Brendan Galvin’s book-length poem, Wampanoag Traveler, is told from the point of view of one Loranzo Newcomb, a fictional eighteenth-century natural historian, gardener, lone wanderer, fabulist, and failed lover. A sort of Johnny Appleseed in reverse, Newcomb traverses the American colonies, gathering seeds, botanical specimens, and fauna for the gardens and collections of wealthy patrons in England, and a host of observations for himself.
Wampanoag Traveler makes vivid a lost world in which science and superstition, fact and tall tale are interlocked. The poem is arranged in fourteen sections that deal variously with such subjects as gardening, the mystical delirium that follows a poisonous snakebite, failed love, hummingbirds and skunks, and the young Newcomb’s apprenticeship to a “birdmaster” who bears a close resemblance to Audubon.
The section, “Some Entertainments Sent with a Gift Snuffbox Carved from an Alligator’s Tooth,” which was awarded a Sotheby’s Prize by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney through the Arvon International Poetry Competition in 1987, is a poetic tall tale in which Newcomb describes raising a baby alligator to dragon-sized proportions.
My first alligator I dragged out of
a fish hawk’s grasp when it was
no longer than my foot,
and trained it up on crabs and herring
until what I hesitate to call gratitude
appeared and strengthened in its nature
at last, and I could with patience
inure it to reins and a light saddle.
Through much of the poem, a somber tone, a pervading sense of sadness, underlies the naturalist’s exuberant vision. Newcomb feels an unpurgeable sorrow rise from his sense of isolation his preference for gardening over people (“no easy admission”). He mourns the fact that the American garden he loves is already being despoiled. In the poem’s last section, “Envoy,” Newcomb projects into the future a history of the apple as a metaphor for American innocence gone sour.
Combining a vibrant early American sensibility with his own contemporary sense of poetics, Galvin creates a life that proceeded in a very different time from our own, fraught with choices we no longer remember. In a remarkable tour de force, he engages a voice from the past in a dialogue with a future that becomes—magically and sadly—our own historical moment.
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