I never heard James Wright give a poetry reading and never met him yet I feel a connection with him through my teacher Richard Hugo, who was a close friend of Wright’s. I was with Hugo in Missoula, Montana in March 1980 at the time of Wright’s death. Hugo was in tears at the Eastgate Liquor Store & Lounge over Wright’s passing, and I remember being one among other graduate students trying, in vain, to console him.
Wright’s book of poems The Journey was published posthumously a few years later, and I’ve treasured my copy over the years, reading the poems over and over, impressed and moved most of all, perhaps, by the volume’s title poem. I have memorized the poem, or, should I say, as the phrase goes, “learned it by heart.” That is how close one can come by memorizing a poem, a process I highly recommend. The poem becomes very close to you, part of muscle and sinew, and one can learn unexpectedly from the poem. I’ve tried by rereading, reciting and repeated hearing of “The Journey” to unlock some of its mysteries. What I can tell readers, potential poets, is that the poem has an ordinary beginning in the details, the sketching (if you will) of a town in Italy:
Anghiari is medieval, a sleeve sloping down
A steep hill, suddenly sweeping out
To the edge of a cliff, and dwindling.
That’s the setup. The speaker is not alone, and the poem moves from the opening panorama shot to a middle shot, the “we” joining some children that they’ve noticed, “scampering along a road, ‘Twittering Italian to a small caged bird.” The next two lines (part of the same stanza as the children and the caged bird) are critical as a hinge to an even closer seeing that goes on in the next stanza:
We sat beside them to rest in some brushwood,
And I leaned down to rinse the dust from my face.
Both of these lines are worth lingering over. Let’s note, first, the chance to rest, an opportunity for reflection and thought. Then, there is the pronoun separation, away from the “we” to an “I.” This is an inevitable move in the poem, in many poems, as the insight of the poem, the moment of transcendence if you will, is personal and not a group experience. With “I leaned down,” this reader senses an almost religious (definitely spiritual) humbling, perhaps a penitent, stance. The second line (above) is both interesting and curious. The speaker’s motion, one of bending down, is one of lowering himself, if you will, and he does this to “rinse the dust”—but with what? There’s no mention of water; there’s no stream or puddle. Maybe this is a dry rinsing, of wiping one’s face with one’s hands. When the next stanza begins, though, the poet has quite a vision of a spider. I’ll quote this whole third stanza in full:
I found the spider web there, whose hinges
Reeled heavily and crazily with the dust,
Whole mounds and cemeteries of it, sagging
And scattering shadows among shells and wings.
And then she stepped into the center of air
Slender and fastidious, the golden hair
Of daylight along her shoulders, she poised there,
While ruins crumbled on every side of her.
Free of the dust, as though a moment before
She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.
The spider web is dust-covered and “reel[s]” with the weight of dust, “whole mounds and cemeteries” of it. The dust, seen earlier, “blowing across the hills” is ubiquitous. Certainly the ancient quality of Italy’s countryside is evoked and the word “cemeteries” brings in mortality, the stacked catacombs of Italy’s dead, all our dead. The web seems fragile, endangered, “sagging,” and casting shadows “among shells and wings.” The word “shells” is curious but is not, I think seashells (as I first flashed on), but insect shells, cicada shells perhaps and parts of earlier arachnid meals; now, along with the wings, they’re all that’s left. What about the spider?
Amazing, really, this arachnoid vision. It’s a she, first, and then she’s described as “slender and fastidious” with “the golden hair / Of daylight along her shoulders.” Most amazing is the spider’s ability to shrug off the dust, and to do so, oddly, by bathing herself “inside the earth,” not in any water but in the earth. This seems to mirror the poet’s own actions—bending down (without water) to “rinse the dust from my face.” The spider is “Free of the dust,” though the poem doesn’t say exactly how this happens. All it will give us is a mysterious “as though,” as in “as though a moment before.” The speaker doesn’t in fact know how the spider is dust free but conjectures that this process of “stepp[ing] inside the earth” is what has cleansed her. How curious and paradoxical, of both speaker and spider: to become free of the dust by using it, or embracing it (if you can say that of stepping “inside the earth”—and I think you can).
Then the poem’s only two-line stanza, quoting here (again) in full:
I gazed, close to her, till at last she stepped
Away in her own good time.
Now the poem’s final stanza, one line longer than the third stanza quoted above in full, and here we see the speaker enlightened, I would say, and transformed by what has been witnessed. The lineation here is wonderful, emphasizing with its very short two-word first line, that the poet is lucky to be among these people, the “Many men” / who “have searched all over Tuscany.”
They “never found” what the speaker did, and why is that? Because, of course, this close watcher saw the web and the incredible spider, the one with “golden hair” of daylight along her shoulders. From the spider, the speaker has learned the secret, through close observation and seeing: “The secret / Of this journey is to let the wind / Blow its dust all over your body.” My claim as a reader is that the poet’s preoccupation with details and description is the catalyst for this vision. By joining the spider, bending down, entering her world, the speaker has a vision, learning the spider’s secret.
Further, as a reader and as a memorizer of poetry I contend that it’s in losing oneself in detail first, and then in sound that one reaches deeply into a poem, more thoroughly than simply reading a poem aloud or silently. Here I am on a walk, Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I’m experiencing James Wright’s words bubbling up in my ear, not consciously just coming to me: “Anghiari is medieval, a sleeve sloping down. . . .” So it is language, repetition, and I would contend finally “pure” sound that helps a reader go sonically and emotionally deep into a poem, reaching the same place the speaker of the poem does, a knowing place beyond intellect: a transformed moment.
Consider a place you can visit, a city landscape, a country vista, a ravine or a hill. In truth, you may have to make repeated trips to this place, so choose wisely, carefully, emotionally, evocatively. Then write, trying to imitate Wright’s movement here of panoramic shot, middle shot and closeup. Maybe I can’t will for you to have a vision or an epiphany, but you can hope for one. At your poem’s ending, come out of the closeup to a large statement, perhaps trying Wright’s opening of “Many men”; maybe yours will be “Some women,” or “This day a person”—and try to make a claim for something you’ve seen through this process of seeing and describing. Don’t aim to be large, just see if the details you are focusing in on can suggest, symbolically, a larger thing. If so, great; if not, fine. Still you have written a poem, practicing a meditative process that perhaps the next time will unlock an even richer poem. Each time we write, we learn something. Now you have this rhetorical form in your toolbox to use in the future, should a situation arise.
Thought I saw, at the day’s start,
“The Slit,” by Patricia Clark, from The Canopy (Terrapin Books), copyright ©2017. Originally appeared in Kenyon Review, and reprinted by permission of Patricia Clark.
Patricia Clark is the author of five volumes of poetry, including most recently The Canopy (2017) and Sunday Rising (2013). She has also published three chapbooks: Wreath for the Red Admiral and Given the Trees; a new one, Deadlifts, is just coming out from New Michigan Press. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and has appeared in The Atlantic, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, Slate, and Stand. She was a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and has completed residencies at The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Tyrone Guthrie Center (in County Monaghan, Ireland), and the Ragdale Colony. Awards for her work include a Creative Artist Grant in Michigan, the Mississippi Review Prize, the Gwendolyn Brooks Prize, and co-winner of the Lucille Medwick Prize from the Poetry Society of America. From 2005-2007 she was honored to serve as the poet laureate of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is Poet-in-Residence and Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.