A Measure of Our Times A Measure of Our Times
Review Notation: A Measure of Our Times

Letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright

Edited by Anne Wright
Published by Graywolf Press

I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me. I hadn't intended to go off with rooster stories when really I wanted to tell you how happy I was to hear from you again. I am very much looking forward to your new book. I am sort of hungry for contact with poetry again. I think it must have been all the emotional upheaval that turned me away from books, from reading. I called it futility and too few poems which can speak anymore. But I think I was the one who couldn't hear very well. It helps, too, to look in the right places. I wasn't searching for books. I was only reading the poetry that happened to come my way -- a book here, a magazine there. I have to guard against my tendency to feel like an outsider, that I don't belong to the current American writing scene. Maybe the less contact I have with poetry and writing, the less I am reminded of how I don't quite fit in. But I trust your voice, just as I trust a few others. And it is time I turn to you whom I trust, to listen and find out what you have been discovering while I sat with my fingers in my ears.
Leslie Marmon Silko, Letter to James Wright, October 3, 1978

Some years ago -- I forget how many -- a friend wrote me a note from Chicago. I call him my friend, though at the time I hadn't met him. His note was simple: "I'm so lonely I can't stand it. I don't mean solitude. I need solitude. But loneliness rots the soul." It sounds as if I'm making this up, but I swear that's what he wrote to me, and all he wrote to me. My response will sound improbably and "literary" too, I'm afraid. Nevertheless, it is the simple truth: I immediately wrote to him that I was going to find him in Chicago on the day after Thanksgiving (I wonder what year it was) and that, furthermore, I was going to bring with me two pretty girls and a bunch of bananas.

I did it, too. I forget how, but I did it. We spent a long weekend, talking and shooting pool. Then I went back to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was living at the time.

I've been thinking about his remarks about loneliness and solitude, because I am closer to finding the proper ceremony for my life now. I hope you'll forgive me for appropriating that word "ceremony" but it is a true word, and I need it.

James Wright, Letter to Leslie Marmon Silko, October 12, 1978

Premier poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright shared a personal admiration for one another's work, as well as a kinship developed through shared experiences of their individual employment as lecturers in the field of U.S. Arts and Letters, and their struggles with health and family matters. When these simple commonalities are expressed in the form of an ongoing epistolary exchange between two of our greatest literary talents, the private dialogue becomes a source of true literary enrichment.

The book itself is simply wonderful, without being simplistic. Over the course of the 18-month exchange between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright, the correspondence takes on a profound weaving of the two authors' talents. And what is woven does not obscure; rather, the texture of the book is fitting to the title: this is truly an example of the "the delicacy and strength of lace." From Verona, Italy, in anticipation of Silko's coming birthday, Wright purchased hand-made lace in Bruges, and gave shape to this central motif of the book:

Sometimes I wonder about things like lace, things that human beings make with their own hands, things that aren't much help as shelter from the elements or against war and other kinds of brutality. Lace was obviously no help to the Belgians during two horrifying invasions in this century. Nevertheless, the art continues to survive, the craftsmen weaving away with the finest precision over their woofs and spools.

The tender regard in these communiques extended to commiserations over the strain of divorce (both Wright and Silko had endured one); loss of children (Silko's son was taken from her in a custody battle, and Wright's son did not speak to him for reasons he could not articulate); to travel, teaching, and the wonderment Wright had for Silko's attachment to the land and its creatures. Commenting on the death of the rooster on Silko's ranch, whose antics had begun the more personal tone in Silko's letters, Wright continued from the letter above:

What you wrote about the improbability of loving this fierce little creature struck me very deep, because your words are so close to a passion in Spinoza's Ethics. The passage has given me some pain, but finally it is heartening and bracing, because it is, in my own view, the clearest statement of plain truth that I know. Spinoza says that the human being is a miraculous creature, and his miracle consists in his capacity for love. He can love anything, from an atom all the way to God. But is just here, says Spinoza, that the tragic difficulty arises. For man must realize that his capacity for love gives him no right to love demand that anyone love him in return. Not even God. I have found that a hard thing to face, but there is something in it that goes beyond pain. Frost wrote, "it must be I want life to go on living."
James Wright, Letter to Leslie Marmon Silko, March 14, 1979

In December of the same year, Wright sent a letter advising Silko that he had learned he had cancer, which would involve "radical surgery in the throat." By mid-January of the new year, Wright was hospitalized with terminal cancer of the tongue. Silko visited him during this hospital stay, although Wright was unable to speak. Upon receiving the first news, Silko wrote that her maternal grandfather had undergone the same surgery, and encouraged Wright: "You will manage the part about your voice because your voice was never sound alone. Which doesn't mean that you won't feel angry sometimes -- Grandpa did, but then he learned his own new language." And so it is with The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

Review by Emmanuela de Léon

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