What follows are short remarks on a poem by the wonderful James Wright. I’ll link the poem, not quote it.
I’ll post readings of three different poems during the coming weeks. The first of these poems is “Autumn begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”. As with many of Wright’s poems of that period, it starts from a single image, here it is the “Shreve High football stadium”, and spins other images from it. Read superficially, one could think that all it contains are a few observations, slightly enhanced poetically. This is not the case. The second line already is startling: in that stadium he thinks of “Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville”, completely dashing the reader’s expectations. What is happening in that stadium? We are not allowed a peek, not a single observation. Instead, the poet turns inside. What is happening in the stadium? Thinking. The stadium is but a backdrop to the poet’s thinking, and the reader has been tricked to read it as observation, both by the title and the first line.
Now, the thinking process of the poet, in turn, does not contain abstract thoughts or concepts either, as we would think, but, in turn, images. The whole poem is like a Matryoshka doll, shuffling images into other images, leaving the reader to hunt down what they contain. So, in rapid succession, we get aforementioned Polacks, then “gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood” and then the “night watchman of Wheeling Steel”. These three places (Wheeling Steel, today “Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel) are neigbors along the Ohio river, even though Benwood and Wheeling are both in West Virginia whereas Tiltonsville’s in Ohio. These three locations, together, form a community, of sorts, and thus, in a way, we have caught up with the football stadium and the implied community in that image. The poem does not, however, let us off so easily; from these images it spins an idea, not just of community but of the other need behind public consumption of sports: the three individuals (which are so much more than simple individuals) are, the poet maintains, “[d]reaming of heroes”.
This first stanza, which has apparently moved away from the stadium has, on the contrary, spend this time away, to concentrate upon the depth of the image it introduced in the first line. The second stanza is like an afterthought, shorter in length and considerably less focused, formally, although it partly mirrors the first stanza. It shows what depth the image of the first stanza actually had, demonstrating that we were served a complete cultural context, and it reinforces some central issues, fear, shame and power. The oxymoronically Freudian last line of the stanza, “Dying for love” forms an eerie unity with the last line of the preceding stanza, “Dreaming of heroes”.
It is the third stanza which really packs a punch. Again, we are informed that we have been offered an abbreviated analysis through these pictures by the word “therefore”, which implies that we are present in an ongoing argument. As the poem, matryoshka doll by doll slipped from the grander social context to the family as the smallest social unit of despair, it is fitting that the poet is now focusing upon “[t]heir sons”, who “grow suicidally beautiful”. I must honestly admit that this image troubles me and I am reduced to guessing. It appears to me to invoke a doomed bloom, the suicidal aspect mostly due to the fact that the investment into becoming an accomplished, muscular football player, i.e. beautiful, comes with a detriment to the other faculties, it means being not cautious, giving your all at the start of the season, so the sons will not follow in the footsteps of their shamefaced fathers who live a life of drudgery in the industrial area of Martins Ferry, Tiltonsville, Benwood and Wheeling. The sons make a full-throated pitch for success, which is suicidal because of the energies it depletes. They “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies”, the poet tells us in the last line, invoking another kind of place, a different stadium, and keeping both the homoeroticism of this stanza as well as the desperation.
The image also continues a strain of animal imagery in Wright’s poems, which, in “Autumn begins at Martins Ferry, Ohio” already produced the phrase “Their women cluck like starved pullets / Dying for love”. As with James Dickey’s famous disturbing poem about folksy sodomy, this poem, too, mischievously, suggests a reason for the lack of matrimonial warmth. What we are also left with is an image of someone who is not running of his or her own accord, the sons are driven not by personal ambition but by desperation, which sits on their necks like an imp and whips them forward. It is not personal choice, it is the need born out of circumstances that the families may find hard to bear. This power and urgency are what we leave the poem with.
The second poem is, incidentally, the very next poem in the same collection. It’s called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”. More next week.