Because love is the lesson for tomorrow

Letters to a Stranger, the first and only collection by Thomas James (1946-1974), was originally published in 1973, shortly before he committed suicide. This haunting, heartbreaking work is apparently considered one of the underground classics of contemporary poetry–and thankfully the wonderful Graywolf press published a new edition a few years ago.

“The Chestnut Branch”

There is something to be said for darkness
After all. My mother’s hands
Have been full of the dark all winter.

They are hollow boats not going anyplace.
They only pull the blinds
Or gesticulate at some ineradicable star.

Now the backyard unfolds its lacy pleats,
And I bring in a white branch
Because love is the lesson for tomorrow.

Will nothing cure the brightness in these streets?
A million strange petals touch
The panes. Is it a gift of snow?

Is it making up for lack of bandages?
Is it cold, is it hot–
Will it keep, should we put it on ice?

Should my sister sew it into bridal clothes?
Is it lingerie, or just a sheet
To pull across a used-up face?

Will it brighten up the arms of chairs?
It moves. It hurts my eyes.
I am not accustomed to so much light.

It is like waking after twenty years
To find your wife gone and the trees
Too big, strange white growths that flank the street.

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