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Jenny Factor -West Coast Correspondent

"Northern Pike" by James Wright [as presented by Jenny Factor]

James Wright
Jenny Factor on James Wright

Stacey Harwood's important post earlier this week put me in mind of James Wright. A poet and exemplar of endurance. A sturdy fragile voice. Perhaps I'm looking for an antidote. Perhaps I'm just looking. In any event, I was reminded this morning of his "Northern Pike". 

This is one to read slowly to oneself, twice-in-a-row. (It's an argument with the self, I think...). It works best on a kind of rhythmic repetition...

Northern Pike

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can't imagine and a pain
I don't know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,
For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making
under water,
For the right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman.
We prayed for the game warden's blindness.
We prayed for the road home.
We ate the fish.
There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy.                      

       --  James Wright

Mary Oliver once wrote of those poets and other artists who commit suicide, "I forgive them/their unhappiness.../...for walking out of the world./But I don't forgive them.../for taking off their veils/and dancing for death. for hurtling/toward oblivion/on the sharp blades/of their exquisite poems, saying:/this is the way/// I was, of course, all that time/coming along/behind them, and listening/for advice. She concludes "Members of the Tribe" from her 1986 Dream Work with these lines that remind me of my own high school darkness, and how, on the day after, I'd feel so light my head and shoulders just floating up without any of the ego or striving left in me:

And the man who merely
washed Michelangelo's brushes, kneeling
on the damp bricks, staring
every day at the colors pouring out of them,

lived to be a hundred years old.

So here's a toast...To the muskrats. To the game warden's blindness. And to life. Inventive. Fragile. Liveable.


Posted by Jenny Factor on April 18, 2009 at 05:04 PM in Jenny Factor -West Coast Correspondent | Permalink


Dearest Jenny, I had a few bad months and didn't tend to things, so missed this. I too love Wright, especially The Green Wall, his first and more formal book. But I love his spirit in all of them, though he was a problematic guy, I guess. (Ask Franz.) I met him once; he and Annie danced around the room after the reading; the room was full of sunlight and the gesture was not a gesture but a feeling. I took them to the airport and the three of us spent a glorious hour giggling and reminiscing about the (his) old days. (I didn't have any old days then.) I'd spent two years trying to get him to visit; we'd talk on the phone. He didn't want to leave NY even for a visit; he said he didn't have enough courage to leave his shrink for any length of time. Also, he reiterated, many times, what we already knew: that Ohio was, for him, the Land of the Dead; and crossing the Ohio River, even in a plane, was not something he wanted to attempt. But he did finally come (we paid for Annie's ticket, too, of course); and I, at least, had one of those "times" that one remembers forever, and that becomes part of one's own old days. Thanks for the love that shows through everything you write.

Posted by: jim cummins | July 15, 2009 at 01:04 PM

Ah, Jim. So good to hear from you. Sometimes I don't even have the words (and i'm sorry about the months...)... (i know you only online but you have an online presence that is like when a kindred spirit walks into the room at a big party. Well, I look up and before I smile, I flush).

My own months have been pretty odd too. Taught a few courses last term and helped to build a large online learning module for the low-residency MFA program. A lot of work--but the good news about that arrives roughly now--there are students in the module, so I have the pleasure of those ether-voices during the distance-learning project periods which can otherwise become so...distant. I really love my Antiochians--smart, interesting, and good company. And it's nice to have a place to settle in and teach in the five months that separate each residency...if only because I can ask my scads of unanswerable poetry questions aloud.

Is it possible that I've read about that later-in-life trip to Ohio? I think I have--perhaps in the notes from some 92nd Street Y audio-recording, or perhaps I heard it in Wright's patter to the audience (which is my better guess). Or perhaps I'm thinking only of Marilyn Hacker's, "Elevens" which is about flying into Ohio, thinking about Wright flying into Ohio: "James A. Wright, my difficult older brother.../You are the lonely gathering of rivers/below the plane that left you in Ohio...."--(it's in rough sapphics, and that first line sounds best when you really let the trochee-trochee-dactyl-trochee-trochee out. The other lines have wandering dactyls, so you have to let 'em wander).

Do you know this poem of Billy Collins, "This Much I Do Remember"?

Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

Your moment reminds me of that. Do you remember--cause I don't--who wrote about how little we control the moments we get to mint--how they simply sneak up on us? How the milestones--the ones we hope to remember always get lost--but some odd inadvertant instant finds a way into forever.

Hoping you'll mint yours in the big factory where they chug out puffy clouds and happiness...on a series of long and languid summer days. Will write again soon if that's okay.

thinking of you--

Posted by: Jenny Factor | July 17, 2009 at 10:13 AM

From the archive; first posted April 18, 2009 as “Dear Life: Still Here!" [by Jenny Factor]

February 01, 2018

February 24, 2017

February 22, 2017

January 21, 2014

February 25, 2013

February 22, 2013

January 31, 2013

January 17, 2013

January 02, 2013

December 24, 2012

December 21, 2012

December 14, 2012

November 28, 2012

November 21, 2012

November 08, 2012

October 31, 2012

April 14, 2012

April 13, 2012

April 12, 2012

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That Ship Has Sailed
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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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