On Finding The Inner Light of Images: From Prose to Poetry

In a month, one year ago, I started this piece: I was at 9600 feet. I was in the shadow of a mountain named Nipple. I was in a little square of sunshine, one log spooling fire in the cabin’s woodstove.

And I had woken in dread of the last night’s numbered dead: perhaps a dozen then, an interactive online chart informs me now, nothing near the surreal numbers of this year since.  

Feeling useless, feeling uncertain, I surrounded myself with the old friends of my youth.  That day, I chose James Wright’s This Journey, a book of poetry published posthumously  in 1982 after Wright succumbed to cancer of the tongue.

I will confess it: I am a wordy poet, especially in the last ten years of writing creative nonfiction. I find myself wandering between poetry and prose: when do lines becomes sentences in an essay? And sentences lines of a poem?

 In James Wright’s shining poems, I was hoping to find out how simplicity could bare order out of chaos, how poetry could fire the smallest image.

A few weeks later, my husband handed me handed me a biography of James Wright’s life.

“Get inspired,” he said.

The biography by Jonathan Blunk, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, gave me a snippet of  Wright’s revision process for his poetry.  And perhaps an answer to my questions.  

In 1972, Wright saw a yellow spider stepping through its dusty web.  Five years later, Wright describes that image in a letter to his poet-son Franz Wright:

            [The web] positively sagged with dust. And as I watched, a slim, brilliantly yellow spider stepped out of her doorway in the center of the web. In all that dust, she was amazing: she was totally untouched by the smallest spec, as though she had just gone inside and taken a shower.

 In creative nonfiction, we talk about digging down for the verticality of the story and how that verticality or inner truth so often translates itself through metaphor. And we find those metaphors firmly and beautifully presented in the sentences of prose. Wright’s spider is beautifully described in his letter. I would have been happy to write that description.

But in Wright’s poem, “The Journey,” (do read it! It’s a beauty) the spider appears in the third stanza—utterly transformed from the spider of the letter and utterly embedded in a line of poetry, not a sentence.  Now the spider’s yellow hue  is the “golden hair of daylight along her shoulders” and the dust of the web have become whole “cemeteries.” The “deep image” runs rampant. Ruins surround her now and the plainspeak of “had just gone inside” has been crafted into a metaphor that enlarges the image of the spider, almost as if Wright has wrought her divine:  “She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.” Poetry asks for the world new and this is what Wright has given us.

In the concluding stanza of  “The Journey,” Wright alchemizes the scene of the spider in its web with the essence of himself, with the essence of us, the readers:

                                    The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind   
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

The journey of the spider through the “doorway” of her web has become the human journey into the spiritual world.

But go deeper, look at the micro changes of the letter to this poem and you realize that these transformations did not happen in the  “fell swoop” of some muse’s divine intervention, as we’d like to think, at least, as I’d certainly like to think. Instead, Wright is an excavator, taking pickaxe and pen many times, many years to his poems, whittling phrase and word from revision to revision, honing prose to poetry, sentence to line.

From one revision of “The Journey” to the next,  he changes “your bones” to “your body,” lengthens the line, “To let it go on blowing,” with the additional phrasing and repetition of “to step lightly, lightly,” which creates cadence in sound and personification in image.   He changes the original wording of “the ruins”  in the poem to “your ruins,” seemingly a nondescript change, until we realize that he once more implicates the reader, us, subsuming the spider as he gives the spider over to the human heart and its slow ravages.

    The small revisions Wright makes in his poems, that seem so undeserving of our attention, so often portend an avalanche of meaning.  At one time, “The Journey” closed this way: “All the way through your ruins, and not to care.” And then Wright changes “not to care” to “not to lose,” and expands this moment in  the poem:

                            All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

Surely, just simple words added. Just words for any sentence. But as Blunk points out, these changes adlib Jesus’s admonition in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus tells a man to follow him and the man says, “Lord let me go bury my father” and Jesus replies, “ Let the dead bury their own.” Wright, then, characteristically, follows this Biblical allusion with his ever-present colloquial nod to the plainspoken midwestern reader, “don’t worry.”

Nuance, allusion, metaphor, personification, the stepping out of prose into poetry: a little dusty spider a poet chanced upon during a walk turned into poetry writ large.  And a little journey, once upon a time on a cold dark day, turned into a little bit of light.

cabi in snow
a cabin in snow

Update from me: just mailed in my contract to Finishing Line Press for my upcoming chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, inspired by, who else, James Wright and another favorite poet, Stanley Kunitz.

Hand (or On Finding the Prompts of Poetry)

I am thinking of the hand I found in Indiana, epicenter of this naturalist soul-to-be.  I was ten, younger, when I found the hand, laid it to rest in what I called the “dead box” we found in an ancient trunk in the loft of that massive red barn on the hillside where I watched cattle slain and ponies bred.

I was walking the fence line. It was summer. Dry weeds crumpled to dust along the foot and cow paths.  And then I saw it.  The hand on the ground. A perfect bone of a hand.  A fairy hand.

Fifty-one years I have kept the dead box and the hand and everything else I have found.  Years and years, in writing workshops, I have handed out each object to a stranger,  never wondering why I trusted these beautiful things from the world past with people I did not know. But always there is this giving back and forth — those who share my awe silent over the changed deserts of their linoleum desks. I am always astounded how poetry starts anywhere and takes you everywhere.

Bird’s nest so perfect
so round
woven of mane and tail hair
from my childhood ponies.
Owl pellet and yellow mouse teeth
and white bird claw and, oh,
the mollusk shell  
open-mouthed
where a petrified snail
curled inside.
And all the pale shells
of blue and speckled dust
I’ve lost and that Indiana flint
with yellow crystal
I found near the creek I barely
remember now except
a bulldozer tore that day
its red dirt. And here
the chrysalis
from my father’s pond
attached to a twig
since I was the girl
I will never be again–
what I swing and tremble
until it lives.

Poet Patricia Dubrava, in her blog, Holding the Light, posted a wonderful poem and poetry prompt and that’s what got me going! Hearing the Canadas.

My poetry chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, will be published this spring by Finishing Line press. Just received the contract. More as I know it.

Crafting the Personal Essay into The Larger World: Gerald Early, Case Study

Gerald Early’s Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant

I’m finding that learning about essay writing is never ending.  Probably that’s why I like it. This week, I finished The Best American Essays of the Century (Joyce Carol Oates ed)  and found Gerald Early’s essay, “Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant.”  Just another humbling and soaring moment in the learning curve for me, specifically on how to breach the cozy family wall of the personal essay into the wide cultural, political, and racial world we all stem from.

If you don’t know Gerald Early as a writer and cultural critic, you should. Not only is he the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University, exceptional scholar and essayist who has been a commentary for NPR and the executive editor of The Common Reader, but he has worked multiple times with Ken Burns on Burns’ documentary.

So, what’s to learn from  Gerald Early’s essay?

Start with its deceptively simple title, which in no way prepares you for the complexity of Early’s moves between the seemingly pedestrian scenes of family life, like watching the Miss America Pageant, playing with dolls, and deciding on hair styles, and his searing polemics around the pageant as a vehicle of popular culture that represent for Early “a totemic occupation with and representation of a particularly stilted form of patriarchal white supremacy.”  

(This essay, of course, is a lot more complicated and a lot more beautiful than what I can share here. Read it through JSTOR if you have access or through Kindle for free.)

At the risk of oversimplification, here are four techniques of craft I recognized for myself in moving the essay from the strictly personal to, as Miller and Paulo call it in their Tell It Slant, “Writing the Larger World”:

  • Let family ritual and family members frame and serve as “touchstones” throughout the essay.   Early’s essay begins with the family’s tradition of watching the Miss America Pageant and continuously circles back to that tradition.  The Miss America Pageant serves as the frame of the essay, helping to keep the general reader centered in a wide-ranging and complex essay and emotionally connected to Early and his family.  The “simple” family scenes— his wife straightening her hair, his daughters playing with black and white dolls, the family making jokes as they watch the pageant—are the touchstones that launch Early into staggering cultural, political, and historical analysis.
  • Use Family history as an envoy into Cultural history.  Family history in Early’s essay, such as an old photograph of his sister holding a white doll, doesn’t exist only to serve itself. It sets up the broader and deeper history of American culture.  The white doll his sister holds serves as symbol for the “fetishization of young white feminine beauty, and the complexity of black girlhood.”  His beautifully described walk as a boy through the streets of Philadelphia past a “large black beauty shop on Broad and South Streets” becomes an image for the “epistemology of race pride for black American women so paradoxically symbolized by their straightened hair.”  (I told you this was a cool essay.)
  • Write yourself as the complex, multi-dimensional narrator you are: Early is loving father and husband.  Early is astute critic and academician. Early is an African American son/grandson/great grandson connected by family lineage and personal experience to the atrocities and subterfuges of a white culture. Early is the father of a new generation of daughters (in 1990) unbothered by the overt and subterranean racism that Early finds in even their black Ken and Barbie dolls. Early enjoys watching these beauty pageants with his wife and daughters even as he feels “shame-facedness”  and “embarrassment” at this “spectacle of classlessness and tastelessness.”  Early confesses that he still needs Miss Missouri, Debbye Turner, to be the third black woman, at the time, to win a pageant even as he damns the pageant’s complicity in the feeling that “race pride for the African American, finally, is something that can only be understand as existing on the edge of tragedy and history.” In short, Early is a man of the family and a man of the world.
  • Do the Research, dummy.  Of course. And bring in the experts from that research.

We are composites of the past, the present, and the future. The family of our house and the family of our planet.  Perhaps knowing and understanding what that means matters most in the breaking down of any wall.