Read an Excerpt
from THE GREEN WALL
A FIT AGAINST THE COUNTRY The stone turns over slowly,
Under the side one sees The pale flint covered wholly With whorls and prints of leaf.
After the moss rubs off It gleams beneath the trees,
Till all the birds lie down.
Hand, you have held that stone.
The sparrow's throat goes hollow,
When the tense air forebodes Rain to the sagging willow And leaves the pasture moist.
The slow, cracked song is lost Far up and down wet roads,
Rain drowns the sparrow's tongue.
Ear, you have heard that song.
Suddenly on the eye Feathers of morning fall,
Tanagers float away To sort the blackberry theft.
Though sparrows alone are left To sound the dawn, and call Awake the heart's gray dolor,
Eye, you have seen bright color.
Odor of fallen apple Met you across the air,
The yellow globe lay purple With bruises underfoot;
And, ravished out of thought,
Both of you had your share,
Sharp nose and watered mouth,
Of the dark tang of earth.
Yet, body, hold your humor Away from the tempting tree,
The grass, the luring summer That summon the flesh to fall.
Be glad of the green wall You climbed across one day,
When winter stung with ice That vacant paradise.
When snows begin to fill the park,
It is not hard to keep the eyes Secure against the flickering dark,
Aware of summer ghosts that rise.
The blistered trellis seems to move The memory toward root and rose,
The empty fountain fills the air With spray that spangled women's hair;
And men who walk this park in love May bide the time of falling snows.
The trees recall their greatness now;
They were not always vague and bowed With loads that build the slender bough Till branches bear a tasteless fruit.
A month ago they rose and bore Fleshes of berry, leaf, and shade:
How painlessly a man recalls The stain of green on crooked walls,
The summer never known before,
The garden heaped to bloom and fade.
Beyond the holly bush and path The city lies to meet the night,
And also there the quiet earth Relies upon the lost delight To rise again and fill the dark With waterfalls and swallows' sound.
Beyond the city's lazy fume,
The sea repeats the fall of spume,
And gulls remember cries they made When lovers fed them off the ground.
But lonely underneath a heap Of overcoat and crusted ice,
A man goes by, and looks for sleep.
The spring of everlastingness.
Nothing about his face revives A longing to evade the cold.
The night returns to keep him old,
And why should he, the lost and lulled,
Pray for the night of vanished lives,
The day of girls blown green and gold?
... the glory of his nostrils is terrible.
He kicked the world, and lunging long ago Rose dripping with the dew of lawns,
Where new wind tapped him to a frieze Against a wall of rising autumn leaves.
Some young foolhardy dweller of the barrows,
To grip his knees around the flanks,
Leaped from a tree and shivered in the air.
Joy clawed inside the bones And flesh of the rider at the mane Flopping and bounding over the dark banks.
Joy and terror floated on either side Of the rider rearing. The supreme speed Jerked to a height so spaced and wide He seemed among the areas of the dead.
The flesh was free, the sky was rockless, clear,
The road beneath the feet was pure, the soul
Spun naked to the air And lanced against a solitary pole Of cumulus, to curve and roll With the heave that disdains Death in the body, stupor in the brains.
Now we have coddled the gods away.
The cool earth, the soft earth, we say:
Cover our eyes with petals, let the sky Drift on while we are watching water pass Among the drowsing mass Of red and yellow algae in green lanes.
Yet earth contains The horse as a remembrancer of wild Arenas we avoid.
One day a stallion whirled my riding wife,
Whose saddle rocked her as a cradled child,
Gentle to the swell of water; yet her life Poised perilously as on a shattered skiff.
The fear she rode, reminded of the void That flung the ancient rider to the cold,
Dropped her down. I tossed my reins,
I ran to her with breath to make her rise,
And brought her back. Across my arms She fumbled for the sunlight with her eyes.
I knew that she would never rest again,
For the colts of the dusk rear back their hooves And paw us down, the mares of the dawn stampede
Across the cobbled hills till the lights are dead.
Here it is not enough to pray that loves Draw grass over our childhood's lake of slime.
Run to the rocks where horses cannot climb,
Stable the daemon back to shaken earth,
Warm your hands at the comfortable fire,
Cough in a dish beside a wrinkled bed.
We tossed our beer cans down among the rocks,
And walked away.
We turned along the beach to wonder How many girls were out to swim and burn.
We found old men:
The driftwood faces Sprawled in the air And patterned hands half hidden in smoke like ferns;
The old men, fishing, letting the sea fall out,
Their twine gone slack.
You spoke of saurian beards Grown into layers of lime,
Of beetles' shards and broad primeval moths Lashing great ferns;
Of bent Cro-Magnon mothers beating Their wheat to mash;
And salty stones
Stuck to the fin and scale Of salmon skeleton,
And lonely fabulous whorls of wood Drawn to the shore,
The carping nose, the claws, not to be known From those dried fishermen:
Who watched the speedboat swaying in the scum A mile offshore,
Or, nearer, leaping fish Butting the baby ducks before their climb;
And last of all, before the eyes of age,
The calves of graceful women flashing fast Into the fluffy towels and out of sight.
You pointed with a stick, and told me How old men mourning the fall Forget the splendid sea-top combed as clean as bone,
And the white sails.
You showed me how their faces withered Even as we looked down To find where they left off and sea began.
And though the sun swayed in the sea,
They were not moved:
Saurian faces still as layered lime,
The nostrils ferned in smoke behind their pipes,
The eyes resting in whorls like shells on driftwood,
The hands relaxing, letting out the ropes;
And they, whispering together,
The beaten age, the dead, the blood gone dumb.
A GIRL IN A WINDOW
Now she will lean away to fold The window blind and curtain back,
The yellow arms, the hips of gold,
The supple outline fading black,
Bosom availing nothing now,
And rounded shadow of long thighs.
How can she care for us, allow The shade to blind imagined eyes?
Behind us, where we sit by trees,
Blundering autos lurch and swerve On gravel, crawling on their knees Around the unfamiliar curve;
Farther behind, a passing train Ignores our lost identity;
So, reassured, we turn again To see her vanish under sky.
Soon we must leave her scene to night,
To stars, or the indiscriminate Pale accidents of lantern light,
A watchman walking by too late.
Let us return her now, my friends,
Her love, her body to the grave Fancy of dreams where love depends.
She gave, and did not know she gave.
ON THE SKELETON OF A HOUND
Nightfall, that saw the morning-glories float Tendril and string against the crumbling wall,
Nurses him now, his skeleton for grief,
His locks for comfort curled among the leaf.
Shuttles of moonlight weave his shadow tall,
Milkweed and dew flow upward to his throat.
Now catbird feathers plume the apple mound,
And starlings drowse to winter up the ground.
Thickened away from speech by fear, I move Around the body. Over his forepaws, steep Declivities darken down the moonlight now,
And the long throat that bayed a year ago Declines from summer. Flies would love to leap Between his eyes and hum away the space Between the ears, the hollow where a hare Could hide; another jealous dog would tumble The bones apart, angry, the shining crumble Of a great body gleaming in the air;
Quivering pigeons foul his broken face.
I can imagine men who search the earth For handy resurrections, overturn The body of a beetle in its grave;
Whispering men digging for gods might delve A pocket for these bones, then slowly burn Twigs in the leaves, pray for another birth.
But I will turn my face away from this Ruin of summer, collapse of fur and bone.
For once a white hare huddled up the grass,
The sparrows flocked away to see the race.
I stood on darkness, clinging to a stone,
I saw the two leaping alive on ice,
On earth, on leaf, humus and withered vine:
The rabbit splendid in a shroud of shade,
The dog carved on the sunlight, on the air,
Fierce and magnificent his rippled hair,
The cockleburs shaking around his head.
Then, suddenly, the hare leaped beyond pain Out of the open meadow, and the hound Followed the voiceless dancer to the moon,
To dark, to death, to other meadows where Singing young women dance around a fire,
Where love reveres the living.
I alone Scatter this hulk about the dampened ground;
And while the moon rises beyond me, throw The ribs and spine out of their perfect shape.
For a last charm to the dead, I lift the skull And toss it over the maples like a ball.
Strewn to the woods, now may that spirit sleep That flamed over the ground a year ago.
I know the mole will heave a shinbone over,
The earthworm snuggle for a nap on paws,
The honest bees build honey in the head;
The earth knows how to handle the great dead Who lived the body out, and broke its laws,
Knocked down a fence, tore up a field of clover.
THREE STEPS TO THE GRAVEYARD
When I went there first,
In the spring, it was evening,
It was long hollow thorn Laid under the locust,
And near to my feet The crowfoot, the mayapple Trod their limbs down Till the stalk blew over.
It grew summer, O riches Of girls on the lawn,
And boys' locks lying Tousled on knees,
The picknickers leaving,
The day gone down.
When I went there again,
I walked with my father Who held in his hand The crowfoot, the mayapple,
And under my hands,
To hold off the sunlight,
I saw him going,
Between two trees;
When the lawn lay empty It was the year's end,
It was the darkness,
It was long hollow thorn To wound the bare shade,
The sheaf and the blade.
O now as I go there The crowfoot, the mayapple Blear the gray pond;
Beside the still waters The field mouse tiptoes,
To hear the air sounding The long hollow thorn.
I lean to the hollow,
But nothing blows there,
The day goes down.
The field mice flutter Like grass and are gone,
And a skinny old woman Scrubs at a stone,
Between two trees.
In paradise I poised my foot above the boat and said:
Who prayed for me?
But only the dip of an oar In water sounded; slowly fog from some cold shore Circled in wreaths around my head.
But who is waiting?
And the wind began,
Transfiguring my face from nothingness To tiny weeping eyes. And when my voice Grew real, there was a place Far, far below on earth. There was a tiny man —
It was my father wandering round the waters at the wharf.
Irritably he circled and he called Out to the marine currents up and down,
But heard only a cold unmeaning cough,
And saw the oarsman in the mist enshawled.
He drew me from the boat. I was asleep.
And we went home together.
ELEGY IN A FIRELIT ROOM
The window showed a willow in the west,
But windy dry. No folly weeping there.
A sparrow hung a wire about its breast And spun across the air.
Instead of paying winter any mind,
I ran my fingerprints across the glass,
To feel the crystal forest sown by wind,
And one small face:
A child among the frozen bushes lost,
Breaking the white and rigid twigs between Fingers more heavenly than hands of dust,
And fingernails more clean.
Beyond, the willow would not cry for cold,
The sparrow hovered long enough to stare;
The face between me and the wintered world Began to disappear;
Because some friendly hands behind my back Fumbled the coal and tended up the fire.
Warmth of the room waved to the window sash,
The face among the forest fell to air.
The glass began to weep instead of eyes,
A slow gray feather floated down the sky.
Delicate bone, finger and bush, and eyes Yearned to the kissing fire and fell away.
Over the naked pasture and beyond,
A frozen bird lay down among the dead Weeds, and the willow strode upon the wind And would not bow its head.
ARRANGEMENTS WITH EARTH FOR THREE DEAD FRIENDS
Sweet earth, he ran and changed his shoes to go Outside with other children through the fields.
He panted up the hills and swung from trees Wild as a beast but for the human laughter That tumbled like a cider down his cheeks.
Sweet earth, the summer has been gone for weeks,
And weary fish already sleeping under water Below the banks where early acorns freeze.
Receive his flesh and keep it cured of colds.
Button his coat and scarf his throat from snow.
And now, bright earth, this other is out of place In what, awake, we speak about as tombs.
He sang in houses when the birds were still And friends of his were huddled round till dawn After the many nights to hear him sing.
Bright earth, his friends remember how he sang Voices of night away when wind was one.
Lonely the neighborhood beneath your hill Where he is waved away through silent rooms.
Listen for music, earth, and human ways.
Dark earth, there is another gone away,
But she was not inclined to beg of you Relief from water falling or the storm.
She was aware of scavengers in holes Of stone, she knew the loosened stones that fell Indifferently as pebbles plunging down a well And broke for the sake of nothing human souls.
Earth, hide your face from her where dark is warm.
She does not beg for anything, who knew The change of tone, the human hope gone gray.
LAMENT FOR MY BROTHER ON A HAYRAKE
Cool with the touch of autumn, waters break Out of the pump at dawn to clear my eyes;
I leave the house, to face the sacrifice Of hay, the drag and death. By day, by moon,
I have seen my younger brother wipe his face And heave his arm on steel. He need not pass Under the blade to waste his life and break;
The hunching of the body is enough To violate his bones. That bright machine Strips the revolving earth of more than grass;
Powered by the fire of summer, bundles fall Folded to die beside a burlap shroud;
And so my broken brother may lie mown Out of the wasted fallows, winds return,
Corn-yellow tassels of his hair blow down,
The summer bear him sideways in a bale Of darkness to October's mow of cloud.
SHE HID IN THE TREES FROM THE NURSES
She stands between the trees and holds One hand in the other, still.
Now far away the evening folds Around the siloes and the hill.
She sees, slowly, the gardener Return to check the gate before The smoke begins to soften the air And June bugs try the open door.
And through the windows, washing hands,
The patients have the mattress made,
Their trousers felt for colored stones,
The pleasures of the noon recalled:
For some were caught and held for hours By spiders skating over a pond,
Some parted veils of hollyhocks And looked for rabbit holes beyond.
But now the trousers lie in rows,
She sees the undressed shadows creep Through half-illuminated minds And chase the hare and flower to sleep.
She too must answer summons now,
And play the chimes inside her brain When whistles of attendants blow;
Yet, for a while, she would remain,
And dabble her feet in the damp grass,
And lean against a yielding stalk,
And spread her name in dew across The pebbles where the droplets walk.
Minutes away a nurse will come Across the lawn and call for her;
The starlight calls the robin home,
The swans retire beneath their wings.
Surely her mind is clear enough To hear her name among the trees.
She must remember home and love And skirts that sway below her knees.
But why must she desert the shade And sleep between the walls all night?
Why must a lonely girl run mad To gain the simple, pure delight
Of staying, when the others leave,
To write a name or hold a stone?
Of hearing bobwhites flute their love Though buildings loudly tumble down?
TO A DEFEATED SAVIOR
Do you forget the shifting hole Where the slow swimmer fell aground And floundered for your fishing pole Above the snarl of string and sound?
You never seem to turn your face Directly toward the river side,
Or up the bridge, or anyplace Near where the skinny swimmer died.
You stand all day and look at girls,
Or climb a tree, or change a tire;
But I have seen the colored swirls Of water flow to livid fire Across your sleeping nose and jaws,
Transfiguring both the bone and skin To muddy banks and sliding shoals You and the drowned kid tumble in.
You see his face, upturning, float And bob across your wavering bed;
His wailing fingers call your boat,
His voice throws up the ruddy silt,
The bleary vision prays for light In sky behind your frozen hands;
But sinking in the dark all night,
You charm the shore with bloomless wands.
The circling tow, the shadowy pool Shift underneath us everywhere.
You would have raised him, flesh and soul,
Had you been strong enough to dare;
You would have lifted him to breathe,
Believing your good hands would keep His body clear of your own death:
This dream, this drowning in you sleep.
Excerpted from "Collected Poems"
Copyright © 1971 James Wright.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Sitting in a Small Screenhouse on a Summer Morning,
From THE GREEN WALL,
THE BRANCH WILL NOT BREAK,
SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER,
"Bleibe, bleibe bei mir" (Goethe),
Index of Titles and First Lines,