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

"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" is Wright's most brilliant dramatization of Narcissus sous rature; that is, of the achievement of an integrated self at the moment of recognition that to conceive of the self as a proprietary form is a costly mistake. It immediately (and significantly) follows Wright's critique of heroism, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" in Collected Poems. . . .

"Over my head" I see the butterfly, its metallic character recalling Yeats's emblem of high art. But while Yeats's golden "artifice of eternity" sings, its song a monument "of its own magnificence," Wright's butterfly is silent and asleep, dead to the world—yet unself-consciously alive and participating in the constant vitality of being in a way that no monument can. "Blowing like a leaf in green shadow," the butterfly, beautiful and ephemeral, has no more stability or durability than a leaf. Yet it blows in "green shadow." Life may be short, but it is cyclic; and here, death itself is already green, suggesting the rich regenerative potency of nature and the unconscious.

Descending through a "ravine"—a breach in the sphericity of the earth—behind an empty structure, some metonymic bells "follow one another / Into" spatio-temporal oblivion ("the distances of the afternoon"). "To my right," in a field of light between two emblems of psychic growth, "The droppings of last year's horses"—the coeliac effusions of the individual unconscious—transmute themselves into "golden stones." These elemental refinements, hardly the work of Grecian goldsmiths, forge themselves only when the ego-consciousness lets go its obsessions with control and freely acknowledges the primordial, and feculent, contents of the unconscious—when "artifice" gives way to "eternity," so to speak. When these contents are duly recognized, accomodated and integrated, they take on new value.

I "lean back" toward darkness (as in "Beginning") as it "comes on." "A chicken hawk floats over"—but here a studiedly false note is struck. The hawk is not "looking for home" any more than are the "cowbells" or "last year's horses." That this hawk-eyed predator should be drifting, perplexed—that she should in any sense be at a loss to know where she belongs—is a pure projection on the part of a speaker who has experienced his own life as precisely such a dubious peregrination. The final line is the speaker's expression of the wordless recognition that takes place between the final two lines—that the hawk is fully at home in hir floating, and that the speaker has himself been always at home, even as he sought some purely illusory Byzantium.

Consistent with Frobenius's myth, a bird helps the "hero"—here at sundown rather than sunrise—make an intuitive jointure of conscious and unconscious as he (the unheroic speaker) "floats over" the earth, suspended "between " two trees. He can now join the people of the house, the cows, the horses (none of which appear in the poem) and the butterfly (absent in another sense) as conditional beings who, strictly considered, are always elsewhere, always outside, always exceeding the names within which language seeks to enclose them.

The immemorial anxiety of the prophet is that "I have wasted my life": that I have not prophesied, that I have prophesied and not been heard, that I have prophesied falsely. Jonah fails to prophesy for fear that his speech will be in vain, until his night sea journey returns him to his calling. The poet's anxiety is analogous: that his speech/writing will go unheard, or that his poetry is somehow false. There is an implication here that Wright himself, to the extent that his early attention ran toward singing artifacts, too much in the mold of modernist sages, has prophesied falsely. But the poet stands at one remove from the speaker of his poem, and here the echo of regret for the poet's false prophecy is more than compensated for by the exhilaration, relief, serenity, and strength that come to the speaker from the certain knowledge that he is where he has so desperately striven to be, a place where ownership—of hammocks, of farms, of selves—is no longer an issue. The metaphoric transmutation of ordure into gold, then, is not, as R. J . Spendal argues, "false alchemy"—for the "waste" of a life is ultimately the invaluable ground of its (re)generation. Without the fertile dirt of the unconscious, no breaking "into blossom" can take place.

* * *

The name is the home of the ego—its property, its investment, from which the Other must be safely distanced. Narcissus's compulsion to secure himself within his own embrace is a wish to call his reflected image into synonymity with himself—to name himself as his own property, in other words. His wish is doomed to perpetual, and ironic, frustration by the very pureness of the exclusivity within which that image is constituted. In "Lying," Wright's speaker is at last able to lean back and look up from that spurious image; and when he does, the being in being that he has pursued with such misguided intensity becomes effortlessly his. Now, like the hawk, he can be both homeless and at peace, knowing nothing of property, knowing nothing of far and near.

In a certain sense, the closing line of "Lying" is quite obviously a lie, and is content to be so: a particular life, after all, can only be considered to have been wasted if life in the abstract is conceived as properly possessing a teleological orientation—if "quest," that is, is after all an appropriate metaphor for self-exploration. Wright's insight is the simple—almost banal—recognition that being is becoming, that the self can never be reduced to an autograph, or essential nomination, which can then be assigned the timeless efficacy of scripture.

As in the case of Snyder's ta-chang-fu, then, the true hero is s/he who is acute enough to recognize the circularity of quests: the grail is a ghost story, one motivated more by fear than desire. When the fear is resolved, through bold spiritual action, the ghosts are exorcised along with it. Wright's speakers come to see that to conceive of oneself as fully knowable, fully present to oneself or as oneself, is to exist under an illusion; and that to quest after such a miraculous individuality is merely to chase one's tail—for in reaching for one’s self, one can never grasp more than one is.


Title Jody Norton: On "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 Mar 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Narcissus Sous Rature: Male Subjectivity in Contemporary American Poetry
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

No Data
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media