James Wright’s poem ‘Complaint’ is about a husband who has lost his dear wife. He still feels her absence around the house. Their kids have grown up and the situation has changed. Still, the speaker struggles to cope with the vacancy created after his wife’s death. It is not that he longs for her presence out of love, but he needs her in the daily household works that she did quite perfectly. This poem showcases the style of Wright’s early poetry that strictly adheres to the formal structure, meter, and diction.
‘Complaint’ by James Wright is a husband’s dissatisfaction with his dead wife’s absence in their day-to-day household duties.
This piece begins with a speaker describing his love for his dead wife. When alive, she did all the work neatly. Some of the works she did include chasing the chickens out, sweeping the floor, cleaning the house after feats, and beating the kids for their beastly behavior. Now, as grown-up adults, their children, especially girls, are invested in attracting the opposite gender, and so do their nephews to “blowsy girls.” The speaker finds it quite difficult to adjust to the change. He recounts the pain his wife bore while alive and now, she lies down in her grave.
You can read the full poem here.
She’s gone. She was my love, my moon or more.
She chased the chickens out and swept the floor,
Yet, while vague nephews, spitting on their curls,
Amble to pester winds and blowsy girls,
James Wright’s poem ‘Complaint’ begins with a short note of a husband’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s abrupt death. In a dejected tone, he says, “She’s gone.” Her absence made him remember how much he loved her. She was literally the “moon” of his life. She was soft, kind, and caring. Besides, she did all the household tasks without a complaint. The activities performed by her include letting their chickens out in the open, sweeping the floor in the morning, emptying the bone and nutshells after feasts, and beating the kids for their beast-like behavior.
In the following lines, the speaker throws light on the present moment and describes how everything has changed after her death. The kids have grown up. Their boys have grown past childhood awkwardness. Their girls have grown mature to showcase their “swinging body’s riding space” by letting the stitches of their dresses out. They make child-like faces in order to appear innocent. But, their dressing manner reveals they have matured substantially.
There are some nephews the speaker cannot remember. They have also grown up. Now, they spit on their curls, ample around in search of red-faced girls. The term “pester winds” hints at their wayward nature.
What arm will sweep the room, what hand will hold
New snow against the milk to keep it cold?
New snow against her face and hands she bore,
And now lies down, who was my moon or more.
In these lines of ‘Complaint,’ the speaker misses his wife. Wright uses synecdoche in the phrases “What arm” and “What hand.” The specific reference to the wife’s hand hints at how adept she was in her day-to-day task. She swept the floor and held the new snow against the milk in order to keep it cold.
Furthermore, she dumped the garbage and fed the hogs and dogs with the remaining food of the previous day. In the next line, the speaker addresses his wife as “my lost hag.” The term “hag” is used by rural folks to call upon their wives. It associates a sense of originality with the text. This piece is about a rural folk complaining about his dead wife’s absence.
His wife bore the pain of childbirth at midnight, sassafrass, and rain. Not only that she also bore the weight of the new snow against her face and hands. She dedicated her life to these mundane tasks without anything in return. Now, being dead, the speaker’s beloved wife lies down in the cold grave.
Structure and Form
‘Complaint’ is written in a combination of nine rhyming couplets. The lines are grouped together in a single stanza, without any stanza break. Every two lines end with a perfect rhyme. For instance, the first two lines contain the end rhyme, “more” and “floor.” A similar scheme is used throughout the poem. Besides, the overall poem is in iambic pentameter. Each line consists of ten syllables and the stress falls on the second syllable of each metrical unit forming an iambic foot. Apart from that, this piece is written from the third-person point of view.
In Wright’s poem ‘Complaint,’ readers can find the following literary devices:
- Metaphor: In the first line, the speaker compares his “love,” his dearest wife to the “moon.” It is a metaphor.
- Simile: It occurs in the fourth line, “the kids for leaping up like beasts.”
- Enjambment: Wright uses this device in these lines, “What arm will sweep the room, what hand will hold/ New snow against the milk to keep it cold?”
- Alliteration: It occurs in “my moon or more,” “chased the chickens,” “leaping up like,” “some swinging,” “hand will hold,” etc.
- Rhetorical Question: The speaker uses a few rhetorical questions from lines eleven through fourteen. These questions imply that there is none to perform the tasks that his wife did when she was alive.
This poem is about a husband’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s absence. She is no more. That’s why the speaker describes how his life is without her in a thoughtful manner. When she was alive, she did all the household tasks. Now her absence reminds him of the hard work she put into their house.
The main theme of the poem is missing one’s loved one. It also explores the themes of absence, death, and love. In this poem, the speaker recounts the tasks his wife did when she was alive and expresses his love for her.
This piece is written in the conventional couplet form with a regular rhyme scheme and meter. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB and it is written in iambic pentameter. Besides, this piece is written from the third-person point of view.
The poem was first published in James Wright’s sixth collection of poetry, Collected Poems (1971). It is one of the early poems by Wright that is written using a conventional form and meter.
The following lost contains a few poems that tap on similar themes present in James Wright’s poem ‘Complaint.’ You can also consider reading other James Wright poems.
- ‘Fletcher McGee’ by Edgar Lee Masters — This poem is about a husband who is responsible for his wife’s death.
- ‘Mrs. Sisyphus’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This heart-wrenching poem is about the suffering of Mr. Sisyphus’ wife.
- ‘The Forsaken Wife’ by Elizabeth Thomas — This piece describes a wife’s superiority to her husband, who forsook her for his infidelity.
- ‘The Wife’s Tale’ by Seamus Heaney — This poem is a fairly simple depiction of farmland and the tasks of a wife, who is barely more than an observer.
You can also read these poems about missing someone.