Walking to Martha’s Vineyard

Franz Wright

Knopf

75p, 2003

Tuesday, May 11th, 2004

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

To me

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
(“Fathers”)

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
the moment
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.

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3 Responses to “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard”

  1. Bob Cooperman Says:

    At the risk of being a lone voice and of being deemed insensitive to Mr. Wright’s personal demons, despite some lovely and striking images in the first few poems, I disliked this collection immensely: the compulsive repetitiveness of the subject matter, the confessional tone, the almost narcissistic being “half in love with easeful death,” all, ultimately, got on my nerves. As a poet, I don’t think he’s close to his father. Still, even at his most omphalagacytic obsessive, there was a line or two in some poems that struck me as wonderful. It’s just that by the end of the collection I could no longer care how many times Mr. Wright has contemplated suicide and not done it, how suicidal and miserable our species is. Perhaps the problem is with me, and my dislike for the confessional mode, which so easily lends itself to self-parody, self-pity, and self-absorption.

    Robert Cooperman

  2. Franz W. Says:

    Thanks, this is one of the few reviews (of me) I’ve ever enjoyed reading.

    Best,
    Franz Wright

  3. Daniela Gioseffi Says:

    Though this is a good review on Franzw Wright by Jordan Davis, and though there might be something in the letter prior to mine complaining about Franz Wright’s subject matter being too constantly involved with his contemplation of suicide as a central theme of his work–the world, “too much with us late and soon,” can certainly make such a theme a universal one. It must be awful to be told that you aren’t really up to your father’s work, and it’s true James Wright dealt with many wider and more worldly moral dilemmas and themes, but the really delightful thing about his son, Franz, is the delicate simplicity of Franz Wright’s diction. There is nothing pretentious in his cadence and his imagistic surprises seem stumbled upon without effort or pose. The simplicity of his work appeals to the young. They don’t have to have an education in literature to appreciate it. That may be a very refreshing thing for poetry in general when there has been so much pretentious theorizing going on about language and abstract painting and whether a poem should mean or just be. All that nonsensical “post-modern” criticism has in a measure stifled poetry for all but the MFA audience that lives by it. I like the fact the Franz Wright just makes his own simple diction, and now that he has been given the Pulitzer, like his father, he may be satisfied enough to expand his themes. I knew his father as a very sardonic and kindly guy. I was dining with his Dad and other poets the evening James Wright won the Pulitzer, and he was too humble to even mention he’d just had that important phone call announcing it. He didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the other poets at the table, i.e. John Logan, whom he much admired, and felt deserved a Pulitzer, or D. Snodgrass, both poets of his generation who might have been saddened by not getting a prize that year themselves. James Wright had a wide intellect and he ws concerned with political issues quite profoundly. It must be very difficult to be his poet son and always be wondering, are they helping me because they loved Dad?– but if poetry is Franz Wright’s salvation, he has not done badly by that muse, and he does not really imitate his father’s style. He has developed his own very conversational cadence, sparse and unpretentious, and then he takes imaginative and sometimes surreal leaps that make him very original in style and, yes, a poet that almost anyone who reads can enjoy. I think it is refreshing that he has simplified the dialog with his audience to the degree that poetry can appeal to the masses again. It is good for poetry and good for the audience for poetry to get beyond all that empty, sollipcistic nonsense, and extremely pretentious foolery that resulted in the dreadful spectacle of, for one example, Jorie Graham’s SWARM. It is nice that the emperor has clothes again, and real feelings to share with the young who are very disillusioned and need someone to say, I’m disillusioned, too, America, but I go on because there is beauty and love to be sustained in all this cauldron of sorrow and hypocrisy and doubtful future. So, I’m happy for Franze Wright and happy for James Wright that his caring son has found salvation in the muse his father left to him. Blessings on both of them! They are decent, and feeling poets who want to say something useful to a living, breathing audience.

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