In James Wright’s Collected Poems (1971), the reader comes across “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” which begins:
We’ll never know whether Wright finally got his chance to leap into the light, but he certainly saw the light, turned his poetry toward it, and found the spare, concise words for his illumination. In his last two volumes, To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977) and the posthumous This Journey, James Wright, like Orpheus and Jonah before him, makes his way back up into the light. The pain and loneliness of his earlier work here become elements in a mystical journey, one whose stages resemble those delineated by Evelyn Underhill in her classic, Mysticism: Awakening or Conversion, Self-knowledge or Purgation, Illumination, Surrender or the Dark Night, and Union. Wright’s path, however, is not a straight-forward one. As his teacher, Theodore Roethke, explains of his own journey:
I would leap too
Into the light
If I had the chance.
Sometimes, of course, there is a regression. I believe that the spiritual man must go back in order to go forward. The way is circuitous, and sometimes lost, but invariably returned to.
In To a Blossoming Pear Tree, “ The Secret of Light” discloses Wright’s calling:
Himself the disciplined craftsman, Wright made these final books his “one chance” to say the secret. Earlier, in Shall We Gather at the River (1968), he nearly succumbs to a suicidal impulse which is only slightly less strong than his instinct to affirm. “Inscription for the Tank” tells his secret:
Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is as black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.
The nakedness of the blurted secret makes it too painful to accept. As Wright says elsewhere in the same volume, “The anguish of a naked body is more terrible/ To bear than God.” He continues his journey downward and inward, in “Speak,” calling up to God:
My life was never so precious
To me as now.
I gape unbelieving at those two lines
Of my words, caught and frisked naked.
I wish I had walked outside
To wade in the sea, drowsing and soothed;
I wish I had copied some words from Isaiah,
Kabir, Ansari, oh Whitman, oh anyone, anyone.
But I wrote down mine, and now
I must read them forever, even
When the wings in my shoulders cringe up
At the cold’s fangs, as now.
Of all my lives, the one most secret to me,
Folded deep in a book never written,
Locked up in a dream of a still place,
I have blurted out.
In Shall We Gather at the River, Wright narrates his desire: “I float among/ Lonely animals, longing/ For the red spider who is God.”
Lord, I have loved Thy cursed,
The beauty of Thy house:
Come down. Come down. Why dost
Thou hide thy face?
That desire is fulfilled in This Journey when, in one of Wright’s finest poems, he leans “down to rinse the dust” from his face, and the discovery comes:
Readers familiar with Wright’s earlier poetry will sense the import of this encounter in “The Journey” with the spider/ muse. His earlier encounters with this muse were often anxious, hasty, and fearful. In “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” Wright exclaimed, “I am almost afraid to write down/ This thing.” When he does try, he fears our incredulity.
I found the spider web there, whose hinges
Reeled heavily and crazily with the dust,
Whole mounds and cemeteries of it, sagging
And scattering shadows among shells and wings.
And then she stepped into the center of air
Slender and fastidious, the golden hair
Of daylight along her shoulders, she poised there,
While ruins crumbled on every side of her.
Free of the dust, as though a moment before
She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.
I gazed, close to her, till at last she stepped
Away in her own good time.
A greater self-confidence informs the transcendent moments of his last two books, reflecting an older, more patient poet. Once, the affirmative moment of “The Journey” might have caused him pain, either because of its transience or his confusion about what to do with it. “The Journey” doesn’t rush; Wright moves “close to her” until she “at last stepped/ Away in her own good time.” What follows is not a lament, but a consolidation of the vision:
It is going to be hard
For you to believe: when I rose from that water,
A little girl who belonged to somebody else,
A face thin and haunted appeared
Over my left shoulder, and whispered, Take care now,
Be patient, and live.
Though poem for poem This Journey is not Wright’s best book, it does demonstrate the strength of his poetic development. No longer does he wish that he “had copied some words from Isaiah, / Kabir, Ansari, oh Whitman, oh anyone, anyone.” His own language will do quite nicely, for at his best Wright has grown to be the equal of the poets he names.
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don’t worry.
Wright’s metaphorical journey appeared as early as The Branch Will Not Break (1963), which began with “As I Step over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor.” Thinking of Po Chui’s journey, Wright wonders, by analogy, about the progress of his own:
The fear of futility here suggests that mid-journey was toughest of all for Wright. The Branch Will Not Break, especially in the justly celebrated “A Blessing,” contains moments of breakthrough:
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing
But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?
But Wright remains on the threshold. The subjunctive constructions mark both his distance and proximity to the assured visionary experiences of To a Blossoming Pear Tree and This Journey.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
This Journey follows the quest framework and Wright’s ever-present sense of an entire book’s unified construction. He begins with “Entering the Temple in Nimes,” and the penultimate poem is “Leaving the Temple in Nimes.” The book opens by announcing, “As long as this evening lasts, /1 am going to walk all through and around/ The Temple of Diana.” In the book’s final poem, “A Winter Daybreak above Vence,” Wright concludes, “Now we are all sitting here strangely/ On top of the sunlight.” But how does he take up comfortable residence atop the light? In “A Winter Daybreak above Vence,” Wright visits Galway Kinnell in the south of France, climbs alone on a cold night to the top of a hill, and looks:
Only after Wright’s view extends slowly toward and into the particulars of the scene below him does a new vision appear. The pattern of experience resembles that of “The Journey,” where Wright’s attention is first given to the medieval town of Anghiara, “a sleeve sloping down/ A steep hill, suddenly sweeping out/ To the edge of a cliff, and dwindling” and to “Some small children scampering along a road/ Twittering Italian to a small caged bird,” after which the spider/muse reveals herself. In “A Winter Daybreak above Vence,” Wright loses himself in the valley below, only to have his attention called to a different vision:
Miles between me and the town of St. -Jeannet,
The road lamps glow.
They are so cold, they might as well be dark.
Trucks and cars
Cough and drone down there between the golden
Coffins of greenhouses, the startled squawk
Of a rooster claws heavily across
A grove, and drowns.
The gumming snarl of some grouchy dog sounds,
And a man bitterly shifts his broken gears.
Earlier, in “The Secret of Light,” in a passage that evokes the Old Testament prohibition against confronting God directly, after seeing the “perilous black . . .secret light,” Wright turns away from the light or any reenvisioning of it:
I turn, and somehow
Impossibly hovering in the air over everything,
The Mediterranean, nearer to the moon
Than this mountain is,
Shines. A voice clearly
Tells me to snap out of it. Galway
Mutters out of the house and up the stone stairs
To start the motor. The moon and the stars
Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain
Appears, pale as a shell.
Look, the sea has not fallen and broken
Our heads. How can I feel so warm
Here in the dead center of January? I can
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is
The only life I have. I get up from the stone.
My body mumbles something unseemly
And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely
On top of the sunlight.
In his last poems, Wright confronts the brilliant light of those silent companions.
I would close my eyes to daydream about her. But those silent companions who watch over me from the insides of my eyelids are too brilliant for me to meet face to face.
In these final volumes it is faces that draw Wright into the light. In “The Silent Angel,” as he leaves Verona, Wright looks back and notices a man’s face: “He smiled at me, a gesture of the utmost sweetness, such as a human face can rarely manage to shine with, even a beloved face that loves you in return.” In To a Blossoming Pear Tree, the dark-haired woman is Wright’s muse of faces: “I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man’s face to light, as somebody brought mine.” By the end of the poem, Wright expresses the serenity and openness, of face and light, that characterize his final phase:
I am happy enough to sit in this park alone now. I turn my own face toward the river Adige. A little wind flutters off the water and brushes past me and returns.
Faces pervade This Journey. Of course, not every poem records a face-to-face confrontation with God and the light. In “Butterfly Fish,” Wright does not get to see what the fish’s face might have shown him:
It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige. By this time, we are both an open secret.
As well as such moments of exclusion, Wright reexperiences the fear of exposure that plagues him in “Inscription for the Tank.” In “A Rainbow on Garda,” after describing a black swallow that folds its face in one wing, Wright says,
Happy in easy luxury, he grazes up his tall corals,
Slim as a stallion, serene on his far-off hillside,
His other world where I cannot see
His secret face.
I too am ready
To fold my face.
I am used to night, the gray wall
Where swallows lie still.
But I am not ready for light
Where no light was.
After his dark nights, Wright follows the guiding spirits of the spider, the lizard, the turtle, and the cicada. His use of creature-guides follows the method of Roethke, who explained his own snails, birds, and worms this way:
Early in This Journey, in “Wherever Home Is,” Wright ends by emulating the lizard:
If the dead can come to our aid in a quest for identity, so can the living—and I mean all living things, including the sub-human. This is not so much naive as a primitive attitude: animistic, maybe. Why not? Everything that lives is holy: I call upon these holy forms of life. One could even put this theologically: St. Thomas says, “God is above all things by the excellence of His nature; nevertheless, He is in all things as causing the being of all things.”
The lizard’s self-sufficient capacity for rapt attention makes him Wright’s model. Teacher and self-image, the lizard-presence culminates in “Leave Him Alone”:
I am going home with the lizard,
Wherever home is,
And lie beside him unguarded
In the clear sunlight.
We will lift our faces even if it rains.
We will both turn green.
For Wright, as for Roethke, creatures such as the lizard offer analogies for the poet’s spiritual journey. The lizard is a form of attention, the uncompromising uplifting of a face toward the light’s blessing, representing the very stance that Wright seeks. The poet’s place on the hill in “Leave Him Alone” recalls “A Winter Daybreak above Vence,” but the lizard’s perception remains one that eludes Wright. The lizard’s form of reverence cannot be seized by will. It is there, given to Wright, or not given to him, by chance. Wright’s discipline consists of his attentive waiting, and in his waiting, oddly enough, he grows to resemble the still lizard.
I sit on a hill
Far from Verona, knowing the vanity
Of trying to steal unaware on the lizards in the evening.
No matter how quickly
Or slowly creep among the low evergreens
At the bend of the water,
He will be there
Or not there, just as
The sunlight pleases him.
The last feather of light fallen lazily down
Floats across the Adige and rests a long moment
On his lifted face.
In “The Turtle Overnight,” the poet begins by watching a turtle in the rain at twilight, the book’s favorite time of day:
The next morning, after a long vigil, Wright again spots the turtle: “I can see him lifting his face. It is a raising of eyebrows toward the light, an almost imperceptible turning of the chin, an ancient pleasure, an eagerness.” Here Wright expresses the ideal of receptivity that he himself journeys toward. Near the end of the poem, he makes the personal connection more explicit: “The lines on his face suggest only a relaxation, a delicacy in the understanding of the grass, like the careful tenderness I saw once on the face of a hobo in Ohio as he waved greeting to an empty wheat field from the flatcar of a freighted train.” Finally, Wright’s vision recedes:
All the legendary faces of broken old age disappeared from my mind, the thickened muscles under the chins, the nostrils brutal with hatred, the murdering eyes. He filled my mind with a sweet-tasting mountain rain, his youthfulness, his modesty as he washed himself all alone, his religious face.
But now the train is gone, and the turtle has left his circle of empty grass. I look a long time where he was, and I can’t find a footprint in the empty grass. So much air left, so much sunlight, and still he is gone.
I dwell on the turtle in such detail because it helps to clarify a changed conception of the end point to Wright’s journey. As did Roethke, Wright quests after self-transformation and self-transcendence. But the earlier forms of Wright’s quest pointed toward a violent, suicidal transformation. That intensity is typified by the seasonal ritual of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” where “Their sons grow suicidally beautiful/ At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” We think too of Charlie and others in Shall We Gather at the River, “ skillful with suicide,” and of Wright’s remark in “A Christmas Greeting”: “I’m afraid to die, / It hurts to die, although the lucky do.” This stance creates the threat which ends Shall We Gather at the River. To Jenny, his Eurydice, who lies “Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring, / Muse of black sand,” he calls out, “How can I live without you?/ Come up to me, love, / Out of the river, or I will/ Come down to you.” Wright’s quest for the light, initially, involves a self-annihilating, violent end, as in “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway.” The price paid for the leap into the light becomes part of its attraction.
With Wright’s last books the movement into the light becomes a slow and deliberate surrender to self-transcendence, gently passing beyond the former violence that sought purgation. In “To the Cicada” the wild, violent ecstasy of the Holy Rollers of his native Ohio, who “rage all afternoon,” “Their voices heavy as blast furnace fumes, their brutal/ Jesus risen but dumb,” yields to the quiet ecstasy of the cicada:
The antithesis of heaviness and the essence of light, “lightness” emerges as the key word in Wright’s final book.
How were you born in this place, this heavy stone
Plummeting into the stars?
And still you are here. One morning
I found you asleep on a locust root, and carefully
I breathed on your silver body speckled with brown
And held you a while in my palm
And let you sleep.
You, lightness, kindlier than my human body,
Yet somehow friendly to the music in my body,
I let you sleep, one of the gods who will rise
Without being screamed at.
Wright clearly belongs to the American tradition, from Bradstreet to Emerson to Frost to Roethke, that makes nature a symbol of spirit, what James Breslin terms “visionary pastoralism.” But there is also an antisymbolic and skeptical streak in Wright’s work. He would deny Emerson’s assertion that to study nature and to know thyself have at last become one maxim. “To a Blossoming Pear Tree” articulates man’s difference from nature with an acuity reminiscent of Frost. Wright also swerves from his teacher, Roethke, whose natural world depends on Emersonian correspondences. Wright embodies or presents his illuminations; he rarely attempts to explain them. His poems bring us into apocalyptic experiences rendered in images, not discourse. Roethke, on the other hand, tends to prolong the moment and explain it. Wright concentrates more on the sharply figured narration of the mystical experience. Like others before him, Wright finds the light a transcendent metaphor of a knowledge both within and beyond him, poetic because it marks the limits of language. When in his Confessions St. Augustine struggles to express his illumination of “the Light that never changes,” he first describes it “as if the light of day were to grow brighter and brighter and flood all space.” The simile doesn’t suffice, for the Light is “altogether different from all such things.” Unable to find the precise words to describe his experience, St. Augustine nevertheless concludes that he “who knoweth the truth knoweth that Light: and who knoweth it knoweth eternity. Love knoweth it.” When Dante presumes to fix his gaze upon the eternal light of the Paradiso, he beholds “leaves within the unfathomed blaze/ Into one volume bound by love, the same/ That the universe holds scattered through its maze.” Wright avoids commentary in order to fashion a poetic experience of that “altogether different” moment, not a unity to be named and known, but a gathering of life’s differences bound by love. Writing on Hölderlin’s “Homecoming,” Heidegger offers an explanation for the limitations a poet may place upon himself when describing the mysterious: “But we never get to know a mystery by unveiling or analysing it; we only get to know it by carefully guarding the mystery as mystery,” So while Wright intends and allows his experience to be cast in a religious mold, outright theophany does not occur. God’s presence is implied or inferred, never directly stated in Wright’s poetry. His “the heart of light,” “impossibly hovering in the air over everything,” and “black as the inmost secret of light,” translates traditional, mystical illumination into his own uncertain natural theophany. Strategically, Wright maintains a secular vocabulary.
Wright’s stance before this light expresses the discipline of waiting. In Alone with America, Richard Howard quotes’ Wright on Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd: “ The hero is always surrounded by things that fill him with inexorable affection and with which, at last, he becomes miraculously identified.” The lizard, turtle, and cicada embody the lesson: “We fail in the grace to stand still. We want devoutness: the grace to see.” In St. Teresa’s “Camino de Perfeccion,” we read of the traveler who stops in sight of the goal, refreshed by her sheer proximity to the waters of the spring, her faculties stilled by love: “One feels a great bodily comfort, a great satisfaction of soul: such is the happiness of the soul in seeing herself close to the spring, that even without drinking of the waters she finds herself refreshed.” Writing on Hölderlin, Heidegger says:
Wright’s last poems are affirmative in their reception of proximity. Underhill speaks of this stage in mystical development as “a necessary preliminary of spiritual energy: an essential clearing of the ground.” In This Journey, Wright does not arrive at the mystic’s Unitive Life but at the nearness of St. Teresa and Heidegger.
Homecoming is the return into the proximity of the source. . . . It withholds the most Joyous. It keeps it and stores it away for the Comers. . . . The poet comes home, in the act of coming into proximity with the source. . . . To write poetry means to exist in that joy, which preserves in words the mystery of proximity to the Most Joyous. . . . The holy does indeed appear. But the god remains far off.
How can we judge the value of Wright’s poetry? My personal assessment is unequivocal: he will come to be recognized as a major American poet. What does such a judgment imply? T. S. Eliot, in “What is Minor Poetry?” offers a valuable distinction:
We can now see that just such a “significant unity” discloses itself in James Wright’s work. His poems are enhanced by knowing the whole of his work. The emotional intensity and affirmative character of his final two books can best be understood and appreciated by knowing the entire body of his poetry. The feelings of This Journey are a part, the completion, of a much longer journey. The conclusion gives us his rising into the light after a lifetime’s journey downward and inward, and it invites our participation:
The difference between major and minor poets has nothing to do with whether they wrote long poems, or only short poems—though the very greatest poets, who are few in number, have all had something to say which could only be said in a long poem. The important difference is whether a knowledge of the whole, or at least a very large part, of a poet’s work, makes one enjoy more, because it makes one understand better, any one of his poems. That implies a significant unity in his whole work.
The pages have a light spirit
That will rise into blossom and harvest only
After your hand touches them.