Since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, isolated moments of Franz Wright’s public life have been almost as surreal as some of his earlier poems. Mingled with the publication of his first collected poems and numerous reading invitations were embarrassingly public diatribes against The New Criterion’s William Logan and the poet Ron Silliman. At one point, Wright even threatened to give Logan “the crippling beating you so clearly masochistically desire.”
Nobody looks good when this happens, and Wright has since sworn off reading and responding to critics. Yet one cannot help but think that these events still occupy his mind in his newest collection of poems, Wheeling Motel, where the poet imagines a perfect world in which he sends “friendly e-mails to everyone” and does not “regret anything.”
While the title might lead one to expect that the book will focus on family roots, or the lack thereof (Wright’s mother is from Wheeling, W.Va.; and his father, the poet James Wright, is from neighboring Martins Ferry, Ohio), the real focus of the book is language itself—in particular, the gap between words and objects and the potential use of language as a gesture to point us toward the voice of God.
In one of the first poems in the volume, “Another Working Dawn,” for example, the poet is a Rimbaudian seer “soaring high above an endless city” and “scribbling in the margins something about a rainy doorway.” The words the poet ascribes to what he sees, however, are not equal to the objects, and the objects themselves point to something else—some disembodied “voice” that is “nowhere and everywhere.” For Wright, this is the voice of God, and the work of the poet, as he writes in “Anniversary,” is to use his “broken mouth” to point us toward this voice that names “the stars one by/ one.”
It is in this sense that language is a sacrament for Wright. Words are tangible objects that are both means and symbols of grace. Poets are like priests, not in the Mallarmean sense of creating inscrutable, mystical utterances, but in the sense of using words to evoke contemplation and silence. Thus Wright contrasts true poets who “call us/ to mind, say words/ in our name” with “the mad” who “mutter” to “keep themselves from thinking.”
Yet if the mad “mutter” to “keep themselves from thinking,” Wright’s own use of the occasional cliché can have that same sort of unthinking feeling. Take “My Peace I Leave,” for example, in which Wright pleads:
Help me change.
Here on my knees
in the hell of my
on its cold star,
Few poets today would risk the cool chuckle of the critic with the metaphor “hell of my/ heart,” but Wright does. There is, however, a certain redemptive value to Wright’s clichés. While the emotional impact of these expressions has been dulled through overuse, Wright’s surprising incorporation of them in his poems serves to give them new life. We read these words again as words and not as mere clichés. Furthermore, Wright’s willingness to explore his feelings in whatever form he finds them, even the cliché, frees us to let down our own guards and take these expressions at face value again. In this sense, Wright’s use of the cliché can be understood as an effort to regain a sphere of sentiment often dismissed by a pervading Western scientific materialism.
Wright is at his best in the volume when he relies on the evocative sparseness and the understated metaphors that are the staples of his style. In “With a Child,” for example, he writes that “time blows through your hair,/ the river of the dead,” and in “Waltham Catholic Cemetery,” the poet compares modern life to “walking along still honing some words/ to a bright and anonymous/ saying.”
His family is present in these poems as well. In the book’s title poem, Wright addresses his father: “It’s twenty-five years ago:/ you went to death, I to life, and/ which was luckier God only knows”; and in “Bumming a Cigarette,” he thinks of his brother, “a middle-aged man who died as a child.” What Wright suggests in these and other poems is that the difference between life and death, human flourishing and poisonous despair, is not so cut-and-dried. Living can be a form of dying, and dying, another life.
Unlike his earliest poems, however, in which the acknowledgement of our precariousness leads to despair, in Wheeling Motel (as in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard and God’s Silence), such an acknowledgment opens a space for grace and love. For Wright, love can begin to heal us from what he calls “the twentieth century of horror” if we admit rather than ignore these horrors. It is when we recognize our isolation and quietly reflect on the harrowing nature of modern existence, that we open ourselves up to “The one/ whose still voice kept us/ company, always,/ when everything else turned away.”
Less searching and intense, but more contemplative and even, these new poems refract the light of the poet’s insightful, humorous and often humble gaze in ways that are surprising and rewarding. Wright ends the book with an apologia, which, in many ways, could be applied to his work as a whole: “And although I could not speak, I answered.”