Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1418
Pulitzer Prize-winner James Wright, who received the coveted award in 1972 for his Collected Poems, again offers the reader a glimpse of his vision of the brotherhood of man. From the Midwest of America to Italy, Wright speaks of a common unity between all people. This volume of poetry, dedicated...
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Pulitzer Prize-winner James Wright, who received the coveted award in 1972 for his Collected Poems, again offers the reader a glimpse of his vision of the brotherhood of man. From the Midwest of America to Italy, Wright speaks of a common unity between all people. This volume of poetry, dedicated to Wright’s friends, Helen McNeely Sheriff and John Logan, contains thirty-seven poems by Wright and one poem by his wife, Annie. Recognized for his previous works, The Green Wall, Saint Judas, The Branch Will Not Break, Shall We Gather at the River, Collected Poems, and Two Citizens, Wright continues his themes and philosophy in this new collection.
No matter what its setting—whether it is his native Ohio, the farmlands of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the deserts of Arizona, the cities of Minneapolis, Chicago, or New York, or the older lands of Europe—Wright’s is a poetry of connection, of bonds. These bonds—these ties that bind poet and reader to the same past, memory, experience—connect the poems in this collection. Through them, one sees a connection between the Ohio River and the Adige River of Italy, between the old man climbing up from the Venetian canals and the old man down by the Ohio River with a potato for a small boy, and between the author/persona who gives the mosquito sustenance and the Indian with the hook for a hand who gives the author money for a bus ticket out of town. The last poem, entitled “Beautiful Ohio,” represents a return home to the place where Wright grew up, to the place where “Those old Winnebago men/ Knew what they were singing.” It is a place also where the sewer main from Martin’s Ferry flows into the river from a drain in the river bank, where the river was “Quickened. . . . With the speed of light.” and where the light from the river “caught there/ The solid speed of their lives.” Wright, recognizing the full irony of the conclusion, writes,
I know what we call itMost of the time.But I have my own song for it,And sometimes, even today,I call it beauty.
Through this poem, the author connects us to his home, but more importantly, perhaps, connects to us his point of view, his general philosophy of life. The metaphor of sewage becoming light and consequently beauty, is extended and carried over, unstated, in every poem. Wright’s continual search for beauty and brotherhood is the unifying theme of the collection.
Thus, in “To a Blossoming Pear Tree,” the author can examine the beauty of the tree, just matured and now blossoming, and personify it into a young boy, alternately the author/ persona and some other boy not identified. The beauty of the tree with its “Beautiful natural blossoms,” its “Pure delicate body,” transfixes the author, forcing him to recognize its perfection and to recall his own days of “blossoming.” The recalled memory, however, is not one of beauty; rather, it is one of pitiful desperation. The persona as a boy was approached by an old man seeking both solace and sex, or, as Wright says, “He was so near death/ He was willing to take/ Any love he could get. . . .” It is a significant indication of the overall tone and point of view of this collection that Wright should see the old man’s solicitation as being one for love, not sex. Wright concludes the poem by underlining the brotherhood of man and by suggesting that the pear tree is really another boy, by writing,
Young tree, unburdenedBy anything but your beautiful natural blossomsAnd dew, the darkBlood in my body drags meDown with my brother.
Included in this collection are fourteen poems in prose form, a difficult form to employ. Wright does so successfully. One reason for his success is the tone he uses; each poem is written in a conversational manner, and those that seem most successful are the ones with the greatest irony. “The Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle” and “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62” are among the best of the prose poems.
In “The Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle,” Wright again returns to the Ohio of his birth to relate the events in 1925 that concerned Homer Rhodeheaver. Rhodeheaver was the psalmodist and the shill at the offeratory of the evangelist, Billy Sunday. In 1925, the Pittsburgh police department dispatched a squad of officers from Pittsburgh to the Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle where they intended to arrest Rhodeheaver on a paternity charge. Sunday and Rhodeheaver were both gone when the police arrived. It is the sheer absurdity and irony in the situation that attracts Wright’s interest. When mentioning that Sunday had departed the scene, Wright mentions that some people thought that he had ascended. The author also seems interested in the situation because it afforded his parents “one of their chances to laugh like hell for the sheer joy of laughter before the Great Depression began.” Wright sums up by wondering whether Eros may have heard Rhodeheaver’s musical prayer while Jehovah was drowsing and, as Wright says, “. . . figured that love after all was love, no matter what language a man sang it in, so what the hell.” He concludes by saying, “Little I know. I can pitch a pretty fair tune myself, for all I know.” By doing so, Wright again underscores the common bond, the shared experience of “pitching” a line in the con game of evangelism and “pitching” a line in poetry. Both he and Rhodeheaver not only can pitch tunes, but they also have the same desire for love.
Wright carries the theme of sought love forward again in “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62.” Here he writes of Ralph Neal, his boyhood scoutmaster. He relates Neal’s patience, his understanding of adolescence, and his acceptance of the future of the boys in his troop. He understood their yearning for manhood, their fears, the too-frequent predetermination of their fates. He concludes, “The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy.”
In many of the other poems in this collection, Wright devotes his attention to conveying a mood, a scene, a sense of place. In “A Lament for the Shadows in the Ditches,” he writes of the Roman Colosseum, depicting the scene as he sees it in the present, but conjuring up the gladiatorial games, the martyrdom of Christians, and even the genocidal destruction of the Jews in our current age. He concludes the poem with a strong image of a shadow of a lion which he juxtaposes with the beauty of horses.
In “By the Ruins of a Gun Emplacement: Saint-Benoit,” Wright uses the moon to represent war, and establishes irony by picturing a young couple making love in a haystack in the same spot on the bank of the Loire where a gun emplacement used to stand. Again, as in his other poems, Wright fuses the author/persona with the figures of the poem; he “becomes” the lovers while simultaneously maintaining his age and his experience to reflect on war. He writes, “We are one face/ Gazing into another, dim.” With this as the point of departure for his reflection, he continues to consider the effects of war—never in the large scale, but always in its small, humble details. Finally, he alludes to an earlier war by mentioning the names that Napoleon stole for his horses “. . . A dusk long ago, before the last time/ Somebody gouged a trench along the Loire.”
Wright also offers in this collection poems for Pablo Neruda (“Neruda”) and W. H. Auden (“Lighting a Candle for W. H. Auden”). In addition, he continues his presentation of the themes of the search for love and beauty, the possibility of ugliness becoming beauty, the common bond between men, and the prospect of advancing age. To a Blossoming Pear Tree shows the quiet talent of James Wright and the subtle power of his imagery. His is a persistent voice on the side of the brotherhood of man, a strong voice in the search for beauty, and a steady voice in the advocacy of love. His sense of the ironic offers a wry and penetrating humor. His depiction of scene and mood are compelling. His recollection of event and moment are riveting. To a Blossoming Pear Tree is a fitting successor to Wright’s many earlier volumes; the poems in this collection blossom as surely as does the fruit tree of the title.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21
Kirkus Reviews. XLV, November 15, 1977, p. 1259.
Library Journal. CII, December 15, 1977, p. 2503.
Publisher’s Weekly. CXII, October 31, 1977, p. 55.
Saturday Review. V, January 21, 1978, p. 47.