James Wright

March 7, 2007


Served with U.S. Army in Japan during the American occupation
Struggled with alcoholism and depression
Died of cancer of the tongue
Poems typically about men and women who find themselves outside society: most characteristic subjects were people apart and poor
Published translations
Kept his compassionate interest in social outcasts and an increasing confidence in the transforming beauty of nature


When I went out to kill myself, I caught / A pack of hoodlums beating up a man. / Running to spare hs 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.

-Saint Judas (in whole)

Judas was the apostle who betrayed Jesus with a kiss

In the Shreve High football stadium, / I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, / And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, / And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, / Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. / Their women cluck like starved pullets, / Dying for love.
Therefore, / Their sons grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

-Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio (in whole)

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, / Blaze up into golden stones. / I leav back, as the evening darkens and comes on. / A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.

-Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota (in whole)

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.

-A Blessing (in whole)

I had nothing to do with it. I was not here. / I was not born. / In 1862, when your hotheads / Raised hell from here to South Dakota, / My own fathers scattered into West Virginia / And southern Ohio. / My family fought the Confederacy / And fought the Union. / None of them got killed. / But for all that, it was not my fathers / Who murdered you. / Not much.
I don’t know / Where the fathers of Minneapolis finalized / Your flayed carcass. / Little Crow, true father / Of my dark America, / When I close my eyes I lose you among / Old loneliness. / My family were a lot of singing drunks and good carpenters. / We had brothers who loved one another no matter what they did. / And they did plenty.
I think they would have run like hell from your Sioux. / And when you caught them you all would have run like hell / From the Confederacy and from the Union / Into the hills and hunted for a few things, / Some bull-cat under the stones, a gar maybe, / If you were hungry, and if you were happy, / Sunfish and corn.
If only I knew where to mourn you, / I would surely mourn. / But I don’t know.
I did not com ehere only to grieve / For my people’s defeat. / The troops of the Union, who won, / Still outnumber us. / Old Paddy Beck, my great-uncle, is dead / At the old soldiers’ home near Tiffen, Ohio. / He got away with every last stitch / Of his uniform, save only / The dress trousers.
Oh all around us, / The hobo jungles of America grow wild again. / The pick handles bloom like your skinned spine. / I don’t even know where / My own grave is.

-A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862 (in whole)


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