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Letters to a Stranger

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In April we will pierce his body.
It is March. Snow is dust over the branches.
A pony hunches in the orchard.
I stand at the frozen mouth of the river,
Thinking of you.
In the house where you live
Frost glitters on the windows
Like uncounted pieces of silver.
Already they are preparing the wine and the bread.


The field is banked with purple asters
And a spill of mustard flowers.
The earth has taken on terrible proportions.
Out in an unused meadow
The wildflowers have already covered
The delicate bones of an Indian.
Bees are flying across the meadow
To a hive under the rafters of the barn.
Someone is leading a horse with crippled bones
Into the spikes of clover.


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.
I am afraid of what the world will do.
Only this afternoon
I heard two worms conversing
In the shadow of his breastbone.
I slipped out of the palace
And entered a vein of gillyflowers
On the edge of potter’s field.
I will not be missed.
No one even noticed.


I have been thinking of the son
I would like to have.
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.
Tonight, I perceive the young girls
In my mother’s blood
Letting their seed pass by unnoticed,
A red nativity.


Last night they dragged the canal
For an old man’s body.
Now he is singing for a hook
Just below water level.
A branch of ice is splitting open
Across each window,
And snow is dismantling the weeds
Like the breakable furniture of a boudoir.
I have been rereading your letters.
It is too cold for a virgin birth to occur
Even in the frosty suburbs
Of a wildflower.


I have learned to camouflage myself in church,
Masking my body
With the body of a saint.
Last night frost glazed the face of Mary Magdalene,
And snow rode up to the altar windows.
Before morning, the sparrows came down
To the body of Saint Francis.
Now he is upholstered in oak leaves
Like a living room chair.
This morning we are preparing a crucifixion.
I am thinking of you now.
With the velvet at my knees
And the silverware shining on the altar
And the stained glass moving out of focus
And the cross veiled in black,
I am present for the news of an enormous death.
I take the bread on my tongue
Like one of Christ’s fingers,
And the wine rides through my breast
Like a dark hearse.
All the while I am thinking of you.
An avalanche of white carnations
Is drifting across your voice
As it drifts across the voices of confession.
But the snow keeps whispering of you over and over.

Thomas James, "Letters to a Stranger" from Letters to a Stranger, published by Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2008 by Thomas James.  Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Source: Letters to a Stranger (Graywolf Press, 2008)
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Letters to a Stranger

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  • Thomas James was born Thomas Edward Bojeski in Joliet, Illinois, where he would live most of his life. His poems, which demonstrate technical skill and the influence of Sylvia Plath, appeared in magazines and anthologies, including, North American Review, Poetry, and Poetry Northwest, which awarded him the Theodore Roethke Prize in 1969. He died in 1974 at the age of 27, shortly after the first publication of his only book, Letters to a Stranger. Since its publication, it has become one of the underground classics of contemporary American poetry. Writing in the Washington Post, Edward Hirsch describes Letters to a Stranger as “a book of dark intensities and deeply felt connections, both haunted and haunting, at once brooding, sensual and lucid. ... The voice in these poems—painfully lonely and filled with longing, estranged and religious—has stayed with me for more than 20 years. It deserves to be remembered.”

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