Sven Birkerts: On "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

We might begin by remarking the title, which is, at first sight, so long and unwieldy. Why didn't Wright just call his poem "Hammock," or "Lying in a Hammock"? Does it matter to us that the hammock was hung at William Duffy's farm, or that the farm was in Pine Island, Minnesota? No. We can only suppose that if the location does not matter to us, it did to the poet. And if we then suppose that the last line was hammered out in full seriousness (to decide otherwise is to render the poem irrelevant), then the titling confirms us. The precise location is given not to inform, but to memorialize a place and a time. The title is raised over the body of the poem like a marking stone: The scene that is described and enacted has assumed a great importance in the poet's life. . . .

On the surface of it, [the] first three lines are straightforward enough—no oblique meanings or gnarled syntactic patches. The speaking voice has established a calm, descriptive tone. Repose is implicit, not least for the psychological reason that one does not remark details like the blowing of a butterfly when one is agitated or upset. A clear picture begins to emerge. Indeed it is as though we were watching a painter at work. "Over my head"—the vertical axis is drawn; "the bronze butterfly" dabs in the first color, which, with the wide brushstroke of "black trunk" in the next line, is brightened by contrast. Nor is it only a contrast of colors; fragility and massive solidity are immediately put into opposition. "Green shadow" then softens the contrast of bronze and black through chromatic mediation. What's more, it brings dimension in, reminds us that we are not, in fact, looking at a simplified color composition. And as the impression of environment begins to take hold, we realize that it is by way of word-by-word widening of focus: A single butterfly is on a black trunk; the black trunk is bathed in green shadow. . . .

Color and scale apart, there are a few vital, though in some cases subliminal, linguistic effects to note. First, Wright is using the definite article, "the"—not "a"—with the butterfly. What we expect to, and perhaps do, read is the latter. The distinction seems minor, but it is not. With the definite article, as with the specificity of the title, the poet is preparing us for the "moment of truth." By saying "the," he has excerpted the moment of observation from temporal flow; he has weighted it. It is "the bronze butterfly" rather than "a bronze butterfly" because the perception represents the first step in what will be an unspoken internal movement—the beginning of a psychic dilation that will culminate in the words "I have wasted my life."

There are other details. For instance, the mimetic rightness of both the sound and positioning of "Asleep." "A-sleep" sketches in the ear the motion of a butterfly closing its wings. In addition, the sound of the word both suggests the whispery fragility of the insect and carries the hint of something sealed. The sticky / sound distinctly echoes its function in a word like "cling," where it contributes the phonic sense of adhesiveness. This is not arbitrary: The tongue has to adhere briefly to the roof of the mouth in order to make the sound.

So, we have the bronze butterfly asleep on the "black trunk." The latter is solidified by its strong double stress. (We may remark, too, a neighborly nod to Pound's famous "wet black bough.") Resting against that trunk, its wings closed, sealed, the butterfly not only blows like a leaf, it looks like one. That might be obvious. Less obvious is the back-and-forth motion that is set up by the reversed accents of "Asleep" ( ) and "Blowing" ( ); the rhythmic pacing tells us that there is the merest hint of a breeze. Last, we cannot ignore the heraldic significance of the butterfly. The poem is, after all, the record of an existential transformation. How natural that the glance should be arrested first by those folded bronze wings.

[Birkerts compares Wright's phrase "green shadow with Andrew Marvell's "green shade."]

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

Observe how the stress distribution in "Down the ravine" . . . neatly enacts the descending movement while the even, plodding  iambs of the next line . . . give us the frank, four-footed progress of the cows. "Into the distances of the afternoon" . . . , with its long stretch of unaccented syllables, rounds out the effect. The cows have gradually wandered out of hearing; a long time has passed. A subtle play of stresses has done the work of condensing time. The march of iambs in the second line disintegrates in the third-just as clear sounds are broken up by distance. A half hour, maybe more, has elapsed. Our vestigial nature clock, activated by rhythm, tells us that. The condensation is further secured by the combined metonymy/synesthesia: Cowbells are made to stand for cows, and the cowbell sounds are transposed from the auditory into the spatial sequence. The result is an almost imperceptible blurring of the space/time distinction and an enhancement of the subjective sense of reverie. . . . it feels as though we are taking forever to get through the syllables. "Down the ravine"—the two stresses . . . crowd us with the impressions of slow, laboring animal life. We read through the whole next line under this retarding influence—it is stress-enforced. But as we work through "Into the distances of the afternoon," we are conscious of a sudden rhythmic liberation. "In-"changes the pitch. The heaviness is turned into lightness and transparency, the plodding sensations are undone, rendered into the abstraction of "distances." Eighteen words, but the psychic shift we go through is considerable. It contributes to our feeling that time has elapsed.

We are six lines into the poem and we have come to a lull. The music is diminuendo. Rhythmic liberation notwithstanding, we are conscious of a waning, a tapering-off that threatens to bear the contemplative voice into the realm of Morpheus. "Into the distances of the afternoon" has entirely attenuated the rhythmic tension. But just as we are about to join the speaker for a nap in the hammock, the poem jerks us back:

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year's horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

Three rapid-fire syllables ring out against the long pauses of the preceding line. The speaker has roused himself, and us, into a renewed, and changed, attentiveness. The switch ends—and thereby emphasizes—the lull that went before.

The sounds and stresses in the second line work topographically: The long open vowel of "field" is phonically wedged between the two t sounds—by proxy, as it were. In fact, it is the open "-ween"—the chime sound—that is wedged, but we automatically transfer the pictorial effect. We see the brightness of the field framed by the two pines. The shady darkness of the point of vantage is conveyed by implied contrast.

The quick succession of stresses in "last year's horses" has a double function. On the one hand, it hints at the dropping action of a horse; on the other, it tenses the ear to receive the full magnificence of "blaze," that brassy yellow verb. Note, though, that Wright does not speak of last year's droppings, but "last year's horses." The emphasis shift is almost inconspicuous. But it tells us a great deal about the subliminal activity of the speaker. It tells us, for one thing, that he is preoccupied with change and irrevocability. His perception is the result of an instant inner association—from the sight of the droppings, to the recognition that they are old, to a summoning-up of horses that, in Heraclitean flux, are no longer the same. Implicit, of course, is the awareness that he is no longer the same either. In this light, "Blaze up into golden stones" carries an interesting double sense. Literally, it presents the gleaming of sunlight on dung. But the usage of "stones" is just curious enough—how can droppings blaze up into stones?—to prompt a metaphoric secondary reading. The stones can be understood to be grave markers or memorials—the glowing dung is all that remains to remind us of the horses as they were last year. We can more or less chart the unconscious drift of the reverie.

"Blaze up into golden stones" signals a surge of the psyche. It is the first direct metaphoric transformation in the poem and it has several effects. First, it introduces new energies and reorganizes the circuits. Until now the procedure has been one of notation. A change in linguistic pattern marks a change in the speaker: He has moved from passivity to activity; he is, imaginatively, at least, exerting himself upon his surroundings. Not dramatically, it's true, but the change of state is indicated. By shaking himself out of the self-containment of disinterested observation, he has taken the first—and for the poem, necessary—step toward self-assessment.

But there is an even more obvious function to the phrase. The metaphor, coupled with the directional "To my right" recalls the "I" to the reader and reminds him that the outward notations of the, preceding lines have perhaps paralleled—or initiated—a psychic progression in the speaker. And, indeed, the "It" is now ready to claim the stage:

I lean back, as evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

There is a steady escalation of momentum in these final lines. The caesura moves from initial to medial, tightening the tension. At the same time, we feel a vertical impetus; literally, through the placement of a hawk, and phonically, through the release from the slow, drawn-out vowels of "evening darkens and comes on." We are still on an upward cant when the horizontal punch is delivered: "I have wasted my life." . . .

What, finally, is the sense of the poem? How are we to understand the shock of the last line? Is it intended to be a surprise slap, or has the poem been subtly tending toward that moment? . . .


Title Sven Birkerts: On "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Sven Birkerts Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 Mar 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication James Wright's Hammock: A Sounding
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