Sarah Galvin’s The Three Einsteins is a light-hearted romp of wit and charm.
At the bourgie dinner party of contemporary poetry, where the chin-strokers agonize in the kitchen about the looming death of verse in American letters, Sarah Galvin skids through the door on a souped-up Centurion bicycle, tells everyone to shut up for a second and asks, “Are these beers in the fridge free?”
Born and bred in Seattle, Galvin, 28, is a dead ringer for a young Bob Dylan if Bob Dylan slung a boat-chain bike lock over his shoulder and uptalked at the end of his jokes like an old man in a tiff with a whippersnapper. Speaking of jokes, good luck keeping up with Galvin. When she’s on, she’s unstoppable.
Already boasting a large, diverse local following, Galvin has two full-length books forthcoming from Pacific Northwest publishers. This month her book of poems, The Three Einsteins, comes out on Portland’s Poor Claudia press. Next spring, Sasquatch Books will release her book of essays and reportage on gay marriage. Its working title is Best Party of Our Lives.
The Three Einsteins is the funniest, most surprising collection of poetry I’ve ever read. Refreshing, liberating and totally freakin’ weird, the book delivers delightful shocks to the sensorium, big belly laughs and compassionate perspectives on human desire.
The poems are often sexually explicit, leading to philosophical inquiries and nuanced takes on being a person. This is certainly true of “My Favorite Season,” which begins, “Springtime 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.”
The Western canon is full of humorous, sexually charged poetry. Many of the ancient Roman poets mixed the vulgar with the sublime. In defense of his own “indecent” poems, Catullus reminds us in his poem “16” that Latin has a word for face-fucking, and that word is irrumabo. Dig even deeper and you’ll find translations of Lucan walking into a poem and saying, “If I’m not getting ass-fucked, then why am I here?” Chaucer shoved hot irons up asses in “The Miller’s Tale.” Now it’s Sarah Galvin’s turn to walk into a poem and say, “The only reason I would have a dick is so I could suck my own dick. It would have to be from Nantucket and it would have to be so long I could suck it,” as she does in her poem, “Nantucket.”
In both spirit and form, Galvin engages with this smart and smutty tradition—and she’s not alone. Just this year, other fine young poets (Patricia Lockwood of Lawrence, Kan., and Lara Glenum of Baton Rouge, La., for example) have garnered press for their efforts. But Galvin is distinguished by her complete lack of irony. When she writes, “I love internet pictures of people whose cunts are covered by MS Paint squiggles,” as she does in her great poem, “The Accidental Architect,” she’s not banking on an ironic tone to distance her speaker from such a brash statement. She’s telling you what she really loves and examining that love with a sophisticated, intimate, lyrical comedy.
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Most of us associate shocking imagery and blunt sex talk with the sophomoric and the amateur. In untrained hands, these tools can produce cliché—works that delight but don’t instruct, that titillate but don’t stick around for breakfast. But Galvin binds shock to familiar logical structures—a powerful combination. As Seattle poet Ed Skoog says, “Her genius is in the syntax.” Take, for example, the poem “Victorian Ladies,” which I’ll quote in full:
“If a well-dressed Victorian lady burst out of the floor in your basement and said, ‘Excuse me, can I ask you a question?’ would you call poison control about the bottle of Robitussin you just drank? Would poison control call you, and tell you you’re smart and your hair looks good? Because I would. You should take off your shirt.”
The syntactical framework here is a simple if/then, into which Galvin injects fever-dreamy images. As each clause unfolds, we glean more and more about the nature of the situation and the speaker’s intentions, before finally she comes out with it and states plainly her desire: “You should take off your shirt.” Though the images seem random and disordered, they’re actually arranged symmetrically. The well-dressed Victorian lady pairs with the shirtless lover, as does poison control’s voice and the amorous speaker’s. Despite the seeming disorder of everything, you never lose track of what’s going on. Galvin’s fidelity to logical structures and the fundamental craft of lyric poetry lets her get as wild as she wants while staying grounded.
But there’s more going on here besides the crafty back-end stuff. The absurd relationship between “take off your shirt” and the story about Victorian ladies and Robitussin tells us something meaningful about desire. Because the whole poem amounts to one big come-on, the druggy story acts as a symbol for the comical amount of energy people put into fantasizing about love interests. The poem reflects the way people weave complicated logics to justify their base desire to bone. And in its lightheartedness, the poem celebrates and reveals the vulnerable silliness of this human behavior.
Humor is the dominant mode in The Three Einsteins, but excellent poems such as “Black Umbrella,” “Mystery Object” and “Your Hand in Space” swerve toward melancholy. Like the book overall, many of the individual poems vacillate between lightness and darkness.
“For me, humor is a tonal device that functions with a variety of other tones. It’s one layer,” Galvin says. “A horrifying thing that’s been treated initially with humor can become more horrifying; a beautiful thing more beautiful. It puts people off their guard. And in that vulnerable moment you can hit them hard.”
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I heard that Galvin enjoys sneaking into abandoned houses around town, so I suggested we meet in one. “Getting into the basement of an abandoned house is like getting to second base,” she says. “It’s about the thrill of crossing boundaries.”
So one night in early August, Galvin, her friend Rembrandt (I’ve invented this name to protect his privacy) and I met up and “did houses.” Rembrandt arrived wearing a Boy Scout hat, a fly-fishing vest and cut-offs. He spoke with a boyish, Boston-ish accent and was spitting chaw into a giant antique bottle he’d found near some railroad tracks. The man was a kind of genius, an Argonaut. He produced from one of his many pockets a list of houses scheduled to be demolished. Most were in West Seattle, Capitol Hill and the Central District.
We decided to hit up West Seattle first and work our way back to the Hill. We drove up Harbor Ave., marveling at the view of the skyline from Alki and at a woman skateboarding in a pink cape and floral onesie. Along the way, we stashed the car on side streets and in back alleys. We scrambled through brambles and overgrowth, checked for evidence of squatters and sidestepped motion-sensor floodlights. We stopped to taste-test 7-11’s Loaded Doritos (Galvin: “They’re like a jalepeño popper without the vegetable.”).
The investigation took hours, but all the houses were either already demolished or not entirely abandoned. At the end of the night, Rembrandt peeled off to get some sleep. When Galvin and I returned to my apartment for a sad-sack drink, we told my neighbor the story of our failure and she said, “You know that the house just across the alley there is abandoned and it has a nice porch, too.” Galvin and I busted up laughing. We were living in one of her poems.
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Galvin’s poems are characterized by unlikely adventures and bizarre images, but her path to poetry suggests that she’s not inventing worlds but rather documenting the madness and beauty of the one we all share.
She grew up on Aurora Ave., around 113th St. “I can see how that land of motels and abandoned pancake houses shaped my view of the world,” she says. Her dad works in a shipyard; her mom has a master’s in anthropology and does medical research. Her younger brother tends bar at the Pacific Inn in Fremont.
Her uncle, James Galvin, is a professor of creative writing at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Sarah and he haven’t ever talked much about poetry but he holds a mythic status in the family, which made an impression on her as a child. James owns a ranch in Colorado and Sarah remembers seeing, in the woods on the property, an entire skeleton of a horse. The horse had been hit by lightning and left to rot where it fell. There were only outhouses at the ranch, so she had to walk past the skeleton at night. At the ranch she met Jorie Graham, one of America’s most influential lyric poets. As a child Galvin knew her as the lady who would come over and put on puppet shows for her.
She started writing poetry at 16 because of a performer named Will Waley and his one-man-band called Sexually Active Corpse. “The songs were a series of first-person statements set to Casio beats,” she says. “They sounded like children’s songs, but all the statements were absurd, surreal and incredibly filthy.” When asked to sing a sample of his work, she remembers these lines: “What would your gynecologist think / if your penis began to shrink? I put in my diaphragm / and turn some water into wine. I bought a time machine / so I can travel through time. I feel the need to stuff my bra / when gasoline drips from my jaw.”
As a young writer, Galvin tried to imitate Waley’s lyrics, but nothing she wrote felt satisfying. Years later, she realized his tunes added a crucial layer of meaning. “The sense of resolution provided by the form of the children’s song contrasted with the non-resolution that the content of the songs provided,” she explains. “To me, they felt like an accurate representation of reality: We experience resolution all the time, yet the chaos persists. Nothing really resolves until you’re dead.”
Galvin got her undergraduate degree and her MFA in creative writing at the University of Washington. For the bulk of her collegiate career she lived in a punk house with members of the bands Tacocat and Tit Pig and the performance art group St. Genet.
“That house was great,” she says. “There were holes in the floor that had been carpeted over. One of the roommates would act more British the more drunk she got—by the end of the evening she was usually wearing a bonnet. There was also a hunter-gatherer couple who would hunt rabbits and leave their carcasses in the refrigerator. They were great to live with because there was always a giant tank of mead in the closet.”
Throughout her 20s she also did a lot of writing for The Stranger, where she currently contributes several columns including “Midnight Haiku,” “Chow Bio” and “Wedding Crashers,” wherein Galvin “crashes” (she’s always invited) and writes up gay weddings. Her “Wedding Crashers” reportage is the basis for Best Party of Our Lives, which Galvin hopes will be a funny, nuanced book that focuses not so much on the political novelty of gay marriage but on how people champion love in unique ways.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that she directed an amateur porno called “Ride the Ducks,” which won Best Actress at the Stranger’s HUMP! festival and featured her former girlfriend in a bathtub with a rubber ducky. Also also worth noting is that Galvin rides as a full-color member of the Dead Baby Biker Club, an upstanding Seattle-based cycling organization that throws a torch-twirling bacchanal every year called the Dead Baby Downhill. She also maintains a blog called the Pedestritarian, where she reviews food she finds on the street.
Like too many working writers—and people in general—Galvin’s lived well below the poverty line for years. She tells a story of having had $20 in her bank account for two or three years right before she decided to go to grad school. She felt vulnerable, as if everything was up in the air. So she went up to her roof, where she goes everyday to write for a bit. After completing a draft of a poem that she liked, she felt a deep sense of connection, pleasure and satisfaction—a feeling of emotional self-sufficiency.
“At that moment I thought I could be broke for the rest of my life as long as I could have this feeling,” she says. “The idea that I could have that kind of control over language—which is so essential to consciousness—made me feel tremendously powerful at a moment when otherwise I was entirely powerless.”
If not some pure chunk of Seattle’s soul, Sarah Galvin is the city’s bright and ambling consciousness corporeal. She’s standing on top of its roofs and accidentally symbolizing things she doesn’t understand. She makes poetry of its sex and violence, its glittering and dank districts. She eats the food its people leave behind on the streets. With compassion and humor she records the marriages of lovers who’ve long been denied the right to celebrate their love. Not since Theodore Roethke has this city had so obvious a laureate.
And in 50 years, if her portrait’s not hanging next to his at the Blue Moon, and if no alley or city bench is dedicated in her honor, she won’t give a fuck.