Culture & Conversation

Risky Experiments, Rich Rewards

In January, 1974, Tomas Edward Bojeski, aka Thomas James, put an end to his life by shooting himself in the head with a handgun.  He was only twenty-seven, and had just published his first book, Letters to a Stranger, which would receive one disdainful review describing him as a “pale Plath.”  But Letters would acquire a life of its own, rescued from obscure stacks and photocopied by poets and poetry admirers all over the US. 

One of these became an editor with Graywolf Press, and so the book has recently been reissued, to considerable fanfare – a strong review by Edward Hirsch in the Washington Post, and a major feature – Lucy Brock-Broido’s ringing introduction to the book, along with several poems – on the website of Poetry.

Reading through Letters, it’s easy to see why a negligent reviewer might have unfavourably compared James’ work with that of Plath.  The least remarkable poems in the collection are in its first twenty pages.  These include the opening poem, “Waking Up,” a call-and-response to the first poem in Ariel, “Morning Song”; and “Carnations,” a mannered and indeed pallid derivation from “Tulips,” one of Plath’s most powerful poems.  At least five poems in Letters, as Brock-Broido points out, are in direct dialogue Plath’s Ariel.  Still others bear the unmistakable stamp of her influence. But while Plath’s is an abrasive, searing voice, James’ is understated, lapidary, resigned; while she was manic-depressive, he was undeniably depressive.  Frozen in an otherworldly calm, his haunting, tuneful, often decorative meditations arise out of a state of near-deathly paralysis:

The dead have such sweet breath.

They are entirely indifferent to their surroundings,

Too wrapped up in themselves to notice anything –

A fly investigates the pearly knuckle.

Daylight withers, effacing its muscularity.

It takes time to warm up to this voice.  But reading on bears rich rewards. Winning qualities are a gorgeous musicality of language, and frequent rapid-fire associations Bly would call “leaping poetry.” An echo chamber of intricately connected motifs – including winter ice, turning to stone, ringing tongues of bells, speaking from under water or under earth, pouring out of gold, leaves and flowers — culminates in some superbly crafted, intense and mysterious poems.  Highlights include “Jason,” “Wooden Horse,” “Frog,” “Going Back,” “The Bell Ringer,” and “Dragging the Lake.”  “Letter to a Mute” is an utterly new and beautiful restatement of the aphorism “Silence is golden.”  “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” meanwhile, would belong in any major anthology, and it is not a stretch to say it may well go down as one of the great poems of the century.

Death is of course a major theme and preoccupation of poetry.  Each time a suicidal writer presages his death, it gains that much more impact by his final act.  There are plenty such premonitions in Letters, including lines like

The woods are full of a silence.

I breathe a scrawl of ice in my own darkness

As my gun barks, putting a whole landscape to death.

Ultimately, the stranger James addresses in his poems is not only the writer’s ghostly twin, but death itself.

Doubtless Thomas James was a poet of extravagant gifts.  Unlike certain experimental writers who under guises of supposed radicalism live comfortable lives, James’ poetry, life, and death were of a piece.  One could say that in all senses his was the riskiest experiment, in that he put his very life on the line.

Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight.  It is reviewed here in the Rover.

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