Wednesday, April 1, 2009

James Wright --- 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.

---James Wright

James Wright’s A Blessing:

A handful of times during my life I have floated within my own body. I’ve starred up into a pink sunset from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I’ve tracked a waterfall as it carved its way down the misty Scottish Highlands. I’ve observed the ancient hills of Tuscany from a train car and flown over the lively white peaks of the Alps. And I’ve found myself swallowed by the orange twilight that fell from the Blue Ridges and blanketed Blacksburg on so many dawns and dusks during my college days. Come to think of it, I have had more than a few moments where my whole being---all of me---has joined the unending string of nature. In these moments, there occurs a strange amalgamation of emotions: gratitude for being able to observe such majesty, resolute faith (or hope) that the beauty is indicative of a thoughtful creator, a gauge of timelessness in wondering how many others (like me) have observed this exact scene over the centuries, and awe at the sight of something so far beyond what humans can accomplish. There’s only one thing to do: let go and soak it all in. There will be time for reflection later on, but there won’t be time to recreate the moment’s perfection.

In his poem "A Blessing," James Wright tries to hold onto his intoxicating moment in nature for as long as possible. The poem’s initial lines anchor us in place and time: "Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, / Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass." We’re there with him for this Midwestern sunset and already strains of nature’s magic greet us. Look no further than the light: it’s not rough or separate, but it "bounds softly forth" almost as I would imagine a dancer fluidly moving her body. From the twilight the central characters of two Indian ponies enter the poem. I’ve always been curious about the word choice of "darken" when Wright refers to their eyes showing kindness. It’s counterintuitive to associate darkness with the joy rooted in kindness. But it seems the darkened eyes make the ponies attractively mellow in the same way we might describe someone as having "big puppy dog eyes." Why are the ponies here? We’re at the fringe between their natural habitat and the habitat that humans have carved out. The poem takes a leap when Wright asserts that the ponies "have come gladly out of the willows / To welcome my friend and me." Gladly welcoming rubs some readers the wrong way, almost as if reality is suspended and we’ve entered a Disney movie where the ponies will swing their tales and break into a song and gallop number. Not so fast my friends; this isn’t fabricated magic, what Wright has is natural symmetry. It’s beautiful, but more importantly it’s possible because the human beings aren’t yet the poem’s focus.

Wright and his friend enter the ponies realm by stepping over barbed wire, a man-made construct designed to contain. Your symbolism meter should be going through the roof at this point. Notice the ponies’ reaction to this symbolic convergence of humans into the animal world: "They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness / That we have come." At certain times I’ve read these lines and felt contempt over Wright’s presumption and cockiness, but then I stop and remind myself to view these lines in the context of the whole poem. The happiness is genuine; new people and experiences should provoke such happiness. We’ve learned to be weary, cautious, and protective because of human evils, but the ponies thankfully don’t possess our reasons for pause. They are compared to swans and then Wright makes a seemingly bold statement: "They love each other." Love between two people, and in this case two animals, is organic and transparent, an emotion in touch with the natural world. Wright doesn’t need to have special powers to know they love each other, he can see it, just as he saw their happiness at having human guests earlier in the poem. There’s also an undeniable projection in Wright’s line about love onto his relationship with the friend accompanying him on this poem’s excursion. It’s subtle because nearly nothing has been said about the friend, but through the example of the ponies we have an indirect metaphor. Almost in the center of the poem Wright crafts a line that stops me in my tracks: "There is no loneliness like theirs." I read this line knowing it should be a compliment and provide some comfort, but it’s a jarring way to point out that these ponies have no one but each other. Wright thrusts that reality upon readers and quickly moves back to the familiar, with the ponies "munching the young tufts of spring." He creates a portrait of the pony nearest him, the one that walked over and "nuzzled (his) left hand." The description of her beauty is simple and flawless, culminating in these lines: "And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist." He gives her an intimate human quality. I could easily see how readers might view this description as strange, but I implore them to continue on to the poem’s epic ending. It’s the kind of ending that might have been conceived and then the poem was built around it. Wright concludes: "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom." Not only is he in tune with nature, but he feels loosed from his body, the human confines, and notices how painfully close he is to achieving natural magnificence. It’s the epitome of bittersweet because we know it won’t last. But because it punctuates the poem, we’re always left in that perfect moment, always left a mere twirl of wind from breaking into blossom right along with him.


Amanda said...

What a beautiful choice for the first poem of this year's blog. I too have felt so many of these magnificent moments you mentioned, when surrounded by nature. It has always frustrated me that no picture could capture the emotion that these types of moments elicit. Never did I think that a poet might be able to capture nature in verse, but I was clearly wrong. This poet was able to speak to the beauty of those special moments we have alone with nature. Wonderful start- I can't wait to see what's next!

Anonymous said...

I first heard this poem read by Jackie Leven on his album "Forbidden Songs of the Dying West." My heart was pierced and tears sprang to my eyes with that last line. The poem still gives me shivers of delight every time I hear it. Your analysis is beautiful and right on. Nicely done. Thank you.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Amanda and 2lonestar, thank you for your comments and for checking out my blog. I long for moments like the one James Wright allows us to experience along with him in this poem.

Unknown said...

I heard 'A Blessing' read (by the author?) on NPR while driving a few days ago and in seeking it I am delighted to find your blog, which I will certainly explore in greater measure. I just want to say thank you for your tender perceptive heart! And to leave you with a favorite of mine* from one poetry lover to another. Blessings

*Actually I see that when I copy and paste the poem that I'd like to share here, the format becomes distorted. Please Google "Monet Refuses the Operation"

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you Noor for that suggestion. I enjoyed Lisel Mueller's poem and I'm glad you brought it to my attention. It is a beautiful exploration of where imagination intersects with our experiences.

Jo Balistreri said...

I hope this one goes through. I was looking for James Wright, A Blessing and I was take by We Convince By Our Presence.

I am convinced that you are a beautiful writer with conviction and sensitivity, and I thank you for the way you explored this poem.

Mary Jo