Letters to a Stranger, by Thomas James, is one of my favorite books of poetry. It was James’ first and only collection, published in 1973. The poems in this book stun me, over and over again. James’s poems are filled with his singular turns of phrase (“whitely established”…”nest of rubble”) and odd but clear images (“your hands are gloved in shadow”…”sheeping coming unstuffed like ancient cushions”). I’m incredibly glad that Gray Wolf brought Letters to a Stranger back into print in 2008, but so many of my favorite poems are still impossible to find online. Here are my two absolute favorites.
by Thomas James
Beyond the cemetery fence bodies are shattered
On the public highway when the snow dissolves—
All at once their bones are packed with light,
And birds come down to shake the fledgling leaves.
I know nothing of these deaths, except the stillness
That flowers over everything the moment after.
My friend and I have shared these silences
Though we are not part of them,
Not yet. We feed on our own loneliness,
Taking what the moment hands us, nothing more.
June fastens everything in a silk repose.
Lilacs have dropped their stars with little effort.
Nuns lie under these plain stone markers.
Asleep in their long rows, whitely established
In the center of a hunger that was never theirs,
They do no blossoming; it is impossible
To think of their bodies flaking into scars.
Pale as tapers, they don’t rise after dark.
Edging the cemetery fence where dusk is gathering
Its broken strands, branches of wild cherries
Bend to our fingertips. You reach for them.
Your hands are gloved in shadow—
The red juice stains your palms
As if a nail were driven into their hollows.
I watch you eat, tasting yourself perhaps,
Some bitterness that is a part of you,
And I accept it gratefully. When you smile,
I see you dying in that single instant.
Walking back home, into ourselves, we enter
A far-off country neither of us wanted.
By Thomas James
When I step out, sun cuts me like a razor,
Edging into this steep place of branches.
I trudge to a hillside where there are only dandelions
And sheep coming unstuffed like ancient cushions.
I blink and look about: no room for miracles here.
The sky is a pale gray slate with chalky smudges.
But in a vein of the hill where last year’s weeds
Have starved themselves to death and only chickweed
Flowers in the broken stones, I find a car
Wedged in the bracken. A few slender feathers
Ride up and vanish. In a briarpatch of skeletons
The engine purrs in the center of the wreckage.
I step into a field of weeds so deep
It is like wading into brackish water
Yellowed with pondscum and gold filaments
That have dislodged themselves out of a brittle sky,
Out of its steely vapors. The chrome bumper gleams
And fades, fastened in its nest of rubble.
Leafshadows flicker on the damaged hood,
Reflecting bits of light. A bird might take it for another world
And perish in these reflections. I strain forward—
A boy lies broken in the driver’s seat,
Broken but not extinguished, for his body holds a silence
Like the fierce moment after a match is kindled.
Why isn’t he aflame? Surely his arms have turned
To wings by now, wings flaking into cinders,
His body growing slender as a fawn’s.
A purple flower is clinging to the windshield,
But it is broken also. A petal slides down the glass
And flutters like a tiny, vibrant tongue.
Behind the glass his face is mottled in shadow.
The prints of leaves have stained his arms.
He lies shoulder-deep in a pool of amber shadows
Whose ripples spread and pull their thin skeins back.
I would like to wash my hands in all that darkness.
I open the door. A needle of sun intrudes.
Is this what it is to be broken? To be moored in shadow?
A gravelly echo of sheep rivets me here.
I bend to him and take him by the shoulders
But not a thing inside him will ignite,
So I take his slender wings into my arms
And say: Where has your first dream vanished now? Your dream.