It is hard not to read Thomas James’s first and only collection of poems, Letters to a Stranger, as a suicide note. It was published to near-silence two years before the young poet shot himself in 1974. Even if you could approach the poems without this terrible foreknowledge, the lines dwell in the land of the dead. Hunting Rabbits in Cold Weather concludes, “I breathe a scrawl of ice in my own darkness / As my gun barks, putting the whole landscape to death.” Okay, so all poets are obsessed with death, but James is intimate, and that intimacy leads to insight rather than self-pity.
His lines express an almost logical despair. Never is this unusual logic more on display than in Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty, a dramatic monologue in which a recently deceased girl relishes the mummification process: “Hands touched my sutures. I was so important!” It has taken thirty years of growing cult attention for James to become important, but he is at last. Graywolf’s Re/View series, edited by Mark Doty, reprinted Letters to a Stranger last year with an introduction by James’s long-time champion Lucie Brock-Broido.
Bio: Erica Wright is the poetry editor at Guernica. Her interview with John Ashbery, “Houses at Night”:https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/507/houses_at_night_1/, appeared in Guernica’s February 2008 issue. Read her last recommendation “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1178/staff_pick_erica_wright_2/.