The Origin of James Wright’s “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store”

I don’t know why this poem hangs so clearly in my imagination.  At first, I wasn’t even sure what it was about.  But there was something strange about it that tripped me up in a positive way–shook some deeper meaning with its numbered stanzas, it’s oddly broken lines, and the mixture of the common experience and the mystical flashes of God and warriors.

Then, after speaking with a friend, the idea of a homeless person made sense.  And later, I found a note on the experience that sparked Wright to write the poem in the first place.  Wright was in a checkout line at a department store and he reached for his wallet to pay, but it wasn’t there.  He’d left it at home.

Of course I got out of that very easily,  but I realized after their fisheye that there were a lot of people who weren’t going to go back as a professor at a university . . . There are plenty of people who can’t do that and I just got a flash of that, in a moment.  And it’s no God damn joke to have people look at you like that.

So he took the experience and he created this poem:

Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store

The beautiful cashier’s white face has risen
once more
Behind a young manager’s shoulder.
They whisper together, and stare
Straight into my face.
I feel like grabbing a stray child
Or a skinny old woman
And diving into a cellar, crouching
Under a stone bridge, praying myself sick,
Till the troops pass.

Why should he care. He goes.
I slump deeper.
In my frayed coat, I am pinned down
By debt. He nods,
Commending my flesh to the pity of the
daws of God.

Am I dead? And, if not, why not?
For she sails there, alone, looming in the
heaven of the beautiful.
She knows
The bulldozers will scrape me up
After dark, behind
The officer’s club.
Beneath her terrible blaze, my skeleton
Glitters out. I am the dark. I am the dark
Bone I was born to be.

Tu Fu woke shuddering on a battlefield
Once, in the dead of night, and made out
The mangled women, sorting
The haggard slant-eyes.
The moon was up.

I am hungry. In two more days
It will be spring. So this
Is what it feels like.


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