Letters to a stranger is a slim volume of poems by Thomas James ((1946 - 1974) posthumously collected and published in 2008 by an admiring reader/ critic, Lucy Brock-Broido. James died by suicide in 1974.

There are 54 poems in all. Forty-one of them were first published in 1973 as James's only published book of verse, Letters to a Stranger. Ms Brock-Broido has collected 13 more from various small magazines. Most have a faint formalistic ring to them with rhymed triplets (a-x-a) predominating.   Preceding the poems is an introduction by Ms Brock-Broido, an introduction that can only be called unusually confessional. (In his characteristically succinct diction, series editor Mark Doty calls it "a love letter, a biography and exorcism all at once".) For subjects, the bulk of the poems have, as we call a type of educational conference in medicine, morbidity and mortality. Indeed, the book might perhaps have been more appropriately entitled "Intimations of morbidity and mortality". Many of the poems are graphic.


It is easy to understand Ms Brock-Broido's description of James's following as a "small underground railroad of reading for young poets", almost a cult. Although I had never heard of him until a few months ago (and can't now for the life of me remember how I discovered this book), I can see how many readers, and not just young poets, would become hooked. It is well nigh impossible to forget James having once read some of his more successful poems. Indeed I can say that "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh" is one of the few poems I'll never forget. Ever.

James's almost single-minded obsession in these poems is death: death previsioned ("Luncheon with the Hangman"), dying ("Laceration"), the recently dead ("Room 101", "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh"), not so recently dead ("No Music"), dead and being dredged from a lake ("Dragging the Lake"), death in dreams ("Head of Duck", "The Stableboy", which recalls Timothy Findley's novel The Wars), and dead and being dissected ("Dissecting a Pig"). Some of his fascination with death is curiously profound in my opinion. For example he wonders about the ambiguous and ambivalent pleasures of being dead in an eerie way that suggests he's been there before. Likewise he finds intriguing the opposite notions of vulnerability and invulnerability of the dead and therefore provides often jarringly effective images of needles and hornet stingers attempting to pierce the stone skin of a corpse. (Yes, many of these poems are not for those hoping to find the gentle strains of John Lyly.)

One of the poet's unusual characteristics is an almost casual marriage of graphic images in the most banal of vocabulary and settings. He can shock with exuberant metaphors constructed from ordinary words. ("My mother dungeoned in her crooked body", "All morning I have been turning into jade.") James also finds birth, not surprisingly, a fertile metaphor for certain of the actions in his poems, e.g., a corpse being delivered from the bottom of a lake.  And resurrection, as a particular example of metaphoric birth, recurs several times in Letters. Which makes sense since a great deal of the imagery is Christian, e.g., crucifixion, stigmata, and communion, but not in an oppressive manner, since most of the poems operate on a strictly secular plane, which includes occasional sexually suggestive passages such as "Suddenly my tongue grew / Sticky and hard" to describe the transformation of the frog in the fairytale, or, candles that are "Erect and astonished".  When one takes a step back and ponders the apparently unlikely confluence of death, religion and sex in the same poet, often in the same poem, one begins to see James as a mystic poet in the tradition of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila. James enjoys the same almost ecstatic and complex relationship - at once fearful and yet inviting - with death, latent sexuality and religious fervor.

These poems offer a treasure trove of material for those students of literature and medicine interested in attitudes to death, experiences of dying and suffering, the imagined thoughts of the dead and the nexus of religion and death, often with sexual undertones. In addition to the poems already referenced, the following poems offer particularly interesting vantage points on addiction ("Two Aunts"), hallucinations of illness and fever from envenomation ("Snakebite"), and one's act of dying ("The Wharf"). This last poem is, in fact, the last poem in the book and is an incredibly rewarding and memorable finale to a most unusual poet's work. Like Breece D'J Pancake, John Kennedy Toole, and Sylvia Plath, Thomas James ended his life, leaving us a prematurely encapsulated body of outstanding work. One wonders, after one has read and re-read James, as I have for several months now, whether his self-diagnosis, as recorded in "Laceration", was all too true and the harbinger of his suicide: "I am too full of my own poisons / To be swallowed by anybody's love. / I wake. Infection paces at my boundaries."

A suggestion: Although unplanned, my reading of the introduction followed that of the poems. I suggest other readers consider the same sequence. Although Ms Brock-Broido's introduction offers insights into the poet's kinship with Sylvia Plath and other poets, it is more useful to approach James's poetry as an unbiased reader.


Thomas James was born Thomas Edward Bojeski.


Graywolf Press

Place Published

St. Paul



Page Count