The poem I’m going to be discussing this month is James Wright’s “To a Fugitive” from The Green Wall (1957)—his first book of poems. On a personal level, James Wright is a tremendously important poet to me because he gave me a new understanding of what poetry could be. I read The Branch Will Not Break during my first semester of grad school and I was absolutely stunned by it. I liked the organic nature of the poems—the way they flowed so naturally and effortlessly—paired with the heavier, darker subjects of spirituality, death, poverty, politics, alcoholism, and solitude. I wanted to write a book of poems that was that gritty and intense and beautiful. I still do. This month, I’m choosing “To a Fugitive” because it’s written in a style that predates the one he cultivated in The Branch Will Not Break that still contains a lot of the same sensibilities he continued to inhabit later on, but in a more structured way. It’s a poem that still speaks to me on a deeper level.
“To a Fugitive” is a sonnet—which makes it all the more interesting because it’s written to a criminal rather than a love interest. There is also a space after the volta (the eighth line) which is very poignant because it draws attention to a major shift in the poem as it moves from a meditative quality to a poem charged with action. Here is the first part of the poem:
The night you got away, I dreamed you rose
Out of the earth to lean on a young tree.
Then they were there, hulking the moon away,
The great dogs rooting, snuffing up the grass.
You raise a hand, hungry to hold your lips
Out of the wailing air; but lights begin
Spidering the ground; oh they have come closing in,
The beam searches your face like fingertips.
Although the speaker addresses the fugitive, this part of the poem is primarily a meditation on how he views the fugitive from a poetic perspective: “I dreamed you rose / Out of the earth to lean on a young tree,” “You raise a hand, hungry to hold your lips / Out of the wailing air,” “The beam searches your face like fingertips.” In these lines, the fugitive becomes a more complex and poetic figure being sought out by the law, and they too are poetized: “Then they were there, hulking the moon away,” “The great dogs rooting, snuffing up the grass,” “lights begin / Spidering around; oh they have come closing in.” There isn’t much action here; it’s mostly description that is image-heavy and charged with emotion. However, the second part of the sonnet shifts dramatically:
Hurry, Maguire, hammer the body down,
Crouch to the wall again, shackle the cold
Machine guns and the sheriff and the cars:
Divide the bright bars of the cornered bone,
Strip, run for it, break the last law, unfold,
Dart down the alley, race between the stars.
The poem shifts mainly because it includes a lot of action: “hammer the body down,” “Crouch the wall again,” “shackle the cold machines guns,” “Divide the bright bars,” “Strip, run for it, break the last law, unfold,” “Dart down the alley,” and “race between the stars.” There are still a lot of images here: “body,” “wall,” “machine guns,” “sheriff,” “cars,” “bone,” “alley,” and “stars” but what makes the poem shift on a higher level is the fact that the speaker wants the criminal to get away. “Hammer the body down” suggests that the fugitive is a murderer, but the speaker seems to not care; he is more interested in seeing the fugitive successfully escape the law. Knowing what I know about Wright’s work: he was a poet who was primarily concerned with justice and how it is exercised in a system that is not only brutal and authoritarian, but rigged so that the most desperate and the most downtrodden typically suffer in ways that are incredibly violent. In this poem, the speaker represents a certain type of sentiment that existed more prominently in the early to mid-twentieth century in America: sympathy for the escaping criminal. Criminalization has become so normalized in contemporary American society that a poem like this might feel strange because it suggests that the fugitive somehow has a right to escape—because they are running from a system that isn’t really about justice at all, but rather, about punishing those who are guilty of their crimes but unable to defend themselves because they are at the bottom of society. I don’t see the speaker in this poem as being for murder; he is for compassion. Wright was particularly good at exposing political corruption where it shined the brightest: in the lowest classes of American society. “To a Fugitive” speaks to the understanding that a murderer, although guilty, is more innocent than the system that picks and chooses who it punishes and how.
This month I decided to discuss a song by Every Time I Die because although they are not a new band, I just recently started listening to them and am utterly impressed with the group’s music. They were a little difficult to classify at first because they incorporate so much into their music, but ultimately I see them as a metal band that includes punk and hardcore elements. What makes the group really impressive to me is their keen ability to be both fun and brutal, which is a rare thing to accomplish no matter what genre of rock music it is. “AWOL” is from the band’s newest album Radical which came out in October of 2021 and it packs a serious punch even as it invites the listener to dance. The song contains a hypnotic groove and intense repetitive guitar riffs that match the trippy elements of the lyrics. Here are the first two verses:
The shape of your data got me astral projecting
But I think you and I we need to talk
Because the soul of the code your equipment had sent me
It might as well be outlined in chalk
Now I cannot decipher what all the static is
But I got a pretty good read on your back thoughts
The passion that makes me feel alive again
It’s gonna be the death, the death of us
The passion that makes me feel alive again
Oh it’s gonna be the death, the death of us
Death of us
What makes this song great is how it disintegrates structurally after these two verses which are primarily meant to set the tone of the song—which has a cyber-cosmic quality to it. “Data,” “astral projecting,” “soul of the code,” “decipher,” and “back thoughts” all inhabit this strange but brilliant hybrid dimension that is computerized and spiritual. The reason why the song disintegrates is because it chooses not to follow a traditional structure at all and this is due to the fact that Keith Buckley—the vocalist and lyricist—is very much a poet at heart. This song contains no chorus to keep it grounded, which emphasizes the trippy nature of the music. Every time there is a shift in the lyrics, there is a musical shift so the listener is literally at the mercy of the amorphous, multi-dimensional nature of the song in all the best ways.
As a vocalist, Buckley embodies the perfect combination of punk and hardcore sensibilities, but he also excels at utilizing word enhancement and in “AWOL” in particular his singing style incorporates a lovely groove that matches the rhythmic nature of the music. After the second verse, the song goes in multiple directions lyrically and the guitars mirror the shifts with an assortment of riffs and grooves. Here are what the lyrics look like after the second verse:
The space between us is like a crime scene
(No) No blood and no fingerprints (4x)
You got the wrong man
I never crossed that line
You got the wrong man
I never crossed no line
I owe myself an apology (4x)
I hope that I mean it
This part of the song shifts out of the cyber-cosmic realm and into a place that is a bit violent, where crime is undetectable. Here, Buckley playfully spells out AWOL and attempts to absolve himself: “I owe myself an apology.” Right after that, he sings: “Doubt it, right? Yeah, so do I / Take my word, I don’t want it / It ain’t no good” so that he’s also playfully incriminating himself. Here is the last part of the song, which continues to meander:
Don’t just stand there and look at me
Come and give me your trash
I want to feel your hot flash
I want to see your teeth gnash
I want to come in dead last
Go down together
Get drunk at the bottom
And tell you some bullshit like
“Baby, our scars are the same”
Buckley draws out the words “trash,” “flash,” “gnash,” and “last” to great effect and humorously incorporates a flirtatious line (“Baby, our scars are the same”) that helps to keep the song lighthearted because at this point, the musical and lyrical elements aren’t entirely stabilized—it’s all a bit risky, but it’s meant to be. The song ends quite intensely as Buckley sings: “We are out of this world / ‘Cause all good drugs go to heaven” and at this point the song reaches the height of overstimulation and intensity. But this is what makes “AWOL” captivating: it ends on the highest note possible and stops abruptly. Many of Every Time I Die’s songs are structured this way: once the listener enters, they don’t know what could happen. Lyrically and musically, Every Time I Die is blissfully dangerous and anarchic. The intensity of the lyrics match the intensity of the music; “AWOL” does not end where it begins—which is aesthetically creative and refreshing to hear and experience.
I chose to pair James Wright with Every Time I Die because I feel that both the poet and the music group are organically raw in ways that are utterly brutal and impactful on a poetic level. They are both willing to go to the darker places of the psyche to create artistic material that is unique and incredibly deep. I also think the ways that the poet and the group explore criminality in their work is complex and interesting, how guilt and innocence are explored but not necessarily explained. Even though Wright’s poem is written in a structured form, it still feels very open because it employs a lot of images and action-oriented words that mirror the controversial nature of the poem. Every Time I Die is confrontational because they do not adhere to genre or song structure guidelines which can be intimidating. Lyrically and musically, they push the envelope more than any other band writing music in the current moment. Wright had that same reputation when he was writing; his work was not for those with a mild sensibility—and when he moved away from form, his poems became even more brutal and even more interesting. James Wright and Every Time I Die are impactful because they are dark in ways that are both aesthetically risky but still contain a sense of responsibility. I find them both to be endlessly engaging.
January 3, 2022