Walking to Martha’s Vineyard
There aren’t too many writers—never mind poets!—you could see having their books moved back behind the counter with the Kerouacs, Bukowskis, Burroughses, Ballards, and Denis Johnsons, out of the reach of impulse kleptomaniacs. It could happen to Franz Wright.
“The only animal that commits suicide/ went for a walk in the park,” he writes at the beginning of the last poem in his Pulitzer-winning Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. How’s that for a spooky tone shift. Deader than deadpan, any particular Wright poem may not seem like much, until, that is, you read a few of them. Once the context kicks in, you may find yourself trying to track down every word he’s written.
It’s the American context du jour: abandoned by father (neglected by stepfather), addicted (obnoxious), recovering (resplendent). It worked for Nirvana, it works for Eminem. Wright may be the first of the laureates of self-esteem issues to have the art of his abandoner to meditate on, and that’s the bait the literary journalists have taken from the Times to the TLS. But let’s face it—compared to his son, James Wright was lucky.
Homeless in Manhattan
the winter of your dying
I didn’t have a lot of time
to think about it, trying
to stay alive
it was just the next interesting thing you would do—
that is how cold it was
and how often I walked to the edge of the actual
river to join you
Actual, as opposed to the metaphor another poet might have copped to; interesting, as opposed to ordinary? A standard poem by Wright pere works like epoxy—one part natural description smushed up with one part emotional declarative, and usually it sticks. The one everyone knows is the Midwesternification of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” In that poem, horse droppings in sunlight “blaze up into golden stones” as the speaker leans back in the hammock, waiting for a chicken hawk to fly by before personalizing “You must change your life” as “I have wasted my life.”
Franz Wright’s poems one-up his father’s. Witty, harrowing, and unafraid to name shit, the poems of Wright fils trade up from somber continuity to stanzas that insist on being taken individually (“What an evil potato goes through/we can never know, but/I’m beginning to resemble one”) even as they’re accumulating authority:
Ah, a little light now
It is the hour
when it becomes possible
to distinguish a white
thread from a black,
so prayer begins
I see a shadowy reflection now our fingers touch
There’s nothing like what is
fragile and momentary
as the pale yellow light along the windowsill
in winter north
of nowhere yet
if not for winter, nothing
would get done
would finally get done
I’ve been all around this world
and not to die in hell
not to die in the flames of hell homeless with a cell phone please
There’s nothing like today
(“Shaving in the Dark”)
Readers already accustomed to the intensities and painful microshifts of, say, Paul Celan may find themselves unchallenged by the slackness of this diction. And as with any prize-winning collection, it’s easy to think of a dozen other eligible books far, far worthier of notice (I was pulling for Lorine Niedecker’s Collected to win). It ought to be considered that poetry readers tend, historically speaking, to persuade themselves that all manner of baroque nonsense must appear for a text to be considered a proper poem. It’s also worth risking the ungentlemanly comment that far worse books have won bigger prizes.
Many of Wright’s memorable lines are respectably unquotable (“My poem is not/for example/a blank check in pussyland/anymore”). His sexy moments are indelibly creepy (“She undressed/looking into my eyes/like someone about to go swimming at dawn alone”). And his moments of warmth are usually filled with sorrow (“I don’t want to sleep with you/I want to wake up with you,//when I was sick in bed.”). I found the poems in his previous (and remaindered) collection The Beforelife to hold together more consistently (“Death is nature’s way/of telling you to be quiet”), but perhaps I will hear differently from a college student in torn jeans on a Bonanza bus somewhere outside Hartford. There are a dozen American poets named Wright, but Franz is the one kids will steal.