Unsung, Part 2: Thomas James and Letters to a Stranger

by Colin Pope

Letters to a Stranger
Thomas James
Graywolf Press, 2008 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973)
Paperback, 108 pages ($16)

Most anyone who’s engaged me in a conversation about lyric poetry has endured my screeds on Thomas James. I’ve written about him on this very website before. I will continue to write about him after this blog posts, and I’ll continue to recommend him to anyone who’ll listen. He’s underappreciated and stop-you-in-your-tracks phenomenal. The people who find him tend toward rabid fandom.

Perhaps this fervency has something to do with the stories behind Letters to a Stranger, his first and only collection. In the reissued book—part of Graywolf’s flagging “Re/View” series, which publishes forgotten books of exceptional merit—Lucie Brock-Broido provides an introduction that does some justice to the mythos surrounding the manuscript. Her version echoes one I heard in grad school from one of my professors. Upon publication, the book was largely ignored; it received a single negative review and went out of print after the first run. Then, for the next 35 years, the book existed solely as a re-Xeroxed artifact passed around between creative writing teachers, grad students, and poets lucky enough to know someone. It was nearly impossible to find a physical copy; Brock-Broido writes of searching for four years before stealing a copy from a library in Pittsburgh. Later in life, she contacted a friend at Houghton Mifflin to find out more about the book’s provenance. Beyond a record of a literary agent in Illinois recommending the manuscript, there’s nothing. No editor is named, no pathway to publication, no notes on ordering or editorial suggestions. It is as though the book appeared out of thin air and evaporated just as quickly.

The story of James himself is similarly mysterious. Born Thomas Bojeski in 1946, he grew up in a tiny house in Joliet, Illinois, with his parents and five other relatives. James came from a working-class family and was raised poor, eventually working as a night watchman in the same factory where his father was a security guard. Both his parents died within ten days of each other in 1972. Not even two years later James placed a .45-caliber gun to his temple and pulled the trigger; like Sylvia Plath—his largest and most obvious influence—James died at age twenty-seven. But the evidence for his suicide is a bit muddy. As Brock-Broido writes, “No one in the family believes that Thomas killed himself.” Though he was right-handed, the gunshot wound was on the left side of his head. He was also found lying in bed, which, to surviving family members, seemed a strange place for him to shoot himself.

The oddity of the book’s background, however, means very little next to the power of the text itself. In some ways, its survival represents a grand reprieve for the legacy of Plath’s Ariel. One of the first, stupidest criticisms of Plath’s work went something like, “She wouldn’t have been remembered if she hadn’t killed herself.” And yet James took his own life (maybe) and his book survives on its own obvious merits. What I mean is that, since the age of the printing press, such soulful, haunting poetry always seems to find its way into the collective memory. Just as Neruda’s work spanned continents and languages, so was James’s work destined to span time.

And, not unlike Neruda, one of James’s talents is the ability to relabel or remake for his own poetic purposes. I’m thinking here of Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, a book that contains poems dedicated to and about the poet’s socks, the spoon, soap, the gillyflower, the tomato. James performs from a similarly taxonomic impulse, though his poems frequently consider people and processes rather than objects: “Waking Up,” “Old Woman Cleaning Silver,” “The Bellringer,” “Frog,” “Dragging the Lake,” “Dissecting a Pig,” “Wild Cherries,” “Cold August.” Plath shares this approach, to an extent. But whereas Plath skews toward the familial, domestic, and deathly, James tends toward the ghostly, the haunted, and the undead. In the lone review Letters received, the reviewer attempted a putdown by claiming James a “pale Plath.” This seems, in hindsight, an apt description if we think of James not as an imitator but a gothic, ink-and-quill-by-candlelight poet of his own methods and preoccupations, inspired by Plath the same way H. P. Lovecraft was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Like Plath, but paler, more grotesque, more averse to the light.

Most of my favorite poems in the collection revolve around death—James writes about death with startling clarity of mind and stark revelation. Take the poem “Snakebite,” which begins:

Now I am getting light as cotton candy—
Out of two red holes in my heel
Infinity pours, goodbye to all of me.
It was pleasant to watch my leg begin to swell;
An incredible headiness washed over me,
I didn’t feel a thing. The color of a bluebottle,

 The sky hit my skin like water from a pitcher.

What I’m struck by is the precision of the language as set against a seemingly imprecise, chaotic situation. The victim here appears either already placidly unconscious or accepting enough of their death to study it as a phenomenon occurring to the body, separate from the mind. When I say haunting in relation to his work, this is what I mean: there’s a clinical separation between mind and body that is at once frightening and beautiful. I feel connected to the mind that imagines this death in a way that makes me scared of myself, for myself. For example, while I’ve never witnessed a snakebitten person dying, I somehow know they’d turn “the color of a bluebottle.”

Similarly, James’s most famous poem, “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” enacts the persona of a dead young woman witnessing her own mummification. It is grotesque, but grotesque in the same way we find true crime grotesque, in the way we’re fascinated by murder stories and medieval torture devices. After an opening stanza wondering about the world she’s lost—“Is it still there, that place of mottled shadow, / The scarlet flowers breathing in the darkness?”—the woman gives the reader a glimpse into the process by which her own body is being preserved. “They washed my heart and liver in palm wine,” she says. “My brain was next.”

My eyes were empty, so they filled them up,
Inserting little nuggets of obsidian.
A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts
Replaced the tinny music of my heart.

The narrator, at first hesitant, nervous about what she’s lost, appears now to be enjoying the process. Whereas the eyes and heart are temporary—“empty” and “tinny”—the objects replacing them seem eternal, lasting, made of obsidian and basalt. The next line: “Hands touched my sutures. I was so important!” The poem’s ability to imagine this dying as a pleasant violence speaks to James’s own seeking for comprehension of death. Aren’t we made “important” by death? Don’t we lie still in death as people attend to us, as though we’re royalty? And, perhaps his biggest question: why be alive when death gives you importance and eternity?

By contrast, Plath seems to me most concerned with what death means for her, alone. She wants to throw it in the face of her parents and the society they represent. James, on the other hand, appears to want to examine the very nature of death and what it means to be human and have knowledge of your own mortality. This is not to say Plath’s work doesn’t contain this question as well; rather, James makes this one of his central focuses. In doing so, his poems attain a singular voice that, in a surreal, unbelievable way, enact the very seeking toward which they strive: what does it mean to be mortal in a universe that privileges the immortal? This second-to-last stanza of “Mummy of a Lady” seems to address the question; think of the story of James’s work making it back into print, into my (and hopefully your) hands, and how this seems to demonstrate the power to which great poetry aspires:

 Shut in my painted box, I am a precious object.
I wear a wooden mask. These are my eyelids,
Two flakes of bronze, and here is my new mouth,
Chiseled with care, guarding its ruby facets.
I will last forever. I am not impatient—
My skin will wait to greet its old complexions.
I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

Colin Pope‘s debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in May from Tolsun Books. His poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such journals as Slate, Rattle, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and others. He holds an M.F.A. from Texas State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.