A first book of poetry usually lays a mere foundation; with The Green Wall, James Wright built an entire structure for a poetic career. Moreover, as several of these poems continue to be anthologized half a century after composition, they continue to constitute a significant part of his achievement. In these poems, Wright displays an unusual sureness of touch, as if he had always known what his themes were going to be and had only waited for the right opportunity to state them.
“The Fishermen,” for example, juxtaposes the carefree carelessness of two young men drinking beer by the beach with the chronic, age-old sadness of old men fishing there. By bringing these images together, Wright manages to fuse them, to show their essential identity: They are two stages of the male experience. Then Wright extends the fusion; men have always been like this, and in drawing near the sea, they near their primordial roots. The sea is their end, the natural entity they will join after death, just as it had been their beginning.
This theme of the community of all living things in death permeates the book, of which “Three Steps to the Graveyard” could stand as its center. The “three steps” are actually three stages of visitation, three arcs that constitute a circle in life, all commemorating death. The speaker records three visits; one in the spring, one in summer, and one at the end of autumn. In spring, the boy’s father shelters him but then leaves him in darkness and “bare shade.” In autumn, everything, even the field mice, trembles in anticipation. The three steps span life, bringing it to death, as is fitting.
This theme culminates in “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends,” Wright’s most famous poem. In it, Wright dares to write about the death of children. In doing so, he creates a masterpiece. Moreover, he does it in exactly the way his seventeenth century predecessor Ben Jonson did—by so formalizing his treatment that the poem takes on the impersonal objectivity of a carving in stone. The restraint is managed so delicately that it turns personal grief into a tribute of felt beauty, the enduring note of this volume.