Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me.
-Miguel Hernandez, Written in prison, 1942
I see you strangling
Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
I dream of your slow voice, flying,
Planting the dark waters of the spirit
With lutes and seeds.
Here, in the American Midwest,
Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of
They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,
A greeting to my country.
Now twilight gathers,
A long sundown.
Silos creep away toward the west.
This poem was the obvious choice for the poem of the week first of all because it came from a book of poetry my dad gave me as a birthday present (for those of you who aren't in the fanclub, today is my birthday.) But even if my birthday wasn't today, this fits perfectly because for some reason Spanish Communism has been a hot topic throughout the week.
If this poem doesn't scream "Spanish communism" at you, let me fill in a quick history of it (the poem, not spanish communism.) First of all some background on James Wright: he was born and lived most his life in Ohio and started writing highly formal poetry in the 50s. Eventually he and a few other poets decided American poetry had become too impersonal and waaay too boring. They found a solution in borrowing the styles of Spanish poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Miguel Hernandez, who he quotes at the beginning of his poem.
The influence of these poets definitely shines in this poem. His deeply descriptive, if somewhat unearthly, images like the "black ripples of the whitewashed walls" and "planting the dark waters of the spirit with lutes and seeds" are clearly a homage to similar descriptions Lorca uses in his book "Poet in New York."
Despite the similarities in style, however, there is a huge difference between Wright and his homies and the Spanish poets they looked up to -- Spanish Communism! I told you I'd tie it in! Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for having communist sympathies, Federico Garcia Lorca was killed by a Spanish firing squad for the same reason, and Miguel Hernandez spent several years and eventually died in prison for opposing Spanish fascism. The quote at the beginning of the poem, in fact, comes from Hernandez's last line of poetry that he carved into the prison wall before dying of tuberculosis. These obviously aren't the experiences you'd have living in rural Ohio.
What I love about Wright's poem is how he acknowledges the impact these men, particularly Hernandez, have had on his poetry but still admits his relationship to them is limmited because their universes are so utterly different. As he contemplates Hernandez in prison and his tuberculosis-yellowed skin, he looks out over the pastoral landscape of rural Ohio. Somehow these two images don't seem to be reconcilable in Wright's mind. For Hernandez to come to Wright, he first must bid farewell to the inspiration he found in Spain and greet the flat plains of Ohio. Wright's poem does a beautiful job of transmitting his anxiety from not living up to the poets that influence him because their lives were so radically different than his.