It’s hardly unusual for a poet to paint images with words, but James Wright does this to an almost unfathomable degree. Do you know how, as you’re muddling through life, every once in awhile you get a feeling of something ineffable which seems to be concealed just behind something perfectly ordinary? How sometimes, there’s a shadow whose shape doesn’t match anything that’s actually visible? James Wright’s poems cut out bits of reality with a sharp knife, like a photograph, which makes it all the more astonishing when a wave of mystery shows through them.
James Wright was born in a factory town in Ohio, and he couldn’t wait to leave. He was born in 1927 to hard-working parents, neither of whom had much education–exactly the kind of family that got slammed hardest by the Depression. He missed a year of high school when he suffered a nervous breakdown, but that didn’t keep the Army from taking him when he graduated. After serving in Japan, he went to college on the GI Bill and became your basic poetry-writing college professor. But the American countryside was bred into him, and most of his poems that I’ve read live in the rural Midwest.
His most famous poem is called A Blessing. But I’m going to copy out another one here:
From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower
by James Wright
Cribs loaded with roughage huddle together
Before the north clouds.
The wind tiptoes between poplars.
The silver maple leaves squint
Toward the ground.
An old farmer, his scarlet face
Apologetic with whiskey, swings back a barn door
And calls a hundred black-and-white Holsteins
From the clover field.
Now, why do you suppose he specified “black-and-white Holsteins”? That’s the usual color scheme, after all. Or “cribs loaded with roughage”? What else would be in there?
I think it’s because he wants to make sure the picture is crisp, that no one reading will mistake the type of cow or the look of the silage–that whatever else we may take away from the poem, we’ll know what he was looking at when he conceived it. Every piece of the scene is exact, whether the phrasing is as loaded as “apologetic with whiskey” or as trivial as “swings back a barn door.”
There’s a certain mystery with this man. How did he decide to make the shift from vocational education to the study of English and Russian literature? It’s nothing you would guess looking from the outside at his early years; as with his poetry, such blessings only come from within.
On to my following poem:
After the tornado siren stops,
Its warning hangs
in the almost green air,
ripe as milkweed pods,
heavy as summer tomatoes.
I cut this electric fog
With my helmet,
Hunched over my handlebars,
Trying to remember which windows
Were left open to disperse the afternoon heat.
A couple strolls along the center line,
his tender branch grafted to the stalk
that sprouts from her sleeveless calico.
They are so lost in each other.
I do not want to hurt them.
Lightning snakes, thunder crashes, I call,
“Passing on your left!”
The couple turns,
Smiles at me,
And tells me all is well.