Franz Wright is a poet with an especially weighty past. He has struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression. He is also the son of the extraordinary poet James Wright. Despite all these obstacles, though,—who can name the son of a poet who is likely as good a poet as his father?—Franz Wright has emerged as one of the most interesting and original poets of his generation. With the poems in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard Wright deals with his past more directly and openly than in his previous collections. One of the many remarkable qualities of this newest collection, though, is that he does so without slipping into clichés about therapy and recovery, without being preachy or redundant. The artistry, the aesthetic quality of his work—in short, his voice—has remained his first and foremost concern. The poems are rich in tone and undertone; highly crafted and refined. The sparseness and sadness and dark humor, the creepiness Wright is known for are all still prevalent, especially in the title poem, “Abandoned Letter,” and “University of One.” Yet the poems in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard are largely concerned with recovery and renewal, of sanity, sobriety, health, religious faith. They are often in praise of—always exploring the difficulties of—these aspects of life. This sense of renewal is what makes Wright’s poems feel new. He continues to write about his father, but more about his father the poet than he has in the past. Writing about James Wright as a poetic figure creates ways for Franz Wright to explore the elder Wright’s poetic influence to take his own poetry to new places. His poems about recovery, too (a new topic for him), are as much about how he can incorporate that experience into his poetry to move it forward as they are about his actual recovery. The result is his best work since his 1993 collection The Night World and he Word Night.
In Walking to Martha’s Vineyard Wright often invokes the word “movement” in a fundamental, literal way. “Walking,” the first word we encounter before reading a single poem, invokes movement. The rest of the title announces a specific location. Wright has a destination that he intends to work toward, slowly and steadily, even if it is ultimately impossible to reach. (Martha’s Vineyard is an island. Nobody—except Christ—could walk there.) But Wright is not a poet who travels light. His past is always present. He is haunted. Yet he is not hindered by what haunts him. He is able to use it to push himself to find new places to take his poetry. Among the things haunting Wright are the poems he has written in the past. It is as if he has been rereading his older poems and looking for ways to make new poems out of them, to keep them with him as he moves forward poetically. “[H]ow many times,” the speaker of “The Only Animal” asks,
have I made the decision to dwell
Wright is alluding to his poem “Midnight Postscript” from The Night World and the Word Night. The speaker of that poem says, “from now on I have entered / and live in our unspoken words. / And the space I took up in the world scarlessly closes like water” (38). “Midnight Postscript” is “for my friend Joseph Kahn: born 1950, drowned 1982.” Its speaker is contemplating suicide as a means of being reunited with his friend. Asking “how many times / have I made the decision to dwell / from now on / in the hour of my death” is Wright asking himself how many time he has said things like: “from now on I have entered / and live in our unspoken words.” In other words, how many times he has vowed always to live on the verge of committing suicide. He goes further than alluding to his past work, too. He has literally moved a line (slightly revised) from “Midnight Postscript” to “The Only Animal.” And the latter poem, on a whole, is a revision of the former: “The only animal that commits suicide / went for a walk” (73). The revision, essentially, is taking place in the movement. The speaker in “Midnight Postscript” wants to kill himself. He wants to leave this world and live in his and his friend’s unspoken words. “The Only Animal” tries—quite literally—to walk away from suicidal tendencies. The speaker is moved emotionally by the thought of suicide, but unlike the speaker in “Midnight Postscript,” he does not want to commit it.
The irony is that for all the shifts in feeling, for all the ways his poems have changed, Wright is still dealing with the same emotional material. He is in the same emotional space he has always been in; it’s the perspective, the light he casts on it that has changed. Here is the next stanza of “The Only Animal”:
“Between two eternities…more or less equidistantly / exiled from both…hovering in the dream called / being awake…one thing to perceive”: these lines are basically the most accurate description of Wright’s poetics—past and present—one can find. He is always between two eternities (Heaven and Hell). What changes is which eternity he focuses on. (In his new poems, he is focusing on Heaven.) All of Wright’s poems are about “the strangeness of being / here at all.” It is all he has ever sought to perceive, to get on the page. And it is what allows him, without being repetitious, to make new poems that feel like partial revisions of his older poems. In the new poems, to some degree, Wright is re-imagining, re-seeing his old poems. What can be called Wright’s poetics of movement, then, is a means of going forward by looking back. Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.
Wright’s tendency to look back as a way of moving forward is not limited to his own poems. His style, the feel of his poems, is not unlike that of James Wright’s. James Wright is not only Franz Wright’s biological father, but also, in many ways, Franz Wright’s poetic father. That is, Franz Wright’s poetry is influenced by James Wright’s. In a poem called “Fathers,” Franz Wright invokes James Wright’s poem “To the Muse.” Here are the middle lines of “Fathers”:
And here is the end of “To the Muse”:
But look at me.
Both speakers are asking for help, but from whom—divine being or real person—we cannot ultimately be sure. That Franz Wright’s title is plural makes it unclear which father he is referring to: James Wright or God. God created the stars and the sea for humankind, but, in a manner of speaking, James Wright created them for his son by fathering him. Moreover, it is not clear if he is referring to James Wright the poet, or James Wright the parent. James Wright is speaking to his muse, but she is, at least in part, a real person: Jenny, a prostitute identified earlier in the poem, who has drowned herself in the Ohio River. One major difference between the two poems, though, is that James Wright ends on a note that strongly suggests the only option for the speaker is suicide. If Jenny does not come back to life and out of the river to join him, he will go down to her. Contrarily, Franz Wright is asking to be created again, to be reborn poetically. Ending on a suicidal note, therefore, is no longer a viable option for him in his poems. If it remained a viable option for Wright, he would have kept on writing poems like “Midnight Postscript.” He would not be able to look back on his old poems and see them in a new way. He would not, in short, be making anything new.
“Midnight Postscript” and “To the Muse” are each about people close to the speakers who have drowned. The speakers want to join those people. For Franz Wright, to keep writing those kinds of poems would be to willfully arrest his poetic development, to shut down any chance to make something new. “To the Muse” originally appears in a collection called Shall We Gather at the River. Franz Wright ends “Fathers” by saying, “that is how cold it was // and how often I walked down to the edge of the actual / river to join you” (13). He is ending on a suicidal note, but it is in the past tense. Going down to the edge of the actual river to join his father is what he used to do in poems, not what he does now. It is as if—in his poems, at least—Franz Wright is saying he will no longer try to gather at the river with his father, not if he wants to keep moving forward. The despair in his older poems, and the poems from Shall We gather at the River, is not the emotional space Franz Wright wants his poems to inhabit anymore. He has moved passed it, poetically, or at the least is living with it more peacefully and conveying that in the poems. He is in the process of creating himself again, of finding new places to take his poems to. Just as he has not rejected his past work, he has not rejected James Wright’s poetic influence. He is till haunted, but at the same time is increasingly capable of internalizing that and making it an integral part of his voice. In a poem called “April Orchard,” the speaker says,
In Walking to Martha’s Vineyard Wright explores those universes and rooms. His recovery is one series of rooms, his poems about his father as poet and parent, his religious poems, are other series of rooms. Wright wants to explore them all. In “Midnight Postscript” he says, “I’m never going to get this right” (38). In the new poems, one gets the feeling that the poet is getting it right, and that he will no longer say he is not. He has specific destinations in mind, a clearer vision of where he wants to go poetically and how to get there. He keeps finding new and different ways to be haunted.