from James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break
by guest blogger poet Corey Van Landingham
Yet he was beautiful, he was the snowfall
Turned to white stallions standing still
Under dark elm trees.
Finding inspiration from the massive presidential tomb of fellow-Ohioan Warren G. Harding, James Wright laments the monstrosity of the structure in “Two Poems about President Harding.” Here, he memorializes the local man of Marion—mortal, “open to the public”—while ridiculing “his ridiculous / Tomb.” It’s a tomb I’ve visited, with my husband, who was born on a county road in Marion. As a child, his family would sled at Harding’s memorial. A collision of irreverence and ritual Wright surely would have appreciated. The tomb itself is composed of soaring Doric columns, temple-like, but open to the sky. Perhaps not ridiculous, but certainly anachronistic—our last presidential tomb of this scale, this grandiosity.
The first section of Wright’s poem situates the speaker in Marion as occasion to meditate on Harding. Nearly forty years later, the late president still haunts the town. Drunk, the speaker turns sentimental when considering the unfortunate rumor that circulated around Harding’s death (that he died from food poisoning after eating bad crab on a train), and he begins to conflate the man with his own perceptions of Ohio: proud and flawed.
And beautiful, too, which is where the imagery shocks me still—“Yet he was beautiful,” Wright admits in the first poem’s final turn, “he was the snowfall / Turned to white stallions standing still / Under dark elm trees.” The beauty and conflation of man and landscape is remarkable in its own right (the double transformation, man to weather to beast. Imagined beast? Figuration of snow atop the roofless tomb? Actual, ceremonial stallions witnessing Harding’s funeral? Or, as one might have an inkling with Wright, something even stranger?). But as the second poem turns to shame, to cruelty, the image seems to stand as a merciful gift. The tomb that was supposed to be regal is turned, in its grandiose ambition, in its housing merely a man, laughable. Indeed, “America goes on, goes on / Laughing,” and the final line of the poem claims that “The hearts of men are merciless.”
That those white stallions are included (created?) in the midst of this cruelty makes the image even more tender, more memorable.