In the summer of 2008, I had the pleasure of leading an experiential class of undergraduates in the woods of Maine. On this particular night, we gathered in the crisp evening air around a campfire and read Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, round-robin style. I expected a few students to nod off in the warm glow of the campfire, perhaps being caught off guard when their time came to read. But the incantatory nature of Kinnell’s work, if anything, had the opposite effect, lulling all of us into a heightened sense of apprehension. Students took their parts with whetted appetites.
What I remember most about that reading was the sense that the young people in that circle were, through Kinnell’s words, experiencing mortality in its various dimensions, registering both physical and emotional vulnerability. These were students who spent their days in strenuous physical pursuits—swimming, jogging, canoeing, solo hiking, etc.—and it seemed as though this reading was allowing them to relax into an emotional receptivity that for Kinnell is occasioned by parenthood but is somehow delivered with sufficient dexterity as to apply across all audiences. Then, as now, I am struck by Kinnell’s versatility, and I am so grateful that we will always have this work, although the poet is gone.