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.

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.”

James Wright’s Traditional Poems

It sometimes amazes me how I am led from one thought to another, from one work to another. While reading about Bly and Stafford, I repeatedly encountered the name of James Wright. When I started reading about Wright, I found that Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost were two of the poets he most admired at the beginning of his career, and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Thomas Hardy is the poet who originally inspired me to become a lit major. In addition, Wright studied with Roethke, another of my favorites. To make a long story not so short, here I am trying to deal with all 376 pages of James Wright’s Above the River:the Complete Poems.

So far, I’ve read the poems Wright wrote from 1957 to 1963, generally considered his traditional period when he wrote poems that are often compared to those of Hardy and Frost. Thematically these poems focus on “the other,” on the individual who suffers the most in our society, the misfit, the outcast, the outlaw. Wright, through his poems, puts us inside these people and makes us see the world through their eyes. But he does more than that, he makes us see how we suffer in our everyday life the same kind of pain and alienation they feel. Wright creates in us that most-Christian of feelings, empathy, for our fellow man by making us identify with his pain.

In “Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake” Wright shows how the modern age of machinery threatens all of us by dehumanizing us and by sacrificing our body to efficiency and “progress.”

Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake

Cool with the touch of autumn, waters break
Out of the pump at dawn to clear my eyes;
I leave the house, to face the sacrifice
Of hay, the drag and death.
By day, by moon, I have seen my younger brother wipe his face
And heave his arm on steel. He need not pass
Under the blade to waste his life and break;

The hunching of the body is enough
To violate his bones. That bright machine
Strips the revolving earth of more than grass;
Powered by the fire of summer, bundles fall
Folded to die beside a burlap shroud;
And so my broken brother may lie mown
Out of the wasted fallows, winds return,
Corn-yellow tassels of his hair blow down,
The summer bear him sideways in a bale
Of darkness to October’s mow of cloud.

Anyone who has ever helped to harvest hay will immediately understand what back-breaking work it really is. It was enough to make me glad I was an English teacher and make me understand why so many of the farmers’ sons and daughters fled to the city. It’s easy to understand why the brother “need not pass/ Under the blade to waste his life and break.” That “bright machine” that “strips the revolving earth of more than grass” seems to symbolize the Machine that has entered the New Eden, threatening that pastoral, Jeffersonian dream of democracy that fades into a distant past.

Though Leslie was unable to understand the beauty of “Complaint,” I, fan of Benny Hill and Married With Children, was immediately struck by the beauty of this poem.


She’s gone. She was my love, my moon or more.
She chased the chickens out and swept the floor,
Emptied the bones and nut-shells after feasts,
And smacked the kids for leaping up like beasts.
Now morbid boys have grown past awkwardness;
The girls let stitches out, dress after dress,
To free some swinging body’s riding space
And form the new child’s unimagined face.
Yet, while vague nephews, spitting on their curls,
Amble to pester winds and blowsy girls,
What arm will sweep the room, what hand will hold
New snow against the milk to keep it cold?
And who will dump the garbage, feed the hogs,
And pitch the chickens’ heads to hungry dogs?
Not my lost hag who dumbly bore such pain:
Childbirth and midnight sassafras and rain.
New snow against her face and hands she bore,
And now lies down, who was my moon or more.

Victim of modern society and political correcteness that I am, I’ve never been lucky enough to have the kind of devoted wife that was willing to “hold/ New snow against the milk to keep it cold,” but I, though unsure I’m willing to totally reciprocate, can surely appreciate that kind of sacrifice. Still, it’s amazing how the “sense of loss,” the shared human tragedy, can help us to bridge the gap between ourselves and “others” who do not share our life style.

In “American Twilights, 1957,” dedicated to Caryl Chessman, Wright identifies his sense of personal guilt, the kind that we must all feel to some degree if we examine our lives critically, with that of the condemned man:

Haunted by gallows, peering in dark,
I conjure prisons out of wet
And strangling pillows where I mark
The misery man must not forget
Though I have found no prison yet

Perhaps inspired by Chessman’s statement that “I learned too late and only after coming to Death Row that each of us ever must be aware of the brotherhood of man… Circumstances may compel us to become our brother’s keeper; I think we destroy something in ourselves when we become his executioner, ” Wright extends this personal sense of guilt to the sense of “otherness,” or isolation, that the criminal must surely feel if he reaches self awareness:

Lo now, the desolation man
Has tossed away like a gnawed bone
Will hunt him where the sea began,
Summon him out of tree and stone,
Damn him, before his dream be gone:

Seek him behind his bars, to crack
Out the dried kernel of his heart.
God, God have pity if he wake,
Have mercy on man who dreamed apart.
God, God have pity on man apart.

The poem, to me at least, presents a powerful argument against the death penalty because it asserts the common humanity that we all share.

Wright’s empathy for his fellow mankind seems, perhaps ironically, most clearly stated in his translation of a poem by Cesar Vallejo:

Our Daily Bread

From the Spanish of Cesar Vallejo
for Alejandro Gamboa

Breakfast is drunk down … Damp earth
of the cemetery gives off the fragrance of the precious blood.
City of winter … the mordant crusade
of a cart that seems to pull behind it
an emotion of fasting that cannot get free!

I wish I could beat on all the doors,
and ask for somebody; and then
look at the poor, and, while they wept softly,
give bits of fresh bread to them.
And plunder the rich of their vineyards
with those two blessed hands
which blasted the nails with one blow of light,
and flew away from the Cross!

Eyelash of morning, you cannot lift yourselves!
Give us our daily bread,
Lord … !
Every bone in me belongs to others;
and maybe I robbed them.
I came to take something for myself that maybe
was meant for some other man;
and I start thinking that, if I had not been born,
another poor man could have drunk this coffee.
I feel like a dirty thief … Where will I end?

And in this frigid hour, when the earth
has the odor of human dust and is so sad,
I wish I could beat on all the doors
and beg pardon from someone,
and make bits of fresh bread for him
here, in the oven of my heart … !

I only wish Wright’s empathy was universal. Perhaps then we wouldn’t be having this debate on whether the Afghanistan prisoners are legally POW’s are not. Perhaps we would simply treat them as human beings, human beings like ourselves, who, at the very least, deserve to be treated as if they are part of the brotherhood of man, not some caged animal.

Ah, but it would take a far greater imagination than that of all the poets in the world together to create a world where people really lived up to their beliefs. Not even I could be deceived by such a fantasy.

The More Things Change

Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959

… we die of cold, and not of darkness.

The American hero must triumph over
The forces of darkness.
He has flown through the very light of heaven
And come down in the slow dusk
Of Spain.

Franco stands in a shining circle of police.
His arms open in welcome.
He promises all dark things
Will be hunted down.

State police yawn in the prisons.
Antonio Machado follows the moon
Down a road of white dust,
To a cave of silent children
Under the Pyrenees.
Wine darkens in stone jars in villages.
Wine sleeps in the mouths of old men, it is a dark red color.

Smiles glitter in Madrid.
Eisenhower has touched hands with Franco, embracing
In a glare of photographers.
Clean new bombers from America muffle their engines
And glide down now.
Their wings shine in the searchlights
Of bare fields,
In Spain.

James Wright from Above the River

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