Letters to a Stranger, by Thomas James (Graywolf Press, 2008; originally published by Houghton Mifflin, 1973)
Of the many key words that reappear throughout Letters to a Stranger—Thomas James’s 1973 debut collection of poetry that is now being republished by Graywolf Press after slipping out of print for many years—one of the most evocative is “whorl.” Conjuring pastoral images of healed wounds in tree bark and evanescent cloud formations, the word appears in one poem, “Wooden Horse,” as “one carven whorl . . . embossed on your thick brow.” (The “you” in the poem is the wooden horse itself, another pastoral object, presented by James half as sawhorse, totem of childhood and imagination, and half as Trojan horse, symbol of betrayal and destruction.) This whorl works like the animating cipher placed on the forehead of the golem, the secret word for God that brings life and humanity to mud and clay. Whorls have a long history as spiritual glyphs, suggesting an ambiguous mixture of circularity and progress, spiraling back over the same radii, but never in the same position. They are at once vortices, distortion patterns, black holes sucking inward, and also swells, waves, unfurling fields extending ever outward.
The poem that directly precedes “Wooden Horse,” a sepia-toned autumn elegy entitled “Jason,” defines the nature of the whorl more clearly as “the whorl of time.” The writing lopes through an orthodox terza rima form as James revels in the synesthetic colors of fall while also holding them at a distance—the distance of memory, of experience that coils and returns. The title can be parsed not only by reference to the mythological Argonaut—myth hangs heavy over James’s poetic landscape—but also as a calendar acronym for the late summer-early fall months from July to November, the year’s recurring period of symbolic death. The “whorl” is not only life-giving, as with the golem, but also a sign of mortality, a reminder of the precious things we have lost and are trying to get back. The terza rima, winding forward in an interlocking thread of rhymes, emphasizes this effect, endlessly leading both forward and backward. (The last sentence of the poem places the speaker’s parents “in a garden where it is always October”: eternal return, eternal dying.)
The whorl functions as an emblem for the book as a whole, which returns obsessively to stories of loss, death, and transfiguration, and also for the strange history of the book itself—its original publication, disappearance, and ultimate return this year to print, marking a bittersweet ending for readers who have treasured the book’s obscure and glossy surfaces, as well as a new point of entry for those yet to discover its depths. Swirling back and forth, like a helix: you can go home, you can never go home again.
The epigraph to Letters to a Stranger, from James Baldwin, sets out this theme of paradises lost-and-found as an initial signpost: “It takes strength to remember [and] another kind of strength to forget; it takes a hero to do both.” The book constantly returns to this theme in various guises: evocations of dreams in which the speaker is a somnambulist in an impossibly lush pastoral setting, narratives from childhood in which morbidity creeps into scenes of comfort and purity. In many poems, the speaker is rendered an immobile passive presence, lying in a bedroom, hospital cell, morgue, or even sarcophagus. Thus the drama plays out not through a set of actions but through a set of renunciations, a metaphorical removal of armor, a denial of sensual experiences, material props, and even the very fact of life itself. Compulsively, the poems erect evanescent Edens out of childhood memories, pastoral dreamlands, and bodies metamorphosing toward death, and then tear these apart through intrusive objects, gestures of disavowal, or unexpected turns of phrase, leaving them an inviting enigma of ruins.
By presenting his protagonists in an ecstatic state of prostration, febrile sponges for the unbearable sensual phenomena of the interior world, James places his poems very much in the youthful mode of Rimbaud’s quasi-psychedelic self-discovery, a passion rooted in passivity. The poems seem to be dictated from the edge of unconsciousness—the first poem in the book begins with the speaker “waking up” into a charged pastoral landscape of tall “dark grass” and lakes strewn with “dark petals,” misty, rotting scenery that seems itself to exist only in a dreamscape. Repeated like a mantra, the word “dark” accentuates this murky, boggy hothouse quality. The poem radiates both a kind of drowsy torpor and a paradoxical excitement, the consciousness of the speaker split between a body floating horizontally—sleeping, sedated, or dead—and a coy, impatient horse that stands tall at the poem’s close, “pawing the dark with its right foreleg / cutting dark flowers in the air.” This act of aggression, turning negative space into positive space like chiaroscuro painting or Malevich’s black-on-blacks, is also an act of creation, a piety that reads at once as docile and violent, as magic and intuition. Either the waking world must also be a kind of dream, or the poem’s invocation of awakening specifically denotes the transcription process by which dream imagery is recycled as poetic drapery for the creative act of writing.
Like the majority of poems in Letters to a Stranger, “Waking Up” is presented not as a manic explosion of language, but as a controlled experiment, a deliberate, even depressive murmur paced over clean, tense lines built from charged, Germanic monosyllables: “dark,” “sky,” “grass,” “log.” The effect is of a faraway, sedated associativeness—the Proust-like invalid holding court—penetrated only by the hardness of specific objects and the hefty little words for them. This is partly a formal artifact of James’s reliance on classically structured stanza vehicles: left-justified, roughly four- or five-beat medium-length lines with knitted rhyme schemes often built from one-syllable slant-words: for instance, “lie/day,” “steer/door,” “lean/stone.” In “Room 101,” the poem that contains this particular rhyme trio, the speaker appears in the paradigmatic space of the gurney, immobilized, a being who experiences sights and sounds at a distance, as a theatrical shadow play. This poem, like others in the collection, can be read as a kind of hospital parable, a genre that includes poems by Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and so many others, set apart here from Bishop’s “The Weed” or Plath’s “Tulips” by its peculiar ambiguity.
The sentences in “Room 101” are short and declarative, and the lines clean-cropped and chiseled, but there is a fluidity to the experience of time in the poem, as characters drift in and out and the days of the week pass in the same frame of reference as momentary events. The contrast of the objective language and the leaping perspective creates a sedative ambience that normalizes the voice of the speaker, experiencing itches and hurts from an unbearably calm paralysis. It slowly becomes possible to read the speaker not as a convalescent in a body cast, but as a cadaver, organs removed for transplant, eyelids stuck open “under the arclight,” rigor mortis setting in. A medical and psychological mystery takes hold: is this a metaphor for recovery rendered as repression, paring away vulnerable feelings until one is a fortress of “girded bone”? Or is the experience a kind of upgrade to a more perfected state of being: becoming a statue, the figure of a god? I find the poem most interesting in its moments of contradiction, as when the speaker complains, “my new stone biceps itch.” The wonderfully strange “itch”—given extra weight as the final rhyme of the stanza—dilutes the poem’s pretense to apotheosis with playful, knowing narcissism. This becomes oddly endearing, as the speaker revels in his new form, revealing himself like a shirtless teenager flexing muscles in front of a mirror. It is an image both creepy and poignant, like the moths flapping nearby against the arclights and staring down at the speaker with “garnet” and “yellow eyes.”
Because Letters to a Stranger’s fixation with posthumous speech, with death and its various afterlives, so closely tracks the actual story of Thomas James and his book’s long, shadowy wanderings back into print, reading the work now in its reissued form gives off the unsettling sense of an overdetermined act of necromancy. Even the title, with its uncanny invocation of the reading experience as simultaneously intimate and impersonal, courtly and unseemly, suggests this problematic situation for the reader who is placed over and over again in the position of listening in to the last words of a writer who died at the age of twenty-seven, almost certainly by his own hand, shortly after publishing his first and only book of poems.
Part of the appeal of the book, which was initially, tragically dismissed in the one review published in James’s lifetime as warmed-over Plath-lite (another spooky suicide reference that seems too horribly well-aimed to bear), has been its very obscurity, its eerie status as a book that seems to speak to us from beyond the grave. Its slow-growing cult following, which is wonderfully evoked by Lucie Brock-Broido in her ornate, impassioned, and tender introduction to the new edition, came to treasure the book in spite of its wide unavailability, passing around xeroxed copies of the manuscript or, in Brock-Broido’s case, stealing the only copy she could find from the shelves of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. (Like all her students, I learned about Thomas James when I studied with Brock-Broido several years ago at Columbia University.) She describes a kind of paranormal transference, in which her attempts to act as medium for the book, locating James’s vanished friends and family, lead to repeated encounters with the morbid and the gothic, with the very tonalities at the heart of Letters to a Stranger. Even the act of Graywolf reprinting the book under the auspices of its Re/View Series seems prefigured in the resurrections and equivocal apotheoses that loom throughout the book.
Yet these reverberating echoes go beyond the particulars of James’s poems, because the emblem of the untimely dead ‘suicide poet’ hangs over the entire field of poetry as a kind of perverse archetype, an asymptotic limit of Romantic sentiment. The actual facts of a poet’s death are usually devastatingly concrete and untheoretical—mental illness, addiction, violent accident, sudden loss or isolation, etc.—and yet there is a temptation to idealize a dead poet’s “self” as trapped in amber where it never ages or contradicts itself, where it is freed of intention and exists as pure, accessible feeling. The poems come from an impossible, lonely, ghostly place, arriving to explain the inexplicable too soon for the full measure of truth to congeal and too late for any reader to intervene with intuition or understanding. This fantasy may be understood as an extension of the idea that a poet’s material is leveraged on personality: a voice, a set of experiences, an essence transformed into language. This is only ever partly true, and surely bears little resemblance to most poets’ actual practice in writing. Yet there is a presumption that it must take a kind of preternatural gall to claim the license called “poetic,” to place arbitrary words on the field of the page and insist upon the meaningfulness of these choices, as well as the credit for making them. Perhaps the fascination with a poet’s suicide is in part the way that this fulfills a wish to punish artists, to imagine them as having overreached beyond the bounds of this communion, like Icarus flying too close to the sun.
The suicide or early death of any famous poet works to create an aura around the writing that accentuates certain aspects of it—the obdurate, the mysterious, the otherworldly—that can either distort the poet’s work (I think, for instance, of Plath’s black humor, obscured by the focus on her feminist gauntlet-throwing) or burnish it. With Thomas James, there is a case to be made for both possibilities, especially since this is very much a first book, with all of the excitement and all of the pitfalls that first books often reveal: noisy echoes of poetic influences, a surplus of diligence and precocious energy, the tendency toward reiteration, pressure, dogma, defensiveness, control. Without a context of later writing in which to situate the poems in Letters to a Stranger, so concerned with mortality and masochism, it is easy to read them as suicide note poems, lyrical treatments of James’s own obsessions, depressions, frustrations, despairs.
There is a truth to this reading that draws on the similarity between these poems and the work of earlier poets like Plath and Lowell, in particular the way that moments of emotional laceration are embedded in a fabric of controlled, formal diction and imaginary narrative. James is more than a late “confessional” poet, though; in the imagist, surreal quality of his landscapes (all gardens and meadows) he seems to be moving toward a softer, more milky tone, more impressionist than expressionist (whether German or Abstract). The early 1970s, when the book was first published, is something of a pivot point, the breaking of one wave of postwar modernism, a rising of something else. James can be seen as part of a group that was exploring the field opened by the previous generation, not necessarily breaking new ground, but consummating and consolidating. This is certainly the case for other poets of the time, such as James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, even W.S. Merwin: poets who have been described as a school of “Deep Image.” Influenced by the masculine vulnerability of Lorca, they explored various ways to wed quasi-surrealist dreamwork to the lyric folk ballad tradition.
As a snapshot of some of the writing possibilities that existed for a young, ambitious poet in the early seventies, Letters to a Stranger retains the potent image of this struggle, the negotiation around new orthodoxies that were re-establishing themselves to incorporate the innovations of Lowell, Berryman, and Plath, while still pushing back against the more groundbreaking poetics of the Beats, of the New York School writers, of the various groups of poets in California, etc. Since James’s ambition and talent were clearly large enough to navigate this terrain and find a style that would gain the attention of a major publisher, it is unsurprising that the book should reflect its cultural moment. What is unusual, though, is how thoroughly his poems conform to this expectation: conservative yet heartfelt, formal yet clammy, grand and mythic in their orientation, both intimate and resolutely distant.
From the vantage point of the present moment, we can now read the poems in Letters to a Stranger as a kind of bridge between the decorous yet personal poetics of the 1950s and 1960s and the more abstract writing of certain poets in the 1980s and beyond, in particular poets like Jorie Graham and Lucie Brock-Broido (voilà!) whom Stephen Burt gathered under the slogan “elliptical” for their strategies that simultaneously enlist and confound the lyric tradition in which the speaker of a poem has a coherent voice identifiable with the poet. It would be fair to call Thomas James a pre-elliptical poet as much as a post-confessional one, for the way he uses narrative personae to refract a coherent voice, for the blurry boundary in his poems between self and background, for the shiftiness of his metaphors, and for the way his lines are simultaneously committed to a sensitivity toward psychological phenomena and yet so ready to leap away from particulars, to try something else.
It is this particular genius for “leapiness,” as Brock-Broido relates in her introduction, that makes many of James’s poems so compelling. She focuses on the leap as a verbal gesture, catching on a particularly fanciful metaphor or turn of phrase as an intaglio that protrudes from the surface of the text. Her example, from the title poem of Letters to a Stranger, imagines the funeral preparation of Alexander the Great, in which his body is “scour[ed] . . . like a continent,” the “continent” both the logical conclusion of Alexander’s conquests and a magnificent leap from the tiny to the enormous. (Even the invocation of Alexander is an unexpected turn in this parish-bound poem.)
The most surprising of these feats comes at the end of James’s poem “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty,” another visit to the consciousness of a body in its embalming, the more remarkable in this case because it is the body of an ancient Egyptian woman experiencing traditional death rites described in The Book of the Dead. The poem hovers without flinching in the grotesque physical reality of the mummification process, such as the removal of the brain—“a pointed instrument / hooked it through my nostrils, strand by strand”—while reclaiming it astonishingly as a last act of love: “I was so important!” In the last stanza of the poem, the transformed speaker who is now both godlike and childlike dreams of returning home to an inviting garden of earthly delights like “passionflowers” and “far-off music.” Then, in a very Rilkean climactic sucker punch that recalls “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the fantasia is suddenly cut off without explanation by a final, incongruously limpid question, “Why do people lie to one another?” This naive sentence comes out of nowhere, a powerful, precipitous swerve that refuses analysis: is this the end of wishing or the ultimate wish? Is the lie to dream of a lost Eden or to believe that it was ever lost, that the connection was ever severed in the first place? After so much busy ritual, the poem offers silence.
These kinds of privacy throughout Letters to a Stranger work to deflect criticism, especially of the book’s potentially more maudlin elements. For instance, the poems’ recurring obsession with martyrdom, torture, and stigmata—striving for the sinewy, corroded quality of Lucas Cranach’s Crucifixion painting (James was, Brock-Broido relates, an avowed Lutheran)—may strike a louder note of lurid Catholic kitsch in melodramatic lines like “The red juice stains your palms / as if a nail were driven into the hollows.” Even in this overheated moment, though, the tone remains measured, not histrionic, and the image is a coherent and revealing one in the book’s cosmology. The horror and the magnetism of carnality, of present-ness, overwhelms the showy word “hollows” and connects the image to all the overdetermined visions of perforated flesh that occur in poem after poem: syringes of heroin, a threatened snake bite, intravenous medical equipment, an embalmer’s tools for human taxidermy.
Similarly, the firewall that James studiously erects between his poems and the rude business of the contemporary world is not only a function of his poetic universe circa 1973—what he considers allowable as “poetry,” what kind of voice can arise from his canon of influences—but also the coherent deployment of a vivid interior world. Read like a novel, the antique ambience of Letters to a Stranger is more than an anachronism; there is a “car door” in one poem, but other than that nothing would be out of place in the Victorian era, if not the early nineteenth century or even medieval Europe: churches, cemeteries, gardens, orchards, polished silverware. The only proper names referenced in the book are beheaded personages of long-ago history and fiction: Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, Mary Queen of Scots, then a dive back to the Bible for Herod and John the Baptist. The only other characters brought to life are family members: cousins, siblings, nephews, great-aunts. Yet even these living, breathing characters are presented through a dusty scrim of memory, for instance the maiden aunts who appear in “Two Aunts” as apparitions from farm country North Dakota, with “George Eliot coiffures [and] flounces like an 1890s valentine.” Locally this ambience works ironically, a way to extend the shock of revealing these relatives as heroin addicts who “sprinkled it on . . . oatmeal,” but more generally it keeps the daguerreotype-and-curio tone in place, allowing this Illinois poet a way to capture his America without the messy modern noise.
In one of the uncollected poems unearthed by Brock-Broido and included in the new edition of Letters to a Stranger, a characteristically dramatic piece entitled “Suicide,” James once again offers a postmortem voice speaking from the other side, either in the very moment of dying as a bullet enters the skull or else in immortal recollection of this instant: “Before I felt the bullet / nip through the brain, / I stepped back, stepped back / to my grandmother’s house / in the middle of summer.” In this space the speaker finds a clock whispering, “There is only this delicate hunching / into your private death.” This “delicate hunching” is precisely the posture James offers his readers, leaning in and yet deflected as he coyly promises things that are both evanescent and eerily sustained. The poem, like the whole breadth of James’s work, reminds me of the oblique, exciting film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” used as an episode of The Twilight Zone in the mid 1960s, in which the escape fantasy of a hanging man plays out as he dangles at the end of a noose. The movie fleshes out the scenario with an agonizing and protracted crosscut of the man and his lover running toward each other, tantalizingly close. Back and forth they run endlessly, but unable to close the distance. Like Thomas James and his lost poems, already they are ghosts, the memories of a ghost.