James Wright’s Experimental Poems

In her introduction to Above the River, Anne Wright refers to the poems in this section of the book as “experimental poems.” They are, in large part, poems that employ imagery often described as “deep imagery.” To a certain extent, they differ not only in style, but also in content, for there seems to be a shift from a focus on the outsider to a focus on the search for love, love of place, love of parent, and love of woman.

Though I’m still somewhat alienated by this style of poetry, I found myself liking several poems in this section even more than I liked the poems in the more traditional section of poems. Some of these poems seem to be successful in combining the traditional form with deep imagery, while others that use deep imagery seem to resonate somewhere inside of me because I am able to identify with the symbols used in them.

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is one of those poems that seems to successfully combine traditional poetic elements with unusual images to create a poem that both moves and challenges me:

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Although it is possible to see all of these images while lying on a hammock, at first they seem disjointed, and the last line seems out of place. How are butterflies, cowbells, horse pucky, and chicken hawk related? Some people might well think that laying around in a hammock is wasting your life, but “I have wasted my life” certainly seems out of place here because the poet seems to revel in this moment. Or could it be that up to this moment he has wasted his life? Has he missed the beauty of this place, of the moment, because he has been too caught up in seeing the misery that haunts modern life or because he has been too busy to see the moment? The ambiguity of these images seems to enhance and reinforce the meaning of the last line.

Not all of the poems in this section, though, seem experimental. “A Blessing,” though it seems traditional, suggests a relatively new and unusual feeling for Wright. The poem uses a recurring symbol in Wright’s poetry, the horse, to suggest both love and a transcendent experience.

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

In an early poem, “Horse,” Wright describes the horse as “a remembrancer of wild/ Arenas we avoid” and says “The fear she rode, reminded of the void/ That flung the ancient rider to the cold.” In another poem he says “I feel/ Like half a horse myself.” Here the wildness is reinforced by the fact that these are “Indian ponies.” But the image is also fused with a new element, love, the explicit horses’ love of each other but also Wright’s love of horses, and the combination of these two elements creates an out-of-body, or transcendent, experience, “…if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.”

There are several poems in this section which suggests Wright’s reconciliation with his father, which in turn seem to reflect his coming-to-terms with his Ohio heritage. My favorite of these poems is:

Two Postures beside a Fire

Tonight I watch my father’s hair,
As he sits dreaming near his stove.
Knowing my feather of despair,
He sent me an owl’s plume for love,
Lest I not know, so I’ve come home.
Tonight Ohio, where I once
Hounded and cursed my loneliness,
Shows me my father, who broke stones,
Wrestled and mastered great machines,
And rests, shadowing his lovely face.

Nobly his hands fold together in his repose.
He is proud of me, believing
I have done strong things among men and become a man
of place among men of place in the large cities.
I will not awaken him.
I have come home alone, without wife or child
To delight him. Awake, solitary and welcome,
I too sit near his stove, the lines
of an ugly age scarring my face, and my hands
Twitch nervously about.

Wright not only sees his father as sitting “nobly,” but also implies he has accepted Ohio in the line “where I once hounded and cursed my loneliness” and in “I’ve come home.” Ironically, he’s a little embarrassed that his father believes he is a “man of place,” because Wright recognizes that his father’s nobility has come from fighting the machinery that Wright himself fled. It is Wright who seems broken, not his father, as suggested in the last lines “my hands/Twitch nervously about.”

One of my favorite poems in this section reminds me a little of the earlier “Complaint,” at least in its ironic sense of humor. It’s a little hard to imagine how being hit by a car could ever be romantic, but read on:

Small Frogs Killed on the Highway

I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
of the dead never moved, but many
of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets

Across the road, tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon.
They can’t see,
Not yet.

Of course, I hope that the “light” in this case is meant to be taken metaphorically. This “love song” reminds me a little of the famous Dean Martin line “When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie.” When we contrast the chance the frogs take with the drivers who “burrow backward into dank pools/ Where nothing begets /Nothing” taking the chance of leaping into the light to get to the other side of the highway seems like a good choice. Love requires a real “leap” of faith, and it seems to be the choice Wright has made in his life.

The truest expression of Wright’s love for Annie, though, comes in poems like:

Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains

All afternoon you went walking,
Just you, all alone,
And what you went wondering about
I still don’t know.

I was trying to find something in that mountain snow,
And I couldn’t find it by walking,
So I lay asleep
For three good hours.
There is something in you that is able to discover the crystal.
Somewhere in me there is a crystal that I cannot find
Alone, the wing that I used to think was a poor
Blindness I had to live with with the dead.

But it was not that I was dying when I went asleep
When you walked into the snow.
There was something I was trying to find
In that dream. When I finally fought my way
Down to the bottom of the stairs
I got trapped, I kept yelling
Help, help, the savage woman
With two heads loaded me, the one
Face broken and savage, the other,
The face dead.

Two hands gathered my two.

And you sang: Why, what have you been dreaming?

I don’t know, I said.
Where were you?

You said you just took a walk.

Annie, it has taken me a long time to live.
And to take a long time to live is to take a long time
To understand that your life is your own life.
What you found on that long rise of mountain in the snow
Is your secret. But I can tell you at last:

There used to be a sycamore just
Outside Martins Ferry,
Where I used to go.
I had no friends there.
Maybe the tree was no woman,
But when I sat there, I gathered
That branch into my arms.
It was the first time I ever rose.

If only I knew how to tell you.
Some day I may know how.

Meantime your hand gathered me awake
Out of my good dream, and I pray to gather
My hands into your hands in your good dream.

What did you find in your long wandering in the snow?
I love your secret. By God I will never violate the wings
Of the snow you found rising in the wind.
Give them, keep them, love.

Although there are several “deep images” here that I would be hard pressed to completely explain, they fit the poem so well they don’t seem to intrude. Who can claim to completely understand love or its power to transform our life? Certainly not I.

I do know that Wright, like William Stafford, uses the cold, or snow, motif, to symbolize the alienation people feel when they are “left out in the cold,” cut off from their fellow man. I’m not exactly sure what Wright means when he says, “Somewhere in me there is a crystal that I cannot find/Alone,” but obviously the crystal is precious and essential to his well being, something only another person can discover in him. Perhaps it is love, for love is only real-ized when someone else knows you love them. He also seems to identify his lover with the “tree of life” when he says “Maybe the tree was no woman,/But when I sat there, I gathered/That branch into my arms./It was the first time I ever rose.”

Perhaps my favorite lines in the poem, though are “Annie, it has taken me a long time to live./ And to take a long time to live is to take a long time/To understand that your life is your own life.” His wife’s love for him has finally allowed him to take control of his life rather than letting his environment, the Ohio of his past, control him. Perhaps to take control of our lives, to claim responsibility for our own actions, is to transcend all those forces that threaten to alienate us, and “God have pity on a man apart.”

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