As I've mentioned before, Brad East's Sunday Sabbath Poetry series (scroll down on Brad's sidebar and you'll see links to all the poems and poets he's posted and reflected on in 2008, 2009, and 2010) has really captured me and rekindled my interest in poetry. For years the only two poets I regularly read were Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But now, having followed Brad's posts over the last few years I've been reading a lot of Wendell Berry and Billy Collins.
So thank you Brad!
Last week Brad posted about his discovery of Franz Wright. After reading Wright's poems Year One and One Heart on Brad's blog (and listening to Wright read them on NPR) I went to the library to check out Wright's Pulitzer Prize winning collection Walking to Martha's Vineyard.
I was blown away. Beyond Wright's spiritual yearnings, what really resonated with me in Wright's poetry were his reflections on his work with addicts and the mentally ill. I worked for four years at a psychiatric hospital, working with drug addiction, schizophrenia, suicidal persons, eating disorders, manic-depression, and everything else. Everyday was complete human devastation. Many of you, I'm sure, can identify because you've either been there yourself or you work in places of enormous pain and suffering.
I wrote a lot of dark poetry during those four years. Looking back I now I can see how, through the poetry, I was processing what I had experienced during the work day. The poetry was a way to make sense of my heart and mind, allowing me to let work go so that I could be emotionally present for my wife and family. A lot of Wright's poetry reminds me of what I was experiencing during those years. One of Wright's poems that Brad shared--"One Heart"--really speaks to those years in my life:
One HeartThose final words really capture four years of my life, working with a mentally ill population:
It is late afternoon and I have just returned from
the longer version of my walk nobody knows
about. For the first time in nearly a month, and
everything changed. It is the end of March, once
more I have lived. This morning a young woman
described what it's like shooting coke with a baby
in your arms. The astonishing windy and altering light
and clouds and water were, at certain moment,
There is only one heart in my body, have mercy
The brown leaves buried all winter creatureless feet
running over dead grass beginning to green, the first scent-
less violet here and there, returned, the first star noticed all
at once as one stands staring into the black water.
Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the
sane; thank You for letting me know what this is
like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening
blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without
terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly
with this love
Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the sane...Beyond his reflections on mental illness, Wright's spiritually themed poems are also astounding. Here is one more from Walking to Martha's Vineyard entitled "Baptism." It's a profound meditation on Christian baptism and the death of the "old man" which here, for Wright, in the middle of the poem, is an ex-alcoholic taking the wine of communion:
This morning a young woman described what it's like shooting coke with a baby in your arms...
There is only one heart in my body, have mercy on me...
Thank You for letting me look at your loveless psychotic and hopelessly lost with this love...
That insane asshole is dead
I drowned him
and he's not coming back. Look
he has a new life
a new name
which no one knows except
the one who gave it.
If he tastes
the wine now
as he is allowed to
it won't, I'm not saying it
turn to water
however, since You
can do anything, he
will be safe
his first breath as an infant
past the waters of birth
and his soul's, past the death water, married--
Your words are spirit
Only say one
and he will be healed.
Here's to the drowning within of all our insane assholes.
May we be healed.