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.

Solitude and Fear

This weekend, I went on a one-woman writer’s retreat. There’s a cabin on Whidbey Island that I found listed on Airbnb a few years ago. It’s a single-occupancy dwelling nestled in the woods, complete with a strong wifi signal and three thesauruses. It’s designed specifically for writers. I bookmarked it and periodically came back to it, thinking, one day, I would go there.  Not today, though. Not this month.

I told myself it was because of my toddler. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave her behind for three whole days? How could I explain my absence to her?  It seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. But truthfully: I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, for vast stretches of time. I thought I might die of boredom, or of missing my daughter. More realistically, I thought I might have a mental breakdown being alone with my thoughts. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread the specter of my own company. So I avoided it for many months.

My husband kept bringing it up, every so often, but I always had a good reason why now wasn’t a good time. Eventually, my sister told me I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like that. Of course, she was right. It was a little counterproductive, me standing in my own way. So, I booked it, even though the decision itself was made with much trepidation. Even, at times, regret. But the cabin had a very strict no refund policy, and so it was decided.

I cooked three day’s worth of food ahead of time and braced myself for solitude. If I was going to do this, I was really going to do it.  I didn’t want any distractions. (I didn’t even pack wine.) Instead, I packed several notebooks and several more books. I wanted to brainstorm my next writing project, journal, and read. Maybe do some yoga and meditation. And I did all those things. But mostly, I just sat around and thought.

I thought a lot about fear and how difficult it can be to express when you are afraid. It feels somehow humiliating, an infantilizing admission. I also felt a bit unreasonable in my fear, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity if I was only going to be angsty about it. (Funny how the mental admonitions of adult-me sound like echoes of emotionally neglectful parents.) Of course, it’s not patently unreasonable to be unnerved at spending three nights alone in an unfamiliar cabin in the woods, away from everyone you know, without so much as a car or reliable phone service.

Regardless.

I was able to parse through my thought processes and really analyze the fear that I hold inside of me. The fear wasn’t the problem so much as the denial of it was. The avoidance, the minimalizing. That’s what people have been doing to me my whole life, but it’s weirdly terrifying to realize that I do it to myself.

But fear is so human. When we avoid our fear, when we attempt to will it out of existence, we only succeed in diminishing our own humanness.

There are a lot of things I fear, many of them I don’t even think I can acknowledge properly. Some of these feelings have been forced down for so long that I no longer recognize them for what they are. It’s a long process to unravel the knotty threads that kink and bind your perception. Solitude helps. Facing yourself–your true, human form–honestly and gently, is perhaps the best antidote for fear.