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Archive for November, 2017


downtown Detroit

 

Beginning of November

by Franz Wright

 

The light is winter light.

You’ve already felt it

before you can open your eyes,

and now it’s too late

to prepare yourself

for this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room. It’s not winter. The light is

winter light,

and you’re alone.

At last you get up:

and suddenly notice you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life, it’s suffering

from cold and from the winter

light that fills the room

like fear. And all at once you hug it tight,

the way you might hug

somebody you hate,

if he came to you in tears.

 

 

Why have I collected so many of these bleak Franz Wright poems?

 

Probably for the same reason I like the music of Leonard Cohen. And the face of German actress Nina Hoss. And subtitled movies with barren landscapes, colorless cityscapes and violin music in the background. And the very November light of this poem,

 

this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room.

 

Because sometimes the world has too much raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and you just need to take out your own personal collection of sorrowful things and examine them, one by one. Wright is the master of that domain.

 

I’m imagining a Franz Wright-Julie Andrews sing-off. She’s in her high-necked white nightgown. Her face beams as she hugs a pillow to her chest. He’s in old boxers. She warbles on about cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels while under her silver tones his voice rumbles out an opposing truth—

 

you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life

 

Enjoy November, everyone.

 

Here’s a biography of Wright I’ve posted several times previously.

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died earlier this year of lung cancer at age 62.

 

 

 

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poem is against pillar next to honey pot

 

The Problem of Gratified Desire

by Marie Ponsot

 

If she puts honey in her tea

and praises prudence in the stirring up

she drinks, finally,

a drop of perfect sweetness

hot at the bottom of the cup.

 

There will be

pleasures more complex than it

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

but none so cheap

more neat or definite.

 

 

I just came across a different version of Marie Ponsot’s “The Problem With Gratified Desire.” An earlier collection shows this poem with the line (She is 15 years old) under the title. The version I used, from 2016’s Collected Poems, deleted that. I wonder why the line was taken out. I like it. It adds a dimension I had missed before.

 

Now that I know the age of “she,” the future tense in the second stanza has a wistful air. A mother perhaps, observing her daughter drinking tea and seeing, all at once, loss and plenty, innocence and experience.

 

This poem reminds me of Thomas Lux’s “A Little Tooth,” both in its rhyme scheme that harkens back the childhood pleasures of listening to nursery rhymes, and the subject matter, which calls up the very adult pleasures and complications of sex.

 

“The Problem of Gratified Desire” is part of a set of poems dealing with proposed “problems.” Also in the series are the “Problem of Freedom and Commitment,” “The Problem of Loving-Kindness,” “The Problem of Fiction” (and five or six others), each “problem” connected to a particular age of the girl in the poem.

 

My question to you: Why is there subject-verb disagreement in this line—

 

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

 

I don’t think it’s a typo. It appears that way in all versions.

 

I left the poem at the condiment station in a coffee shop in Chicago.

 

Here’s a biography of Marie Ponsot from an earlier posting. Important to note that shortly after I wrote it, Ponsot won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At the ripe old age of 91!

 

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

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