The Dead Will Bury Their Own, Don’t Worry

Happy October! It’s my favorite season, and I wanted to write about something timely. Here in the Pacific Northwest, this is when we see spiders everywhere. In my house, there’s always a week or two when the giant house spiders emerge from wherever the hell, wandering around presumably in search of a mate. They come out of the woodwork. I’m always really edgy during that time.

I’m both fascinated and frightened by spiders.

I recognize my fear as somewhat overblown and irrational. Still it persists. And so it was a strange turn of events when, a few weeks ago, it dawned on me: I had become accustomed to, even fond of, one particular spider that had taken up residence outside my bedroom window.

I had just started rewriting my novel-in-progress, just recommitted to my daily writing schedule. So every morning, I’d wake up and see her and I’d watch her as I struggled to think of a natural line of dialogue, the perfect word, etc. I’d think about what her life must be like: doing the same thing each day, sitting on the same web in the same place, just waiting for food, just living. I’d think about how her life wasn’t too different from mine. Then, one day I woke up and she was gone. It had been very windy and stormy that night and I was sure she had just blown away. And I was inexplicably disappointed. That night she came back (I’ve since learned that orb weavers eat their web and rebuild it daily). It felt like a blessing.

Every day, I watch her weave her web and she reminds me that we are all the center of our own worlds. I watch her move in the dark and it reminds me of deep creativity and of moving into the dark and inaccessible corners of my own life. Yesterday, I watched her immobilize a yellow jacket. Her large body moved with a vicious, devastating speed. Within seconds she had wrapped the wasp in silk and was dragging its heavy body back to the center of the web. As she was eating it, I couldn’t look away. It was menacing, disquieting, vaguely disgusting. It reminds me of death.

It reminds me of one of my favorite James Wright poems, “The Journey.” It’s about a spider, and death, and, by association, life. It ends:

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found   
What I found there, the heart of the light   
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing   
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind   
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

Intently, I watch this spider step lightly, lightly through her web. Her long limbs thrum the threads and they vibrate wildly. A beautiful, brutal display. Even behind a pane of glass, I won’t get too close. I don’t quite have the stomach for it, not yet. Still, it’s a kind of love, isn’t it?

Though love can be scarcely imaginable Hell,
By God, it is not a lie.

James Wright, “The Art of Fugue: A Prayer”

First Poem for James Wright

I went to your river

and marveled

at its lonesomeness,

that wildness reflected in

the bingo halls, the Wheeling factories

all empty now.

I looked for your grave

and wished for words.

I thought I heard

something. But it was just

that dirty river, moving past,

keeping its own secrets,

like the dead. I wonder about

my own wasted life.

What can I say to you?

I’ve loved you like no one

else since I first heard

your voice, one dark wing.

Ever since, I’ve searched for you

in truck stops and back alleys,

the polluted waterways of America.

Did you ever really leave Ohio?

When you return, will you find

the same thing as I?

Looking for Lost Graves

In 2012, I went to Martins Ferry, Ohio, looking for James Wright’s grave. I never found it.

For those who don’t know, James Wright is a poet who died in 1980. He grew up in Martins Ferry, right across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. Though he left his hometown at age 18, rarely to return, the place looms large throughout his books.

I’ve been thinking a lot of poets recently: I must have been about 20 when I declared, rather prematurely I suppose, that I was going to become a poet, as in a profession. No doubt James Wright’s work, and the feelings it inspired, loomed large in that declaration. (Of course, less then five years later, I was filling out applications for law schools on the East Coast. I’m certain I would have been better off a penniless poet than a debt-saddled lawyer, but that’s a subject for another time.)

But James Wright was one of the first poets for me. I heard him first in Mr. Lampert’s AP English class, where we read Wright’s “The Accusation.” Strangely enough, not one of my favorites by a long shot, but it still contained this eerie balance between fear and fondness, at once both longing and revulsion.

How can I ever love another?

You had no right to banish me

From that scarred truth of wretchedness,

Your face, that I shall never see

Again, though I search every place.

IMG_2549.jpg
At the Martins Ferry library, where a picture of Wright hangs, partially obscured by a computer monitor. 

I was also struck by the fact that Mr. Lampert called him one of America’s great contemporary poets and I had never heard of him. I found Above the River, his complete poems, and read it straight through.  And then I wrote my final paper on the significance of the word “wing” throughout his body of work. (Wings = a vehicle of both observation and escape.)

I fell in love, in some kind of way, with this man who wrote about rural Ohio like it was the most beautiful place you could go. The saddest, most gut-wrenchingly beautiful place.  There’s something really authentic underneath it all–through all his poems, you can see a man who is searching. He is desperate, he is compelled, he would tear himself open to get to the heart of it. He’s wild like Whitman, recalls beauty like a Romantic, but there’s a deep foreboding that you won’t find in Whitman or Shelley. I love him because he unabashedly searches and tells the truth about what he finds. Through his sensitivity and sincerity, he has gifted me indescribable hope.

He is a man who searches for god and goodness, in spite of everything. Something drives him to obsessively wade further into the darkness, the gloom of the mines and the factories and the polluted Ohio river.  Ultimately, despite all the confusion and lostness, the pain he presents on the page like an offering, I think in some ways he arrives at a place of understanding, maybe even love. It’s a special kind of love reserved for home, for the soul of yourself, for that place in your childhood both bewildering and precious, this elusive thing we might search for our entire lives and never find.  His final book, published after his death, sums this up perfectly in its title, “This Journey.” I hope he came to believe that life is more about the search than what you find.

Many men

Have searched all over Tuscany and never found

What I found there, the heart of the light

Itself shelled and leaved, balancing

On filaments themselves falling. The secret

Of this journey is to let the wind

Blow its dust all over your body,

To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly

All the way through your ruins, and not to lose

Any sleep over the dead, who surely

Will bury their own, don’t worry.

It turns out, Wright’s grave isn’t in Ohio. I don’t know if he wanted to be buried there or not.  At the very least, his relationship with his hometown is fraught. I think he missed it and longed for what it represented, but also it haunted him. Part of him was already buried there long ago.

Oh all around us,

The hobo jungles of America grow wild again.

The pick handles bloom like your skinned spine.

I don’t even know where

My own grave is.