Ashley Capes Reviews “Readings From Wheeling Motel” by Franz Wright, Music by Michael Rozon, Daniel Ahearn
Readings from Wheeling Motel
by Franz Wright
Produced by Daniel Ahearn, Chris Ahearn
Music by Michael Rozon, with Daniel Ahearn
Riparian Records 2009
Recorded by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Reviewed by ASHLEY CAPES
I looked pretty ill, like
a vampire locked in
the drug had no effect
slightly more arctic and fearful.
And I can’t wait
to return to this chair
in which I am sitting, this
world, the one where
each object stands
for nothing at all but
its own inexplicable existence.
Listening to Wright read his poetry, I found myself at his mercy; I experienced each piece like a movie – knowing so little about what was coming next. It kept me involved in a way that was different to the page. In fact, one of the greatest challenges in writing about Readings from Wheeling Motel, is that I can only show you the words, I can’t let you hear them. And it’s important to feel the way in which the intensity of the poetry is counter-balanced by Wright’s calm, measured reading, the open, unobtrusive music. Now, when I re-read sections of the poems here, the intensity is stronger than the calm. Wright, who has battled alcoholism, addiction and psychiatric illness, is biting when it comes to the limitations of prescription therapy, as with “Paediatric Suicide”, which begins with the line:
Being who you are is not a disorder.
Being unloved is not psychiatric disorder.
This launches an attack, going well beyond defiance:
And seeing a psychiatrist for 15 minutes per month
some subdoormat psychiatrist, writing for just what you
need lots more drugs
to pay his mortgage Lexus lease and child’s future tuition
while pondering which wine to have for
dinner is not effective
treatment for friendless and permanent sadness.
Child your sick smile is the border of sleep.
The poem is one of the most beautiful and heart-rending of the collection. For as much as it is haunting, brooding and bleak, there is beauty, defiance and strength. Wright’s mix of tenderness and harsh realism weaves its way through so many poems, like “Waltham Catholic Cemetery” or one of the longer pieces, “With a Child”:
And the words
for these things are so terribly small;
and the world of those words
only slightly less mortal
than this instant of taking your hand,
of taking care to look both ways,
not to squeeze too hard, or be too aware
that no such mercy will be proffered
by a world that has no need
of words, or us.
At times it sounds like Wright is searching for and finding the right words, as if he does this ‘live’ as he reads. This space is used to great effect, such as in the list-like poem “Intake Interview,” where each line is given the room to stand alone:
Would you compare your education to a disease so rare no one
else has ever had it, or the deliberate extermination
of indigenous populations?
The entire recording is sequenced with space in mind. During the poems and between them, there is enough time to feel or think, between one poem and the next. The music, at times quite dramatic, though usually so understated, is transitional between pieces, but also allows the listener room to absorb the poem themselves.
The impressionistic sketches and musical fragments (arranged by a big supporting cast) comprise at the least, piano, pedal steel, nylon acoustic (on the delicate “Out of Delusion,”) electric guitar, wordless vocals. During “Day One”, a simple, hard drumbeat underscores the humour in the piece:
Good morning, class. Today
we’re going to be discussing
the deplorable adventures
of Franz Wright and his gory flute.
One of the more dissonant pieces of music in the recording is from “Abuse,” which brings a silent film or saloon to mind, with an off-kilter feel, one that is a surprising but not unwelcome contrast with the rest of the collection.
“Bumming a Cigarette” follows and returns to a slow, marching tone, for one of the most harrowing moments as Wright seems to accuse himself of becoming his father, who also suffered with alcoholism and who eventually died after being diagnosed with cancer of the tongue:
And you can only armour yourself in death-wish for so long, the
blows are not muffled, it will save you from nothing;
and the idiot drive to go on, and actually be glad to go on,
keeps breaking through, ruining everything, even
this last chance for some sort of peace.
The collection does have the feel, at times, of a startling eulogy. Death features large in the collection, both its inevitability and, perhaps, its inability to be explained away by religion (“Everyone, Lord who wakes up in a cell./Everyone Lord who wakes up in the cancer bed.” from “No Answer No Why”). I came to the closing track looking for something tender, more hopeful, and “Wheeling Motel” delivers this. Settling on a reflective moment, it is framed beautifully by piano and a wordless vocal with a gospel, Amazing Grace/Great Gig in the Sky-feel, where Wright closes with an echo, subverting the famous American Civil War poem and personalising the conflict by referencing himself and his father, suggesting an ability to reconcile, to forgive:
Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.
It’s a privilege to be introduced to Wright’s work in this manner. Hearing a recording is an experience that many of us will never have. There are poets from the past whose readings are impossible to record. Contemporary poets may be prohibited, or lack the opportunity. There are so many stumbling blocks between poet and listener. But here, Ahearn, Rozon and Wright tear them down and present the poetry in a way that brings the reader, in Ahearn’s words “disorientation, transcendence, a strange peace.”