With all kinds of worthless chit chatting and twitter jibber jabbering going on, The Delicacy and Strength is less a reminder that epistolary literature is a lost art, but more a revelation that its possibilities are still available, if one avails his- or herself to it at all. Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright met only two times, the first time at a writers conference in Michigan and the second in a New York City hospital where Wright lay dying of cancer. Between these two bookends was a gap of three summers and then a little over two-and-a-half years of correspondence between them. What began as an exchange of mutual admirers of each other’s work (Silko describes Wright’s work as having “grace and delicacy,” that it “coax[es] out the range of dissonances and harmonies it allows us…”) rather quickly developed into an intimate series of encouragements, exposures, shoptalk, and reveries on language, death, landscape, art, and life.
Wright initiated the letters by expressing his admiration for Silko’s Ceremony which he describes as “one of the four or five best books” he’d ever read about America and that his “very life [meant] more to [him] than it would have meant if [she] hadn’t written” this classic book. The gravity of this statement is obvious, but it’s a sincerity that is carried throughout their letters. Wright’s letter arrived at a time of great personal turmoil for Silko and was received by her as a kind of salve on her wounds. After some formalities are dispensed with the letters grow equally in their surprising candor and in their detail. One such letter from Silko opens with a wonderfully wrought tale about a mean rooster on her property in Arizona:
There are all kinds of other rooster stories that one is apt to hear. I am glad I have this rooster because I never quite believed roosters so consistently were as the stories tell us they are. On these hot Tucson days, he scratches a little nest in the damp dirt under the Mexican lime tree by the front door. It is imperative for him that the kittens and the black cat show him respect, even deference, by detouring or half-circling the rooster as they approach the water dish which is also under the lime tree. If they fail to do this, then he jumps up and stamps his feet, moving sideways until they cringe. This done, he goes back to his mud nest
Surprised at what she wrote, Silko shares: “I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me.” What Wright brought out in Silko was her incredibly fluid narrative style, a style informed equally by Faulkner and Twain (what Wright describes as a “gift for storytelling, the natural gift, the gift of one who is native to life itself, so to speak…”) as it is by the long line of Laguna storytellers in her life. But what was also drawn out were beautiful reflections on what she has learned as a Laguna. For instance, regarding death:
Death never ends feelings or relationships at Laguna. If a dear one passes on, the love continues and it continues in both directions—it is requited by the spirits of these dear ones who send blessings back to us, maybe with rain or maybe with the feeling of continuity and closeness as well as with past memories…. At Laguna, when someone dies, you don’t “get over it” by forgetting; you “get over it” by remembering, and by remembering you are aware that no person is ever truly lost or gone once they have been in our lives and loved us, as we have loved them. Which isn’t to say that you conduct life exactly as if the person were alive. If Grandpa didn’t like red paint, after he is gone you can feel free to paint the walls red because it is understood that those sorts of things are no longer concerns of the dead.
Neither Wright nor Silko had any awareness of Wright’s illness until long after they had established contact and shortly before he died. So these auguries of death are less eerie as they are stunning examples of how extraordinarily attuned these writers were as they were writing these letters to each other.
While Wright is effusive in his praise to Silko of her work and her letters, he was much slower to open himself up to her. It was easy for him to describe places and objects or poetry to her:
When you love a place, really and hopelessly love it, I think you love it even for its signs of disaster, just as you come to realize how you love the particular irregularities and even the scars on some person’s face….
Sometimes I wonder about things like lace, things that human beings make with their own hands, things that aren’t much help as shelter from the elements or against war and other kinds of brutality….
A poem is a very odd duck. It goes through changes—in form and color—when you leave it alone patiently, just as surely as a plant does, or an animal, or any other creature. Have you ever read a book by someone which you know has been written too quickly and impatiently and published too soon? Such books always remind me of tomatoes or oranges that have been picked still green and then squirted full of artificial colors. They look quite nice on the supermarket shelves, and they taste awful. I remember reading such books and feeling the glands under my chin begin to ache. They made me feel as though I were getting the mumps.
But after a letter from Silko wherein she describes her debilitating divorce and how she lost her custody fight, Wright finally opens up to her and shares what he describes as his “worst pain.” Silko’s response is lovely and is another reminder of story’s capacity to renew, to heal even:
I am deeply moved by the letter you sent and want you to know that I will always cherish and guard its story. I believe more than ever that it is in sharing the stories of our grief that we somehow can make sense out—no, not make sense out of these things…. But through stories from each other we can feel that we are not alone, that we are not the first and the last to confront losses such as these…
This release enables Wright to be able to write:
We all seem doomed to a freedom to choose between indifference and sadness. I can’t—or won’t—be indifferent to life, and yet when I turn my face toward it, how sorrowful it seems.
I was surprised how devastated I was after Wright’s letter wherein he tells of his cancer. Though I had known it was coming, it was nevertheless still shocking. Wright died three months later. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace is an incredible document as it affords us an opportunity to reflect on the power of opening up, of sharing stories, of intimacy, and also of how much may be said in a letter, how a letter, unconfined by silly word-counts, carefully written rather than quickly typed in some “dialogue” box, may actually result in some deep connection, awareness, and perhaps even greater understanding about what it means to live, how, as Silko describes, “deeply we can touch each other” with “simple words.” When was the last time something that landed in your inbox did that for you?
About the reviewer:
John Madera edits the forum Big Other and journal The Chapbook Review. He is published widely online and most recently in The Collagist, Flatmancrooked, and The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature. His fiction is forthcoming in Opium Magazine and Corduroy Mountain. He is editing a collection of essays on the craft of writing ( Publishing Genius Press, 2010).