Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review of Franz Wright

Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright. Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95.

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
bright naïveté
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.”

Monday, November 01, 2010

Review of Philip Fried

Cohort by Philip Fried. Salmon/Dufour, $21.95

Reviewed by Adam Palumbo

Philip Fried’s latest collection, Cohort, consists of three poems arranged as a short introduction, and then launches into a longer sequence consisting of 33 sonnets. The book operates on the understanding that the modern and the archaic converge every day on a sublime, often unconscious, level. Melding the classic form of the sonnet with rich illustrations of modern-day America’s technologic quotidian, his poetry seeks out this sublime and brings it unapologetically to the reader’s attention. His poems exude a sonic energy; he does not abuse the old form, but cracks it open to examine its past—and in doing so, signals its bright future.

Fried is both engrossed in and at odds with the modern world he observes around him. His poems cannot help but be extremely referential, aimed at a techno-savvy, specifically modern audience. But by employing both poetic language and cyber-speak, Fried creates a hybrid that speaks in emphatic, fourteen-line bursts against, as D. Nurske puts it, “the toxic side of the Information Age as it veers out of control.”

But not all of Fried’s experiences with technology and modern appliance put him on his guard. In “Reversible Swirl,” the last and title poem of the introduction, the speaker fondly reminisces on his childhood while listening to the radio, an old Zenith Tombstone. He finds himself amongst family, “grandpa, grandma, mom, dad, arrayed / behind me, the ceramic family / whose chatter cooled to the overglaze.” He fixates on the device itself, remembering the swirl pattern of the cloth covering the speaker that pulsed with noise while he pulsed with boyish excitement. This attachment to the apparatus resonates into the final lines of the poem, where the speaker realizes, “At night, the bedsprings picked up transmissions / that were bending around the edge of the future.” This end line vaults the reader from the past into the present and fuels all of Fried’s reflection on the technology-driven colloquialisms of the modern age.

Despite his nostalgic opening, the speaker subverts the reader’s expectations in his more robust sonnet sequence, aptly named “The Oral Tradition.” The book’s title poem, “Cohort,” begins this section. The speaker says:
first i was only an ignorant dot
iota in the countless cohort
unique and yet only a part

oh how many eyes devoured ignored
me but i returned the gaze

The speaker identifies himself as a piece of the collective but is oddly unsatisfied with it. Throughout these poems, the reader begins to discern the speaker’s discontent with the way the world has changed, little by little, until the speaker admits:
Our least wish is a whole other

life—who can make a meal of the incremental?
So, brother, sister, give your hands over to bric-
a-brac repairs of the possible…

Despite the multitudinous opportunities open in this new century, the speaker still feels insecure in this reality and longs for something different or more imaginative. His tone is world-weary, and he passes this attitude along to “brother, sister” who have no other options than a repair of what could be. This dissatisfaction with the modern world is presented elsewhere, too. In “Advice to the Gods,” the speaker laments the way technology has shrunk the world into a sphere that is becoming too small and too smelly. He speaks of modern transportation in a palpably negative tone, emphasizing its potential for “reducing / all that it passes to less of a place, too close / more and more local.” He also reflects on his own ineffectiveness in changing this wave of progress when he says, “I am consigliere to the gods / of travel, but they rarely consult me.” His battle with technology is one-sided, and the speaker has resigned himself, along with the rest of his cohort, to relying upon it.

However pessimistic Fried may be about the preeminence that techno-dependence has assumed in the Digital Age, his poetry is well equipped to deconstruct it. Using ancient inspiration and structuring it within the classic Western form of the sonnet, Fried infuses resonances of criticism in his “By Babylon’s flow-charts.” Coupling ambitious internal rhyming and wordplay, Fried creates his own version of Psalm 137 and echoes the Biblical poetry’s tone of condemnation, unsatisfied with “appeasing / data-gods with the ragtime of input, clicks / and bits.” Furthermore, Fried’s poetry is full of a keen sense of historical retrospective, and several of his poems reflect upon the last World War. In “Sealed Warrant,” he memorializes those that endured the Holocaust. Beginning with Kristallnacht, he summarizes the pogroms enacted against the Jews in Nazi Germany while still showing a proper respect for their experiences. As a sort of posthumous vindication, the speaker capitulates with an oxymoronic envoi: “I hereby name you, who shall go nameless, / and detain you in a limbo of secrecy.” Elsewhere, the speaker muses on memory’s morphous tendencies, proclaiming, “history is a fitful foam that bursts at your heels.”

Fried’s Cohort exercises a rich cacophony of themes and a deft use of language. But sometimes his syllabic construction falls apart into a sea of caesura and tends towards a Dickinson-esque discourse. In “Illumined Century” he includes the turn-of-phrase, “Edwina’s chaise: ‘[Lightning, blackout, eloquence] / Don’t let father die in the dark!’ The rest / is silence.” This is an example of Fried’s inclination to produce jam-packed lines; luckily this does not occur often enough to sidetrack the reader. The originality of Fried’s sonnet sequence undercuts the disconnect that the speaker feels toward his subject, but he is not trying to condemn the modern. Instead, he has reimagined the sonnet for a new century so that we as readers might “sort out our too many selves.”