The Branch Will Not Break

I read this book when I thought the Midwest had no poets.

I grew up in a place where writing poetry–because it involved no stock cars, no beer cans (or so they thought!), and no women in bikinis–was considered a feminine pursuit. For a long time I thought poets only lived in coffins, and a few in big cities. When I read James Wright, I realized there were poets who understood where I came from, and that our home was something that could be poetic.

I was also drawn to the plainness of the poems, their stark admissions and bold statements. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” was a poem that shook me awake–this anesthetizing catalog of nature punctuated with the sudden confession, “I have wasted my life.”

James Wright taught me how to earn things in poems. How to earn the right for the speaker to say something as bare and burdened as “I have wasted my life,” for example.

The brief, contained poems here are overlaid with the dark veil of depression, and, for me, interestingly so. The volatile nature of the mood of the poems moves all over the place throughout the book, from the aforementioned piece to “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me” to “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960.” The former example proves that some experiences are timeless.

Also present in Wright’s work is a thread of social justice, which also spoke to me and continues to be a guiding principle for me. To call for justice and to move people to act are two different impulses. Wright knows this, and shows rather than tells.

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