James Wright’s Last Poems

The poems in the last section of Wright’s Above the River were written while he was staying in Europe, particularly in Italy and, generally, they reflect the Mediterranean atmosphere. Now, personally, I’m not too fond of warm, sunny climates preferring the snow-covered mountains, or perhaps the wind-blown Scottish Highlands. But if you’re attracted to warm climes and the opulence identified with these areas, you may consider this section the best in Wright’s book.

Even in Italy, though, Wright is unable to entirely escape the dark vision that marks many of his best poems. When most people see a rainbow, they see it as a sign of hope:

A Rainbow on Garda

The storm crawls down,
Dissolving the distances
Of the mountain as though
The rain already
Hangs a gray shawl
In front of Bardolino.
The town is gone:
In the darkness of evening,
The darkness of high stone,
And a black swallow folding
Its face in one wing.
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,
Bardolino risen from the dead, blazing
A scarlet feather inside a wing.
Every fool in the world can see this thing,
And make no more
Of it than of Christ, frightened and dying
In the air, one wing broken, all alone.

This eloquent, and startling, poem, creates a haunting image. Wright’s statement that he is “used to night, the gray wall/ Where swallows lie still” seems like an admission of the despair that often dominates his life. In the midst of this despair suddenly appears an unexpected light, “Bardolino risen from the dead, blazing/ A scarlet feather inside a wing.” Most people would at least feel a sense of temporary elation at the sight of this light, a sign of hope in the midst of the darkest despair. But Wright reverses this expectation in the last stanza, producing a greater sense of despair than before, for this rainbow is seen as “frightened and dying” because there is only half a rainbow, “one wing broken.”

My favorite poem in the section is equally moody and seems almost seems out of place in Italy, reminding me more of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” the poem I posted January 1st this year. Considering Wright’s early love of Hardy, he, too, may have been remembering it.

A Finch Sitting Out a Windstorm

Solemnly irritated by the turn
The cold air steals,
He puffs out his most fragile feathers,
His breast down,
And refuses to move.
If I were he,
I would not clamp my claws so stubbornly around
The skinny branch.
I would not keep my tiny glitter
Fixed over my beak, or return
The glare of the wind.
Too many Maytime snowfalls have taught me
The wisdom of hopelessness.
But the damned fool
Squats there as if he owned
The earth, bought and paid for.
Oh, I could advise him plenty
About his wings.
Give up, drift,
Get out.
But his face is as battered
As Carmen Basilio’s.
He never listens
To me.

Despite the author’s advice that the finch should “give up” and “get out,” it’s obvious he admires the finch’s defiance of the storm, for unlike the narrator the finch has not learned the “wisdom of hopelessness.” Instead, the finch glares back at the wind, puffs up his chest feathers, and clamps onto a skinny branch in order to resist the wind. In a final compliment, the narrator compares the finch to the legendary Carmen Basilio, an Italian fighter known for his toughness.

Another poem I love seems equally out of place with the other poems in this section, though it does show Wright’s growing reconciliation with his world:

Beautiful Ohio

Those old Winnebago men
Knew what they were singing.
All summer long and all alone,
I had found a way
To sit on a railroad tie
Above the sewer main.
It spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe
Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth.
Sixteen thousand and five hundred more or less people
In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country,
Quickened the river
With the speed of light.
And the light caught there
The solid speed of their lives
In the instant of that waterfall.
I know what we call it
Most of the time.
But I have my own song for it,
And sometimes, even today,
I call it beauty

If you love irony, and I do, you have to love this poem, particularly if you’ve read the complete book. Throughout most of the book, Wright has tried to escape the harshness of Ohio and condemned what it did to those who remained working there. Suddenly, he’s calling it “Beautiful” Ohio. Of course when you read the poem and first realize he’s praising the beauty of a sewer flowing into the Ohio River, you have to question whether or not he’s serious. But the lines “And the light caught there/ The solid speed of their lives/ In the instant of that waterfall” make you realize that he’s talking about a different kind of “beauty” here, the beauty of sixteen thousand people working and living their lives the best they can. It can’t help but remind you of Carl Sandburg’s powerful celebration of Chicago.

The poems that I have chosen so far, however, don’t accurately reflect the mood of the poems in this last section of Above the Bridge. Instead, they reflect my personal taste. This is, after all, my journal, my personal reaction to Wright’s poems that move me, not an objective review of Wright’s book. In reality, though, there are a number of very good poems that seem to reflect the lush, voluptuous side of life:

The First Days

Optima dies prima fugit

The first thing I saw in the morning
Was a huge golden bee ploughing
His burly right shoulder into the belly
Of a sleek yellow pear
Low on a bough.
Before he could find that sudden black honey
That squirms around in there
Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.
The pear fell to the ground,
With the bee still half alive
inside its body.
He would have died if I hadn’t knelt down
And sliced the pear gently
A little more open.
The bee shuddered, and returned.
Maybe I should have left him alone there,
Drowning in his own delight.
The best days are the first
To flee, sang the lovely
Musician born in this town
So like my own.
I let the bee go
Among the gasworks at the edge of Mantua.

Did you realize bees could have “burly” shoulders? Do you think it’s purely coincidental that the “sleek yellow pear” has a very sensual shape? It’s possible, but it seems likely that Wright is talking about the “birds and the bees” here, particularly because of lines like “Maybe I should have left him alone there,/Drowning in his own delight.” Does the phrase “the best days are the first to flee” somehow seem reminiscent of Andrew Marvell’s “time’s winged-chariots?”

This idea of sensual indulgence and acceptance of the world as it is also found in:

Leave Him Alone

The trouble with me is
I worry too much about things that should be
Left alone.
The rain-washed stone beside the Adige where
The lizard used to lie in the sun
Will warm him again
In its own time, whether time itself
Be good or bad.
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
I pounce
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.

This sense of acceptance, of not worrying too much about the world and what will happen in the future, lies at the heart of this poem. No matter how much the poet may want to observe the lizard sunning itself, there is nothing he can do to ensure that he will find it there. Whether he’s quiet or noisy is irrelevant, for the lizard “will be there/Or not there, just as the sunlight pleases him.” The lizard, unlike the poet, accepts the world on its own terms, without worry.

I’m not quite sure where “The Journey” fits in with the rest of the poems in this section, but somehow it seems appropriate to end this discussion of Wright’s poems with:

The Journey

Anghiari is medieval, a sleeve sloping down
A steep hill, suddenly sweeping out
To the edge of a cliff, and dwindling.
But far up the mountain, behind the town,
We too were swept out, out by the wind,
Alone with the Tuscan grass.
Wind had been blowing across the hills
For days, and everything now was graying gold
With dust, everything we saw, even
Some small children scampering along a road,
Twittering Italian to a small caged bird.
We sat beside them to rest in some brushwood,
And I leaned down to rinse the dust from my face.
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 even, 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.
Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the 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.

Spiders appear throughout Wright’s poems. It’s obviously an important symbol to Wright, though, I must admit, it seems enigmatic to me. The book The Secret Language of Symbols states: “For the Celts, the spider’s web symbolized the web that held all life together. For Egyptians and Greeks it stood for fate. Christians believed the we to represent the snare of Satan.” Others emphasize the creative aspect of the spider, as exemplified by the spinning of its web. In another poem Wright describes the spider as “laying the foundation of community, she labors all alone,” saying “the air is forming itself into avenues, back alleys, boulevards, paths, gardens, paths, fields and one frail towpath shimmering as it leads away into the sky.

To me, the spider somehow seems to represent the artist who is able to create his own world, complete in itself, timeless. Art has the unique ability to transcend death, to stand outside of time, just as truth, itself, is eternal.

3 thoughts on “James Wright’s Last Poems”

  1. Your brief essay on Wright is quite insightful, and your selections from his collected poems sensitive and appropriate. I felt much the same about Wright when writing the chapter about him in my book, The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland. He found a way in his last poems to reconcile his conflicted feelings not only about Ohio but also about his own physical existence and his work as a poet. The last sentence in “The Journey” is the key passage in Wright’s later poetry, as it expresses the consolation he found in marriage, in travel, and in nature.

    By the way, the phrase “the best days are the first to flee” is from Virgil’s Georgics. Wright made that allusion more than once.

    Anyway, I like your essay a lot.

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