On James Wright, from the Poetry Foundation:
“James Wright was frequently referred to as one of America's finest contemporary poets. He was admired by critics and fellow poets alike for his willingness and ability to experiment with language and style, as well as for his thematic concerns. In the Minnesota Review, Peter A. Stitt wrote that Wright's work both represents and parallels the development of the best modern American poets: ‘Reading the Collected Poems of James Wright from the point of view of style is like reading a history of the best contemporary American poetry. One discovers a development which could be said to parallel the development generally of our finest recent poets. . . . [This development shows] a movement generally away from rhetoric, regular meter and rhyme, towards plainer speech, looser rhythms and few rhymes.’”
Letter to James Wright (Or My “The Indianapolis Poem” Folded into Your “The Minneapolis Poem”)
by George Kalamaras
“I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.”
1. Dear Jim:
I ask how many dead dogs last year
tilted the earth, as their breath eased out
into the frost-filmed leaves.
As if they were bleeding sideways
into the nails of Noah’s Ark, rusting slowly
the ocean salt of the Dead Sea, the inky
green plankton of the Sargasso. The Ohio River
running there, all the way from Evansville, torn
pages of Bibles floating belly-up
in the river, having been ripped to plug a wall.
Hound dogs who couldn’t follow the moon,
couldn’t tree a coon, lost
in ground fog. The hame bells of dead horses
still drawing Conestogas across Kentucky, somehow
sighing in the moon’s smoke.
And I wish every dead animal
good ground and sound luck.
2. Dear Crippling Wind in Your Hammock-Strung Throat:
Indianapolis. Fort Wayne. Brownsburg. Crown Point.
Crawfordsville. Cedar Lake. In our town,
weather was weather
in the crippling wind
through the mangled cornhusks of autumn.
And the barns—torn apart by the brutal
maiming of November—were sinners
that took to their knees
to wait out the primitive sadness of the moon.
Indiana, the old Northwest Territory.
Just beyond lay immense forests of dark trees.
Wolf track. Pond scum. Sassafras scent.
The white bark of sycamores like ghosts
of wood buffalo in the switchgrass.
Indianapolis, where bands of Ishmaelites
from the Upland South settled the other side
of the White River. They were said to have wandering blood,
which caused them to gypsy. And their wagon lanterns,
postured against the dark, Jim, threw a shadow
of a shadow, bobbing, there,
in the snow-cupped waves. The White River,
which a century later lost 4.6 million
fish to Guide Corp’s automotive parts
in Anderson. The White River, which absorbed 10,000 gallons
of HMP-2000 into the wandering water, wandering away
into the Wabash, wandering, open-mouthed, startled
with the sudden weightlessness of death dying
as it died.
4. Dear One, Who Wrote with an Ocelot in His Mouth:
Someone said Etheridge Knight, before Korea,
before the shrapnel wound and drugs bit his wrist,
had been Lew Wallace in a previous life,
when Lew had already left for New Mexico.
That Ben-Hur sat so long in prayer at the feet of Christ
that he reincarnated as James Whitcomb Riley.
That ocelots and armadillos from Texas
roamed nighttimes north from Galveston, from Corpus Christi,
to become polecats and possums in Indiana.
5. Dear You-Knew-the-Poor-from-Wheeling-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-River:
The strippers at Poor John’s in Fort Wayne, Jim,
eat a late night meatloaf at Liberty Diner,
north on Old U.S. 30. The weight of the open road.
The weight of so much beauty
dancing here, then there. Of the curves
as they circuit town to town. The voluptuous
drift of a late-night radio voice in the car
with them between towns. Inserted, sideways,
into their lives. Fort Wayne to Muncie. Muncie to Noblesville,
the outskirts of Indianapolis. The weight
of their breasts making solitary men
in the diner almost communal,
though their bra straps expand with the sag of tedious notes
of a favorite song to which they dance over and again
and have brought, here, to quiet,
in the 3 a.m. coffee and smoke
of this all-night place where the all-night
plates are placed solemnly before them.
6. Once Again, Jim:
Yesterday, yes, a stray hound wandered right through the front door
of Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers
Food Co-op. He could have been from Minneapolis
or Saint Paul, or even Martins Ferry,
Ohio. From within the wind whipping you
here to there. No tags. No home.
The tantalizing scent of the café. Cases of cheese.
As if being lonely was love enough to eat.
His bloodline likely coming all the way
from Arkansas. From Tennessee.
You have to tell some weathers
when to snow and when to sun themselves
in the hurricane heart of the mouth. The street is full
of such advice. The homeless know. I heard one
clerk at the Co-op say, recoiling
as if wind-slapped in the face, No dogs allowed
in the swampy dark of the heart.
7. Dear Like-a Life-Folded-Within-a-Life:
I want to live in Indiana as if the land was not sick
of being sick. Sand hickory. Hawthorne. Black walnut. Elm.
I want the moon in my throat.
Slantwise. White pools of moon-leaves
shimmering like coins I might grant the poor,
if the poor, by God, grant me my mouth.
Badger. Bobcat. Possum. Skunk.
All the animal dead that live again
in this body. In yours. In the vast
in-between. These ribs. This salt of sound.
How what we lose loves us most.
How a bawl-mouthed howl at the base of a tree might crawl
the riverous veins of leaves. The way an excited pack of hounds,
leaping and trembling, their long toenails scarring
the bark against which they lunge, clamor
for the elusive coon to come down,
to finally give up, to give its shivering self up,
—as all frightened things eventually must—
to all the quivering below that caused it to tree.
(for James Wright)
This is a segment from James Wright's Ohio, a 30 minute film by Tom Koba and Larry Smith featuring two of James Wright's poems with visual story images: "A Flower Passage" and "Beautiful Ohio." Also included are statements from Wright and William Matthews.
From The Paris Review's “The Art of Poetry No. 19” in the summer of 1975. James Wright interviewed by Peter A. Stitt:
“I’m afraid I have to admit that I cannot escape it, and to that extent I regard it as a kind of curse. I’ve thought that many a time. Why the hell couldn’t I have been a carpenter or a handyman?”
George's seven all-time favorite James Wright poems:
- “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960”
- “The Minneapolis Poem”
About George Kalamaras:
George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.
Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.
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Read George Kalamaras's other letters to:
Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own
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Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.