"On the Skeleton of a Hound"
by James Wright
Nightfall, that saw the morning-glories float
Tendril and string against the crumbling wall,
Nurses him now, his skeleton for grief,
His locks for comfort curled among the leaf.
Shuttles of moonlight wave his shadow tall,
Milkweed and dew flow upward to his throat.
Now catbird feathers plume the apple mound,
And starlings drowse to winter up the ground.
Read more of the poem >
This talk was given by Mark Doty at the Academy of American Poets' Online Poetry Classroom Summer Institute.
MARK DOTY: Wright is best known to us as a free-verse poet and a deep image poet. Working primarily in the 60s and 70s, he moved away from the kind of formal regularity that you see in this poem and towards a language that was intended to be more transparent, more colloquial, very much influenced by translation. He, along with Robert Bly, had been involved in bringing Neruda, Lorca, and other Spanish surrealists into English. He had also been influenced by translations of Chinese poetry. In his later work, he was after a kind of directness.
A deep image poem has an image that is charged and not necessarily explicable to the poet, but saturated in a kind of unconscious feeling. The image could then touch the unconscious of the reader in a direct way, bypassing the intellect; that was the idea. It was well practiced by Boyne, Wright, and a few others and produced legions of horrendous imitations, including some by both Eddie and myself in our early years. It was what our generation did. We cut our teeth on Robert Boyne, and then we grew out of it, most of us. This is early Wright, from his first book, The Green Wall. This is a poem where you feel a transition taking place between the old, formal, 1950s sort of poems he wrote and something that behaved a little differently.
This poem embodies the process of argument with the self about what death is, how we think about what death is. It's an argument that gets enacted through figurative speech, the details of word choice and comparison, and sound and rhythm in interesting ways. Just look at the beginning description of the dog's body. It's very formal; it feels like it could be a 19th century poem. "Milkweed and dew flow upward to his throat, / now catbird feathers plume the apple mound, / and starlings drowse to winter up the ground." It's lovely and has a kind of serenity that's suggested by that sort of formality. A sense of distance.
Then something happens, "Thickened away from speech by fear." I don't think we know before that point of the poem that that speaker's afraid. That's the first indication that something's wrong. He's "[t]hickened away from speech," his tongue won't work the way it worked in the preceding lines. "I move / around the body"—caesura. Notice how after those consistent, coherent lines, these two lines have broken the formal pattern of the poem, "[t]hickened away from speech by fear, I move / around the body over his forepaws, steep." A struggle has been introduced now, a discomfort. We get these odd descriptions of the ways the body might be used by other creatures: what the flies, pigeons, and another dog could do, where a hare could hide. What's the connotation of those images, what do they suggest to you? They're feeding upon it. It's defiling, destroying. Particularly in "quivering pigeons foul his broken face." The other dog is angry. The shining crumbles. There's a real sense of the negative, of this body not being respected, not being honored in any way.
Part of that catalogue of disrespect is what men would do: bury him, pray, hope for a resurrection. It seems there's a kind of equivalence made between those pigeons that are going to foul his face and how the Christian response to the death is also going to diminish or dishonor the death of the animal. "Search the earth / For handy resurrections," "men digging for gods might delve / A pocket for these bones, then…pray for another birth." But the speaker's got another response in mind. "I will turn my face away from this / Ruin of summer," a gorgeous phrase. Turning the face away seems like a negative gesture at first, but here it's being done for another reason:
For, once, a white hare huddled up the grass,
The sparrows flocked away to see their race.
I stood on darkness, clinging to a stone,
I saw the two leaping alive on ice,
On earth, on leave, humus and withered vine,
The rabbit splendid in a shroud of shade,
The dog carved on the sunlight, on the air,
Fierce and magnificent his rippled hair,
The cockleburs shaking around his head.
Then suddenly, the hare leaped beyond pain
Out of the open meadow, and the hound
And now the poem goes somewhere we never could have predicted, I think, from what we've seen so far:
Followed the voiceless dancer to the moon,
to dark, to death, to other meadows, where
singing young women dance around a fire,
where love reveres the living.
It is a moment of transcendence: they leave the earth; they go to the moon. That moment happened while the moment was alive. It happened in the moment of leaping after that rabbit, defying gravity. "It was carved on the sunlight, on the air," there it was. It broke the laws of earth. It leapt up and stayed up. That kind of transcendence, the poem seems to argue, happened already and why should we look for it after death when it took place on earth, in the body, or during the actual leaving of the body? I love that line, "where love reveres the living," because what it suggests what happens on the moon, not what happens here. Those concrete images, the open meadow, the voiceless dancer, the young women and men, and that very bold abstraction, "love reveres the living" come together beautifully. Silence, drop, "I alone." Here I am. I think that "I alone," is the place where I really understand that this poem is a personal struggle with death using that hound as a vehicle, as a metaphoric vehicle for any sort of death.
Let's look at what happens after that drop, that stanza break.
Scatter this hulk about the dampened ground;
And while the moon rises beyond me, throw
The ribs and spine out of their perfect shape.
For a last charm to the dead, I lift the skull
And toss it over the maples like a ball.
Now, that's an amazing moment, because first of all, it's a cliché, "toss it like a ball," but in this case, it's a cliché deeply revived and given life, because it's only a ball now. It's only a toy, it's only a game given what the poet has seen. He's been instructed that the fate of the body doesn't matter. Wright says we should not dig in the earth for a resurrection. We should be able to relinquish our own bodies, similarly. Again, this is an instance of the figurative providing distance, which allows a freedom to speak. Here, Wright has these bones to serve as stand in for his own mortality, for the mortality of others, and perhaps for an old literature—that's an interesting reading—that he wishes to transcend as well.
MAN: I wanted to go back to that line about the ball, because that struck me as almost a throwaway line, but there's so much resonance in that figure of the ball. A ball is a valuable thing to a child; it's something a dog might chase in life. I had to stop at that line, which on first reading almost seems like it's being tossed. But there's so much value that accrues to that image. . .
MARK DOTY: Look at the figures that come after that and then go back to what we heard before. That "flies want to leap / Between his eyes and hum away the space." The hare hides in the hollow of his head, and the pigeons foul his face. And now look: "[t]he mole will heave a shinbone over," the earthworms snuggle, "[t]he honest bees build honey in the head." It's lovely, isn't it? A real transformation has taken place, which is not the transformation of the earth. The animals are still doing what they always did. It's a transformation of point of view, and it's been affected through figure.
"The earth knows how to handle the great dead / Who live the body out and broke its laws." God, thank goodness the poem doesn't stop there. We need the downshift, "knocked down a fence, tore up a field of clover." We're back to dog-ness. The poem's gone pretty far from the dog, and it needs the return so the dog doesn't just become a symbolic or a metaphoric vehicle, rather than a real dog. There's something so potent about the living "the body out and breaking its laws," and it seems like a moment pointing to the later Wright poems: the notion that we live as fully as we can against our own mortality, against our own limits. Wright suggests that in some ways, we're here to break the laws of the earth and break the laws of the body. How do we break those laws? By finding transcendence now.
WOMAN: The last line's so tender and I appreciate that it doesn't release the dog to a vehicle. It actually restores the dignity of the dog and reality.
MARK DOTY: In ending with the dog rather than death, he signals to us that he hasn't quite convinced himself that it all doesn't matter. Therefore, he remains human. If he could really arrive at this level of detachment, he would be the Buddha, and we know he has too big of a heart for that, it's not going to work. To my mind, all negotiations with mortality are more moving because they fail, right? If they succeeded, you would be a god.