Above the River

The other day, I was talking with a man from my church, and happened to discover that we grew up pretty near to each other, in western Appalachia. I was in WV, and he was in eastern Ohio, near Martins Ferry. I’m not sure why I thought of this, but when he told me where he was from, I said, “Oh, James Wright territory.” He didn’t know who that was, and seemed surprised when I explained that James Wright is a 20th Century poet from right around the area where he grew up.

“I never would have thought a poet would come from there,” he said.

This morning, I brought him my copy of Above the River, the complete works of James Wright. He was breathless, holding this book. His hand stroked the cover. “I know that bridge,” he said. “I never would have thought a poet would write about the Ohio steel mills.” He paged through it slowly, remarking on titles. We talked for another fifteen minutes, and he never took his eyes from the book.

I told him that some of the poems were written when Wright traveled to Italy and reflected on that experience, how much it was different and the same. He said, “I went to Italy once. I remember going into this little family-owned restaurant there, and I felt like I was back in Steubenville, Ohio, because of the many Italian families we had there.”

This man is well-traveled, well-read. He’s lived on four continents. He finished his PhD a few years ago and teaches at a university. He’s privileged in all possible dimensions: white, male, older (50s?), educated. But in this moment, he felt seenknown, represented in a way he hadn’t before. Someone knew the life he came from–came from the same life and place–and felt it was worthy of art. This book–just the fact of its existence, before he had even read a single poem–transformed how he saw himself.

Representation matters.

May we all find a moment of feeling so known by a stranger, so shown by an artist.

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
James Wright 1927-1980

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.


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