Looking for Lost Graves

In 2012, I went to Martins Ferry, Ohio, looking for James Wright’s grave. I never found it.

For those who don’t know, James Wright is a poet who died in 1980. He grew up in Martins Ferry, right across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. Though he left his hometown at age 18, rarely to return, the place looms large throughout his books.

I’ve been thinking a lot of poets recently: I must have been about 20 when I declared, rather prematurely I suppose, that I was going to become a poet, as in a profession. No doubt James Wright’s work, and the feelings it inspired, loomed large in that declaration. (Of course, less then five years later, I was filling out applications for law schools on the East Coast. I’m certain I would have been better off a penniless poet than a debt-saddled lawyer, but that’s a subject for another time.)

But James Wright was one of the first poets for me. I heard him first in Mr. Lampert’s AP English class, where we read Wright’s “The Accusation.” Strangely enough, not one of my favorites by a long shot, but it still contained this eerie balance between fear and fondness, at once both longing and revulsion.

How can I ever love another?

You had no right to banish me

From that scarred truth of wretchedness,

Your face, that I shall never see

Again, though I search every place.

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At the Martins Ferry library, where a picture of Wright hangs, partially obscured by a computer monitor. 

I was also struck by the fact that Mr. Lampert called him one of America’s great contemporary poets and I had never heard of him. I found Above the River, his complete poems, and read it straight through.  And then I wrote my final paper on the significance of the word “wing” throughout his body of work. (Wings = a vehicle of both observation and escape.)

I fell in love, in some kind of way, with this man who wrote about rural Ohio like it was the most beautiful place you could go. The saddest, most gut-wrenchingly beautiful place.  There’s something really authentic underneath it all–through all his poems, you can see a man who is searching. He is desperate, he is compelled, he would tear himself open to get to the heart of it. He’s wild like Whitman, recalls beauty like a Romantic, but there’s a deep foreboding that you won’t find in Whitman or Shelley. I love him because he unabashedly searches and tells the truth about what he finds. Through his sensitivity and sincerity, he has gifted me indescribable hope.

He is a man who searches for god and goodness, in spite of everything. Something drives him to obsessively wade further into the darkness, the gloom of the mines and the factories and the polluted Ohio river.  Ultimately, despite all the confusion and lostness, the pain he presents on the page like an offering, I think in some ways he arrives at a place of understanding, maybe even love. It’s a special kind of love reserved for home, for the soul of yourself, for that place in your childhood both bewildering and precious, this elusive thing we might search for our entire lives and never find.  His final book, published after his death, sums this up perfectly in its title, “This Journey.” I hope he came to believe that life is more about the search than what you find.

Many men

Have searched all over Tuscany and never found

What I found there, the heart of the light

Itself shelled and leaved, balancing

On filaments themselves falling. The secret

Of this journey is to let the wind

Blow its dust all over your body,

To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly

All the way through your ruins, and not to lose

Any sleep over the dead, who surely

Will bury their own, don’t worry.

It turns out, Wright’s grave isn’t in Ohio. I don’t know if he wanted to be buried there or not.  At the very least, his relationship with his hometown is fraught. I think he missed it and longed for what it represented, but also it haunted him. Part of him was already buried there long ago.

Oh all around us,

The hobo jungles of America grow wild again.

The pick handles bloom like your skinned spine.

I don’t even know where

My own grave is.