Reviewed by Adam Palumbo
To dismiss Franz Wright’s latest collection as melancholic or cheap (as some have done in the past) would be a tremendous disservice to American poetry. In his tenth solo collection, Wheeling Motel, Wright’s visionary aphorisms and short-lined lyrics show a weighty confidence. He has distilled issues of personal anguish, spiritual longing, and regret, which prove to be impressively robust when presented through his sparse style. But Wright does not allow these themes to constitute the heart of his work; beneath the dark wit is an astute and humble voice. He clings to faith in times of trouble and has no misgivings discoursing in a tone both self-deprecating and eerily comforting.
Wright has always been noted as a frank poet, and this characteristic does not cease in Wheeling Motel. His brutally honest appraisal of the condition of the human soul begins in quite a foreseeable place—with the poet himself. In “Out of Delusion,” he starts by considering his oeuvre spanning nearly thirty years, but confesses, “a book one wrote decades ago seems stranger than somebody else’s.” This unfamiliarity extends into the rest of the poem when he leads the reader into a quandary of perspective, admitting, “I speak in the mask of the first person not as myself.” But Wright’s poetry does not isolate itself by focusing on the constant “I”. The poet has crafted this lyric, but he doesn’t have to be the main character. The speaker spies himself walking alone, riding the subway, and, lastly, appearing at the gates of heaven, until Wright ends the poem with the most anticlimactic line of the book: “And that is a beginning.”
Wright’s preoccupation with despair and evil is not a new development for the poet. He has confronted psychological terrors in many of his earlier volumes. He has also been chased by despair for much of his lifetime, a sentiment he categorizes as universal when he bids the reader to “Call no man unhappy until he has passed, / beyond pain, / the boundary of this life.” In “Baudelaire,” the poet decrees, “Evil isn’t hard to comprehend, it is nothing / but unhappiness / in its most successful disguise.” The logic behind these statements is not revolutionary, but Wright can express these universal fears in such a heartfelt and succinct manner, and it is this kind of assertion that makes Wright so authentic and accessible. Wright would not assert that his suffering is unique, but common to all men. His honesty about drug use is striking, too. In “Kyrie” (a transliteration of the Greek Κύριε, an exclamation meaning ‘O Lord’), he begins by popping an oxycodone and ends with a prayer—quite a progression in just six couplets, but typical of the power in this collection.
Wright’s style may seem spartan, but that only serves to make his poetry more powerful. In “Will,” he shows a defiance that becomes commonplace by the end of the collection:
I would be ready,
by a rage to prove them wrong,
prove they picked the wrong child to torment
and that I too was worthy of love.
But not all of Wright’s poems dwell on dysfunction. The most outstanding moments in Wheeling Motel come when he oscillates from experiencing deep anguish to basking in the most ordinary occurrence. After bumming a cigarette from a young woman in “Günther Eich Apocrypha,” the poet forces himself into reverie, with interesting results:
Think about it.
I do. And am
for a moment
the happiest man
that I have ever known—
Wright’s language transforms the quotidian into the sublime, blatantly proclaiming the beauty in the most everyday of occurrences. His meager rhetoric is not used out of carelessness, but a desire to make each word more exposed, more influential. His short, aphoristic stanzas may employ nontraditional rhythmic modes, but they burst with experience, wisdom, and unexpected optimism.
Wheeling Motel also exudes a powerful feeling of nostalgia for family connections. In this collection he addresses nearly his whole family. Wright’s childhood was turbulent, particularly after his parents’ divorce. In “Abuse: To My Brother” he describes his childhood in terms both terrifying and magnificent:
(No one is born sad.)
There’s a gladness in everything
When it’s first breathing, a
and a will to be well—
They’ll kill it and then go have breakfast.
The collection finds Wright struggling with a yearning for connection and a realization of the impossibility of being all things to all people. As longing as his voice may be, Wright does not often suggest solutions for the problems he elucidates. Thus, the absence of major figures in his life draws out of the poet an unapologetic impudence. Wright addresses “The Call” to his mother, acknowledging his failings as a son but without shying away from explaining that the mere sound of her voice irks him. Wright continues, lost in the complicated array of feelings that exist in the void between him and his mother. Ultimately, though, the void remains unexplored because the poet lets “The Call” end unanswered.
The book’s representation of the author’s late father, fellow Pulitzer-Prize winning poet James Wright, is even more complicated. In “Wheeling Motel,” the book’s title poem, the ghost of the elder Wright becomes a corporeal presence. Franz speaks directly to his father, saying, “There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours. / The river is like that, / a blind familiar.” Wright is no doubt mournful of his father’s absence, but also continually haunted by his legacy. The disenfranchisement of the elder Wright’s poetry is reticent in his son’s, but manifests itself physically in the troubled childhood Franz experienced. Despite their problematic relationship, in the end, the poet seems appreciative of his father’s posthumous presence in the book.
Wright’s genius in Wheeling Motel lies in his ability to turn moments of fear and dread into unexpected optimisms. Throughout the collection, he yearns for happiness amidst the evil all around him. It is this satisfaction with the dichotomies of the human soul that makes Wright’s book so enrapturing. As the poet himself asserted, “We are free, in some strange way, because of our hopelessness.”