for the little movements...

James Wright

Northern Pike

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine and a pain
I don’t know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,
For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making
          under water,
For the right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman.
We prayed for the game warden’s blindness.
We prayed for the road home.
We ate the fish.
There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy.


Wright, a master of small poetic turns, leads the reader through his poems into a beautiful and vast wilderness of discovery.

Notice how “Northern Pike,” a good example of Wright’s approach to poetry, moves slowly at first – beginning with language that is almost a stumble – through what the reader “can’t imagine” and “doesn’t know” – through a dark presence of death into an accelerating state of living, a life that understands, that pauses to note the tiny details of the world – to pray, in whatever form – and to eat – to recognize a beauty that is present – to be happy.

Reading this poem – no matter how often – makes me lift my eyes into empty space and sigh. And that sigh, that breath is poetry. For me, that is James Wright’s greatness as a poet.

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