When Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for poetry I hurried out and bought the hardbound edition, then found myself resisting it. With all the talk about the son receiving the same award his father did thirty-two years earlier, I couldn’t look at the son’s poems without making constant comparisons to the father’s. This was compounded by my admiration for James Wright’s work. I set the younger Wright’s book aside.
One night two weeks ago, I was a frazzled insomniac from trying to honor my over-commitments. I went looking for something on the bookshelf to help ground me. I reached for another Wright—Charles Wright—reached for his meditative A Short History of the Shadow. And right next to it stood that under-read copy of Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. How pleased I am to have read Franz Wright’s book on its own terms.
There are two poems I want to share here. The first is the poem that gave me what I needed that dark night. The second is about fathers and sons and fathers.
I am not acquainted with anyone
there, if they spoke to me
I would not know what to do.
But so far nobody has, I know
I certainly wouldn’t.
I don’t participate, I’m not allowed;
I just listen, and every morning
have a moment of such happiness, I breathe
and breath until the terror returns. About the time
when they are supposed to greet one another
two people actually look into each other’s eyes
and hold hands a moment, but
the church is so big and the few who are there
are seated far apart. So this presents no real problem.
I keep my eyes fixed on the great naked corpse, the vertical corpse
who is said to be love
and who spoke the world
into being, before coming here
to be tortured and executed by it.
I don’t know what I am 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—
it is infinite. What we experience
as space, the sky
that is, the sun, the stars
is intimate and rather small by comparison.
When I step outside the ugliness is so shattering
it has become dear to me, like a retarded
child, precious to me.
If only I could tell someone.
The humiliation I go through
when I think about my past
can only be described as grace.
We are created by being destroyed.
Lighting a candle for my father
I am also my father
lighting a candle
in the past, where he is
also his father
lighting one for me