Published in The Atlantic in 1994
Galway Kinnell was a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, an anti-war activist, a member of the civil-rights group Congress of Racial Equality, and a devoted husband and father. He was not a man of faith. And yet, having been raised in a devout family, he said in a 1989 interview with Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, “the language of Christianity remains with me.” Without it, he didn’t know quite how to talk about what he treasured. In his poem “The Olive Wood Fire,” he goes as far as referring to his son as “God.” (“There isn’t actually any other word which will do,” he told Columbia.)
“The Cellist” treats its subject—a musician nervously preparing and then performing—with a similar supernatural sense of awe. “The music seems to rise from the crater left / when heaven was torn up and taken off the earth,” Kinnell writes. Even the cellist’s sweat is likened to “the waters / the fishes multiplied in at Galilee,” her musical notes “the bush … now glittering in the dark.” We don’t know who this cellist is to Kinnell, and we don’t necessarily get the sense that they’re close. But he notices her shaking hands, her dog-eared pages, the eventual triumphant glimmer in her eyes. He observes her with such wonder and intensity that his scrutiny feels like love, even reverence.
Kinnell may have left Christianity behind, but he was a master of those virtues that religion, in its best forms, can promote: concern for other humans, attention to transcendence in the everyday, an impulse for self-reflection. (The cellist reminds him of “the disparity / between all the tenderness I’ve received / and the amount I’ve given.”) Here, he’s demonstrated that poetry itself can encourage these same qualities—and offer a language with which to express them. The cellist’s performance is a lesson in generosity, in devoting oneself to something completely. So, too, is Kinnell's way of writing about it.
You can zoom in on the page here.