Letters to a Stranger

( 1 )

Overview

The searing collection, a cult favorite for decades, by the late Thomas James

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.

—from “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh”

Thomas James’s Letters to a Stranger—originally published in 1973, shortly before ...

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Overview

The searing collection, a cult favorite for decades, by the late Thomas James

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.

—from “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh”

Thomas James’s Letters to a Stranger—originally published in 1973, shortly before James’s suicide—has become one of the underground classics of contemporary poetry. In this new edition, with an introduction by Lucie Brock-Broido and four of James’s poems never before published in book form, this fraught and moving masterpiece is at last available.

Letters to a Stranger is a new book in the Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series, edited by Mark Doty, dedicated to bringing essential books of contemporary American poetry back into print.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Letters to a Stranger is a book of dark intensities and deeply felt connections, both haunted and haunting, at once brooding, sensual and lucid . . . The voice in these poems—painfully lonely and filled with longing, estranged and religious—has stayed with me for more than twenty years. It deserves to be remembered.” —Edward Hirsch, The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

James took his own life in January 1974. He was 27, gay and the author of one poetry book published in 1973 by Houghton Mifflin; it received little attention. However, since then, in American poetry's back rooms, a kind of cult has grown around it-passed from poet to poet in photocopy, Letters to a Stranger has become an underground classic, largely due to an obsessive campaign by the poet Lucie Brock-Broido, who has written a shimmering epistolary introduction for this edition, which includes 13 uncollected poems, and is the second volume in Graywolf's Re/ View reissue series. James was enthralled by Plath's Ariel, suicide and the transformative capacities of his own verbal music. Mostly dramatic monologues, his poems speak directly to their "stranger," haunted ("I am heir to the old decisions") and hauntingly true: "It is easy to surrender to the point of a needle:/ It is like lying down to love.... " Self-dramatizing, brilliantly imaginative, wildly sad, they long, with romantic futility, to be heard, reveling and wallowing in the wide spaces of their privacy: "I will last forever. I am not impatient," says James, in the voice of a mummified Egyptian noble, as if aware his book would last: "I'll lie here till the world swims back again." (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In 1974, at age 27, the poet Thomas James shot himself in the head, leaving behind this scalding book of poems. Letters to a Stranger received a single review, dismissing James as "pale Plath." It quickly went out of print, lost but to a few ardent fans, none more passionate and persistent than poet Lucie Brock-Broido, whose shimmering introduction to Graywolf's reissue -- part of its Re/View Series -- merits the price of admission to the uneasy, brilliant, death-adoring, death-defying verses within. Robert Frost wrote: "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Thomas James, young as he was, knew how to land a poem. "Wine" begins, "I have bottles to kill" and ends with branches, "Perforated with their simple blossoms." "The Moonstone" concludes with "A day-moon tries its pulse and vanishes." James was violently gifted, fearless in boiling leaps of metaphor: "And looking into your eyes I see a pollen-dusted pond / Shaken with silver rings before the storm begins." That genius shines most poignantly in the cornerstone poem and gem of this first and only collection, "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty."

...They slit my toes; a razor gushed my fingertips.
Stitched shut at last, my limbs were chaste and valuable,
Stuffed with paste of cloves and wild honey.
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...

Death stalks this darkly beautiful book -- the poet's own suicide seems inevitable, and his handsome, mournful face rises like a cloud on the front cover, obscured, half-hidden as he must remain: so much "obsidian" promise undelivered. --Liz Rosenberg

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555975029
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 6/24/2008
  • Series: Re/View Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 88
  • Sales rank: 1,430,582
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 8.61 (h) x 0.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas James (1946–74) was from Joliet, Illinois. Letters to a Stranger, which won the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest in 1969, was his only book of poetry.

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Read an Excerpt


Letters to a Stranger


By Thomas James
Graywolf Press
Copyright © 2008

Thomas James
All right reserved.



ISBN: 978-1-55597-502-9



Chapter One Waking Up

I

On my right is a field of darkness. The ants are busy in the tall grass. I float on a lake of dark petals.

II

Waves of flesh wash over me. I am looking into watery sky At the bottom of an ancient well.

III

The field is flooded with darkness. I sleep in curls of dark grass Edged by a cloud of wild asters.

IV

A horse stands by a worm-eaten log. It paws the dark with its right foreleg, Cutting dark flowers in the air.

Room 101

Chiseled out of the dark, I lie Under the arclight. The moths steer Clear of my eyelids. Sun hits the door Open at morning. Every day My mended arms grow stiff and lean. I come to trade my flesh for stone.

Their eyes are kind as garnets. Nights, I crouch under this yellow eye. It is my private moon. I dry And harden under icy sheets. On Saturday I watched them take My heart. Old relic, now you tick

All night beneath my tablelamp. The hall is full of noise. Someone Drags his cast-iron leg. I lean Into my moon. A girl limps On her new toes, without a crutch. I listen to my father's watch

Clicking against my ribs. My nurse Is frayed behind her spectacles. She brings me needles, gauze, and pills That fall like little unripe pears. She brings a plaster paste to patch My mouth. My new stone biceps itch.

I touch one granite ear, grown hard And resonant as a conch. Light hurts My eyes. I trade them both for quartz On Wednesday morning. I am made To last forever, girded bone. A hornet tests my sculptured skin.

Carnations

The scent of carnations is too heady, Too full of edges for me to climb to sleep. The window's colors coil and unravel, snakes Moving through smoke, flamily shedding their skeins. Carnations are too pale for this faceted cut glass bowl.

Instead of all this permanence, I would have preferred a bouquet of yellow flowers- Buttercups perhaps, petals that might shrivel easily. If you had wanted to ignite this room, You should have settled for a honey jar,

Some crock shaped out of stone, with slender brushstrokes Of pale blue buds, no other embellishment. This bed with its sleek carved fauns disturbs me, And looking into your eyes I see a pollen-dusted pond Shaken with silver rings before the storm begins.

Hunting for Blueberries

Like two somnambulists we entered the dawn sun, Its plumskin flashing. I squinted at its brightness. The sky was colorless, merely a picked bone. A few frayed clouds dissipated downfield. You, my little cousin, eight years blind,

Guarded the lunch basket. Down at the horse pond, flogs Regarded us below a layer of scum. You cried and cried because I hugged you close And would not let you go. In your shadow-peopled head I must have been unwieldy as a python.

The mayflies had been three months dead, But I could see them flickering in your eyes, Those two gooseberries. I loved to lick them clean, My tongue grazing the broken winter field That was your only landscape, eight years old.

My hands were two large spiders that reached your bed Each night; all day they picked blueberries Out of the hidden thickets by the horse pond. In that hard morning light, moonglow to you, We might have been two trails of marsh vapor

Imperfectly matched, dissolving in the thickets. You found blueberries in the oddest byways- In a vein of the hill where harebells broke and faded, Behind a clump of oaks that held the clouds up- Plump globes the color of the evening sky,

Frosted with dust. What colors would leap Out of the hedges! Your mother's arms, Riddled with tiny punctures, needled blue, Held nothing solid as these. Their blueblack juices Stained your small mouth like watercolor.

We found a thicket dripping its liquors down. Drunk on the fruit, a hornet threaded among them. They plunked like raindrops in our coffee tin, Each rain tap punctuated with a vibrant silence. Sunflowers cluttered the grass with burnt-out tongues.

You knelt down in the leaves. And then I saw it- I held you close again. Confused, You pulled away from me and went on picking, Unaware of the blacksnake coiled in the berries, Its eyes clouded with sun, its face a death mask.

Head of Duck

My sister fears the brightness of the cleaver. November brought a crippled wild duck Up to our doorstep, out of rainy weather. My father put him on the block and struck.

She sees him beat his wings again in dreams That reach up out of the grimy winter dark Into her shuttered bedroom. In our rooms We curl into the frozen winter lake

And, waking, think of Mary Queen of Scots, Of Julien Sorel, Medusa's head, Louis XVI bleeding in the streets, And Herod's eyes as John the Baptist bled.

No Music

In here, a name is unimportant. You leave it behind you like a set of dentures. It grows so far away from you it is impossible To mouth its syllables with any kind of conviction. It grows mild and faded as a row of stitches.

The dead have such sweet breath. They are entirely indifferent to their surroundings, Too wrapped up in themselves to notice anything- A fly investigates the pearly knuckle. Daylight withers, effacing its muscularity.

Children die with their hands stretched out, Reaching for something they can recognize; They move into the dusk without even thinking. And the old fill their lungs with it like sleep Or the tender odors of a burning field.

Flowers brighten the edges. You grow into yourself Till it is difficult to imagine what you are thinking. Hands folded for the occasion, you are nearly flawless. They have shut your eyes so that their dark alarm Flickers behind the two white lids.

Once, I stood alone in a solid wave, Which took my entire body in its arms. It wrapped me like a wave of terrible sleep. Alone down there my skin grew thick as stone. I sank. I could not breathe the stony air.

Now you bob on a surface of white flowers- They stand still, but seem to drift in your direction. They are white as the palm of a hand. They tell me nothing. You lose color as they begin to mount the walls, Gathering their stamina like a pale fungus.

It is impossible to move in all that white. Your face is a blossom thickening to anonymity, Erasing its features in a surge of downiness. One dark hand buds and loses its distinction. The light bruises and steps out of the room.

Old Woman Cleaning Silver

I polish the tarnished silverware While pain manipulates my finger joints. It is the kind of pain that comes Out of the heavy silvers of the mirror Or the white fields at the end of December. It is a few perfect flakes of snow When the season is just breaking. They strike the water and are nothing at all.

Are my hands tarnishing? I have hung the room with watercolors- Sunflowers in a brown pitcher, The horse at night in a field of red clover. But the body's silvers begin to deepen All at once. I have watched the metal darken In the cold mirrors of my flesh. My bruised surfaces are needles now.

The Turn of the Screw

She died. This was the way she died: Headfirst, grazing the surface of the looking glass. What did she see in there? The face of Judas? Something escaped her, winnowing the darkness- Her eyes fell open and her tongue exploded, Troubling the silence with a rush of vowels.

Dear Father. It has rained for seven days. A woman is taking shape out of the rain. Sometimes I think she is my other self. Her dress spills moth-dust on the landing. What is the answer? Worms pulsing in a child's face? A small face trapped forever in the mirror, Somewhere behind the skull, in a narrow space?

He died. Even the cobblestones were ribbed with frost. Now his face is staining the polished wardrobe. His gaze is slippery as an eel- It moves between me and the children's faces, Swiveling in and out. His body splinters like the hoarfrost, Releasing small white sparks that enter me.

Father ... Surely I have not died. Lighting The candles every night, I think of you. There is a man. His eyes keep flickering Among the dust-motes in the morning sunlight. They watch me when I dress. Are they your eyes? Is it decay I want? I see you moving in his face. A world is crumbling in the children's eyes.

Flights and drops. The children are slowly dying. They ride a little seesaw, up and down. Perhaps they know that I am growing stronger. I am going up. The pond is still as glass, Bullfrogs are tuning their bassoons for autumn. I pare each moment to a blade of sunlight. Father?

Hunting Rabbits in Cold Weather

I

I dream that I am blind all winter. I wake, feeling my fingers begin to redden. The needles of the pine are sheathed in ice.

II

The darkness that brings me out into the open Moves with me over the cold hill Like deep waters deadlocked under ice.

III

Out on the pond's surface I grow absentminded. A thin powder of snow drifts over the ice Like clouds moving blindly on a hard sky.

IV

I feel the snow falling in the beech wood Where I have found the delicate prints of feet. Clumsily, I upset a boughful of snow.

V

The woods are full of a silence. I breathe a scrawl of ice in my own darkness As my gun barks, putting the whole landscape to death.

The Moonstone

Who has the answer? Is it in the geranium pots, Their little flares igniting the parlor walls? Perhaps the stableboy has found it In a crumbling haystack washed in drops of dew. A filmy light moves in the eyes of horses Whose backs are rippling in the morning vapors.

Caught in the pines, the moon is dull as pewter, Its facets smudged with soot. A luminescence Is loosening in a bed of gillyflowers; A blade of frost has hooked their petals back. The house is full of hands. Who is the thief? Grandmotherly fingers move across a keyboard, Peeling each spindly chord to skin and bone.

Who can resolve the puzzle? Limping Lucy? Her body has stepped off a stained glass window, No light behind it, flat and one dimensional. The lady of the house is at her sewing- Her eyes have raked the room, but they are searching For flecks of brightness on a needle point.

Who has touched the stone? The family doctor? Drugged all last night, his nether dreams Were troubled with the heady scent of poppies, Small ghosts that swiveled off. His mind has wed a blankness. The guest in the white nightshirt ... Is he the culprit? He sleepwalks on the stairs, among the china teacups, His body wavering in candlelight.

Morning has strung the grass with moony gems. The witnesses breathe lightly, they are safe. Where will they find the stone? At the Shivering Sand? They will touch it in the country of their sleep. Darkness is draining off. Here are the sun's patinas. A day-moon tries its pulse and vanishes.

Jason

Leaving. The leaves relax, crusted brown, Upset in the disoriented light. Temples of gold front the afternoon.

I come in dryshod, in my mushroom-colored coat, And lean a golden branch in the bronze vase. I watch the impermanent green disintegrate.

Lobster-colored clouds merge and pass On the arbor's dilapidated bones. I raise my brush. Softly I release

A runnel of gold. Morning-glory vines Strangle the canvas, quince goes up in smoke. Mornings are smeared with a little fog, dead browns.

I paint the morning, its embroidered silk, The sky's incertitudes, shut-off stars, A few innocuous pods beginning to break.

I paint this room, the vase, strawbottom chairs, The bedspread stitched with thin blue petals Where I wake at dawn in a meadow of cornflowers.

I learn the lion color of these hills. I am full of the old fear of coming home, Stopping in darkness, under the maples.

I have sketched the soft orchard, the whorl of time. A gold leaf skips over the hardwood floor, And nobody minds what these dark things have become,

Fistfuls of brightness on clear water, A handful of wafers when the season broke. I dream of the innumerable antlers of winter,

The crude, unpainted branch. My mother and father Walk, knee-deep in leaf of oak, In a garden where it is always October.

Wooden Horse

All by myself I tied the braided rope Around your gigantic neck, hoisting you Over the garden wall. You are cold and steep: A monolith of oak, an ice-built ship. You contain the last gift. Embossed on your thick brow,

One carven whorl balances a star. Wine-colored, adamant, you watch me run Beneath your forelegs, brief as Gulliver. Your sculptured mane, thick as a hill of fir, Is wound with wooden fruit wiser than stone.

Your head is reared. I tap your heavy flanks With a dry stick: you rumble like a shell Casting its echo back. My spearhead sinks Into your raftered belly's softer planks. I scale one foreleg's knotty pinnacle.

Scrambling across thick withers overgrown With oak sprouts, I approach the massive halter. Bronze scales snap and click in a light rain; Their cold patinas catch the cuticle moon Which rocks in the stiff crook of your left ear.

I enter the frozen oracle of your mouth Where swallows built a nest of wet broomstraws. Your nostrils are a citadel for bees. The air, stiffened to silver, vibrates with An insect hum. I poke the angry hives.

Your time come round, the raw eyes deepening, I share your difficult fountainhead of pain. The indolent serpent coils in the sun. Till now, the air was redolent with warning- Emblems spilled from the mouth of Laocoön.

I no longer fear your secret, it is a gift. With the alien blood flooding the tight vein, Your eyes, once worked by sticks, contain the sun. I find you laboring, the hoofprint soft, No less familiar, in a wooden dawn.

The Bellringer

On summer nights the belfry shakes its tongues Down Four Hills to the village square. Such winter sounds Hollow the dream country of the villagers. A pale insomniac with rutted eyes, I track sleep out of time's intemperate blandishments.

Hours drizzling down to meet me, I lie on stone, Eyes focused on the plum-colored moon, Brittle as a wineglass on the sky's charred linen. Visions rise up-my sister's bonewhite wrists, My mother dungeoned in her crooked body.

Outside the church, dogs are rattling the ashcans And crying like broken sirens at the moon's beaker. I think of my body making its quick ascent, Riding the bellrope an hour before Matins When hoarfrost gloves my fingers to the knuckle.

Sleep paralyzes force. I pace the darkened arches. The saints have been turning to stone for a long, long time- They stand about disguised in masks of granite, Their faces bland as swine or the sacred host. Moonlight squanders its wine across their smiles.

Candles pinpoint the dark. I walk among them. Erect and astonished, they are white as fingers. No wind can snuff them out. They are Christ's ribs, Spindly and interred here, waiting for the angel. When I step forward, they lattice me with shadows.

Cobbles ring under my feet on the churchyard walk. These white tablets aren't answering any questions. Under the stones the sleepers lie in rows, Arms folded in exhaustion, too deeply somnolent For the moon to splinter them to shiny bits.

I hunch down, sleepless, crouching on the battlements. Am I a victim of my own mortality? Stars pulse and dissolve in their distant alleys Above the face of a gargoyle, pinched and lifeless, As if some bird had rifled its stone eyes.

Frog

Dear love, not for a moment, not at all, Will I accept your kiss. The water darkens. I am safe as a tadpole.

Wind shakes the water. I dine on August's last flies. Leaves fall like paper soldiers From their retreat in the thickets of the oak trees.

They clutter the pond's surface, flat little cadavers. I view them from below, Cold-blooded, serious. My arrowroot shivers.

Late June, my skin begins to toughen. How My fingers ached! Each knuckle formed a web. Suddenly my tongue grew

Sticky and hard. Regarding me from a silver-backed Mirror, my eyes began To deepen; both my thighs ballooned; I sucked

At the thick air. Now wind picks at my bones. My voice is a creaking door. I nibble this withered marigold, the sun.

I was not cut out to be a prince; I hear Your voice, a china bell. I would winter in mud, under these frozen stars,

Among the turtle shells. Dead lilies fill My days, their mouths are red. I breathe through duckweed as the owl calls

From his gable in the oak's dark leaves, dark blood. Thin as any witch, The moon comes up the hill in a stiff hood

Of gold. Rocking me in your palm, you scratch My nose. A soft white bud, My belly blossoms underneath your touch.

(Continues...)




Excerpted from Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James Copyright © 2008 by Thomas James. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents Introduction by Lucie Brock-Broido....................ix
LETTERS TO A STRANGER I Waking Up....................5
Room 101....................6
Carnations....................8
Hunting for Blueberries....................9
Head of Duck....................11
No Music....................12
Old Woman Cleaning Silver....................14
The Turn of the Screw....................15
Hunting Rabbits in Cold Weather....................17
The Moonstone....................18
Jason....................20
II Wooden Horse....................25
The Bellringer....................27
Frog....................29
Sister Miriam Thérèse Takes the Veil....................31
Luncheon with the Hangman....................33
Dragging the Lake....................34
Snakebite....................36
The Stableboy....................38
Iron Maiden....................40
Dissecting a Pig....................42
III Wild Cherries....................47
The Hostage....................49
The Poinsettias....................51
Wine....................53
Longing for Death....................55
Laceration....................57
The Chestnut Branch....................59
Lambs....................61
Peonies....................62
Going Back....................65
Two Aunts....................67
IV Magdalene in the Garden....................71
In the Emergency Ward....................73
Saint Francis among the Hawks....................75
Cold August....................76
Love Song....................77
Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh....................79
Letter to aMute....................81
Letters to a Stranger....................83
Reasons....................87
UNCOLLECTED POEMS Rural Winter....................91
Dragon's Teeth....................92
Waterlilies....................93
Golden Fleece....................94
Timothy....................95
Spider in the Grapes....................97
Tom O' Bedlam among the Sunflowers....................99
Suicide....................100
In Fever....................101
Gangrene....................102
Tom O' Bedlam Makes Love....................104
Pears on the Windowsill....................106
The Wharf....................107
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  • Posted January 26, 2012

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    The imagery in Thomas James' only book is absolutely haunting--filled with religious themes and consistent bouts of depression. A must read for anyone who enjoys dark poetry.

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