On the Deaths and Resurrections of James Wright

Lisa Wells

“we dead stand undefended everywhere”
—James Wright

How did the Silver Jews have it? Punk rock died when the first kid said / “punk’s not dead.” This may be true of poetry, too. I die a little, in any case, whenever one of those mid-career In Defense Ofs is pubbed, and wouldn’t mind in the least if someone issued the official obituary already. Once the fact is finally pronounced, all the world’s murdered poems will be free to get on with haunting us, and more efficiently, having dispensed with their “relevance,” “timeliness,” “accessibility”—all the trappings of a mortal art. No offense to Shelley, but I’d rather be dead than a legislator, unacknowledged or otherwise.

Poetry is the dead, poetry is the blessed dead singing to the living, and the poem is the death all citizens are promised!

Let it be said: poetry is dead. Also, poetry is the dead, poetry is the blessed dead singing to the living, and the poem is the death all citizens are promised! This is why it’s difficult “to get.” Put that in your pocket, kiddos. Put it with the posies.

Now that we’re down in the ground together, let’s explore the digs. I entreat, as our guide, that most American of specters, the Ohioan James Wright, best known for breaking into blossom and loitering in hammocks where desiccated cowpies flame into “golden stones”—but who was, in the main, a digger of sonorous graves. He sings to us now:

“A strong man, alone / beats on the door of a grave crying / Oh let me in.”

The lines are from an early version of “Miners” published in Poetry Magazine in 1961. They are, for my money, the most succinct description of the poet’s activity. In Wright’s cosmology, the grave is not merely a magnet; it is the chrysalis, the socket of transfiguration where his personae, images, and multitudinous gripes are made transcendent, breaking, in the process, the poem’s very bones. As a younger poet, Wright employed the inherited structures, but they proved too rigid. He beat on the door of the poem, Oh let me in! In a later version, after his passage through translation, the line has been edited to read: “A man, alone, / Stumbles on the outside locks of a grave, whispering / Oh let me in.” The entry is easier now, has been achieved many times. He keeps his bedroll in there.

Wright the ecstatic necromancer begins to pupate as early as The Green Wall (1957). In “On the Skeleton of a Hound,” a long-dead dog lies unburied but for the lovely creep of milkweed and dew. The poem begins in formal obedience but soon declivities darken, flies arrive, the music decomposes. As the poet Mark Doty had it, “his tongue won’t work the way it worked in the preceding lines.” This liminal grave is located adjacent to the eroding artifice of a crumbling wall, (the “sniveling iambic” soon to be abandoned). When the transcendent image arrives, it cleaves the poem in half; the dead hound, resurrected, bounds from an open meadow and lands on the moon, where singing girls dance around a fire. The moon invites a separation, and Wright, alone in the next stanza, goes to work disassembling the skeleton, disrupting its “perfect shape,” tossing the skull like a ball over the Maples (good arm, Jim!). If the hound is to live again, in other words, the poet must bust up its form, unlock it, dispense with the elevated aboutness and deliver the living image. (Not incidentally, Wright’s buddy Robert Bly likened image-based poems to animals with “considerable flowing rhythms.”)

Wright dug most of his graves in the vicinity of his hometown—Martins Ferry, Ohio—a place, if we are to believe the poems, populated by miners, dead sisters, rapists, and drowned children.

Wright dug most of his graves in the vicinity of his hometown—Martins Ferry, Ohio—a place, if we are to believe the poems, populated by miners, dead sisters, rapists, and drowned children. His father worked at the glass factory, his mother in a laundry. Probably safe to assume his people didn’t employ such fancy talk as is found in much of The Green Wall (“with loads that build the slender bough / Till branches bear a tasteless fruit”) and the pull of those two languages split, and knit, and split again his tongue.

“At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” (Saint Judas) we find an early blueprint of the problem, sectioned as if instructions for its own navigation. First, we learn the grave (his origin) is infected, that he might have been buried there, had he not run away (to the academy, to life, “aloof”). He turns to face the past: Ohio, that sweetly fetid Babel that first confounded his tongue. Next, he confesses his self-interest, singing himself formal lullabies, he croons his tears at 50 cents per line. For the strong man torn between identities, to survive while others die is a slight, but to profit from their suffering is to be damned. He outs himself, a scavenger breed: “no love’s lost between me and the crying / Drunks of Belaire, Ohio … / (they) Can do without my widely printed sighing / Over their pains with paid sincerity.”

What recourse but to flip the world the bird? “To hell with them. / I kick the clods away, and speak my name.” Speech is the knife that violently excises the phony-baloney from the sandwich. Speech offers hope, even as it flays, and might just mend his mouth: “This grave’s gash festers. Maybe it will heal.” The poem’s epigraph, courtesy of Doctor Freud, teaches us much about the traitorous survivor: “Why should we do this? What good is it to us? Above all, how can we do such a thing? How can it possibly be done?” Whatever its intended comment on the poem, it’s also an accusation against the writer, probing Wright’s particular problem of documenting the suffering of self and others. What good is it? And what’s more: How could we do such a thing?

Once Wright dispenses with the “iambic paradigm” and takes up the free-verse poems of The Branch Will Not Break, his graves are shallower. The poet has scattered his skeleton and is lost in moony transcendence. The Branch Will Not Break is Wright’s most beloved collection, and I love it as much as the next guy, but it remains burdened by borrowed strategies, bitten from the German and Spanish poetry he translated. The best poems in the collection deploy Wright’s own vernacular and imagery, famously; the women clucking like starved pullets, and the suicidally beautiful boys galloping terribly against each other’s bodies. But others seem to have been robbed directly from the graves of the poets he translated, with little evidence of a fence. “A Message Hidden in an Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw into a Gully of Maple Trees One Night at an Indecent Hour” (somebody get the cane!) displays the spectrum. Lines like “The unwashed shadows / Of blast furnaces from Moundsville, West Virginia / Are sneaking across the pits of strip mines . . . To steal grapes / In heaven.”

Two Citizens might be Wright’s least liked book, but those sloppy rages feel slightly more convincing than, say, heavenly grapes, or that Rumi cover track “The Jewel.” And I guess Wright knew it, because a searing self-scrutiny returns in Shall We Gather at the River, builds through the new poems in Collected, and explodes in Two Citizens.

As his friend, the poet Donald Hall writes in his introduction to Above the River: the Complete Poems:

Fine poems in Shall We Gather at the River mingle with slackness, which increases in the new poems of Collected Poems and in Two Citizens. An introduction to Wright’s Complete Poems is no place for dwelling on failures—all poets fail at times—but let me suggest that, in his slack patches, Wright abandons oxymoronic images often to rely on a storyteller’s voice—which rambles, and, in proclaiming certainty, seems uncertain.

Most poets know, if they’re in it for the long haul, they will have to die and resurrect several times over the course of their career.

Fair enough, but I’d add that those failures were required to achieve the radiant integration in the last books. Wright’s no special fuck-up in this regard; most poets know, if they’re in it for the long haul, they will have to die and resurrect several times over the course of their career. In a 1975 interview for The Paris Review, speaking on the final poem in Shall We Gather at The River, he says, “I was trying to move from death to resurrection and death again, and challenge death finally.” Across the collection, these deaths resolve in watery graves, in earthen burial, coffins and tombs; a warm grave is wished for friends, the ants and other creatures go to graves—it would be tedious to list the many manifestations. And they are punctuated by the poet’s own fevered solicitation of death: “Sack me, or bury me among the blind” (“A Christmas Greeting”). “Am I dead? And if not, why not? . . . my skeleton / Glitters out. I am the dark. I am the dark / Bone I was born to be.” (“Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store”). “I labor to die, father . . . and yet I cannot find my own face” (“Confession to J Edgar Hoover”). Again and again, he seeks the obliterative catharsis, not in order to vanish, but to locate himself, to find his true face, the bone he was born to be. The crescendo of this suicidally beautiful meltdown arrives in Two Citizens, in which, for example, a Latin phrase is followed by the confrontationally plain-spoken: “Hell, I ain’t got nothing. / Ah, you bastards, / How I hate you.”

“My chief enemy in poetry is glibness,” Wright said, but the gift of Two Citizens is exactly that—his slack invective. The humiliating mother tongue, so long resisted, is given full expression in the mouth, and so the mouth becomes its grave. You have to admire his commitment.

“I’ve never written any book I’ve detested so much,” he said. “No matter what anybody thinks about it, I know this book is final. God damn me if I ever write another.”

Fortunately, he did continue to write, and some of his best poems. Maybe God did damn the endeavor—soon, a cancer on his tongue would kill him for good—but he managed to locate an authentic language in the end, and however briefly, befriended himself.

In the middle of my own life
I woke up and found myself
Dying, fair enough, still
Alive in the friendly city
Of my body . . .

Lisa Wells is a poet and nonfiction writer from Portland, Oregon. Her debut collection of poetry, THE FIX, was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize. A new book of nonfiction, Believers, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Best New Poets, The Believer, N+1 Online, Denver Quarterly, Third Coast, and elsewhere, and has been recognized with grants and fellowships from Caldera Arts, The Regional Arts and Culture Council, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, among others. She lives in Seattle, Washington.