James Wright, Spirit & the Moon

James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, unlike myriad other collections, does not engage with heavenly bodies as romantic or symbolic imagery. Rarely are the stars and the sun referenced (save the poem title “To the Evening Star: Central Minnesota”), let alone milked for poetic power. This is a book concerned with the earth. The only celestial entity that is entertained in these poems is the moon. The poem “Beginning” opens with “The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.” Here the spirit has a spotlight on it. The feathers that fall from the moon call to mind wings and the rising and falling of wings’ movement, just as the lungs breathe in and out and embody the origin of the word spirit, spirare, “to breathe” in Latin. The poem continues, “The dark wheat listens./Be still./Now.” Should not the wheat be illuminated in the light of the moon? But it is dark, turned off, seeking without distraction in the black night. And it is listening – to what? To Wright’s stillness. In that stillness, one can feel the lungs’ rising and falling (like the wings to which the moon’s feathers were once attached), one is alone with the spirit in its most personal state. Then, “Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow/Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone/Wholly, into the air.” The woman lifts the shadow of her face, not her actual face; it is the darkness cast off her body that she moves before she herself moves and is then swallowed by the air. This woman is Wright. She is the personification of what Wright and the wheat sense – “shadow from/a mirror,//shadow from breathing” – the spirit’s lifting the shadows, and then departing from matter. To quote Jung, “From the psychological point of view, the phenomenon of spirit, like every autonomous complex, appears as an intention of the unconscious superior to, or at least on a par with, intentions of the ego.” What unfolds with the woman is what Wright is listening into to the point of desiring: the act of creation as liberation. The poem continues, “I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe/Or move./I listen.” I do not dare breathe – for Wright’s spirit has already left in the form of disappearing vision of the woman. “The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,/And I lean toward mine.” Here the wheat and Wright return to their respective darknesses, resting in it, reflecting in it on what has transpired. This poem is Wright’s Genesis myth. Even its title “Beginning” denotes the creation of something (or someone) important in Wright’s cosmos – or, rather, to look at “creation” as not an act that is making something, but freeing something. In this scenario, Wright is creating/freeing his spirit by fabricating for it a body (that of the woman) ex nihilo which then is free to fulfill its will (to vanish into the ether). Once the creation is complete, Wright and the wheat, his spiritual collaborator, occupy their sabbath. Indeed, Wright and the wheat in this poem are the two creators, as Marie-Louise von Franz maintains in their differences. “One is more active. One is more passive…One is more human. One is less human…One is male. One is female.” Wright, of course, is of the first set of attributes (active, human, male) and the wheat is of the second set (passive, less human, female) but both are parts of what Von Franz calls “the preconscious totality.” Specific to the Gnostic interpretation of the Genesis myth, this poem acts out the belief that “there was Elohim, a high God who was good and completely spiritual and who was not involved in creation, which was brought about by the evil Yahweh, whom they interpreted as being a Luciferian, devilish figure.” The wheat is the purity represented by Elohim and Wright is the activity with manifestation-sullied hands represented by Yahweh who brought forth a character of spirit to emancipate it. And then, on their figurative seventh day, they both lean back on their darknesses, otherwise known in this parallelism as the preconscious totality. Darkness here serves as both source and rest.

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