Savoring the Sunset

This Journey By James Wright Vintage Books; $5.95; 91 pp.

SOMETIMES NATURAL DEATH is a slow process. Life, colors, and images march away from you; you watch them and reflect. If you are lucky, or particularly appreciative, the aftertaste is a quiet joy in the withdrawal--each dream you remember enters your mind, becomes evident, and trails away just as you're beginning to taste it.

James Wright's final, posthumous collection of poems. This Journey, takes both poet and reader on journey through a lifetime as it slips back into the poet's mind-and anything is fair game here, from Wright's recollections of his childhood, or a vulgarity he sees scrawled on a gravestone, to his later experiences with the super-natural and the exotic to what he has learned about Leonardo da Vinci during his life. Often ethereal, sometimes convoluted and tortured, the images crawl or sour quietly off the page, so that Wright doesn't just make you taste a grape--he makes you taste a purple grape, with the world "purple" taking on tinges of sunset, foreign lands, juice on the palate.

While not disturbing or morbid, many of the poems are filled with the shadows of death or dying. Their energy comes not from the idea of mortality or the perverse vividness of death images, but from the appreciation of the life-images and from the oddness of the associations Wright makes. He links stone with vision and flux, water with destruction, bones with life in its most vivid state. And the collection is sprinkled with two-or-three-paragraph poems, in which Wright conducts interesting experiments with his artistic control.

Robert Bly has said that the prose poem is a symptom of a disintegrating society. For Wright, it may indicate he sees his world dissolving; more likely, he uses the prose poem to stretch she limits of his poetry. By dodging conventional line breaks and assuming a super-charged prosaic style, the poet legitimately, and often successfully, experiments with his work's content and form.

For example, Wright often places a prose poem's main subject in its title, a technique which allows the first lines to focus on an action rather than a noun. Hence the line "laying the foundations of a community, she labors all alone" carries an immediate impetus in a poem called "Regret for a Spider Web."


The poem's structural twists are made in their content rather than in their syntax: Wright moves much more quickly from localized scenes to global concepts in the prose poems than elsewhere. In "On Having My Pocket Picked In Rome," he writes:

"It is only when the hands are gone. I will step out of this crowd and walk down the street, dimly aware of the dark infant stranger I carry in my body."

By starting with the small scene set up in the title and relaxing the poetic structure. Wright successfully moves to and captures the complicated concept of one person's relation to a crowd of strangers. Other prose poems similarly sneak as if unintentionally from the simple to the complex. Free of the poetic structure that would hold the ideas and images to a central thread. Wright can hop from one to the next on the strength of association.

WHICH IS NOT TO SAY the prose poems lack structure. The adjectives are often extravagant--"hilarious and hellish little boys," he writes in "Old Bud"--but they serve to inject the poet's perspective into what is initially a third-person description. And while some of Wright's speech-like rhetorical devices might water down a poem, they add vigor to the paragraph forms. The packing together of lyrical sounds--as well as the repetition of words--creates a strong sense of unity in poems like "In Gallipoli":

"Forty years ago, her young man, as gay and unaware as an English butterfly blinded by fog, fluttered amazed across this cerulean light, sagged, and exploded."

Though the scene described does not tie in directly or logically to the poem's theme, it connects to the central image of a woman feeding grapes to the poet, through the vaguer evocation of nature--not nature in any specific relation to the characters in the purple scene, but as an overwhelming, quietly underlying force. Because the images are packed close, the connections between the remain deliciously tenuous, tracing, the poet's frame of mind rather than a logical, prosaic thread.

Wright does tend sometimes to toss over his shoulder the wealth of material he sees. In "Old Bud," he writes, "His unbelievable Adam's apple purpled and honed like the burl on the root of a white oak, and he sang his God Damns in despair." Now you see it, now you' don't--the white oak disappears, and the central character. Old Bud, who does has the potential to run wild and become larger than the poem, twists into another image. In cases like these, the prose poem proves even more confining for Wright than the traditional form; everything must be mentioned once but nearly skipped over for the next idea.

WRIGHT WORKS BEST in the free verse form, where he lets each idea run to the end of its rope. In these poems, he conveys a sense of the supernatural and twists conventional symbolism until it imparts an eerie, ephemeral flavor. Nature can be cruel here. In "The Vestal in the Forum," he writes:

This morning I do not despair

For the impersonal hatred that