthirsty creatures form the other planets,
I, Christian man, groan out this testament of my last will.

I give my blood fifty parts polystyrene,
twenty-five parts benzene, twenty-five parts good old gasoline,
to the last bomber pilot aloft, that there shall be one acre
in the dull world where the kissing flower may bloom,
which kisses you so long your bones explode under its lips.

My tongue goes to the Secretary of the Dead
to tell the corpses, “I’m sorry fellows,
the killing was just one of those things
difficult to pre-visualize–like a cow,
say, getting hit by lightning.”

My stomach, which has digested
four hundred treaties giving the Indians
eternal right to their land, I give to the Indians,
I throw in my lungs which have spent four hundred years
sucking in good faith on peace pipes.

My soul I leave to the bee
that he may sting it and die, my brain
to the fly, his back the hysterical green color of slime,
that he may suck on it and die, my flesh to the advertising man,
the anti-prostitute, who loathes human flesh for money.

I assign my crooked backbone
to the dice maker, to chop up into dice,
for casting lots as to who shall see his own blood
on his shirt front and who his brother’s,
for the race isn’t to the swift but to the crooked.

To the last man surviving on earth
I give my eyelids worn out by fear, to wear
in his long nights of radiation and silence,
so that his eyes can’t close, for regret
is like tears seeping through closed eyelids.

I give the emptiness my hand: the pinkie picks no more noses,
slag clings to the black stick of the ring finger,
a bit of flame jets from the tips of the fuck-you finger,
the first finger accuses the heart, which has vanished,
on the thumb stump wisps of smoke ask a ride into the emptiness.

In the Twentieth Century of my nightmare
on earth, I swear on my chromium testicles
to this testament
and last will
of my iron will, my fear of love, my itch for money, and my madness.

(The Book Of Nightmares, Section VI, part 4)

The Christian white man, at the culmination of empire and manifest destiny, delivers his last will and testament while swearing on his “chromium testicles”–a phrase both strange and yet somehow befitting the awfulness of human conquest and exploitation. Furthermore, because Kinnell focuses on the archetypal strangeness of the nightmare realm and tells his story through the voice of madness, passages like this one remain as relevant and chilling today as they were over thirty years ago.