In honor of the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, we asked Entropy writers to share with us one of the first poems they ever read that got them excited about what poetry could do or changed the way that they thought about poetry, and one of their own poems that they are particularly proud of, still resonates with them, or an early poem.
James Wright’s “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.” The feisty non-poet (he was a scholar and a songwriter) who led the poetry workshop I slacked my way through as an undergraduate required us to work our way through a long list of canonical Americana / the Dickinson-Whitman genealogy. Of all the books I read, Wright’s Shall We Gather At The River is the one I most remember. 20-plus years later, I appreciate now how, as unconsciously as Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics and Monty Python sketches have shaped my approach to poetry, so too has Wright: the long, flirting-with-exposition title; the imagery stranded somewhere between the literal and the figurative; leaning on geography and climate until they topple into mythology; the rhetoric of the joke; the concern for the preterite; poetry as, simultaneously, rebellion and act of mercy.
In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned
By James Wright
I will grieve alone,
As I strolled alone, years ago, down along
The Ohio shore.
I hid in the hobo jungle weeds
Upstream from the sewer main,
I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.
I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?
For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.
And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
A POEM FROM THE AUTHOR:
The CBS Sunday Morning Montage Of King Anecdote’s Hands As Dead Celebrities On A West Coast Tape Delay
Our commemorations, brainy
as a peach pit, pass mouth
by mouth. Picture implements
at their table, one concavity mirrored
over the other, ringless and wrinkled,
disclosing knuckled nothing
but somehow how very open:
each finger’s obverse flattened,
itself the back of a spine,
a belly slapped still and
reposing in the airs
of an anticipated petition.
His fist never beat its heart
against a yawn. Tiptoeing
never scraped down the itch
at the end of his nose. Even
indexing his lap, or curled close
in manifold lips to stick out
the tongue of thumbs, even
at his body’s unthinking work,
plucking, making the vacancies
to hold, he pitched his grasp
past the appearance of grasping.
In their distributions,
they most grieved. One reach
man to the other’s hypothetical
wife; hermaphroditic hands in tempos
danced out from a lag, an arpeggio
dropped. (Pixels being dappled studies.)
In giving you what you wanted,
they took, nudging that wanting
away. Healing, they crackled,
hovering over such a glow,
in crested parity, yielding crooks
to seize and always
from the compound dazzle
of some position more
underneath than below.
Afterwards, waggling their
magic small, he’d bait them:
8 virgins, 2 popes, amateurs all.
Hands so like plaster they were
waxen, wrists stiffened into rotations,
never a wave, never an early palm, never
the agony of underlining or demonstrating
a word’s unrecognized yet arrived
palpables. Only those flowery
efficacies, their faults colliding,
uplifting a sovereignty, swarthy
tendon and ghastly vein.