I Do Not Dare Breath

James Wright (1927 – 1980)

It goes without saying that a fine short poem can have the resonance and depth of an entire novel.

James Wright

Beginning

By James Arlington Wright
 
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
 

 
 

Among the Rocks

By Robert Browning
 
Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
 
That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you:
Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above!

That Will Be She Forever

James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)

I’ll be damned, you’re a poet. Welcome to hell.

James Wright

Reading a 1979 Inscription
on Belli’s Monument

by James Wright

It is not only the Romans who are gone.
Belli, unhappy a century ago,
Won from the world his fashionable stone.
Where it stands now, he doesn’t even know.
Across the Tiber, near Trastevere,
His top hat teetered on his head with care,
Brushed like a gentleman, he cannot see
The latest Romans who succeed him there.

One of them bravely climbed his pedestal
And sprayed a scarlet MERDA on his shawl.
This afternoon, I pray his hidden grave
Lies nameless somewhere in the hills, while rain
Fusses and frets to rinse away the stain.
Rain might erase when marble cannot save.


The Resurrected

by James Wright

Praying down the gulley,
Slowed by the rainy mire,
I will discern, across the void,
Two flies winding a fire,
And a long thick leaf
Hanging on another,
And a leg of root and a leg
Of bough twining together.

That will be she forever; 
Lightning bugs for eyes,
That see no farther in the dark
Than my own blind eyes;
A limp leaf for a cheek,
Cracking before it slips;
Tendril and twig for ankle bones,
And nothing at all for lips

But the unbodied mark
My mouth makes on the dark.

Nobody, But Nobody Can Make It Out Here Alone

Star Tribune Special Edition Honoring George Floyd Dec. 27, 2020

Alone

by Maya Angelou  (1928-2014)

 

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.


When I walked out to get something out of my car this Sunday morning, running out in bare feet despite snow and a temperature of 18 degrees F, I was surprised to see a copy of the Star Tribune sitting in my drive way, safely encased in a plastic bag, protecting it from the elements.  I figured it had been mistakenly delivered to our driveway and was a neighbor’s, but as I looked around wondering which door to knock on and the need to go back and put on boots to carry out that errand, I realized that every driveway in my St. Louis Park neighborhood had a copy of the Star Tribune sitting delivered, waiting for them, regardless if they had a subscription to the Sunday paper.   When I went inside, glad to have the Sunday paper to read with my morning coffee, I was incredibly moved by what was waiting for me inside.  

I do not know if this special edition was delivered only to St. Louis Park residents for free because it was where George Floyd lived at the time of his death or whether it was done more broadly across Minneapolis, but what I know, is that I am incredibly grateful to all the individuals involved in giving this special tribute, and to the Star Tribune for its generosity in making it happen.  It had a profound impact on me.  I sat down and read every word as emotions swept over me.   

I have written before about how much George Floyd’s death has shaken my sense of self and my sense of home.  It has made me question what role I am called on now to play to reassess my own prejudice, ingrained in ways beyond my creation, but still very real, even in ways that I might have perceived before as good intentions.  I feel tremendous shame in George Floyd’s murder by policemen whose salaries are paid by the money I contribute through property taxes on my home.  I still ask myself, “how did this happen?”  How do men sworn to protect and serve in my community act so callously towards a human being in obvious need of assistance over a matter so minor in importance?  Floyd’s death is a sea change in how I feel about myself and my hometown and the responsibility we all share in figuring out how to narrow the opportunity gap that exists in our community and change the trajectory of our combined futures.    

The article also gave me a little glimmer of hope, despite all that has happened.   I was moved how George was proud of Minneapolis while he was alive of how he felt about how it had afforded him the opportunity for a new start in life.  All Floyd wanted was the chance to put the past behind,  the opportunity for honest work, honest wages and a chance to contribute.  Floyd and I want(ed) the same things,  we have the same ambitions.   It’s not fair that so many barriers were put in his way on what should have been his human right, whereas for me, barriers were cleared out of my path without me even knowing it.   I cried as I read his pride in finally having a place of his own with a room mate in a St. Louis Park duplex that is less than a mile of the home that I own. Though I never met George Floyd we were neighbors in the sense we both lived in and love the same neighborhood.    

https://www.startribune.com/george-floyd-hoped-moving-to-minnesota-would-save-him-what-he-faced-here-killed-him/573417181/

I don’t have the words to express how much George Floyd’s death has impacted me and challenged me to think differently.   I still have not figured out what that means in terms of how thinking differently will lead to action.   I know  his death has had a remarkable impact on this community,  that it has altered things in ways we can not go back.   And yet, the start of a long journey does not mean we have arrived.  Thoughtful memorials and moving tributes have not yet fundamentally changed things in our community.  We have yet in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park to narrow the education, income and achievement gap that people of color face today, nor improved health care access or fair housing or the endless other things that myself and so many others who prosper in the riches of Minneapolis the past 100 years take for granted.  What I do know is that his death has made me more consciously aware that those that have prosperity have an obligation to figure out how to improve the opportunity for those that don’t.   Action starts with awareness.  Now, I have to figure out where that will lead me. 

I am grateful for the staff and writers at the Star Tribune that provided this  healing gift this morning in helping me live in the present and not look any farther than myself in resolving to do better.   Thank you.  The James Wright poem, published in 1992,  is a reminder the challenges we face as a community have been with us for a long, long time and aren’t going away soon.   It is going to take hard work to make a dent in the problems our community faces.  It is going to take sacrifice and resources committed that don’t exist today.   Let’s not waste time debating the matter.  George Floyd’s life and death are testament for the need for change.  Let’s figure this out, together. 


The Minneapolis Poem

By James Wright

to John Logan

1
I wonder how many old men last winter
Hungry and frightened by namelessness prowled   
The Mississippi shore
Lashed blind by the wind, dreaming
Of suicide in the river.
The police remove their cadavers by daybreak   
And turn them in somewhere.
Where?
How does the city keep lists of its fathers   
Who have no names?
By Nicollet Island I gaze down at the dark water   
So beautifully slow.
And I wish my brothers good luck
And a warm grave.
 
   2
The Chippewa young men
Stab one another shrieking
Jesus Christ.
Split-lipped homosexuals limp in terror of assault.   
High school backfields search under benches   
Near the Post Office. Their faces are the rich   
Raw bacon without eyes.
The Walker Art Center crowd stare
At the Guthrie Theater.
 
   3
Tall Negro girls from Chicago
Listen to light songs.
They know when the supposed patron
Is a plainclothesman.
A cop’s palm
Is a roach dangling down the scorched fangs   
Of a light bulb.
The soul of a cop’s eyes
Is an eternity of Sunday daybreak in the suburbs   
Of Juárez, Mexico.
 
   4
The legless beggars are gone, carried away
By white birds.
The Artificial Limbs Exchange is gutted
And sown with lime.
The whalebone crutches and hand-me-down trusses   
Huddle together dreaming in a desolation
Of dry groins.
I think of poor men astonished to waken   
Exposed in broad daylight by the blade   
Of a strange plough.
 
   5
All over the walls of comb cells
Automobiles perfumed and blindered   
Consent with a mutter of high good humor   
To take their two naps a day.
Without sound windows glide back
Into dusk.
The sockets of a thousand blind bee graves tier upon tier
Tower not quite toppling.
There are men in this city who labor dawn after dawn
To sell me my death.
 
   6
But I could not bear
To allow my poor brother my body to die
In Minneapolis.
The old man Walt Whitman our countryman
Is now in America our country
Dead.
But he was not buried in Minneapolis
At least.
And no more may I be
Please God.
 
   7
I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden   
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives   
Of the unnamed poor.
 
 

I Have Wasted My Life

J.-Wright
James Wright

“Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom. ”

James Wright

Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm

by James Wright

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.

 


One of the things I appreciate about James Wright, is the slight fog which permeates even his most sunny days.   On a week that saw me turn a rather harmless late 50’s birthday, I have had that thought more than once in the past month, “I have wasted my life.” Hasn’t every late 50’s something man and woman thought that at least once? However, maybe not in the way you might think. When I read the last line of Wright’s poem, what I think he is saying to me is, “I wasted my life” not by doing nothing or not doing more, but by not doing nothing more often!

There is a symmetry to my late 50’s. My children are the ages that I was when I had them. My surviving parent is likely older than the age I will be when I die. It feels like I am at a juncture where I can see the past and the future and the question is what is yet to be done?  It certainly isn’t climb the corporate ladder or build a bigger house or buy typical retirement toys, in other words do the things many people aspire to do as a measure of success at this stage in their lives. For me its strive to still write a few more good poems, nourish my irresponsible self and be the person sitting in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm and do absolutely nothing but think, read and look at the beauty around me.  My greatest ambition the next 30 years is to do less more often and do it in peace.

Wright is an interesting character. He wrote more than one masterful sonnet, but metrical structured poetry was not his best legacy.  Wright’s poetry fit the era in which it came forth: a celebration of fly over land, the unremarkable Midwest and a reconciliation of the beginning of when working class, middle class unexceptional white men began fading into obscurity, or so it has felt, maybe they were always in obscurity and Wright’s poetry was finally just stating the obvious. Reading Wright always feels to me like I am so grateful they hadn’t invented medications for depression yet, because a placated, medicated Wright would have been a boring writer I fear.

If you could waste your life more brilliantly, what would you do? What unremarkable thing do you still aspire to achieve? Where do you need to hang your hammock  and let the clouds and bronze butterflies float by? During this time of working from home, ask yourself this question?  How hard should you really be working right now? Is your 70% good enough at a time when productivity and all measures of it by an economist are not going to improve our national economy and GDP, unless we define GDP as Good Devoted People. Be good to yourself. Do good for others. Let that be our measure of GDP and if you take a few minutes to read or write some poetry today, look at it as the most productive thing you did all day.


Saint Judas

by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
a pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry.  Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh.  Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

It Won’t Always Be Like This

franz_Wright
Franz Wright (1953 – 2015)

Spell

Some fish for words from shore while others, lacking in such contemplative tact, like to go wading in up to their chins through a torrent of bone-freezing diamond, knife raised, to freeze-frame incarnadine and then bid it as with hermetic wand flow on again, ferociously, transparently, name writ in river.

By Franz Wright

To Myself

by Franz Wright

You are riding the bus again
burrowing into the blackness of Interstate 80,
the sole passenger

with an overhead light on.
And I am with you.
I’m the interminable fields you can’t see,

the little lights off in the distance
(in one of those rooms we are
living) and I am the rain

and the others all
around you, and the loneliness you love,
and the universe that loves you specifically, maybe,

and the catastrophic dawn,
the nicotine crawling on your skin—
and when you begin

to cough I won’t cover my face,
and if you vomit this time I will hold you:
everything’s going to be fine

I will whisper.
It won’t always be like this.
I am going to buy you a sandwich.


I have an affinity for James Wright’s poetry in part because of his connection to Minnesota and the landscapes and sentiments expressed of the Midwest.  James and Franz Wright are the only father and son to win a Pulitzer Prize in the same category.   It is hard for sons to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, particularly fathers that are celebrated for their achievements.

Poetry is a unique terror to impart as a hereditary legacy to one’s child, poetry rooted in desperation that connects the Wright’s poetic accomplishments. A criticism of their work is there’s a thread of self pity that runs through it, a contrition that lacks discipline.  I don’t see it that way.  I see their starkest poetry as the courage to write what they feel. The question is whether readers have the courage to feel those same things along side them.

James died of lung cancer from smoking.  Franz died of tongue cancer, also smoking related. Self destruction is an art form all of our own creation and as individual as the individual. Is poetry the instruction manual left behind for the puzzle keepers to reassemble the poet as flesh and blood, even if only for a second in our own minds?


In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned

by James Wright

I will grieve alone,
As I strolled alone, years ago, down along
The Ohio shore.
I hid in the hobo jungle weeds
Upstream from the sewer main,
Pondering, gazing.

I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.

I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?

For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.

And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

 

The Older We Get, The Less We Count

lynch
Thomas Lynch

Refusing At Age 52 To Write Sonnets

by Thomas Lynch

It came to him that he could nearly count
How many Octobers he had left to him
In increments of ten or, say, eleven
Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.
He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six—
Humanity’s advances notwithstanding
In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens—
What with his habits and family history,
The end he thought is nearer than you think.

The future, thus confined to its contingencies,
The present moment opens like a gift:
The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,
The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—
All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?
At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.


 

 


Northern Pike

by James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine and a pain
I don’t know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,

 

Breaking Into Blossom

Robert Bly
Robert Bly  (1926 to present)

Seeing The Eclipse in Maine

by Robert Bly

It started about noon.  On top of Mount Batte,
We were all exclaiming.  Someone had a cardboard
And a pin, and we all cried out when the sun
Appeared in tiny form on the notebook cover.

It was hard to believe.  The high school teacher
We’d met called it a pinhole camera,
People in the Renaissance loved to do that.
And when the moon had passed partly through

We saw on a rock underneath a fir tree,
Dozens of crescents—made the same way—
Thousands!  Even our straw hats produced
A few as we moved them over the bare granite.

We shared chocolate, and one man from Maine
Told a joke.  Suns were everywhere—at our feet.

 


Is poetry a monologue or a dialogue?   An old question, easily answered from my perspective;  it is a dialogue, poetry is a conversation, its up to you to figure out the response.

Robert Bly was born in Madison, Minnesota and continues to live and work in Western Minnesota to the present day.   Robert Bly and James Arlington Wright were friends, and helped put Midwestern poetry on the map in the 1950’s.  Bly’s life work as a poet is vast, expanding the wealth of English literature by translating a diverse range of poets across many languages with a focus on the spiritual in addition to his many collections of his own poetry.

I worked in Lac Qui Parle County, the landscape of much of Bly’s poetry, for 7 years in the 1990’s.   Bly may travel the world within his writing, but it is all grounded in the rich clay silt loam of the prairie.  I find it reassuring to see a glimpse of the land I have traveled as an Agronomist for 30 plus years within the poetry of both Bly and Wright.

Bly and Wright traveled very different personal paths in using poetry to wrestle with their demons. Bly being older by one year and yet outliving Wright by 38 years and counting.   Wright’s depression is palpable within his poetry, but rather than lessen the experience it heightens it.  Both Bly and Wright poetry invite a discussion on the wonderment of this planet and the human condition.


A Blessing Poem

by James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)

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.