The Letter Project

October 17, 2010

Special Delivery (70)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:02 am
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Caitlin Griscom discusses James Wright’s poetry with her mother, Joan Fraser.  (TW)

March 29, 2010

Dear Mom,

As I mentioned in the last letter, this one will be focusing on specific Wright poems. This is also the last letter I will be sending before the final letter, which will be significantly lengthier.

We have the freedom to choose which poems to talk about, with the assumption that we will choose one or two to which we can personally relate. It was harder than I anticipated for me to find a poem with which I connected. I kept rereading poems waiting for one to speak to me, not realizing that one had already done so. The poem is one we initially discussed in class so I had wanted to cover one we had not talked about, but I cannot ignore my connection to “Hook.”

The speaker of “Hook” is an older man reflecting back on his younger days, and one night in particular when “The cold was so damned / Bitter there was nothing. / Nothing.” The speaker reveals that he was in love with a woman, adding an emotional chill to the coldness of the poem. Waiting for the bus in Minneapolis amidst the dead snow, “lashed / This way and that,” the speaker is approached by a Sioux with scars as old as the speaker. The man tells the speaker that a bus won’t be coming for a long time and asks if he has enough money to get home. Rather than responding, the speaker asks what happened to the man’s hand. The man raises his hook into the “terrible starlight” saying he had a bad time with a woman. He then tells the speaker to take what he is holding. The last two, poignant stanzas of the poem read:

Did you ever feel a man hold

Sixty-five cents

In a hook,

And place it

Gently

In your freezing hand?

I took it.

It wasn’t the money I needed.

But I took it.

When I first read this in class, I felt like out of all of the poems of Wright’s we had discussed, I related to this one the least. After we talked about it, however, I felt like I might relate to it the most. When I read it to myself I was impatient to understand it and only saw loss and pain in the poem. Right away the speaker describes the night as being so cold that there was nothing. Rather than seeming like an opportune emptiness, it seems like a vast void. This void can be felt in the dead snow and terrible starlight that pervade the night. Based on these descriptions, I felt that the poem exudes desolation, coldness, and emptiness.

When we talked about this poem in class, we talked about its darkness, but darkness in its relation to compassion—ultimately, the more pervasive theme of the poem. Rather than focusing on the coldness in the poem as I had done in my reading, we looked at it as hopeful, as an opportunity for a change for the better. The fact that the man in the poem is damaged yet is still able to offer compassion to another is what makes the poem both remarkable and relatable.

I have found that at times I am more comfortable offering than accepting compassion. But talking about the poem and reading it again made me wonder if I have ever been in the speaker’s position, when someone had offered me warm compassion in an otherwise chilling situation. I felt like if I had been, it would not be something I would have to ask myself. As it happened, I had a low day during our next class. I felt out-of-sorts all day and when I was asked in class to give my opinion on a poem I could not find the words. Walking back to my residence hall, I saw out of the corner of my eye that someone from class was riding his bike next to me. He doubled back after he had passed me, stopped his bike beside me, and asked if I was okay. He said he had wanted to ask but felt weird asking someone he did not know that well, but that he would rather feel silly asking than not ask at all. I was deeply touched that not only had someone wondered to himself if one of his classmates was okay, but that he had sacrificed feeling comfortable for the sake of asking me. I told him I wasn’t okay, but that I was working on it. Afterwards I sent him a message thanking him for being a Hook. I asked the next week if he had received it and he said yes but seemed to brush off what I had said. I think he thought I was trying to be clever in applying something from class to myself, when it seemed like the only accurate description of his action. Perhaps I was just looking for my own connection to the poem, but nevertheless what my classmate did was a compassionate act and did not go unappreciated.

A similar “Hook” experience happened again recently when I was not looking for it. Recently I have been spending time with a new mutual friend. As he already has a girlfriend and is just looking for a friend, the friendship has been very refreshing. He is currently having his own troubles with his girlfriend, and has struggled with whether the relationship can last. We have talked at length about his situation. It has made me feel good that I can offer some kind of support through this, no matter how small. When he told me the other day that talking has made it easier, I felt like I was helping someone.

As you know, the breakup with my ex-boyfriend has been a recurrent source of trouble for me. I told him I needed to stop talking to him so that I could get out of this state between letting go and holding on. It has been difficult to maintain this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when he keeps contacting me. The other night I was studying with some friends, my new one included, when I again received a message on my phone from my ex-boyfriend, a week after he agreed not to talk. I read the message, groaned, and showed my friend. He took the phone and said “do you know what we need to do? We need to delete this.” And he did. Then he sat beside me and rubbed my back.

Based on his character, I’m sure this was an automatic reaction for him. I, on the other hand, was blown away. There was nothing he could have said that I have not already heard or thought myself. Instead, he did something that I could not have done myself, and he did it just because it was best for me. I thought about this for the rest of the night and I thought of it again when I woke up the next morning. I am not sure why, but I really felt like his simple, responsive action was one of the nicest things someone had done for me. This breakup, although it may sound trivial to others, has been nothing short of an obsession for me. I have gone back and forth between whether things ended as they should or could have, how I have changed, what it meant for me to do something that caused me discomfort and distress, what my relationship with him should be now, and the fact that part of my life is now a question mark. As you know, I have talked to you at length about these things, as well as several of my close friends. Even though the breakup took place a while ago, it happened amidst many other transitions and still affects me today. Talking to others has helped, but I think it can sometimes do more harm than good because it perpetuates the idea that it is something worth talking about.

It was not until class the next evening (when I still had not settled on a poem for my letter) that I had a moment of realization. We were discussing another poem, Philip Levine’s “Belle Isle, 1949,” and its redemptive connection to “Hook.” This brought me back to Wright’s poem. My thoughts soon drifted to thoughts about my friend. By doing something so small as deleting that message, he made me avoid any further over-analyzing of words than was necessary, and he did what I needed to do rather than what I perhaps wanted to do. Despite the fact that he is going through his own difficulties and had been that very night, he was still able to offer compassion to me by doing something I would not have been able to do myself.

It may seem like I am reaching in my attempt to connect Wright’s poem to my own situation. But just as the poem is elementally about compassion, so was my friend’s action. In our initial discussion of the poem, we talked about having a “Hook” moment. I realized—not decided, but realized—that deleting one little message to help me move on was the same as giving me some coins to get home. Had this friendship not happened at exactly the moment it did, I would have missed out on this moment. I hope that makes sense.

Love you and see you soon,

c

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