Blizzards of Eden

The poet/speaker in many of the poems in Franz Wright’s new book, Wheeling Motel, is like the speaker in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” “half in love with easeful death,” or its cousin, oblivion, the “beforelife”––to use the evocative title of Wright’s seventh book––or simply into the world of unconscious, inert things. Wright’s professor who quips to a student, “. . . did you know the snail sometimes sleeps for a year?” laments, “How I envy the snail.” [“Professor Alone During Office Hours”]. Death is easeful, too, in “Happy Oblivion,” where “closed eyes/and lips . . . open hovering/on the verge of speech, the final//breath. . .” [“Happy Oblivion,” 52]. In poem after poem, the poet confronts the split between world and consciousness of world. This split is at the heart of modern poetry as text or subtext, and his concern with it places Wright squarely in the modern tradition. But in other ways, Wright has like his contemporaries moved beyond the nominalist concerns (‘no ideas but in things’) of modernism and its wariness of outright statement. It is the poetic act of utterance that brings Wright‘s poet/narrator back from the edge of oblivion:  “In bed again composed/a line of verse then dreamed/ . . . it was something/about the word cloud ineluctably/ billowing. . ./. . .sailing/without seeming to billow or move. . ./. . . across the sky;/it had to do with falling/into the o/of devour, the i/in flight . . .[“Triptych,” 24]

I was surprised by how much like Allen Ginsberg Wright can be in his tethering of the brilliant comedy to self-pity:

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. . . .
[“Association,” p. 19]

Wright’s mood sometimes echoes Philip Larkin’s radioactive despair (the phrase belongs to the poet Gerry Cambridge). Many lines in his more recent books have a jagged, dark humor, epigrammatic in form:

When you wanted to quit
You could not, and when you could––
When you could you weren’t about to.
             [“The Problem,” 32]


Death is nature’s way/of telling you to be quiet.
                    [5, “Translation,” The Beforelife]

Wheeling Motel is Wright’s tenth book. The poet has gradually over the course of these ten books moved away from spare, unadorned description of hawks on Konocti, mosquitoes, or getting high, toward tough, idiosyncratic, highly vernacular, sometimes impassioned statement and epigram.

Born in Vienna, when his father (the poet James Wright) was on a Fulbright Scholarship, Wright spent his first eight years in the North and Midwest, and his adolescence in San Francisco, and in less glamorous Northern California locales, like Sacramento and Clearlake. California’s Appalachia or rural Ohio, Clearlake is where the fifteen-year-old Wright wrote his first poems, sent off to his poet father, who wrote back, in effect, “So you’re a poet! Welcome to Hell!” This poem is from Ill Lit, a collection of his first six books, published by Oberlin Press:

Clearlake Oaks (I)
Konocti’s summit
on the other shore. . .

To sleep in the mountain
(when have I
ever slept) blissfully

through an infinite imageless brightness—

inspected and forgotten by a grass green dragonfly.

      [92: “Clearlake Oaks (I),” Ill Lit]

The grass green dragonfly is vividly real in this poem, just as the hawk is real in a later Konocti poem, “The Hawk.” As late as God’s Silence (2006), his ninth book, Wright returns to those dry, yellow hills of inland California, where to this day weather-beaten and moldering summer houses crowd lakes visited by city dwellers a few times a year, and unemployment and drug use are high. The poet never mentions the peeling paint, though he does perform his characteristic alchemy of mundane and transcendental. “Me,” he writes,

I’d prefer to have come
in the form of that hawk, floating over
the mirroring fire
of Clearlake’s
hill, my gold
skull filled with nothing
but God’s will
         [41: “The Hawk,” God’s Silence]

As a teenager, Wright read voraciously and wandered the streets of San Francisco, but he did not make San Francisco his city, as Philip Levine, a foot loose teen of an earlier generation, made Detroit his. Wright could not stay still. He attended Oberlin College and after that, he moved often, the ether his home, constantly breaking away from his environment, the way a hawk might, or the way he breaks the lines of a poem, to slow down his own speed and lend gravity, seriousness, and mystery to the phrase, to his life. Wright says, “I did launch into a seemingly never ending series of moves. . . New England, New York City, California again, a little bit of time in the south, &c. †The . . . poet. . . John†Logan once told me he had to keep a separate address book just for me! . . . I think I moved approximately fifty to sixty times since I left college...”

The early poems especially give the impression he has traveled alone by Greyhound all over America—California, Minnesota, North Dakota, Pawtucket, Elk, Clearlake, Sacramento, The Tomb of the Unknown, The Charles River, Vermont, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, Arkansas. These places, like the clothing he wore, the beds he slept (or overdosed) in, the pens he used to scribble poems with on his arm as he woke from a dream, the oxycodone—these become like the groceries in Ginsberg’s poems, forming the brilliant, inanimate backdrops against which consciousness shimmers.

With unshaven face half concealed in the collar
of some deceased porcine philanthropist’s
black cashmere rag of a coat,
I knew that I looked like a suicide
returning an overdue book to the library.


I knew the rules on this bus.
No eye contact; the eye of the terrified
terrify. Look
like you know where you’re going

         [4-5, “East Boston, 1996”]

Through ten books of poetry, Wright has chronicled the turns of his life, the plummets into darkness and upsurges into glory, beginning with childhood. The Wright family circumstances were strained financially and in every other way, but the family was living in a time of relative prosperity in America (unlike Larkin’s post-war Britain, a land of greatly diminished circumstances). As Wright has said, he was poor, but he didn’t feel poor. Though given to hyperbole, Wright early on captured the abyss and triumphs of a heady life better than anyone. Liar’s Club and Lit author Mary Karr gives the context of a bacchanalian life, and cannily unfolds the circumstances, but she does not hold a candle to Wright in distilling the essence. In the pivotal early poem, “Alochol,” Wrights says,

You do look a little ill.

But we can do something about that, now.

Can’t we.

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

Do you hear me.

You aren’t all alone.

And you could use some help today, packing in the
Dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and
Grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
Your fingers and hair .  .  .

I was always waiting, always here.

Know anyone else who can say that.

My advice to you is think of her for what she is:
One more name cut in the scar of your tongue.

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than
Harm, is not abject.”


Can we be leaving now.

We like bus trips, remember. Together

We could watch these winter fields slip past, and
Never care again,

think of it.

I don’t have to be anywhere.

[38: Entry In An Unknown Hand (1989)]

In a 2007 interview with Jenni Russell for Inside Poetry, Wright says of “Alcohol,”

I’d been reading a lot of Beckett and Pinter, and I think suddenly
I saw the possibility of a very stripped down kind of inner 
      soliloquy, or a dramatic work in miniature which nevertheless
possessed the sense of a lyric poem can convey—with its
access to certain improvisational uses of music and rhythm and
syntax and lineation—of something infinite somehow housed in
a little box that closes, as Yeats put it, with a satisfying click.

As his father did before him, Franz Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard in 2004. Beginning with The Beforelife, Franz Wright developed a mastery of tone, stepping back from abject sorrow, where language and identity are stripped of every protective formal structure and euphemism. With Wright, sentiment became leavened with levity and a kind of dark buoyancy.

Oh build a special city
for everyone who wishes

to die, where
they might help one another out

and never feel ashamed
maybe make a friend,

     [12: “Father,” Walking to Martha’s Vineyard]

“Love me God—/or else,“ he wrote in The Beforelife. In the poem called “My Work,” he says of work, “It destroys me, I adore it—“. Here he begins to sound like Sylvia Plath, but in the final lines of the poem, Wright makes one of his characteristic existential gestures of self-preservation and insight, and says, “snow of unlit afternoon. . ./mute and agreed-to descent.” [60: ”My Work”]

Many of his poems have the same interest, even fascination, as a private diary left open on a table. Some, by no means all, of their appeal is the voyeur’s. The French symbolist poet, Gustave Kahn is said to have invented the term vers libre for poetry that allowed more flexible expression of elusive feelings. Wright is a master of the elusive flash of feeling. The narrator of these poems, using hip vernacular, often street language, cool and vivid, speaks with immediacy about his trials by fire, his drug addictions and insanity, as if he wakes in the morning with a fountain pen in hand, ready to etch the words of his demon brain onto his skin. Such immediacy lends authenticity, as does the well-timed incoherence. The poem is not a sturdy garment of declarative thought, it is a cry in the night, rent from the sleeper’s dream.

Behave like you aren’t there

if some night. . .
you see

Franz Wright arrive
on your street with his suitcase
of codeine pills,
lugging that heavy

blank manuscript [“Memoir,” 7]

Few poets have described so accurately the bodily state of utter porosity, whether from intoxication or however it is come by:

How are you feeling.
.  .  .
. . .like a window with light coming through it, he said.
          [49: “Hospitalization,” Wheeling Motel]

In “Last Holy Fragrance,” the poet Galway Kinnell writes in memoriam of Franz Wright’s father, James Wright. In the poem, Kinnell attributes these words to James Wright, but they might apply equally to the son Franz:  “How am I ever going to be able to say this?/The truth is there is something terrible,/almost unspeakably terrible in our lives,/and it demands respect, and, for some reason/that seems to me quite insane, it doesn’t hate us./There, you see? Every time I try/to write it down it comes out gibberish.” [from Past, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985) by Galway Kinnell, p. 39].

The “unspeakably terrible” is much in evidence in 7Prose, a selection of seven prose poems published this year by Marick Press in a handsome edition. Through Wright’s dense prose imagery, we enter a strange world of heightened sensation, reminiscent of Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In “The Scar’s Birthday Party,” a woman returns to her childhood family, which is waiting for her, their “eyes still intent on the set with the sound off, familiar room otherwise dark, curtain drawn.” In this ghoulish reunion, almost an LSD trip, as if the child were slipped a tablet by the parents who then disappear, Wright creates a haunting image of the family crossing an arctic landscape, “the last companion eaten,” a Donner Party too numbed by cold themselves to warm anyone else. [14] In Wright’s cold world, the music of Messiaen is listened to, if at all, “politely with their sad attack-dogs’ eyes awhile. Before shrugging, and getting back to work.” [“Manuscript Score of Messiaen’s End of Time Quartet,” 9]

Amid all this unspeakable terror, other realities take on a heightened glow. Elixirs of honey become  “stored forms of light taken under the ground. Taken by mouth. First those who by birth hold in secret the word. . . .Word. . . placed as a kiss on the lips of the soon to be no longer breathing who mean to enter death with open eyes, with mouths saying death, what death? We have no word for it in our country where the bride of a brighter oblivion reigns.” [“Bees of Eleusis,” 12]

Fortunately, Franz Wright’s dark comedy leavens even his prose texts, as when, in “Cutting,” he imagines a gathering of Sylvia Plath fan clubs on campus [from 7Prose, 11] and in “Can You Say That Again,” a scene of domestic violence transforms the battered wife into a creature with “black vespertilian wings”–– a bat who bites back [17].

The prose poems create their own seamless, if weird, contexts. In Wright’s traditional poems, whose lines Wright describes as welling from his unconscious, the material seems to come like lightning (as it did apparently for Emily Dickinson”).  In “Antipsychotic,” from Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, he writes, “Risperdal whisperdoll//all alone in the dark/garden//blowing out a dandelion” [22: “Antipsychotic,” Walking to Martha’s Vineyard]. And in re-imagining birth in “Day One:” 

We should really examine
your life, the one you bought,
and what happened when you got home
and attempted to assemble it:

that disfiguring explosion
no one witnessed, no one heard,
which you yourself cannot recall,
and by whose unimaginable light you seek
to write the name of beauty.

      [8: “Day One,” Walking to Martha’s Vineyard]

Influenced by Becket and Pinter, Wright’s early works tend to be spare and lean. In Ill Lit, the poems are tightly controlled. There’s melodrama, a certain youthful obsession with self, say in “Blood,” or “Knife,” that’s mocked, or falls away, in the later poems. But after 2000, with the publication of The Beforelife, he begins to find consolation and redemption, as did another great Romanic poet, Wordsworth (“A deep distress hath humanized my Soul. . . . The feeling of my loss will ne’er by old. . . . . “). The voice is more authorial, as well.

And I’ve lost my fear
of death
here, what death?
There is no such thing.
There is only
or yours—
but the world
will be filled with the living. . .
[30, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard]

In the poems of Wheeling Motel, we meet the same poet/narrator as reeling through life’s ecstatic, mystical transports, along with the inevitable lows and painful reckonings. In “Kyrie,” a hospital patient

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
                                                    .  .  .
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? [7]

“Kyrie” is one of the more structured narratives of the collection, although the punch line becomes a characteristic closure. His highs seem to have less to do with illicit drugs than with an ecstatic state of mind channeled through prayer—“the holy dove of tongues on fire released—“[52]

With this new book titled “Wheeling Motel,” after a place that sits across the river from Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, where his father grew up a carpenter’s son, the poet’s wretched childhood is bound to hover in the background––as is does in his earlier books. (As Faulkner knew, the past is not over, it is not even past.) In “The Call,” the poet’s mother is “the knife/giving the wound/some more free advice.” [57] Here Wright remains clear about his own complicity: He’s “the one/who’s done vastly/more harm in his life,/incalculably more than/that lonely old woman/he has never missed/an opportunity/to torture with a shrug/of clearly feigned/forgiveness. . .” Wright has a keen ear for the casual, colloquial expression, whether the utterance is prayer or comic riff.

A few poems are about dreams, writing, and writing classes, which apparently Wright teaches. A handful of the best are simply statements in the moment with intimations of Rilke (whose work Wright has translated) or the biblical prophet Isaiah. In “East Window: Little Compton” the poet writes

sunlight meanwhile comes and goes
across the sea of beaten lead

one instant and the next
(Achillean) of beaten gold

and next a diamond vast abyss of light
until it is mere ocean once again—

nothing in itself was ever
good enough. Though soon

things as they are will become far
more memorable than  you can endure. [34]

Few American poets writing today elicit as strong and divergent a response as Franz Wright, interpreter of lost souls. His early life and work were filled with loss—abandonment by the alcoholic father who was “closer to me than my bones”; his own “agreed-to” descent to the circles of hell––all of which lends authenticity to a growing body of work. The novelist Denis Johnson said of Wright’s poems, "They're like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers--miraculous gifts." I think of them as thimbles of raw carrot juice, intense and flavorful––experiences served up to us straight, pulled from the dream worlds of sleep or altered states, and grated to juice, like the delicious, bright orange carrot juice behind the glass refrigerated case in my favorite organic yoghurt shop on Fillmore Avenue in San Francisco. Wright’s poems are a quick, intensely flavored drink, and yet they retain a vivid, undisputed place in our post-modern cannon of the lost soul; they are deep, drafts of American life in the waning days of empire, and in this latest work Wright sustains his cranky, enduring, and expressive individuality.

ZARA RAAB’S Book of Gretel draws on experiences in remote parts of rural America. Her poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, and Spoon River Poetry Review, her reviews in Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Colorado Review. Swimming the Eel is due out this fall. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.