by Evan Edwards
I have a copy of Franz Wright's Walking to Martha’s Vineyard on my bedside table. It has been there since my son was born last year. I’ve been trying to educate myself on contemporary poets for more than a year now. Wright was the one who happened to stick the most readily. I want my son to know about poetry; good, modern poetry that speaks to the vibrancy of the present. Of course, we’ll always read the classics, but I want him to also get an education in the words of those who aren’t yet dead, who are living and here and maybe coming to speak somewhere nearby at some point so that we can go together to hear a great poet speak in person and then walk out of the lecture hall feeling the brief surge of ecstasy you feel when you experience something extraordinary. Maybe it’s my obstinacy that drew me to him, or maybe it’s just the way that irony works, because of course Franz Wright is dead.
I first encountered Wright through the blog of a poet I met when I lived in Indianapolis. In the interview he gave, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the way he spoke about his recent economic troubles. The way he hadn’t been invited to speak or teach or fraternize (to be part of the brother/sisterhood of poets) since he’d made some admittedly snide and vicious remarks about MFA programs. How he was struggling with cancer. How he didn’t have the means to keep up the struggle for much longer. He was in remission, and had a tenuous relationship with hope. The cancer would, eventually, come back and then end his life in May of last year.
The word remission comes up one time in the interview, in the context of saying that he’s posted on Facebook saying that he is in the state of remission, and that he can give talks and readings, if anyone wants to get in touch with him. There was something very tender and heartbreaking in that statement. Here is one of the greatest living poets, recipient of a fucking Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Guggenheim fellow, son of poetry royalty, subtlest and most brutal portrayer of spiritual suffering, reaching out for work through his personal social media page. The desperation of that. It seemed hauntingly appropriate to speak of remission in that moment.
We’ve come to use remission to describe the condition of being without cancer, but it has so many more resonances. Remission, from the Latin remittere, means to send back. To be sent back. To return. When a debt is repaid, its said to be remitted. When a Catholic goes to confession her sins are remitted. She returns to God. She comes back from the semblance of life to real Life. When someone with cancer is in remission, they’ve come back to life as well.
From the hellish existence of chemotherapy, constant doctor visits, insomniac fear. From that half-life to the tentative steps back into the light of the life that everyone has been taking for granted since you were gone.
So when this man announces on the informal, the casual, and humble stage of a Facebook page that he is in remission, and available to do readings, one has to feel the full weight of that claim. He’s also looking to be included once again in the communal life of poetry that he’d been absent from for so long. To come into that company again, like a penitent in the church of art, seeking remission.
And in fact, Wright’s poetry is a poetry of remission. A constant struggle with sobriety, alcohol, addiction, faith. Cancer was just one more barrier between him and Life, one more debt to cancel. This feeling of being on the wrong end of a loan emanates from his poetry. His personal faith might be to blame/thank for this. To be in an eternal debt to Christ is unfathomable for me. In the first poem of Martha’s Vineyard we’re struck by this permeating sense of seeking remission, of desperate searching for Life.
I was standing
on a northern corner.
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
of Your existence? There is nothing
In this poem we’re presented with Wright himself, standing, presumably, on a street corner at night. One can imagine it’s an empty road. Who knows whether or not there is a streetlight. The sky is the color of desperation. The proof of the debt we owe to God, all around. And that line, “There is nothing/but.” The thought fits into the poem as a whole, but it also stands alone. There is nothing, meaning, we are alone and desperate addicts, cancer victims. Abandoned.
The poem “Baptism,” later in the collection, speaks to another aspect of this relationship. Here, we get the clearest example of a theme that ties the whole text together: fathers, Father, and sons, the Son. The complex relationship between James Wright, God, Franz, and Christ, comes to a head here. Who is the ‘insane asshole?’ James? Or the sort of creator God who would subject us to so much suffering? And in what medium does this baptism take place? Is it in in “alcohol, water, or light,” as he says earlier in the collection? It is entirely unclear. What do we owe to the ones who gave us Life? Earthly or otherwise. Here the genius of Wright breaks through with an impassioned luminosity. In his hands, the themes of Christianity are rendered universal. Who is your father? Mother? What do you owe them? What debt do they ask you to remit?
Do you have any children?
No, lucky for them.
Bad things happen when you get hands, dolphin.
If they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it
would have been an act of mercy.
We don’t ask for our lives. They’re thrust upon us. And then we’re asked to remit that debt. To seek remission. Always, it seems. And to find the strength to bear that debt.
Wright found, from time to time, the courage to live up to the challenge.
You said, though my own heart condemn you
I do not condemn you.
Who is speaking here? Whose words are said? It is either Franz, speaking to his F/father, or his F/father speaking to him. But it is certainly a prayer, to find the strength to persist in the search for remission.
Franz Wright did not remain in remission, of course. He died on May 14, 2015, at his home in Waltham, Massachusetts at the age of 62. As far as I know, he did not receive remission in the company of poets. Remission is not always granted, it seems.
‘Every symphony is a suicide postponed, true or false?’ he wrote in ‘Intake Interview.’ Or, every work of art is a way to come back to Life. To seek, to be in remission.
I read these poems to my son, who is just over five months now. My partner tells me not to read the line where he says that “if they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it/would have been an act of mercy.” She’s probably right. Perhaps it’s just a reminder for me, a message I send back to myself from time to time. That this is the heaviest burden to have placed on another person. That to be in any relationship with another human being is at once to place a burden upon them and to release them from their burden. That love is a load and a crutch. And even though he is dead, to consider the work of Franz Wright a work of Life, a living work.
The closer I get to death, the more I love the earth, the thought
introduced itself as I sat shivering on my old park bench before
the dusk fog; as it has, I suppose, to every human being
who has ever lived