Thursday Three #11

Lisa JarnotIf you were to rap your fist on the counter at Malvern Books and say, “Oi! I want poetry!,” we would ask you (politely, although we’d like to point out there’s really no need for an oi!) what kind of poetry you’re in the mood for. And if you said, “Hmm… something contemporary, maybe inspired by the New York School, you know, post-Language avant-garde type stuff, with collage, and a hat tip to modernism, and with some nature thrown in for good measure,” we’d compliment you on your specificity and then run to the J section for a copy of Lisa Jarnot’s Joie de Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012.

“This is exactly what you’re looking for,” we’d say, pressing a copy into your rather demanding hands. “It’s feisty and experimental, and there are collages and daisies and lemurs, and it demands to be read aloud… and if you won’t take our word for it, you should at least listen to John Ashbery, who said this is a collection of ‘haunting, perplexing narratives of the inenarrable.’” At this point we hope you’d say, “Perfect!” and immediately purchase five copies. But if you needed any further persuasion, we’d throw in a couple of fun facts—Lisa Jarnot studied with Robert Creeley and works as a freelance gardener—and direct you to the three splendid Jarnot poems featured below. You’re welcome! Come back soon!

Christmas Prelude

O little fleas
of speckled light
all dancing
like a satellite

O belly green trees
shaded vale
O shiny bobcat
winter trail

Amoebic rampage
squamous cock
a Chinese hairpiece
burly sock

A grilled banana
smashes gates
and mingeless badgers

The asses of the
winter trees
rock on fat asses
as you please

Be jumpy
or unhinged
with joy
fry cakes
Staten hoy.

* * *

Brooklyn Anchorage

and at noon I will fall in love
and nothing will have meaning
except for the brownness of
the sky, and tradition, and water
and in the water off the railway
in New Haven all the lights
go on across the sun, and for
millennia those who kiss fall into
hospitals, riding trains, wearing
black shoes, pursued by those
they love, the Chinese in the armies
with the shiny sound of Johnny Cash,
and in my plan to be myself
I became someone else with
soft lips and a secret life,
and I left, from an airport,
in tradition of the water
on the plains, until the train
started moving and yesterday
it seemed true that suddenly
inside of the newspaper
there was a powerline and
my heart stopped, and everything
leaned down from the sky to kill me
and now the cattails sing.

* * *

Hockey Night in Canada

Oh Canada, you are melancholy today
and so am I, and here is the giant metal airplane
that fills the sky above the steam heat of my
dreams, beside decisions well between the
quiet that’s between us

and also do you think of the hibiscus
on your roadsides, Dutch, like bags of carrots
still heroic wrapped in snow upon the tiny
screens that show it to you, particular neighbor
who breathes, alive, asleep, beside the surface
of the ice, upon the moon in silver deep.

Thursday Three #10

In honor of Mr. Pirate, the newest member of the Malvern team, let’s dedicate today’s Thursday Three to a trio of nautical-but-nice books with a seafaring theme.

Pirate Books

1. Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. How awesomely terrible is that cover? First published in 1934 (and reprinted many times, with better covers), Pitcairn’s Island is a novelized account of the true adventures of Fletcher Christian and his fellow Bounty mutineers, who in 1790 took refuge on lonely Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. They lived there undiscovered for eighteen years; their descendants still live there today (current population: 48). I’m obsessed with the strange and sinister history of Pitcairn—violence, incest, Seventh-day Adventists!—and this is the best account I’ve read of the island’s sordid past. (If you can’t track down the book, this Vanity Fair article also offers an intriguing introduction to the Bounty shenanigans and the island’s current woes.)

2. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes (first published in 1928). After their home in Jamaica is destroyed by a typhoon, the Bas-Thornton family decides it’s about time they moved on, and the five children are placed aboard a merchant ship bound for Blighty (the parents stay behind to tie up a few loose ends). Alas, the ship is almost immediately seized by a gang of bumbling pirates, and what follows is macabre, hilarious, and disquieting—and also an utterly riveting read. Adopting the jolly-hockey-sticks tone of a madcap Enid Blyton novel, Hughes delights in recounting the chillingly blasé and precocious thoughts of his creepy cast of posh kiddies, who prove to be every bit as amoral as their swashbuckling captors. And if all this children-are-awful stuff reminds you of Lord of the Flies, you should know that Richard Hughes’ take is much less heavy-handed, equally disturbing, and fearlessly odd. It’s also a lot of fun:

Much the best way of escaping from an embarrassing rencontre, when to walk away would be an impossible strain on the nerves, is to retire in a series of somersaults. Emily immediately started turning head over heels up the deck.

3. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (first published in 1930). An adventure story set amidst the Lake District, Swallows and Amazons recounts the outdoorsy escapades of the holidaying Walker children (who sail a dinghy named Swallow) and the Blackett children (yep, their wee boat is called Amazon). The children team up to defeat a common enemy: the Blackett’s grumpy uncle, whom they decide must be a former pirate. (He’s actually quite a nice chap, but he’s retired to a cabin to write his memoirs, and no longer has time to entertain the kids.) This was my mum’s favorite book when she was a child, and so of course I refused to show any interest in it when I was young, which is a shame as it’s a wonderful tale full of charming capers and stroppy female characters. Swallows and Amazons lovingly portrays a time before twerking, when children were allowed to run amok after lunch, using their imaginations to shape the mundane world around them into something magical. If ever I’m forced to read aloud to a child—heaven forbid!—Swallows and Amazons will be my first choice.

Thursday Three #9

American poet Theodore Roethke died fifty years ago today. He had a heart attack at the age of fifty-five while swimming in a pool on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. Legend has it he’d lined the poolside with mint juleps and was rewarding himself with a drink after each lap. Let’s dedicate today’s Thursday Three—our weekly assortment of literary loveliness in triplicate—to three of his best poems.

Roethke1. Roethke’s father was a market gardener in Saginaw, Michigan, and much of Roethke’s childhood was spent mucking about in his father’s twenty-five-acre greenhouse, which sounds rather idyllic, if you like humidity and gardening. Many years later, Roethke published a series of poems known as “the greenhouse poems” (found in his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948), and this series came to be regarded by critics as Roethke’s artistic breakthrough. Roethke himself said that his first collection was “too wary,” and that the greenhouse poems were intended to have “greater intensity and symbolic depth.” The poems are distinguished from your usual soppy nature poems by their celebration of human effort—beauty is not always something that happens by chance—and by their wonder at even the most mundane and repellent of natural processes.

Big Wind

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?—
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

2. Roethke avoided the tedium of office work—he dropped out of law school to study literature–but institutions were familiar to him: he was hospitalized on several occasions for bipolar disorder. “Dolor” (also from The Lost Son) reminds me of Larkin, who was surely rather familiar with the sadness of pencils.


I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

3. “The Far Field” is the title poem from Roethke’s final collection, published posthumously in 1964. A year before his death, Roethke told a friend that The Far Field would probably be his final book, and the collection does have “a strange air of unconscious preparation” and a greater sense of mysticism than his earlier work. I especially love the final stanza, a calm and tender catalog of “finite things.”

The Far Field

I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.

At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,—
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud,
      all one morning,
And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes,—
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean,— 
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his dead tree in the chicken-yard.

—Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland,— 
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plain,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers,— 
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,— 
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude: 
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree:
The pure serene of memory in one man,—
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

Thursday Three #8

In today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of oddities in triplicate, please allow me to recommend to you (forcefully, but with love) three splendid short story collections. And for those of you about to head off on summer vacation, may I also point out that a volume of short stories makes for better holiday reading material than a novel. After all, beachy book time is always less plentiful than you imagine—there are naps to be napped, and so many drowning children to be rescued—and even if you manage to secure for yourself seventeen peaceful minutes, your concentration will be pretty much ruined by the constant urge to scratch at the mosquito bites on your ankles. You’re never going to get through a doorstopper like The Marriage Plot (you’re not missing much), but you can always sneak in a couple of short stories between spells of wilty heatstroke.

Short Stories

1. Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame. That cover! Lawks-a-lordy, what tosh! Apparently the design process went something like this:

Cover designer: Who do we have here? Janet Something? It’s a lady! Rightio. Ladies get pictures of shoes and legs. Add a dress and some feisty black sandals and we’re done!
Sensible person: Er, but Janet Frame isn’t exactly chick lit. She’s, like, a serious writer. People talked about her as a Nobel Prize contender.
Cover designer: Oh dear. I am completely at a loss now. Possibly I will have to abandon my tired old ways and completely rethink my approach to—oh wait, I’ve got it! I’ll make her legs a bit dirty and wrinkle her dress. Who’s a serious young lady now, hmm?

Ah well, I’ve seen worse. And although the cover may be a tad shite, the stories inside are brilliant. Here’s the opening paragraph of “Prizes,” which first appeared in a 1962 issue of the New Yorker:

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought. One knew of the pit ahead, of the grownups lying there rewarded, arranged, and faded, who were so long ago bright as poppies. One learned to take one’s own deserved place on the edge, ready to leap, not to hang back in a status-free huddle where bodies were warm together and the future darkness seemed less frightening. Therefore, one learned to win prizes, to be surrounded in sleep by a dream of ordinal numbers, to stand in best clothes upon platforms in order to receive medals threaded upon black-and-gold ribbons, books “bound in calf,” scrolled certificates. One’s face became, from habit, incandescent with achievement.

Wonderful, yes? Israeli writer Etgar Keret, himself no slouch in the story-writing department, is a big Frame fan: he nominated her “My Last Story” for his Recommended Reading pick. Frame’s strange, beautiful stories are laced with gloomy nostalgia and the slyly hilarious observations of a weirdo genius. Perfect holiday reading if you’re going on a cruise with a bunch of relatives whom you loathe and feel superior to.

2. Peter Carey’s Collected Stories. One reviewer likens reading Carey’s stories to “being shot by a firing squad of angels,” and that’s a pretty apt description. As an example of death-by-beauty, here’s the final paragraph of “The Chance”:

But I, I’m a crazy old man, alone with his books and his beer and his dog. I have been a clerk and a pedlar and a seller of cars. I have been ignorant, and a scholar of note. Pock-marked and ugly I have wandered the streets and slept in the parks. I have been bankrupt and handsome and a splendid conman. I have been a river of poisonous silver mercury, without form or substance, yet I carry with me this one pain, this one yearning, that I love you, my lady, with all my heart. And on evenings when the water is calm and the birds dive amongst the white-bait, my eyes swell with tears as I think of you sitting on a chair beside me, weeping in a darkened room.

Carey has mastered the essential sci-fi writers’ trick: he presents his unlikely worlds with utter confidence, and we never think to question his logic or doubt his details. He shows us an America where shadows are sold in lavish boxes, and introduces us to an unhappy shepherd who must keep alive a flock of suicidal horses. And in my favorite story in the collection, “Do You Love Me?,” we meet the Cartographers, whose job it is to document a disappearing world where unloved people and places begin, quite literally, to fade away, “like the image on an improperly fixed photograph.”

3. Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance. Or any Lydia Davis short story collection. Take your pick. They’re all brilliant, funny, moving, and sublime. I picked Varieties of Disturbance because it has a fly on the cover, and because it contains the excellent “Kafka Cooks Dinner” (for Milena, naturally), the best Kafka story Kafka never wrote:

I know beet salad would be better. I could give her beets and potatoes both, and a slice of beef, if I include meat. Yet a good slice of beef does not require any side dish, it is best tasted alone, so the side dish could come before, in which case it would not be a side dish but an appetizer. Whatever I do, perhaps she will not think very highly of my effort, or perhaps she will be feeling a little ill to begin with and not stimulated by the sight of those beets. In the case of the first, I would be dreadfully ashamed, and in the case of the second, I would have no advice—how could I?—but just a simple question: would she want me to remove all the food from the table?

It ends with “Someone once said that I swim like a swan, but it was not a compliment.” (You can read the entire story online here.)

It would be impossible for me to overstate how much I admire and envy Lydia Davis’ prose. She is the best. She is just the best. If a literary genie jumped out of a gin bottle and offered me the chance to write like anyone alive, I would say, “Oh, make me Lydia Davis, please!” (And then I would sit down at my desk and write a devastating prose poem entitled “Paul Auster’s Hair.”) Here are two of her stories in their entirety, one funny (because she is the best at funny), and one sad (because she is the best at sad):

The Good Taste Contest

The husband and wife were competing in a Good Taste Contest judged by a jury of their peers, men and women of good taste, including a fabric designer, a rare-book dealer, a pastry cook, and a librarian. The wife was judged to have better taste in furniture, especially antique furniture. The husband was judged to have overall poor taste in lighting fixtures, tableware, and glassware. The wife was judged to have indifferent taste in window treatments, but the husband and wife both were judged to have good taste in floor coverings, bed linen, bath linen, large appliances, and small appliances. The husband was felt to have good taste in carpets, but only fair taste in upholstery fabrics. The husband was felt to have very good taste in both food and alcoholic beverages, while the wife had inconsistently good to poor taste in food. The husband had better taste in clothes than the wife though inconsistent taste in perfumes and colognes. While both husband and wife were judged to have no more than fair taste in garden design, they were judged to have good taste in number and variety of evergreens. The husband was felt to have excellent taste in roses but poor taste in bulbs. The wife was felt to have better taste in bulbs and generally good taste in shade plantings with the exception of hostas. The husband’s taste was felt to be good in garden furniture but only fair in ornamental planters. The wife’s taste was judged consistently poor in garden statuary. After a brief discussion, the judges gave the decision to the husband for his higher overall points score.

* * *

Head, Heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Thursday Three #7

This week’s assortment of stuff in triplicate has no theme whatsoever. Or perhaps that’s a little defeatist? What I should say, rather, is that the theme of this post has yet to be determined, but I am quietly confident that you, astute reader, will immediately spot the common thread in this seemingly random rug of nonsense.

Mushroom Wood1. Malvern got wood. (Sorry.) Yes indeed, the mushroom wood has arrived and will soon be affixed handsomely to various Malvernian walls. Isn’t she lovely? For those of you lacking knowledge vis-à-vis all things timber, mushroom wood isn’t actually made from mushrooms—it’s usually made from cypress, cedar, or hemlock. It gets its fungal moniker from its day job: it’s used to make the bins in which mushrooms are commercially grown. Once the wood has done its bit for mushroomkind, it can be recycled as lovely, low maintenance, eco-friendly siding. You’d be well advised not to line your bathroom walls with this stuff, however—it’s possible that the wood might still contain a few wee mushroom spores, and mushroom spores tend to… blossom when things get damp.

2. I very much like this collaboration between artist Micah Lexier and poet Christian Bök:

Lexier and Bök

Eerie indeed! What does one call a paragraph-long anagram? One commenter suggests it should be an anagraph, while another plumps for paragram. In any case, I love how Bök’s reinvented text becomes curiouser and curiouser as he runs out of letter options—and yet that final line is so perfect, I wonder if he set aside the letters for it right from the beginning? I like to imagine that “resewn a touted art of” was frantically cobbled together from leftover letters. I also like to imagine that if I’d been in charge, that phrase might have read “his message had already rated stoneware tofu genuine poetry.” Bök is best known for his poetry collection Eunoia, which won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize. It’s an intriguing project: the book has five chapters, and each chapter consists of words that can use only one of the vowels (so in Chapter A, for example, a is the only vowel that makes an appearance). Bök claims he read the entire Webster’s dictionary five times while working on the book. And for his next trick, Bök will soon be making a string of DNA write a poem.

3. Finally, in anticipation of July 4th and your imminent departure for vacationland, here’s a glum little quote from Alain de Botton’s On Love:

The future has some of the satisfactions and safety of the past. I recalled that as a child every holiday grew perfect only when I was home again, for then the anxiety of the present would make way for stable memories. I spent whole childhood years looking forward to the winter holidays, when the family took two weeks to go skiing in the Alps. But when I was finally on top of a slope, looking at pine-covered valleys below and a fragile blue sky above, I felt a pervasive, existential anxiety that would then evaporate from the memory of the event, a memory that would be exclusively composed of the objective conditions (the top of a mountain, a fragile blue sky) and would hence be free of everything that had made the actual moment trying. The present was unpleasant not because I might have had a runny nose, or been thirsty, or forgotten a scarf, but because of my reluctance to accept that I was finally going to live out a possibility that had all year resided in the comforting folds of the future. Yet as soon as I had reached the bottom of the slope, I would look back up the mountain and declare that it had been a perfect run. And so the skiing holiday (and much of my life generally) proceeded: anticipation in the morning, anxiety in the actuality, and pleasant memories in the evening.

Thursday Three #6

James WrightThis week’s assortment of stuff in triplicate is devoted to one of my favorite poets, James Wright (1927-1980). I first discovered Wright’s words on the forearm of a friend: he had a few lines of Wright’s poetry tattooed in a tidy cursive from elbow to wrist. They were beautiful lines, and I wanted to read more from their author, so I picked up Wright’s Collected Poems and immediately fell in love with his contemplative, compassionate voice—a voice that Wright, born and raised in a shitty midwestern steel mill town, simply referred to as his “Ohioan.” Below, three of Wright’s best:

1. Wright’s most well-known poem is probably “A Blessing,” aka the pony poem. One of the few poems he was able “to get … finished in almost nothing flat,” Wright wrote it after a drive in the Minnesota countryside with his friend Robert Bly. In his essay, “James Wright and the Slender Woman,” Bly recalls the occasion:

James saw two ponies off to the left and said, “Let’s stop.” So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called “A Blessing.” … In a few passages [in the poem] we feel too much idealization. The two ponies are just ponies, and probably would have bit one of us if we had stayed much longer without giving them sugar. 

The poem may overstate the charms of roadside ponies, but this anthropomorphism also demonstrates one of Wright’s greatest strengths as a poet: his ability to evoke nature as a path to the metaphysical or divine.

A Blessing

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.

2. Wright pays terrific attention to rhythm. In a Paris Review interview, he says, “I wouldn’t say that I’m a frustrated musician, but I love music and I think this is why I usually begin a poem that way. Music has given me a much greater sense of the possibilities of quantity in poetry.” So why read when you can listen? Here’s Wright reciting “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

3. My favorite of Wright’s collections is Shall We Gather at the River (1969). In the Paris Review interview, Wright has this to say about the book:

I was trying to move from death to resurrection and death again, and challenge death finally. Well, if I must tell you, I was trying to write about a girl I was in love with who has been dead for a long time. I tried to sing with her in that book. Not to recreate her; you can’t recreate anybody, at least I can’t. But I thought maybe I could come to terms with that feeling which has hung on in my heart for so long. The book has been damned because it is so carefully dreamed.

“To the Muse,” the poem whose last three lines are etched on my friend’s forearm, is the final poem in the collection:

To the Muse

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn’t
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.

I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:

You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.

Three lady doctors in Wheeling open
Their offices at night.
I don’t have to call them, they are always there.
But they only have to put the knife once
Under your breast.
Then they hang their contraption.
And you bear it.

It’s awkward a while. Still, it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don’t
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.
That way they only have to stab you
Once. Oh Jenny.

I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn’t, I can’t bear it
Either, I don’t blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of black sand,

I don’t blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.