Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: James Wright

by lizard

Today I got to comb the well-stocked poetry section at Vargo’s Jazz City and Books, in Bozeman, for just the second time. Knowing what I might find there, I saved a little dough and used a recent birthday to justify going a bit hog-wild.

I came away with titles by Robert Duncan, Joy Harjo, Denise Levertov, a book/DVD package featuring Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison, and two books by James Wright.

A goddamn treasure trove, even after the half dozen books I had to re-shelve.

The poem for this week’s poetry series is from James Wright. It’s a long, somewhat formal poem, but please don’t let that dissuade you from taking the time to read it. The poem may grow on you.


to Gerald Enscoe

Would you the undulation of one wave,
its trick to me transfer…


I stood above the sown and generous sea
Late in the day, to muse about your words:
Your human images come to pray for hands
To wipe their vision clear, your human voice
Flinging the poem forward into sound.
Below me, roaring elegies to birds,
Intricate, cold, the waters crawled the sands,
Heaving and groaning, casting up a tree,
A shell, a can to clamber over the ground:
Slow celebration, cluttering ripple on wave.

I wondered when the complicated sea
Would tear and tangle in itself and die,
Sheer outrage hammering itself to death:
Hundreds of gulls descending to the froth,
Their bodies clumped and fallen, lost to me.
Counting those images, I meant to say
A hundred gulls decline to nothingness;
But, high in cloud, a single naked gull
Shadows a depth in heaven for the eye.
And, for the ear, under the wail and snarl
Of groping foghorns and the winds grown old,
A single human word for love of air
Gathers the tangled discords up to song.
Summon the rare word for the rare desire.
It thrives on hunger, and it rises strong
To live above the blindness and the noise
Only as long as bones are clean and spare,
The spine exactly set, the muscle lean.
Before you let a single word escape,
Starve it in darkness; lash it to the shape
Of tense wing skimming on the sea alone….

So through my cold lucidity of heart
I thought to send you careful rules of song.
But gulls ensnare me here; the sun fades; thought
By thought the tide heaves, bobbing my words’ damp wings;
Mind is the moon-wave roiling on ripples now.
Sun on the bone-hulled galleons of those gulls
Charms my immense irrelevance away,
And lures wings moonward. Openly she soars,
A miracle out of all gray sounds, the moon,
Deepening and rifting swell and formal sky.
Woman or bird, she plumes the ashening sound,
Flaunting to nothingness the rules I made.
Scattering cinders, widening, over the sand
Her cold epistle falls. To plumb the fall
Of silver on ripple, evening ripple on wave,
Quick celebration where she lives for light,
I let all measures die. My voice is gone,
My words to you unfinished, where they lie
Common and bare as stone in diamond veins.
Where the sea moves the word moves, where the sea
Subsides, the slow word fades with lunar tides.
Now still alive, my skeletal words gone bare,
Lapsing like dead gulls’ brittle wings and drowned,
In a mindless dance, beneath a darkening air,
I send you shoreward echoes of my voice:
The dithyrambic gestures of the moon,
Sun-lost, the mind plumed, Dionysian,
A blue sea-poem, joy, moon-ripple on wave.

—James Wright

  1. 1 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: From Wright To Write « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] haven’t read James Wright extensively, but I picked up a few books in Bozeman, which prompted this post back in […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] James Wright […]

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