Wednesday, September 23, 2009

James Wright: A Prayer To The Lord Ramakrishna (II)

A Prayer To The Lord Ramakrishna
The anguish of a naked body is more terrible
To bear than God.
And the rain goes on falling.

When I stand up to cry out,
She laughs.
On the window sill, I lean
My bare elbows.
One blue wing, torn whole out of heaven,
Soaks in the black rain.

Blind, mouth sealed, a face blazes
On my pillow of cold ashes.

I kneel down naked and ask forgiveness.
A cold drizzle blows into the room,
And my shoulders flinch to the bone.
You have nothing to do with us.
Sleep on.
James Wright

I spent the last few days working on this poem and had an entire post ready to go and trashed it. Here's how it started out:

As many of you know, James Wright is one of my favorite poets, as is his son, Franz. One shared element in the work of both is the ambiance of mystery, the element of the unexplainable; this is, for me, the essence of poetic experience, exploring beyond the known. I've read many of James Wright's poems multiple times, but ran across this one recently in one of my periodic revisits to his work. Since one volume or the another (or the complete poems) is always by my bedside, these visitations are quite frequent (yes, I have all the individual volumes as well as the complete work - if I have to explain this to you, chances are you'd never understand).

I really didn't remember reading this piece previously, which is odd since I've an interest in Eastern culture including Hindi religion. Sometimes a creative work "comes to you" only when you are ready for it, and in that sense it seems I've never read this poem before.

Where to start? It is something of a perfect little jewel, no pun intended. It is enigmatic; it dazzles in its depth and brilliance. It is for me nearly inexplicable and yet positively alluring

What followed was the issue. I began to pry the poem apart as if with a crowbar and I made the kind of mess one would expect to make with a crowbar and a poem. I talked of the poems three characters, of the significance of the "blue" wing, of a profound existential experience, and wondered why the poem was excluded from the Robert Bly and Annie Wright edited Selected Poems. The conundrum presented by the last two lines is positively gripping. Pronouns, and their reference, play a big part. I compared it in tone to one of Edward Hopper's portrayals of solitude and that it provokes a forlorn feeling almost too much to bear. Then I began to puzzle over Krishna versus Lord Ramakrishna and watched as my exegesis just came undone and I realized that there was more thinking to do, indeed.

So, rather than heave the whole overboard, I thought I would send it your way virtually unsmudged. The poem is too good not to share, too good to let go by the boards. Rather than bludgeon it senseless to everyone's profound distress, I thought I'd just let it be.


This week's feature issue is of Lilliput Review is #161 from March 2008, which may also be viewed in its entirety here. Enjoy.

all along
----these pines
--------showing you how
John Martone

beside the snow bank
wind ruffles the feathers
of the dead sparrow
Jack Watson

Asking poems which among
The wildflowers
Denies its red color?
So why in spring do I feel
Like a sinful girl?
Yosano Akiko
translated by Dennis Maloney

And, of course, last word to the master:

is this rain falling
only on me?
translated by David G. Lanoue



Anonymous said...

Your insights are always welcome but regarding the Wright poem I have to agree: no crowbar! The same damage would happen to Issa if you pried open his "cuckoo" poem, yes? Of course, we live in a time full of poems that would collapse without some kind of critical scaffolding to hold them up. What a relief to be presented, almost every day, here at Issa's Untidy Hut, with poems that stand on their own!

Jim H. said...

My son brought home a very large painting he'd done in college. My daughter loooked at it and said "What the hell is that?" Her comment led to a family discussion (excluding the artist, now back in school) of the particular esthetics of the painting. We tried, in a way, to deconstruct it as a way of explaining its appeal, its power, its effect. The discussion came to pretty much a dead end -- an uncomfortable truce -- but it was still worth having.

I like your criticism of your own criticism. Mysteries aren't always meant to be solved.

Thanks, Don.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Joseph and Jim:

Glad you appreciated the dilemma ... sometimes I forget to step back from the task at hand ... it's that old adage I use with lifelong learning groups to get them into poetry - pull the wings off the butterfly to find beauty and nobody is flying anywhere ...

Grant Hackett said...

A brilliant poem. Brilliant. It lifts the roof of my head. Many thanks for bringing it to us.