Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright

A new book for the Near Perfect Books of Poetry list is From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright from Lost Hills Books of Duluth, Minnesota. I've been discussing two Wright books quite a bit lately: The Branch Will Not Break and Selected Poems and this book came as both a surprise and a revelation when I received it to review for The Small Press Review.

Frankly, I didn't have much hope. Books of homage are rarely up to the original and, so, what's the point, really? A writer such as James Wright might best be honored with a lyric rather than an elegy. As I say in my review "if there must be homage, let there be mystery, let there be revelation." And so there is, and then some.

Right out of the box, the first poem, by W. S. Merwin, nails it:


News comes that a friend far away
is dying now.

I look up and see small flowers appearing
in spring grass outside the window
and can't remember their name.

W. S. Merwin

I read that and thought, "time to close the book, it can't get better than that." In fact, there couldn't have been a truer assessment; yet, there were many poems that are up to Merwin's high standard set here. Galway Kinnell and C. K. Williams both have outstanding work here. Stanley Plumly has two excellent pieces. In an endnote, Robert Bly observes that the essence of Wright was his ability to transform a moment, to illuminate that transcendence, and the best work in this collection emulates Wright's strength without being derivative. Perhaps it is the highest honor of all to take the approach of another and to make of it something new. It is not a matter of style or allusion or voice; it is a matter of epiphanic moment. It is revelation.

In this collection, the occasional flat piece is the exception not the rule; the most critical I can be is to say perhaps the proliferation of horses throughout is unfortunate, but that is hardly fair since, in one particular sense, it is not so much what you say as how you say it. In "Two," Christina Lovin perfectly captures that moment, a la "The Blessing," when man meets nature and suddenly blends, realizing her/his place "in the family of things" as Mary Oliver so succinctly puts it. Instead of two horses, there are two deer, culled from seven by a cougar:

from Two

----------------There are two: just enough to take care
of the business of grooming. They stand neck-to-neck,
each licking, nuzzling, teasing the ticks and lice from the other's
coarse fur, enjoying the comfort, the contact, as horses do.
As humans do. As do you; as do I. Touch me here, then,
softly as deer's breath. I will touch you there, where
your mother held you in her arms, your neck against her shoulder.
Not where the raging fire begins, where undergrowth sparks
and catches and we are lost in its blaze. No, here,
where the hushed forest opens and the two quiet bodies
have disappeared into the green darkness within.
Christina Lovin

Ellen Seusy, too, finds an analogous moment in the seemingly pedestrian act of walking scraps out to the compost heap in the back yard:

from The Compost Bin

At the edge of the light, I look down,
then step into Ohio's dark night,
into what used to be forest.

The yard is quiet. This cold walk through the dark
takes me far. Who knows what will bloom
from what I bring. At the wooden bin

I tip the bowls onto the snow-covered compost.
Chemistry is going on in there
that I don't understand; pink peonies

could come from this decay. Sometimes
I wish not to go back, but to stay out
by the soft-armed hemlocks

out here by the compost bin,
this hearth way in the back of the yard,
and deep inside, the fire that no one's lit.
Ellen Seusy

Helen Ruggieri's poem is pure revelation, "The Kind of Poetry I Want," taken from a line by Wright in a direction he probably wouldn't have imagined and which he would have highly approved:

from The Kind of Poetry I Want

I want poetry from a woman who smiles with her teeth
you know her - she thinks like a man

I want poetry damp and shady:
trillium, bracken and fern

The kind of poetry I want takes my shape
not even knowing my name ...
Helen Ruggieri

This is just a dip into a fine collection of work that resonates just as Wright's best work does. Though it a quote from Wright himself, I'm not sure the title exactly captures the feel - perhaps "To the Other World" might have worked better, or even "Between Worlds" - but, in any case, this is a fine bit of business. As I said in closing my SPR review, "Since all these poets stand in unison, let one of their own stand for all. Listen to the close of "The Voices" by Michael Dennis Browne:"

from The Voices

From where I stand now,
I cannot see any singer,
but looking across the years,
listening in ways learned
only from them,
I can hear all the song.
Michael Dennis Browne

I can't think of a better analogy for poetry itself, its history, its tradition, what it is, and what it may be.

Revelation, indeed.


1 comment:

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks, Don, for pointing me in the direction of this book. The Merwin piece is simply astounding.