Essay

The Rebirth of a Suicidal Genius

Thomas James died obscure at 27 in 1974, then became a cult hero. Now Graywolf republishes his lost, legendary Letters to a Stranger.

by Lucie Brock-Broido

Book of the dead: Thomas James as a mysterious, haunted author resurrecting Plath's Lady Lazarus as a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy.


I

It is September 1977 and this autumn is a gorgeous one, just like the one I am writing to you from three decades later. I am thinking of you now. Richard Howard sails into our first workshop in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and asks his twelve new graduate poetry students (I am the thirteenth, permitted by luck and circumstance to sit in) to recite the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The best minds of my generation, collectively, come up with about six of them. Richard is not amused. He then requires a recitation of the names of the Nine Muses. We get all but two. A slight scowl is provoked. All the while I am thinking of you. Richard takes from his bookbag this text: Daniel Halpern’s American Poetry Anthology, a new collection of poets, some published for the first time, all under forty, including Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Linda Gregg, Robert Hass, Gregory Orr, and Charles Wright. Of the seventy-six poets included, only one has two dates after his name in the index: Thomas James (1946–1974).

Letters to a Stranger
By Thomas James
Graywolf Press, 88 pp., $15.00
Richard Howard applies his monocle to his right eye and reads aloud one poem, Thomas James’s “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh.” I will last forever. I am not impatient— The poem is a soliloquy in the voice of a young girl from Thebes in the year 1051 BC as she is being mummified according to The Egyptian Book of the Dead. For all the physical violences of the process, her descriptions are luminous, romantic, graphically and magically sensual. I was so important!, she writes, I wanted to sit up.

So taken is she, Lady J., with the lyrical process of having her body made to last forever, she writes: Before I learned to love myself too much, / My body wound itself in spools of linens.

Even as I write to you, it is just past the cusp of thirty years ago when I first heard those words. My world was changed, as would my work change, indelibly—the whole Music of what would Happen. A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts / Replaced the tinny music of my heart.

So began this journey. The first thing that happened was that I wrote a poem back to Thomas James. It was called “Pornography,” and it was eighty pages long. So bizarre and unintelligible was it that I composed a prose companion to it, which I calligraphed, and then I illustrated that. No one will ever read this poem.

I went in search of this young man, Thomas James. If I had come into this world a bit earlier, if I had been a boy, if I had been gay and raised Lutheran, if I had been born in Joliet, Illinois, Letters to a Stranger—Thomas’s first book, last book, only book—would have been my book, my “First World,” the one first book I would have written in some other life.

II

Thomas Edward Bojeski was born on June 2, 1946. Soon after New Year’s Day, on January 7, 1974, he shot himself in the head with a .45 caliber handgun. He meant to go. In 1972, he lost both his parents within ten days of one another. He was twenty-seven years old and had just published his first book, Letters to a Stranger, which would receive only one review—a withering one—calling Thomas James a “pale Plath.” A day before his death, he had phoned Lynn, his sister (and only remaining member of his immediate family), to say goodbye. The last time Lynn saw him had been the day after Christmas 1973. They were at Union train station in Joliet, and she remembered only his turning back and waving to her before he left for godknowswhere. At his death two weeks later in early January, he left a note, but no one remembers where it is or what it said.

But he had left a book, and this book is a long embellishing of suicide itself. There is a Thou throughout this text, singular and other, religious and erotic—these “letters” are addressed, of course, to “a stranger.” And it is you; it is I; it is the beloved, the Master; it is God; he is strange, and stranger too. So much of the book is modeled after Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Thomas was drunk with Plath. His high romance with Ariel puts her genetic dispositions all over these poems. And he was under the spell of Georg Trakl, a suicide too, also at the age of twenty-seven. And Frank Stanford, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at twenty-nine. And Roethke. And Thomas’s teacher, Lucien Stryk. But it is mostly Plath, her drama and her excellence, her extremity and gift, her apparitions and her fate. Her inevitability.

In the three decades that I’ve hankered backward for this book, toward whence it came, almost everything and everybody that has had a connection to Thomas or to his work has disappeared or died along the way. So peculiar have these vanishings been, I admit that I am slightly spooked to be the vessel to bring this extraordinary text back into the world. In 1994, seventeen years after hearing “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” I found Thomas’s sister, Lynn, in Joliet, and went to stay with her, but now I’ve lost her too. After a sustaining and sweet connection, I’ve not heard from her for thirteen years. She’s left no clue save a strange message that she was “moving west.” I cannot find even a trace of her anymore.

In 1980, I met a young fiction writer at Columbia named Allen Barnett, and one night at the Abbey Pub on the Upper West Side, I told him about this journey I was on. Astonishing: Allen had known Thomas in Joliet; they had been in a theater troupe together. I had my first clue then. Allen told me that Thomas James’s real name was Bojeski—Thomas had thought his own name too “unpoetic,” and so used as his surname, instead, his mother’s maiden name. Allen told me that Tom was born in Joliet, that his whole family was gone, all of them, save a sister who survived, perhaps still in Joliet, but went by (yet) another (married) name.

The last time I saw Allen was through a revolving door—into the old New Yorker offices; he was leaving, and I was going in. His first story was to come out in the magazine; I was on my way to visit my soon-to-be editor. Allen’s first book, The Body and Its Dangers (both the book’s title as well as the final story are taken from “Reasons,” the last poem in Letters to a Stranger) would begin also with this epigraph from Thomas James: If I could reach you now, in any way / At all, I would say this to you. . . . This was the last time I ever saw Allen Barnett. On August 14, 1991, he died of complications from AIDS. I am present for the news of an enormous death.

III

It is the autumn of 1981, and I am languishing in my old hometown of Pittsburgh, in a dark year, one haunted by many of my own ghosts. Since Richard Howard had read us James’s work, I had been looking all over America for one copy of his book. I found that copy in the Carnegie Library on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh. It had been checked out only once: July 28, 1977. I put the book in the back of my jeans, between the blousy white shirt I’d worn and the waistband of my pants. I walked out of the library with that book. It was pre-security for Great Literature. Letters to a Stranger is the only book I’ve ever stolen. Until now, you could not lay hold of a copy of that book, but it has existed in hundreds and hundreds of xeroxed copies across the country, a small underground railroad of reading for young poets. Letters to a Stranger was, and is still, the most ravishing (and ravished) first book of poetry I’ve read. Thomas James’s cadences, his transformations, are in my head every single time I write. I have been rereading your letters.

By the mid-1980s, I had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thought to call the poet whom I’d recently met at a reading, Peter Davison, who was the poetry editor at Houghton Mifflin, the house which had published Letters a decade earlier. Peter told me he would investigate, try to comb through some old records at the press. It turned out that a man named Arthur Gould at the Gould Literary Agency in Evanston, Illinois, had originally brought the book to Houghton Mifflin. Peter could find no editor on record who had worked with Thomas or with the book itself. And Peter will not have lived to see this book come back into print. How did this odd—unlikely—and intoxicating first book make its way into the world?

I have taught the book, year after year, first at Harvard, then Columbia, always in fierce violation of copyright. I’ve given talks at Iowa, at Washington University, at the Bennington Writing Seminars, in Gainesville, in Houston, Missoula, Los Angeles; wherever I’ve read, I’ve taken the manuscript with me. Students are enthralled by the poems. In fact, to this day, it is still the book which most influences and captivates young writers, beyond and above all other first books. My genius is intact.

IV

How is it, exactly, that I can explain the peculiar spell cast between poets and this text? How is it that, when I teach this book, invariably, young poets seem to want to go home (as soon as possible) to write back to Thomas James, to begin their own dialogue with him? I doubt that it is simply that Thomas’s particular darknesses are (in particular) more remarkable than others’, in fact, but somehow the bounty of his metaphors seem more edgy, strangely more inviting, bewitching even, than most. Thomas James’s protégés want to reach him, see him, raise him (in all senses of that term), risk for risk.

Perhaps it is the looming presence of Federico García Lorca’s duende in these pages—that force, writes Lorca, which “loves ledges and wounds.” I do not know a text more capable of circumnavigating these ledges, nor tampering with these wounds, troubling them, stitching and unstitching their embroidered and lacerated edges than Letters.

In his 1930 essay, “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement,” Lorca wrote: “All that has black sounds has duende. . . . These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art.” Lorca goes on to describe the three forces—the Angel, the Muse, and the Duende—that “everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”

According to Lorca, when the Angel sees death on the way, he flies in slow circles and “weaves tears of narcissus and ice.” When the Muse sees death, she closes the door. But the Duende “will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death.” Lorca writes: “Everywhere else, death is an end.” Death’s possibility—the necessity of its proximity—is that which makes art human and alive.

This omnipresent loom of death—the body and its dangers, the heart and its constancy of harm—is what makes the poetry of Thomas James so powerful. So ubiquitous is this power of “black sounds” that—according to a student who, in earnest, made a list of Thomas’s touchstones, his word-hoard, his lexicon (such easy prey—moon, stone, bone, wound)—over a dozen instances of the word “dark” appear in this one book. But Lorca wrote, after all, that poems are works of art that have been “baptized in dark water.”

V

Thomas James’s gifts are extravagant. How did a man in his early twenties write with such wizardry and rigor, with such guile? The work is alight with the electric gestures of Robert Bly’s “Leaping Poetry” (which, in all likelihood, Thomas had not read; the first edition of Bly’s book had been published only a year or so before Thomas’s death). Bly explains this process of leaping, put simply, as the ability to associate “wildly.” Here are some particularly transcendent metaphors in Letters, feats of wild association. In the title poem, Thomas writes (italics here and following are mine):

Alexander died this morning,
Leaving his worldly possessions
To the strongest.
I watched an empire fade across his lips.
They propped him in the sun a while,
And then three women came to scour his body
Like a continent.

How does one compose a simile this far-fetched, this sparked with imagination, this curiously precise? Later, in this same poem, he writes of the snow “dismantling the weeds / Like the breakable furniture of a boudoir.”

In a poem called “Dissecting a Pig,” he writes: “I have kept you in a laboratory jar / Comfortable as the château of your mother.”

Or, in “Dragging the Lake,” a persona poem in the voice of an odd Ophelia (a poem which has a curious kinship with both James Wright’s “To the Muse,” as well as Richard Hugo’s “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir”), Thomas speaks of “a sky involved with a stillborn moon.” A plethora of moons exist in contemporary American poetry, many more than our fair share, in fact, and perhaps more than a handful have been “stillborn,” after all. But no one has ever thought, heretofore, to tell us that the sky could be involved with such a moon.

In “Two Aunts,” one of the most remarkable pieces in the book, Thomas tells us of his two Great Aunts, two farmer’s daughters, “maiden ladies” who lived out their lives in a small town in North Dakota where the Bojeski family had first settled. He addresses them:

My ladies,
My dusky girls, I see you
With your bustles puffed up like life preservers. . . .

He tells us they were both heroin addicts who sprinkled opium on their oatmeal, who embroidered doilies with the drug. He identifies with them:

       I know what you meant.
There was always the hunger,
The death of small things
Somewhere in your body,
The children that would never
Take place in either of you. . . .
I see you ride the black hills of my mind,
Sidesaddle, gowned in lemon silk,
Galloping
In your laced-up flesh, completely unaware
Of something I inherited,
The doubt,
The fear,
The needle point of speech,
The hunger you passed down that I
Possess.

Much later, I would learn from Thomas’s sister that, in the nineteenth century, Aunt Rose “perished in a cyclone.” And that Aunt Angie, one afternoon, “put her hand over her eyes and passed away in a chair.” I remember how I died. It was so simple! / One morning the garden faded. My face blacked out.

Other effulgent examples abound, for instance, in “Luncheon with the Hangman”:

After the minor fractures of April,

Slow convalescence, a montage of sky.
The village clock, punctual as a cricket,
Tapped the penetrable gray

I mistook for sheep, a wooly light.

We have never heard of a cricket’s “punctuality” before, though it will have its own true accuracy from now on.

Every way points to harm in Thomas James, so much is composed of omen, but over and again, he delivers these portents toward a kind of visionary salvation. In a poem called “Jason”: “Fistfuls of brightness” bloom where he dreams “of the innumerable antlers of winter.” He has his own breed of near-Gothic sensibilities: “Lobster-colored clouds merge and pass / On the arbor’s dilapidated bones.”

He writes: “I learn the lion color of these hills” and “I come in dryshod, in my mushroom-colored coat.” I cannot think of another writer as adept at confecting these odd marriages, except perhaps Flannery O’Connor, whose metaphors can be as singular and indelible as these. For example, in O’Connor’s “Revelation,” a girl in a doctor’s office waiting room has a face that is “blue with acne”—a statement far-fetched, risky, and grotesquely precise at once. Or, in another O’Connor story, with menace and her gift for odd exactitude, she writes of a cloud that is “the exact color of the boy’s hat and is shaped like a turnip.”

VI

At least five of the poems in Letters are in direct dialogue with Plath’s Ariel. “Waking Up,” the invocating poem, is a near call-and-response to Plath’s opening poem “Morning Song.” Likewise, “Carnations” is a response to Plath’s “Tulips,” as, in its own eccentric way, “Luncheon with the Hangman” corresponds to Plath’s “The Hanging Man.” And Thomas’s “Longing for Death” (in addition to its alliance with another poem, written by Anne Sexton, called “Wanting to Die”) is homage to Plath’s “Death & Co.” Further, “Laceration” has its alliance with Plath’s “Cut.” And finally, though the lexicon and sorcery and tonal urges are quite dissimilar, Thomas James’s “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” must surely correspond—in some wild associative manner—to Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” both rising, as they do, each from their own forms of dying—each as an art.

But Thomas James is not a “pale Plath” in any sense. He is simply engaged in an intense (and very intricate) conversation with Ariel. Both Plath and James were writing out of their own psychic heat, their urgency—emergency, in fact. For both poets, the “Thou,” it is made clear, has betrayed, transgressed. Plath speaks with the sharp keen of rage; James is less angular. And Plath’s “Thou” is dangerously present, immanent, in too-close proximity to her speaker. But for James, the “Thou” is far more distant; the ache is more mysterious and more abstract. In the crescendo of poems that closes James’s book (his first, his last) is a poem called “Letter to a Mute.” This Thou will not, cannot speak back. For Plath and James, the genius is intact—concrete, palpable, each with their own compulsion toward immortality. Like Ariel, this book will go on.

VII

Years pass (twenty in fact, thus far), and I am still trying to find Lynn Bojeski, now named—I have no idea. In 1993, Mark Wunderlich is one of my first new students at Columbia. During a seminar on first books, when just about everyone in the class falls in love with Letters, Mark stays late into the night with me—the search has been stalled for a long time now. Mark comes up with the idea that we should try to find one “Gil Ross,” the name of the man who took the author’s photograph on the book jacket. We do research. We find him outside of Chicago. I phone him. He is cautious and says he knows nothing, only that Thomas James is dead, that perhaps I should try to find one “Kathryn Smith,” who may now teach at the Francis Parker School in Chicago.

A week or so later, I find Kathryn at school. She is, at first, bewildered by my voice on the phone, then almost hostile. She bursts into tears. She says she cannot talk, not now, but perhaps in a while. She gives me a specific date and time to call her back. The date and time she gives me could not be worse—a Monday night in October, which happens to be right in the middle of my seminar. Weeks later, I let the seminar know we’ll be taking a long break, and I tell them why. I phone Kathryn at the appointed time, and she relents; she has decided, with great trepidation, to speak to me. Too many people, incidents surrounding Thomas and his work were painful, sometimes violent, she says. I do not mean, I tell her, to dredge up old ghosts. I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

Months later, Kathryn winds up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, for medical treatment; she has been diagnosed with cancer and has decided to seek only alternative medicine. She stays with me in Cambridge and gives me the name and address of one of Thomas’s oldest friends, Ron Thelo, who lives still in Illinois. We phone him that night, but get only his answering machine. I hear back from his lover, Gene Wojcik, who tells me, instead, to write to Ron—who is mortally ill, though I do not know it at the time. As for Kathryn, I lose hold of her too, and am shaken by the idea of trying to see if she is still alive and in this world.

VIII

On April 14, 1994, I write to Ron Thelo: It’s quite astonishing to realize that this one slim volume, now twenty-one years old, has had such a lasting and painfully lovely impact. Little by little, I have found pockets of poets across the country who know it, honor it, love it. . . . For me, oddly enough, I feel more akin to Thomas’s book than to any other, save perhaps Emily Dickinson. I feel that intimate with Thomas’s work. And so I am to be the one to help it back into the world. . . . In the letter, I ask him if he can help me find Thomas’s sister’s married name. I do not hear back from him.

Exactly four months later, I phone Ron but speak, again, to Gene. He has news. First, Ron has died. (Ron, he tells me, had been pleased to have heard from me, but was far too ill to respond.) And secondly, he has indeed found Lynn Bojeski’s married name. She is Lynn Fisher now.

On August 14, I write to Gene: It is well past midnight—hours since I phoned you. I am so deeply sorry to hear the news of Ron’s death. . . . And I am troubled deep into the night, and wishing you well.

What legacies abound. I am, after all, writing my own Letter to a Stranger, but somehow I feel oddly connected, not strange, though I’ve never even met any of your world out there. I have been immersed in Thomas’s work, reading it aloud. I have his poems, now, almost to heart. But I’ve lost yet another link in this chain of gifts and losses. And how strange that the book just keeps going on with its going on. And it will go on, I’ll see to it. By the time this reaches you, I hope I’ll have finally been in touch with Lynn Fisher. I’ll try not to startle her. So much of this story passes on; I’m saddened and bewildered. . . . And all the more hell-bent on seeing this book back into the world.


Gene writes back to me with a photograph of Ron Thelo, with this note: Dear Lucie, Thanks for your letter. I’ve pondered these connections a lot in the last four months. Ron sent me this just after we met twenty-two years ago. It is by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

It may well be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be, I do not think I would.


IX

By early September 1994, I found Lynn Fisher. On the telephone, she was, as I had expected, wildly suspicious of my intentions, all and any of them. She bristled and mistrusted at first, but gradually warmed to me. She spoke to me for a long time, and by the time we hung up, I had made plans to come see her. Within days, she posted me a Modigliani-esque ink sketch by Tom that she said he had drawn years ago. She had many paintings of his, line drawings, an unfinished novel, a play. She told me that he always signed his work “TOMB.” Tomb, or Tom B., Thomas Bojeski. She wrote that she was certain that the enclosed sketch of the long-haired girl was me. She signed her letter, Thank heavens you found me.

I have now, in my office in New York, an oil painting of Tom’s, a primitive—a slender girl standing at a meadow’s edge, her hair in a thin ponytail, an imagined breed of tree in the distance with one single leaf falling from it, a hopelessly autumnal sky. I have a soft, lined-paper page—as if torn from an elementary school composition book—with his scrolls and doodles on it, little figurines, and some thirty practices of his signature, in an almost Victorian hand: Thomas James, Thomas James, Thomas James all over the page. I have a handful of poems he never published, now included here. And a list of poems he would have written had he stayed alive, all in the character he called Tom O’ Bedlam. “Tom O’ Bedlam Dances,” “Tom O’ Bedlam Enters the Asylum,” “Tom O’ Bedlam Walks in the Rain,” “Tom O’ Bedlam among the Fireflies.”

On October 15, 1994, finally in Joliet, I write in my Tom B. journal: I am with Lynn, Thomas’s dining room. I am in Dickens country, new world—this is an old world. There are streets with names like Pickwick Court, Little Dorritt, Copperfield. This is rough country, a city of small gangs, a floating casino on an old docked riverboat, a town of old railways, penitentiaries (now shut down), and dirty dark canals. It’s a city mourning the post-war 1950s, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. This was a big union town, with a huge steel factory where Tom’s father used to work as a guard. Tom himself worked as a night watchman at American Steel and Wire in the late 1960s.

Riding in their large, low-slung car with Lynn and her husband Bob and her son Mike, I am cold. I take flickering notes in my journal: I am writing in long leather gloves, chill. Then someone says, and I record: Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples,

Poet in his youth: Thomas Bojeski in the process of reinventing himself as Thomas James.
the Latin Kings
. The town is home to two of the most notorious prisons in the country, Joliet Correctional Center, where Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in 1924, and Statesville, where Richard Speck lived and died. Even this late in the year, the corn in the fields outside of town still goes unharvested, withering. We drive to Thomas’s grave, which is, as he wrote of a statue of Saint Francis behind a church, “upholstered in oak leaves.” Likewise, Thomas’s grave, bronze and level to the ground, is similarly upholstered by so many leaves. The earth has taken on terrible proportions.

Lynn’s home is the house that she and Tom grew up in. It has been in the family for generations, built in 1893. It is tight and gray and plain and ramshackle. Seventeen cats live here now with Lynn. In the 1950s, seven members of the Bojeski family—Grandmother, Uncle Ray, Aunt Opal, Lynn, Tom, and his parents—lived there. It is a tiny place. Tom lived in a little room downstairs and slept on a hide-a-bed couch. She shows me Thomas’s desk, a two-foot wide avocado pine secretary where he wrote his poems. Lynn works now in the city for the Bureau of Identification division of the State Police; she’s a bookkeeper. Billy Graham, Lynn tells me, is her Master. She is married to Bob; her son Mike is an autodidact, a curious and rambling savant. These are some of the things I wrote down that this young man told me in the car:

Tom was chasing apparitions, ghosts; he made the wrong choice. He should have been able to reinvent himself, a Greek necessity. . . . The soul is in a state of flux. Poets. . . instead of going forward, they use their writing to go back; they cloak themselves. Of Tom, his uncle, he tells me, he is . . . not pissed. But T. was pathetic . . . There’s a reason that people are given a madness. . . . He speaks of Socrates’ “geist,” of Thomas Edison’s 35,000 attempts at inventing the light bulb, of Salvador Dali lecturing in London in a deep-sea diver’s suit, in fur-lined capes. Socrates drank hemlock, Mike says. You cannot recant an absolute truth.

X

No one in the family believes that Thomas killed himself. His brother-in-law, Bob, had gone to the morgue to identify him. He graphically describes the scene, Thomas’s wound, the concrete slab, the tag affixed to his foot. Tom was right-handed; his wound was on the left side of his head. How a right-handed guy could reach is bullshit. He was shot on his bed. There was someone else involved. . . . At the funeral, the casket was open and Aunt Opal shook it, shook the coffin back and forth. We pass a street named “Bliss.” This is true.

You were baptized in formaldehyde / Before I brought you to this strange autopsy.

I want to tell them to read his book again, that it is an homage to the autumnal, the inevitable, the going and the going on, the afterlife and all its jeweled states; that, in Letters to a Stranger, each gallery of weather leads to fall and dying off. In the title poem, Thomas writes:

The leaves have all gone yellow
Overnight, wrinkling like hands
In the updraught.
I drove my car by the creek
Because I had nowhere else to go.
The milkweed’s delicate closet had been fractured,
Filling the air with rumors.
Despite all I could do, the sumac
Had taken on the color of a mouth.

In the poem called “Longing for Death,” he writes: I wanted to marry an absence. I want to tell them: Thomas married his absence, wittingly, willingly, willfully.

The pageantry of the whole text itself is an intricate embalming—the body’s mereness on its unstoppable journey toward corporeal oblivion, toward an ethereal infinitude. I believe Thomas James dreamed this book would last, somehow, that it would go on. He taught me the word “ichors,” the fluid that runs through the veins of the gods, unlike a mortal’s mere blood. The book is full of such embellished images of “mere” life, of “bruised” eyes traded in for precious stones. There are lacerations, intravenous needles, crutches (Thomas kept a collection of canes, for no particular reason I know of, except the odd elegance of their imagery), wounds both physical and otherwise: I ride on my own diminishing. . . . He speaks of “a terrible vertigo,” of “small effulgences.” He writes of being mute, of being strange. He is uninterested in Sin. The saints have been turning to stone for a long, long time—

Nuns lie under these plain stone markers.
Asleep in their long rows, whitely established
In the center of a hunger that was never theirs,
They do no blossoming.


“Room 101” is a rehearsal for “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” as are so many of his poems. “Room 101” is spoken in the voice of a young man, already dead, being prepared for a world less damaging than this one is:

I come to trade my flesh for stone.

. . . On Saturday I watched them take
My heart. Old relic, now you tick

All night beneath my tablelamp.

          . . . Light hurts
My eyes. I trade them both for quartz
On Wednesday morning. I am made
To last forever, girded bone.
A hornet tests my sculptured skin.


Thomas James’s lyric hallucinatory intensities seem to provoke his gift for ventriloquism—nine of the poems in Letters to a Stranger are personae. And no matter how far-fetched each voice may be, Thomas carries his own elegiac and immutable isolation to each of his “mutations”—incarnations, each, of his own embellishments and his truths, painfully alive.

I want to be a shepherd to this book, and not one of its lambs, grazing and inevitable, eventual, along the way of so many vanishings. Thomas writes: The lambs are not aware of me. I do not want to lose myself along the way of losing everyone and everything that surrounds this book, except the text itself. In “Lambs,” he writes:

I walk into the field, I am not afraid of them—
They scatter like the last edges of a sickness.
The sun has begun to enlarge its tawny fleeces
At the expense of no one in particular.

In a letter, Emily Dickinson wrote: Could we see all we hope, or hear the whole we fear told tranquil, like another tale, there would be madness near.

Lady Jemutesonekh says, from her world 3,000 years ago, in the seventh, final septet of her soliloquy:

When I come home the garden will be budding,
White petals breaking open, clusters of night flowers,
The far-off music of a tambourine.
A boy will pace among the passionflowers,
His eyes no longer two bruised surfaces.
I’ll know the mouth of my young groom, I’ll touch
His hands. Why do people lie to one another?


In the title poem, Thomas says, quite simply: I am afraid of what the world will do.



“Introduction” by Lucie Brock-Broido copyright 2008 by Lucie Brock-Broido. Reprinted from Letters to a Stranger with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Originally Published: September 24, 2008

COMMENTS (17)

On September 25, 2008 at 10:30pm Orville clarke wrote:
Letter to a stranger

Dear Stranger,

Thank you for resurrecting Thomas James. Now he will live forever in my mind. I came upon this link by chance. I have never heard of Thomas James yet alone read him or any of the other writers mentioned. The fact is i immediately recognised the genius of Thomas James upon reading "my two aunts" (this is the first poem i read from the collection). By strange coincidence i have just this week sent a manuscript of my first book of poems to an publisher. I feel a haunting connection with this poet. I believe much of my work has been baptised in dark water.

On September 25, 2008 at 11:44pm New Fan wrote:
Thank you for this informative article about Thomas James. Tonight is the first time for me to read his words. I'm saddened by the loss of an this eloquent poet. His genius has outlived his death. Tonight, I am and will always be a fan of his poems, and I look forward to reading Letters to a Stranger.

On September 28, 2008 at 8:39pm Astounded wrote:
This story could be a novel.

I kept referring to my ideals, of what I

think a poet should be, or do, and then

reflected back Thomas James as I read,

and the effect was hypnotizing. I will

surely find this book and revisit this

essay.

Thank you for the contribution.

On September 30, 2008 at 4:19pm Robert Wrigley wrote:
I was luckier than Lucie Brock-Broido, in that I was able, in 1974, to find a new Houghton Mifflin copy of James' Letters to a Stranger. Though like Ms. B-B, I was similarly smitten and have remained so for more than thirty years. Many thnnks to Graywolf Press for getting such an extraordinary volume back into print, and to Lucie Brock-Broido, for her thoughtful and compelling introduction.

On October 1, 2008 at 12:52pm ashley conde wrote:
i love it

On October 14, 2008 at 5:51pm Margaret Leinen wrote:
I went to high school with Tom (Thomas) and was a close friend -- one of a close group of six, all members of the drama and debate groups. I still remember exactly where I was, the time of day, the weather, the panic, the pain, when our mutual friend Ron Thelo told me about Tom's suicide. I still have my copy of the high school literary magazine that he edited with his Sonnet XII. I have been looking for a copy of his book for more than 30 years. Thank you to Graywolf for re-publishing his book. And thank you to Lucie Brock-Broido for this wonderful article.

On October 14, 2008 at 7:44pm edward mycue wrote:
i work at stacey's bookshop in san francisco where today a young woman bought our only copy (it's been reordered) and told me she'd read of it on the poetry foundation chicago website. now i have also. this is good job you are doing. edward mycue

On October 15, 2008 at 6:04pm edward mycue wrote:
since my initial response yesterday i have wondered about this extraordinary story thinking it almost beyond reality--as if it were just that: an extraordinary story the way it loops and hides and reappears with strange coincidences and detections.

can it have been a hoax in its inception? there seem to have been cover-ups and witholdings along with oddly timed revelatory disclosures as are found in the best mysteies.

there's a strange mood to the history and the analysis of the poems

that struck me the way i was affected when younger having read kafka's "amerika" and some of karl may's faux-american type leatherstocking tales.

the picture itself of the author reminds me of a bearded lady rather than a young guy.

(at first amazed now i am feeling bemused, conned, made addled by this collaged life.)

who else may have this kind of question about these strange tale?

edward mycue

On November 12, 2008 at 12:45pm Incredible Hulk (AKA Ascetic, Mrs. Flinstone, etc.) wrote:
Mr. Mycue:

It is perhaps natural with anything this wonderful to be left with some suspicion; however, regarding your case, I'm here to tell you that yours exceeds all reality. This story is as real as the second picture of Thomas James looks like Leonardo DiCaprio. Wait a minute. Is it Leonardo DiCaprio?

On November 24, 2008 at 7:44pm edward mycue wrote:
I WONDER WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN

TO THE WORLD WHEN WE DIE: core diary

Gone will be the natural world perhaps but old nature tv reels will remain?

Whistle clean. To forget is to abet. Cost Price Value. Explore Explain Examine Experiment -- Most pretentious: Least alive. Trapped in the melting pot beyond the source muddy on the horizon Root Route and Range: will song never return/ muddy on horizons. Then comes the pong, the pong is strong, festering lilies and dreams. To some the stench of peanuts and/or of old banana skins in a garbage pail is sickening as days old pong of an unwashed person. (Tourmaline, jasper and opal are the stones of the living; Obsidian, chalcedony, flint are the stones of the dead; Herbs of the dead are pepper, oregano, and tar—wrote the poet Howard McCord p.113, Selected Poems, 1978,Crossing Press). “Still and all” a phrase I used means now and then maybe again. Allene was from Arkansas or Oklahoma and worked in schools in San Francisco a janitor loved by the teachers she helped

This writing is an art of appropriation “a series of refined filtering systems” said Robert Rauschenberg—part core sample of an era and part personal diary—of his 1970 drawings; also “combines says the painter & scholar Richard Steger whose sense of connection made me realize we all live in an assisted living society if lucky. “Oublieux” wrote Ned Rorem in Wings of Friendship about a great

composer we gays referred to as “Aunt Aaron” Copeland saying he was “very, very famous, and happy, but a wee bit ‘oublieux’”. We must keep watch over absent meaning said Maurice Blanchot. Chateau Graville-Lacoste a Pujols sur Caron, Gironde, France. Albert Ellis, Provoker of Change in Psychotherapy is dead at 93 said the obituary headline in The New York Times July 25, 2007

(most therapy makes you feel better, but you don’t get better: you have to back it up with action; & neurosis is high-class for whining). Oyvind aka Irving Gottesman/ Molbach wrote at his end “I believe in a future life. I’m ready for my next job. It’s goodbye-time" (to his cave). Dr Albert Ellis believed people sabotage a need for happiness; he developed “rational emotive behavioral therapy” concentrating on irrational ideas leading to self-destructive feeling and behavior. Wonder what happens to the world and if reduced when we die?

© Edward Mycue

On May 11, 2009 at 12:07pm Cynthia Whitman-Bradley wrote:
I recently pulled from the shelf my "proof" copy of Thomas James' Letters to a Stranger" to reread. Then I thought I would google him and I found this site.

I was the poetry editor at Houghton Mifflin in the 1970s who fought to have James' book published. My name at the time was Cynthia Whitman Hooper

Here's what I know: I graduated in English from Stanford and, as a young (22 years old), graduate, was hired to take the place of the retiring poetry editor (can't remember her name). When I received Letters to a Stranger on my desk, I was completely blown away...literally. All the things you have said, I felt.It was beautiful and agonizing to read. I immediately recommended publishing. But it takes several readings. No one else was as enthusiastic. The editor in chief came into my office, sat down, and told me that I was the only enthusiastic editor recommending publication. He said that he was willing to go out on a limb and publish the book in support of my recommendation if I really felt it was as great as I had written.

I told him that I believed this was truly genius, and that I stood by what I had said. I felt that it was dark but with incredibly powerful images that spoke to deep experience. The pain was exquisitely expressed. We had a fairly long conversation, but I don't remember the rest.

I spoke with Thomas on the phone to tell him we were going to publish. He was incredibly sweet, gentle. We had several conversations. He worked at the Welfare Department, I think, as his daytime job. He was thrilled that we were taking his book.

I remember having to present the forthcoming book to the "Book Sellers Conference". I was kind of dreading it because they were a group who didn't particularly want to push poetry! I told them that if there was one book of poetry they would remember always, it would be this one. I don't remember what else I said.

I left Houghton Mifflin before the book was published. As a young lover of literature, I was disillusioned by the reality of the business of publishing!

But the editor who handled the book until it was published, gave me a copy of the proof.

I was heartbroken to learn of his suicide. I felt that he had so much to share with all of us.

As I reread the book, I am so glad that I fought to have it published.

I hope this helps fill in some gaps.

On August 2, 2009 at 12:59am Patrick Tempel wrote:
I barely knew Tom in high school and in Joliet Junior College.I remember Ron Thelo admiring his poems.He was incredibly sensitive,he voted for me the only time I ever ran for office and the only time he ever voted. Our lockers were adjacent in PE,a class that we both hated.It's so haunting to find this out only now.That other souls not be made to endure this in the Joliets of the world.

On January 15, 2010 at 1:03pm Conor Murray wrote:
Thanks you so much for this article, you have introduced me to a wonderful poet right when I was feeling flat and stale. And thanks to Cynthia and Patrick for their memories of Thomas.

On April 29, 2010 at 2:21pm Michele Enrietta Micetich wrote:
I met Tom at JJC. I often stood at the
window between the stairwells -- one
day he joined me there. I commuted;
he lived nearby. We soon became quite
intimate friends, walking the back halls
holding hands. His hands would sweat
and we would laugh. I devoured every
word he wrote. I had read his work in
Literary Cavalcade in my senior year at
high school and could not believe he
was standing before him. He was just
mesmerizing. He drew for me. My
mother said he was the most handsome
boy I had ever brought home. Now I
am crying. I can still see him. Hear his
gravely voice. We went on to NIU and
graduated. Our post-NIU conversations
were just heartbreaking. His parents
died. Then we spoke for the last time
one night late on the phone. My new
husband told me to get off the phone. I
wish I never had. After the services. I
wrote--
Morning coffee
brews to black
and
in the dimness
I trace a raindrop
as it slides
slowly
down the window
lingering
here
and
there
in my memories
of you.

I have no idea why today made me
google Tom Bojeski. But the tears are
here again.

On October 24, 2010 at 6:38pm Philip Kouchoukos wrote:

I would expect that the publisher of the new edition has an obligation to find Lynn Bojeski Fisher or her son, if there were any profits from the new edition. I often dream that Tom is not dead but that we have somehow lost contact, and I am wondering how that happened. There's a sense of estrangement. I am happy to renew our friendship, but then I wake up. I haven't picked up his book in years. I have difficulty understanding it. I have read that he is an imagist poet. I understood more before he was published. I used to read all his poetry. Some of his favorite images then were "red foxes, bleeding skies, crackling skulls, dry bones, dumb tongues, dead stones, and seasons bursting like springs."

On October 27, 2010 at 4:43pm T.R. Woodruff wrote:
I can't quite conjure the single emotion to express the obsession that has now entered into the recesses of my mind; there is a deep wonderment to understand. To understand, what poetic key unlocks the basement stair to fracture the conscious and ultimately demise the artists before our realization of him.

Deeply intrigued. This tale of searching, of a hunger to know more of this artist so tormented in his time, has pulled on the mind of this poet, myself, the person wading through his own mystery in attempt to understand how such a word-magician could use his fingers to push a pen to paper, to use his fingers to push a trigger to hammer.

It is the six of you who have a real treasure in having known Tom as Bojeski, or James, or Bedlam. For I will only ever know him as the poet.

On May 13, 2011 at 1:23pm Taylor Altman wrote:

I think James's "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh" is much more akin to Plath's "Last Words" than "Lady Lazarus." Consider Plath's "They will wonder if I was important," to James's "I was so important!" In many ways, James's poem is a retelling of Plath's, or a continuation of the mummified woman's monologue. "My lungs were two dark fruit they stuffed with spices." "I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!" In these lines and many others, it's hard to tell Plath from James.

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 Lucie  Brock-Broido

Biography

Lucie Brock-Broido was born in Pittsburgh, was educated at Johns Hopkins and Columbia University, and has taught at Bennington, Princeton, Harvard (where she was a Briggs-Copeland poet), and Columbia. She is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as awards from the American Poetry Review and the Academy of American Arts and Letters.

In an interview with Carol Maso for BOMB magazine in . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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