Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright (Knopf)
FRANZ WRIGHT: WHEELING MOTEL
Bright Star, if you haven’t seen it, is a film that centers around John Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne; it’s mostly about their lower-case-R romantic relationship, but, inevitably, it’s a little about poetry as well, which gets some healthy screen-time, even with and sometimes because of all the lovey-dovey-ness. No, you’re not reading the wrong review; since it was the Romantic poets who gave us a picture of the melancholy, tortured soul of the artist, it’s a Romantic poet who might help us start thinking about Wright’s most recent volume of poetry. Let me go ahead, though, and recommend this film; there aren’t enough movies about poets for me not to, and Jane Campion’s highly stylized cinematography is worth watching even if the film’s trajectory is a little thin; it’s like watching Titanic—you know the ending before the film begins. But that, too, has everything to do with approaching the poetry of Franz Wright (and I hope I haven’t offered too much of a spoiler regarding Bright Star).
My favorite exchange in the movie is drawn from Keats’ letters, though here it is all the more winsome because, rendered as a conversation between Keats and Brawne, it seems extemporaneous:
Fanny (in consternation): “I still don’t know how to work out a poem.”
John (slowly, with conviction): “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
Fanny (breathless): “I love mystery!”
Of course she does. We all might, in a situation like that, pluckily confess a love of mystery. What we might mean, though, is that we love a mystery—why, perhaps, mystery novels outsell volumes of poetry almost four dozen to one. We love a mystery because it asks to be—begs to be—solved, usually in a rather distant or escapist way. We might even love the mystery of something concrete and immediate, such as how certain figures become famous or rise to power, but mystery, mystery itself—thick, layered, lasting, nebulaic, complex, filmy, paradoxical, slippery mystery—a lifetime, or several, of that “I can’t quite put my finger on it” feeling—mystery is rough. We want the knowable; we want the sayable. We want, badly, to put our fingers on it. So the idea that the soul might be soothed and emboldened all at once is something of a paradox, to say nothing of the humanly implausible—accepting mystery—when we’re not very good at accepting an asterisked surcharge poorly explained and in microscopic type on our phone bills. While it may be the pull-out quote of the movie and one of many astute sentiments offered by our beloved John Keats, it’s also a doorway into the work of Franz Wright.
Readers of Wright’s poetry are not supposed to get to the shore very quickly. They might, in fact, take in a big sputtering gulp or two of the lake while they’re in the water. As Keats has graciously suggested, this is not a bad thing. It is, perhaps, one of those things only poetry can accomplish in our lives. Daisy Fried has described Wright’s work as “uningratiating, bumptiously witty, inexhaustibly joyless and routinely surprising”; she also pronounced his work full of “dark epiphanies, surging sincerities and ironic outbursts [that] build incrementally from poem to poem.” If we know that going in, with our figurative swim trunks cinched tight, then perhaps we won’t mind so much when we find ourselves where we do—out in the lake, treading someone else’s troubled waters a long, quiet ways from shore.
They are, indeed, troubled waters. To begin with, we’ve got his childhood. Franz Wright is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright, whose poetry several generations of readers might be familiar with, and who is present in his son’s work consistently as absence; Franz Wright wrestles in each of his books with this figure, or the shadow and ghost of it, as well as the yearning that naturally spawns from such an absence. Take, for example, “Association”:
Dawns when I can’t sleep I walk,
in thought, all the way
My father loved Thoreau, I wish
he could have walked there
with me once,
my hungover Virgil. Lying in bed
with a big ax
lodged in my head, I still hear him
as if from the next room
bumping into things and cursing.
Give us this day, he mutters,
our daily stone. Nice.
Can’t blame him, though. This morning
can’t sleep for missing him.
Like most of the poems in this book, Wright’s syntax is straight-forward and his imagery unconvoluted; what is complex here is the turning of certain phrases and the speaker’s tone: wingbeats of resignation, recognition, and reconciliation, all of which seem to flit uncertainly around the bright bulbs of memory and the present moment. As well, a reader might make of the “big ax” either an assumption about his current physical state—hungover like his dad, or worse—or the psychological wound his father’s presence/absence inflicts.
Certainly a prominent and consistent theme in Wright’s work, and Wheeling Motel is no exception, is his wrestling with mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism (officially, though, Wright is “clean”; he seems in this volume mostly to be reflecting on his decades of chemical dependence), as well as depression and suicide. Pick your ax, then, any ax.
Like the Confessional poets, especially Berryman, Sexton, and Plath, Wright is entranced with, one might even say obsessed with, death, and here’s where the film Titanic might finally fit in: Wright knows what’s coming, as we all do, which makes this more generously not an obsession with death but with the human condition. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Wright has been diagnosed recently with lung cancer. So it makes sense that, in the midst of this idée fixe, he is not distracted by politics or current events, a glimpse of some young thing’s thigh, a stellar jazz ditty, or how his co-workers jabber on about the Superbowl. There’s something insistently gentle and gently insistent in Wheeling Motel about peering into eternity this way—often by means of suicide. Evidence of this is found in poems like “Kyrie”:
Around midnight he took the oxycodone
and listened to Arvo Part’s “I Am the True Vine”
over and over, the snow falling harder now.
He switched off the light and sat without dread
of the coming hours quietly singing along:
he smoked any number of cigarettes without thinking
once about the horrifying consequence;
he was legibly told what to say and he wrote
with mounting excitement and pleasure,
and sent friendly e-mails to everyone, Lord
I had such a good time and I don’t regret anything—
What happened to the prayer that goes like that?
Wright’s approach to death—and such references are not particularly personal or, despite the earlier reference, confessional (that is, he calls no attention to his diagnosis)—is most often deadpan and full-frontal; here the man sits “without dread…without thinking / once about the horrifying consequence.” Of course, in the middle of all that, through it, Wright wrestles with the absence/presence of another kind of father: God. Fried suggests that it’s difficult to write seriously about God in the 21st century without, she says, “easy resolution or false consolation”—John Donne may have done it (way back when), Gerard Manley Hopkins may have done it (way back when), but now? Fried admits somewhat begrudgingly that Franz Wright does it, more in the vein of Emily Dickinson’s embittered approach to the “terrible eternity” that awaits us. An example of this might be how Wright begins “The Balance” with these lines, “Disturbs me… / this longing in myself / for heaven / or another life” and then works into the ending this way:
There are two worlds,
dream and death.
Have you noticed
we always remember the good things
about the most terrible times;
and they come back to us in spirit
or we return to them, it’s hard to tell,
when things turn terrible again.
They are all we can carry
and all we’re allowed.
they are the spirit:
they are the bright
soul without margins, the speaker
of the text
in which words and experience
whose still voice kept us
when everything else turned away.
Wright’s rendering of the two worlds—dream and death—returns us to mystery. Throughout Wheeling Motel we find the human circumstance of hanging in the proverbial balance, of, like in “No Answer No Why,” managing both the being here and the “not-hereness”; of, like in “Will,” what is real and unreal; of, like in “Unwriting,” “words / written and unwritten,” “equations / known and still unknown.” God is, in “The Our Father,” “[u]tterer of leaves, most mysterious / author of water and light; // taker and restorer of oblivion.”
Wright is able to write seriously about faith because, like Jacob with the angel, he’s wrestling: with God and with the very language—the small and pitiful words that he remarks will “have to do”—we must use to think about, to know, to approach God, and he will not let go until he receives a blessing. Only for Wright, the wrestling itself is a kind of blessing, maybe the only blessing of this life, and he’s got a thousand different limps from a thousand nights of wrestling, and no other kind but a wrestling-match night anywhere in his future. Darn it all if that doesn’t make for fascinating poetry, for, somehow, the soothing and emboldening of what Wright calls “the bright / soul without margins” to accept mystery.
Susanna Childress is a recipient of the Life Career Poetry Award from the National Society of Arts and Letters, an AWP Intro Journals award, the 2003 Foley Poetry Award, sponsored by America: The National Catholic Weekly, and the Roy Crane Excellence in Creative Arts Award. Her work has appeared in Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Notre Dame Review, Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, RUNES, and the anthology And Know This Place: Poems of Indiana. Her first volume of poems, Jagged with Love, was chosen by Billy Collins as winner of the 2005 Brittingham Poetry Prize.