Nov 30, 2012

Franz Wright, "Postcard 2": Son and Father

Last August 15 and 27 we discussed Franz Wright’s impressive poem, “To Myself.” Here’s “Postcard 2,” a darker work from FW, in Poetry (May 2012):

Upon reading “Postcard 2” I found myself wondering (again) how much public, confessional condemning of parents is worthwhile. Even if the accused is guilty, how dirty should the laundry be when you’re asking others to share, care about, find meaning in it? Then again, dirt sells. "Yay, dirt,” we seem to say quite often. Dirt is a disproportionately large part of what we want to know about each other, and here we have one Pulitzer Prize winning poet offering some dark topsoil about his Pulitzer Prize winning father, the major, major American poet, James Wright. Surely we’re delighted.

And surely you can hear my skepticism. But keep reading.

I also wonder about T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”—does Franz Wright (hereafter, FW) give us enough simple, objective information (and action, observable behavior) to correlate to his emotions and cause us to share, or at least understand, his angst?
However, a few factors in the second half of the poem raise it above the mean, vengeful self-indulgence it seemed headed for, or some overwrought competition with Plath, Sexton, et al, over who had the worst parents ever, the worst life ever.

First, there are the touches of irony and humorous hyperbole in “Postcard 2” as FW raises the possibility that he was “to blame” for his father’s flight; he was the straw that broke the camel’s back after his father’s ill-fated marriage to that “raving bitch,” FW’s mother. I don’t think FW believes that, unless he means that his father indulged in the flight from paternal responsibility to which so many men succumb. When FW says, "I am the reason he left, actually. I am the one to blame. And yet he did his best; he did all that he was capable of doing," I hear a sarcastic speaker. He knows it was only as any child, not as Franz Wright, that he was such a nuisance his father took off (and became bipolar, depressed, alcoholic, the victim of multiple nervous breakdowns, and dead of cancer at 52). 

There’s also irony, or downright sarcasm, when FW claims his father "did his best." The same line on a postcard every year is no one's best, is not all any father can do, and FW knows that. 

But did you forgive him, FW?  If so, why are you sharing the ugly aspects of him with the world?

However, the italicized line from James Wright is indeed lyrical, subtle, profound, and it’s here that “Postcard 2” turns from puerile petulance (in which we all engage at times) to a grownup speaker’s earned sense of complication and grief. James Wright’s annual line to his son was:  The blizzard I visit your city disguised as will never be over and never arrive.” 

Imagine a father who’s able to say such things—such clever and maybe deep things, such body blows, the same stale, rehearsed, but eloquent punch every year, so that the son has to wonder how genuine it is. How self-pitying and manipulative is the father’s blow, masquerading as affection and regret—and coming as it does from a man who wears a robe of distance and eloquence? The father will not reveal himself, so how is the child supposed to respond?

Those complications also prepare us for the son’s final, powerful two sentences, in which he seems to understand the father’s psyche aching within himself:  “. . . at some point I’d begin to notice I was freezing, wasn’t dressed right, had nowhere to go, and was staggering into a blinding snow that no one else could see. I think he meant, the cold will make you what I am today.” In that final sentence, there's also something of the quizzical Eastern manner of his father's line about blizzards.

I find all of that painful and moving. While I don’t think the information on FW’s parents is enough to provide the emotional content of the poem, I do sense something earned and genuine in FW’s psychological portrait of the coldness, confusion and isolation swelling within him, inherited from a father who spoke from afar, from an intellectual height, in poetic riddles. That is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
And finally we realize that FW has connected to his father.  “I get it, Father. Now I understand the coldness, which was always coming and never arrived; I get the paradox of you. And your presumptuous prophecy was right—your coldness is what I am today. So in a way we are one; you inhabit me—a fact that does not warm me or clear my head, or welcome the past, or soften anything at all.”

That connection between the two poets, son and father, is hardly an ideal way for parents and adult children to bond, but it squelches my initial urge to criticize the son for exhibitionism and melodrama. In the end, I trust the honesty of FW’s inner cold and the coldness of what he knows of his father. 


Anonymous said...

It's a beautiful poem. I don't care how he got here. I'd rather not know how he got here. When we drag in the particulars -- the artist's biography -- then we're not reading the poem.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I can see why you wrestled with this one--I'm doing the same thing as I'm reading it now. Those last few lines are indispensable to the poem, I think...

Speaking of poems about fathers, I thought of that stunning one by James Tate, "The Lost Pilot." Whew--it gets me every time:

Banjo52 said...

AH-- hey, that's my line about not dragging in the artis's life. So I agree.

But I also don't. I think I get to ask whether I think the SPEAKER (forget that he's THAT Wright boy) is responding in an OK way to his father and mother. Some moms indeed deserve the title of "raving bitch," but I have no idea if I'd find this mom to be one.

So I don't ENTIRELY trust the speaker's other responses to be "valid" either. Based on the postcard, I can, by reading between the lines, see how he arrives at such feelings of iciness. But I want to know whether I think (and yes, judge) whether he's overreacting to, or even exaggerating, the nature of the father's absenteeism.

When you begin by calling your mother a "raving bitch," without offering evidence, your other declarations might be called into question, I think. Whether or not anyone agrees, do my reservations make any sense?

Hannah, thanks for the new-to-me Tate poem (a friend of mind studied under him at U.Mass).

Is it weird that I never thought of the dead as orbiting? It's a perfectly natural way to frame the dead in our culture, but I never did. I'm not crazy about "mistake" and "misfortune" at the end. They seem to diminish what the poem's been trying for. But I like the rest a lot. It's fair to infer a WWII pilot, given the dates and other details, don't you think? It does make an interesting comparison to "Postcard 2."

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Ken Mac said...

Love American Pickers. Call me addicted!

Banjo52 said...

Ken, I have periods of addiction. Wish I could do their backroad driving without their loading and crawling in junk.

(Others, this started at Ken's place).

Rune Eide said...

This one is too deep and special for a simple soul such as me. Or maybe I had a "normal" relationship with my father or something.

Instead I'll limit myself to congratulate you with photo No. 2 - excellent symbolism and an almost abstract use of colour.

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Pasadena Adjacent said...

It's a little story on a little space to write it - a post card. That in itself is a vehicle of interpretation. Someone had a wonderful life, affairs with cute grad students, a reputation in academia, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.

But much better said. Really, it's a gem

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, how dare you have a normal relationship with your father.

Thanks about the photo. It might be the only one for this post that's entirely new.

PA, where you been?! -10 tardy.

Your point about the smallness of a postcard is excellent. It seems obvious, but I overlooked it. However, I still think there's mud slinging going on, and we need more particulars to flesh out the impressive metaphors of interior coldness, esp. when the characters seem to be real people.

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Stickup Artist said...
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Stickup Artist said...

Oops. Sorry, I made a typo. I'll go again.

For me, it's off-putting listening to a grown adult harboring a grudge and going on about parents. It sets a bad example. We must be encouraged to transcend our roots lest it all gets perpetuated. I'm glad he didn't belabor it. It was just the right touch. Otherwise, I would have felt slightly embarrassed reading it.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, I think embarrassment is a great new factor to consider in this issue. I wonder if it's an underrated factor in all human affairs . . . .

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