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A Matter of Life and Death

ISSUE:  Summer 1991
Above the River: The Complete Poems. By James Wright. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/New England. $27.95.

Since his death in 1980, James Wright has been the subject of many tributes by fellow poets. Donald Hall introduces this long-awaited volume and says, “For no one more than James Wright was literature so much the choice of life over death . . . .and “Life” was art. . . poetry expressed and enacted compassion over the world’s suffering.” That writing was not only a refuge for Wright, but a matter of life and death, becomes increasingly clear, reading these poems.

Part of the pleasure of seeing Wright’s work as a whole comes in following the ebb and flow of creative energy, the breakthroughs in vision and style, the sense of progress: more and more, he accomplishes the goal he stated in his first collection, that he “wanted to make the poems say something humanly important instead of just showing off with language.” When he began writing in the early fifties, he maintained the orderly, rational conventions of that time: formal rhyme patterns, intricate syntax, a variety of meters, parallel stanza structure. In The Green Wall (1957), Wright abandons the desolate steel mill town of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, and his father’s grinding, degrading labor at the glass factory, for the campus of Kenyon College. But he finds everywhere the strip mining wasteland he left behind, as he deals with characters on the outer fringe of society: drunks, bums, criminals, prostitutes; misfits, the homeless, the unemployed. There is George Doty, the rapist and murderer, Maguire in “To a Fugitive,” the lesbian in “Sappho,” the prostitutes in “Morning Hymn” and “Gesture by a Lady with an Assumed Name.” Through Wright’s lens we see these desperate figures as scapegoats of society, ordinary human beings who have somehow failed to transcend their environment. Wright identifies with these derelict characters who personify his own guilt about having refused to follow in his father’s footsteps; the price he pays is loneliness and alienation. Having grown up among millworkers and coalminers, watching his father support his family through layoffs during the Depression, Wright developed a profound lifelong sympathy for the unfortunate.

Saint Judas (1959) continues the focus on outcasts and guilt: he despairs of belonging to a community, convinced that the inner life makes him an outlaw. The speaker openly confesses what feels like his crime in “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave:”

My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.
He tried to teach me kindness. I return
Only in memory now, aloof, unhurried,
To dead Ohio, where I might lie buried,
Had I not run away before my time.

Yet alongside this conviction is the awareness of himself as a merciful, deserving man, like the speaker in the title poem, transformed from Judas the betrayer into the Good Samaritan, who comes across a beaten victim and embraces him, though he himself remains unredeemed.

The poems in these first two volumes are rich in music and verse texture, though some sound like academic exercises compared to the later work. The sordid circumstances he wrote about could not be convincingly portrayed in the literary conventions he had inherited. However, in Some Translations, working on Trakl and Hesse, Neruda and Vallejo, among others, helped Wright to sharpen and concentrate his imagery, reducing exposition; he learned a new spareness, with less rhetoric, departing from logical narrative progression to a more fluid dreamlike or nightmarish state. There is also a lasting influence from his study of Japanese and other Oriental poets (Wright served in the army during the occupation in Japan); an Eastern charm in the simple, pared-down lines, the personification of nature, the unadorned observations on the landscape. He was devoted to the Japanese spirit and tradition, especially the tone of deep modesty and doing away with the clutter of language. The poems are unpredictable, irrational, startling.

The strength of the next collection, The Branch Will Not Break (1963) reflects his new flexibility and resilience. In this collection the spirit of the sixties begins to emerge as the language becomes more defiant and vehement; he has put aside his early decorum and restraint. Nearly every poem in the first two books rhymed; only a few of the poems in The Branch use rhyme. He combines long explanatory titles with short intense lines, an approach which became characteristic. Most of the poems are structured in a series of observations, images of the social/moral world, or personifying of the natural world, then closing with the speaker commenting on his own situation, often a sudden reversal of direction. This is true of the much-anthologixed “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” dramatizing the homelessness of the speaker. He juxtaposes his own isolation with the chicken hawk on its way to its nest, and in the famous last line “I have wasted my life,” forces the reader to reread the preceding lines to comprehend the stark contrast.

The poems in Branch grew out of his frequent visits to Robert Ely’s Minnesota farm; around this time, Wright and his first wife Liberty divorced, and he lived apart from their two sons. “America is over and done with” he writes in “Stages on a Journey Westward.” “The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley/ Of strange rocks” (“Rain”). The theme of his own loneliness extends to an immense sympathy for whoever suffers it. Yet among the poems of loss and anguish there are bursts of relief, even joy, as in “To the Evening Star” and “Today I was Happy, So I Made This Poem.” This collection builds to a strong affirmative note, with wonderful endings:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.
 (“A Blessing”)

In a pine tree,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down,
 up and down,
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.
 (“Two Hangovers”)

Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.

Shall We Gather at the River (1968) seems written during the worst of his depression, and shows an increasing disgust with the human condition. We see merely confessional writing, more renunciation of society in favor of nature, though as escape rather than redemption. “I speak of flat defeat/ In a flat voice” (“Speak”). Still he goes on putting together memorable images, and finding himself in other oppressed figures, such as blacks and American Indians: “Lord, I have loved Thy cursed.” He seems to hit bottom in this book:

It is the old loneliness.
It is.
And it is
The last time.
 (“The Life”)

Though this is a mournful collection, it does mark the appearance of Jenny, the beloved listener, the healing power of desire. Woman as lover and muse, as union with nature, emerges in this volume; Jenny is the wing, the mare, the sycamore tree, the angel who can reconcile the painful division between the inner and outer worlds.

One of the aspects of Wright’s work that so deserves our attention is the way his development as a poet reflects the course of American contemporary history. In New Poems (1971) he speaks in the voice of a grown man, often in angry outbursts at the corruption and exploitation during the Vietnam war. His themes echo the self-hatred and paranoia that accompanied the determination to impose and control in the name of doing good, even when it led to the most appalling waste. “Man’s heart is the rotten yolk of a blacksnake egg / Corroding, as it is just born, in a pile of dead /Horse dung,” he deplores, and laments:

We Americans, loneliness of body,
Puritans, sick at the beauty of the body,
Men and women we leave each other, lonely.
 (“The Offense”)

Amidst these bleak meditations, Wright also engages the reader in immediate, personal dialogue, striking an easy conversational tone. In “Blue Teal’s Mother,” the final lines describe his vision of a tree:

You may not believe this, but
It turned into a slender woman.
Stop nagging me. I know
What I just said.
It turned into a slender woman.

He can exaggerate wildly when he asserts naked emotion and an anti-esthetic stance, as in “Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child:”

This is the not a poem . . .
This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire
To his brother and friend.
If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.
Thank you.
. . .
Work be damned, the kind
Of poetry I want
Is to lie down with my love.
. . .
I don’t have anything
Except my brother
And many of our waters in our native country . . .
And when they break,
They break in a woman’s body,
They break in your man’s heart,
And they break in mine.

The poems in Two Citizens (1973) show great movement toward reconciliation with his homeland. He begins with a curse, “I Wish I May Never Hear of the United States Again,” yet through his travels in France and Italy with his new wife Annie he comes to terms with his native Ohio, even finds a new patriotism for “the middle of America/ (That brutal and savage place whom I still love).” As always, he probes to understand his true relation to the past, and nature is once more opposed to the threat of deadening mechanization. In some of these pieces, as in a scattered few throughout the other books, the writing goes slack when the anecdotes become too prosy or colloquial, or when they sputter or whine. In the overall context of the deeply felt human emotions, these seem like forgivable lapses.

In To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), which Wright called his best book, we find more longing for perfection in nature, an even more radical division between the purity of the earth and the wretched mess of humanity. The fear of nuclear war haunts him in “Redwings:”

Somebody is on the wing, somebody
Is wondering right at this moment
How to get rid of us, while we sleep.

The posthumous collection, This Journey (1982) rises to a peak of strength equal to his best work. Having moved to teach in New York, spending summers in Italy and France with his wife Annie, he wrote these poems before he died of cancer of the throat. There are many elegies here, contrasting his past industrial landscape of grime and futility with the astonishing light, warmth, and color of Italy; the tone is gentler, more tender and respectful. These final poems look back on depression, and ahead to his own death: “I too am ready / To fold my face” . . . “To die a good death means to live one’s life. I don’t say a good life. I say a life.” And he focuses ever more sharply the contrast between the shabby, exhausting work of the world, and the beauty threatened by that rage. He writes of Venice,

It ought to drift only
In the mind of someone so desperately
Sick of this world,
That he dreams of himself walking
Under crystal trees,
Feeding the glass
Swans there, swans born
Not in the fragile calcium spun among feathers
But out of the horrifying fire that
A sullen laborer spins
In his frigid hands, just barely, just just barely
 not wringing
The swan’s neck.

Throughout his career, Wright witnessed and commiserated with the lonely, the lost and alienated. Paralleling that development, he created an epic image of the Midwest and modern urban civilization: he made his native landscape central not only geographically, but a key to understanding America’s values and faults. Wright became both a fine elegiac poet, and a poet of social and moral consciousness. As he remarked in the interview with Peter Stitt (Paris Review, Summer 1975), “I don’t want people to be unhappy, and I’m sorry that they are. I wish there were something I could do to help. And I think I’ve been trying to say that ever since I’ve started to write books. That’s what my books are about.” This very tenderness and wistful concern occasionally led him to sentimentality or nostalgia, the lyrical softness he sought a bit self-indulgently at times. What makes him great is his constant openheartedness: he is not self-absorbed. His work explores a full range of feeling; he found much to celebrate and praise as well as to lament; he affirmed the good in life however limited.


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