Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, impossible short of the Christian miracle of walking on water, more likely will result in drowning, a pre-meditated act of self-annihilation. Franz Wright’s book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, pursues both the impossibility and possibility in brief, relentless poems. Their compressed language comes out in simple speech with all its parts present: contemporary informal diction (“What a pile of shit”), sentences with recoverable deletions (“Feel that I was there / before”) and syntactic turns (“and harder to say / the word “I” / with a straight face, / and sleep— // who can sleep?), sharp but floating memories (“In which city was it, fourth or fifth grade”) with the returning voice of the child (“I wanted to run to you—who were all those people?”), everyday psychological/religious exposition (“there is a power that wants me to live”), observation of nature’s obvious imagery (“Resurrection of the little apple tree”).
But all the way through any apparent, momentary ordinariness are pieces of horrendous experience (“a young woman / described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby / in your arms”), accurate view from astonishing directions (“Like addictions condoned / from above evening / fell, lost”), and non-self-deceiving admissions (“Some say / the more you stray / the more you’re / saved”), and Wright’s utterly not paraphrasable, perfectly painful, often humorous, exact and seemingly easy expressions of what it’s like to be human, all the more startling and believable as they burst into existence through this conversational record of what has the undeniable sound and feel of real life, such as :
How does one go
Again and again, what the line gives is taken away and given back: “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”. All this switching presence plus absence intensifies the loneliness and the distance and distortion of time and space. Even the vineyard, the place in Christ’s parables where we labor, lies at a distance to be reached through walking on water, but also its “untraveled windy back roads,” which should have a limit, seem infinite: “if I am on an island, how is it they go on forever.” The present, so often difficult to make it through without choosing to die (“It is the end of March, once more I have lived”), is utterly present and vanishes (“Long nights, short years”). The future is “what will then be / passing for the present”; passing: pretence and impermanence. Everything disappears: “Tomorrow is history, lead singer of nothing”.
In the impossible yearning for an absent and absentee father, more impossible time collisions occur (“Now / I am forty-five now and I am dreaming / we are together again we are both forty-five / and I have you all to myself this time”). And God, another father, can be distanced (“It is my intention God / damn it to ride”) or distant and intimately distanced (“by the way thank You for / keeping Your face hidden, I / can hardly bear the beauty of this world”). Through this step by step, realistic collapse and shift in the mind’s perception, suddenly other, related thoughts begin their plausibility, not isolated, not separated from all other thought:
Set the mind
But maintaining a presence at church can be a strange, often still death-centered ritual: “I keep my eyes fixed on the great naked corpse, the vertical / corpse.” Gradually illusion and reality can trade places: “I don’t know what I’m doing there. I do / notice the more I lose touch / with what I previously saw as my life / the more real my spot in the dark winter pew becomes.” Baptism, the rebirth, brings the suffering voice of these poems back to the water, back to the miracle of walking on it and the temptation to see its old power to obliterate the self-loathing self (“how often I walked to the edge of the actual / river to join you”; “the space I took up here / scarlessly closing like water”). In the ceremony of Baptism, “That insane asshole is dead / I drowned him / and he’s not coming back. Look / he has a new life”.
By the final poem of Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, I would not live without this tormented human voice, saying: “The only animal that commits suicide / went for a walk in the park”. Many lines, full of haunting humor and humility, call into confusion and comparison modes of movement and manipulation among animals: flying (the epigraph’s simultaneity of God’s creation of birds and thought of Adam), swimming/opposable thumbs (“Bad things happen when you get hands, dolphins”) and feeling/thinking (“the color of the desperation of wolves”; “I saw again / the turtle / like a massive haunted head”). Appropriately, the last poem ends with a parable in which God forgives the “Furless now, upright” animal, “My banished / and experimental / child”—again the impossible and possible:
You said, though your own heart condemn you