Always, since I discovered him in my last year of graduate school, Franz Wright’s poetry is with me. Even during one of the times when I’m not really reading much poetry, I pick his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Walking to Martha’s Vineyard off the shelf occasionally and read “Fathers,” a terribly sad poem about Wright’s own father, poet James Wright, and about God, whom Franz Wright discovered somewhere along the way. My own faith is very nebulous, but for some reason when I read about God in Franz Wright’s work it feels incredibly powerful. I guess that’s the mark of an excellent writer–to be able to make non-believers into believers…or something.
Franz Wright’s life, as recorded in his poetry, has not been an easy one. There was alcoholism, homelessness, mental illness, and a great deal of other tragedy. Here is “Asking for my Younger Brother,” from Ill Lit. Enjoy.
ASKING FOR MY YOUNGER BROTHER
I never did find you.
I later heard how you’d wandered the streets
for weeks, washing dishes before you got fired;
taking occasional meals at the Salvation Army
with the other diagnosed. How on one particular night
you won four hundred dollars at cards:
how some men followed you and beat you up,
leaving you unconscious in an alley
where you were wakened by police
and arrested for vagrancy, for being tired
of getting beaten up at home.
I’d dreamed you were dead,
and started to cry.
I couldn’t exactly phone Dad.
I bought a pint of bourbon
and asked for you all afternoon in a blizzard.
Dante had words with the dead,
they had no bodies
and he could not touch them, nor they him.
A man behind the ticket counter
in the Greyhound terminal
pointed to one of the empty seats, where
someone who looked like me sometimes sat down
among the people waiting to depart.
I don’t know why I write this.
With it comes the irrepressible desire
to write nothing, to remember nothing;
there is even the desire
to walk out in some field and bury it
along with all my other so-called
poems, which help no one–
where each word will blur
into earth finally,
where the mind that voiced them
and the hand that took them down will.
So what. I left
the bus fare back
to Sacramento with this man,
and asked him
to give it to you.
(? Franz Wright, from Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems, Oberlin College Press, 1998)
I went looking for a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, because I very much enjoyed her in college, and found this one, “A Light and Diplomatic Bird,” from 1949 in Poetry Magazine. Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, so it seemed like a good follow-up to yesterday’s poem by last year’s Pulitzer winner Sharon Olds.
I was asked to join a book group, and the first selection was the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. I had read her Pulitzer-Prize winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, last year, and liked it well enough?but I don’t recall feeling that it was the best choice for the Pulitzer or that she was soon to become one of my favorite writers. But, wow, The Lowland?this is a beautiful book.
Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter
The novel follows the lives of two brothers raised in Calcutta, one of whom stays in India while the other goes off to the States to study. Their paths diverge in stark ways, until one brother’s choices throw his wife into the life of the other. Back in Rhode Island, basically estranged from their families, Subhash and Gauri live with their daughter Bela carrying deep secrets that threaten everything: their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with their careers.
The novel spans about seventy years, and Lahiri deals with this by playing with time. Some passages snail along; then, there will be a ten-year gap between chapters. She compresses three?no, four?generations into under four hundred pages. At the end of those 340 pages, I felt sure I could have read another hundred.
In the book group, reactions were somewhat mixed. Some felt Lahiri had not developed certain characters or scenes well enough. But for me the book was almost perfect. It managed to be technically excellent?so I was reading it thinking, wow, that sentence is exactly what it should be?and also emotionally knifing. I kept rereading passages not because I was confused about what had happened but because I wanted to feel, again, the immense pain and tragedy she manages to render in a few short sentences. The book’s themes are relevant and important to me: it’s about motherhood and parenting, about being a parent?and a child; and about career and women’s difficult choices around career. It’s a book about revolution and tradition and the bonds of family.
Here’s a teaser:
He was never invited into the room. For some months he received no indication of Bela’s progress. Sitting in the waiting area, with a view of the door Bela and Dr. Grant were on the other side of, made him feel worse. He used the hour to buy groceries for the week. He timed the appointments, and waited for her in the parking lot, in the car. When it was over she sat beside him, shutting the door.
How did it go today, Bela?
It’s still a help to you?
Would you like to go to a restaurant for dinner?
I’m not hungry.
Would you like to write her a letter? Try to speak to her on the phone?
She shook her head. It was lowered, her brow furrowed. Her shoulders were hunched, pressed toward one another, as tears fell.
Last week was a rollercoaster, for many of us, I’m sure. The bombings in Boston, where I grew up, were a scary and melancholy backdrop to a host of personal stresses: taxes, two last-minute freelance jobs, papers to grade, and our car starting to overheat on the Bay Bridge at midnight (not to mention the next day’s $500 repair). Needless to say, I just didn’t find the time or the energy to sit down and write.
And so it’s a little late that I address the recent Pulitzer Prize winners. The only one whose work I’m familiar with at all is poet Sharon Olds, who took away the poetry prize. I haven’t read fiction writer Adam Johnson or non-fiction writer Gilbert King, though both men’s books look really fascinating. (Is it just me–random question–or is a lot of the fiction that’s popular these days historical fiction?)
Anyway, Sharon Olds. Her work is what we poets call “confessional,” meaning no subject is off the table. Olds writes exuberantly about sex and her husband’s body and her children’s bodies and her own breasts and all kinds of other subjects many of us find taboo; she writes about her daughter losing her virginity and her abuse as a child and a miscarriage in the toilet. She can be, I think, for many people, a little cringe-worthy.
But she’s an incredibly accomplished poet (after all, she just won the Pulitzer), prolific and unflinching. I don’t yet have her prize winner, Stag’s Leap, but on my shelf, conveniently, sits her 1983 book The Dead and the Living. Here is a beautiful poem from that collection called “Grandmother Love Poem.” Just in time for the last week of National Poetry Month.
Grandmother Love Poem
Late in her life, when we fell in love,
I’d take her out from the nursing home
for a chaser and two bourbons. She’d crack
a joke sharp as a tin lid
hot from the teeth of the can-opener,
and cackle her crack-corn laugh. Next to her
wit, she prided herself on her hair,
snowy and abundant. She would lift it up
at the nape of the neck, there in the bar,
and under the white, under the salt-and-
pepper, she’d show me her true color,
the color it was when she was a bride:
like her sex in the smoky light she would show me
the pure black.
? Sharon Olds
I'm working from the premise that motherhood is not just all diapers, tantrums, and setting limits. It's interesting. Okay, sometimes.