Ashley Capes Reviews Readings From Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright, Music by Michael Rozon, Daniel Ahearn

Readings from Wheeling Motel

by Franz Wright

Produced by Daniel Ahearn, Chris Ahearn

Music by Michael Rozon, with Daniel Ahearn

Riparian Records 2009
Recorded by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Reviewed by ASHLEY CAPES

A musical collaboration between the US poet Franz Wright and Los Angeles musicians/producers Daniel Ahearn (Ill Lit) and Michael Rozon (Brazzaville, Melvins).

When I received Readings from Wheeling Motel, by Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, Franz Wright, I was immediately struck by how convincing Wright was as a reader. He does not rush a single moment, and brings a sense of assuredness to the recording, with his willingness to leave space where space is needed. Having Ahearn travel to the poet’s home in Waltham, MA to record the readings may have added to this, as the studio can be a demanding place, where budgets and schedules often hang over a performer.
The publisher notes that the original music, recorded by Ahearn and Rozon in Los Angeles, “creates a dreamy counterpoint to Wright’s delicate, deliberate lines” and “offers the rare opportunity to experience this world-class poet in a uniquely personal and direct manner.”
I agree. It is a highly personal experience, at times an unnerving one too, both musically and thematically. An extensively self-referential collection of pieces, conviction comes from a willingness to both examine and criticise the self. Even to run across the bruises at times, as in the mercenary tradition of much poetry, Wright tears through his own life and ends up sharing stunning material. “Night Flight Turbulence” is a perfect example of a personal moment becoming shared, through both its interaction with the music and the listener. The recording builds a tight space around the narrator, enhanced by heavy, reverb-drenched atmosphere, courtesy of the piano’s legato phrasing and reversed guitar. Wright’s expression of confinement is made more tangible with a word choice that is both conversational and abstract:
               In the greenly-lit restroom, 
               I looked pretty ill, like 
               a vampire locked in
               a confessional;
               the drug had no effect
               whatsoever, maybe 
               slightly more arctic and fearful.
Here and throughout, Wright’s voice is like an anchor, holding everything in place. The music moves around and beneath his raspy tone, never intruding, but instead supporting his imagery and deft use of metaphor and simile. At times the music almost sounds like it chills him, despite being recorded after his reading.
Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue seems comparable. Both recordings are musically cool and reflective, often pensive, or simply dark. And both voices are deep, raspy and weathered, but clear (though more so in the case of Wright). And it’s that clarity of voice that’s so frequently mirrored in his poems – “At 54” is a wonderful moment of revelation, where ‘place’ becomes everything:

                            And I can’t wait

               to return to this chair
               in which I am sitting, this
               world, the one where

               each object stands
               for nothing at all but
               its own inexplicable existence.

Listening to Wright read his poetry, I found myself at his mercy; I experienced each piece like a movie – knowing so little about what was coming next. It kept me involved in a way that was different to the page. In fact, one of the greatest challenges in writing about Readings from Wheeling Motel, is that I can only show you the words, I can’t let you hear them. And it’s important to feel the way in which the intensity of the poetry is counter-balanced by Wright’s calm, measured reading, the open, unobtrusive music. Now, when I re-read sections of the poems here, the intensity is stronger than the calm. Wright, who has battled alcoholism, addiction and psychiatric illness, is biting when it comes to the limitations of prescription therapy, as with “Paediatric Suicide”, which begins with the line:

                         Being who you are is not a disorder.
               Being unloved is not psychiatric disorder.

 This launches an attack, going well beyond defiance:

               And seeing a psychiatrist for 15 minutes per month

               some subdoormat psychiatrist, writing for just what you
                          need lots more drugs

               to pay his mortgage Lexus lease and child’s future tuition
                          while pondering which wine to have for
                          dinner is not effective

               treatment for friendless and permanent sadness. 

               Child your sick smile is the border of sleep.

The poem is one of the most beautiful and heart-rending of the collection. For as much as it is haunting, brooding and bleak, there is beauty, defiance and strength. Wright’s mix of tenderness and harsh realism weaves its way through so many poems, like “Waltham Catholic Cemetery” or one of the longer pieces, “With a Child”:

                                                 And the words
               for these things are so terribly small;
               and the world of those words

               only slightly less mortal
               than this instant of taking your hand,
               of taking care to look both ways, 
               not to squeeze too hard, or be too aware 
               that no such mercy will be proffered

               by a world that has no need 
               of words, or us.

At times it sounds like Wright is searching for and finding the right words, as if he does this ‘live’ as he reads. This space is used to great effect, such as in the list-like poem “Intake Interview,” where each line is given the room to stand alone:

        Would you compare your education to a disease so rare no one 
                               else has ever had it, or the deliberate extermination
                               of indigenous populations?

The entire recording is sequenced with space in mind. During the poems and between them, there is enough time to feel or think, between one poem and the next. The music, at times quite dramatic, though usually so understated, is transitional between pieces, but also allows the listener room to absorb the poem themselves.

The impressionistic sketches and musical fragments (arranged by a big supporting cast) comprise at the least, piano, pedal steel, nylon acoustic (on the delicate Out of Delusion,”) electric guitar, wordless vocals. During “Day One”, a simple, hard drumbeat underscores the humour in the piece:

               Good morning, class. Today
               we’re going to be discussing
               the deplorable adventures
               of Franz Wright and his gory flute. 
               Just kidding.

One of the more dissonant pieces of music in the recording is from “Abuse,” which brings a silent film or saloon to mind, with an off-kilter feel, one that is a surprising but not unwelcome contrast with the rest of the collection.

“Bumming a Cigarette” follows and returns to a slow, marching tone, for one of the most harrowing moments as Wright seems to accuse himself of becoming his father, who also suffered with alcoholism and who eventually died after being diagnosed with cancer of the tongue:

               And you can only armour yourself in death-wish for so long, the
               blows are not muffled, it will save you from nothing;
               and the idiot drive to go on, and actually be glad to go on, 
               keeps breaking through, ruining everything, even 
               this last chance for some sort of peace.

The collection does have the feel, at times, of a startling eulogy. Death features large in the collection, both its inevitability and, perhaps, its inability to be explained away by religion (“Everyone, Lord who wakes up in a cell./Everyone Lord who wakes up in the cancer bed.” from “No Answer No Why”). I came to the closing track looking for something tender, more hopeful, and Wheeling Motel” delivers this. Settling on a reflective moment, it is framed beautifully by piano and a wordless vocal with a gospel, Amazing Grace/Great Gig in the Sky-feel, where Wright closes with an echo, subverting the famous American Civil War poem and personalising the conflict by referencing himself and his father, suggesting an ability to reconcile, to forgive:

Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.

It’s a privilege to be introduced to Wright’s work in this manner. Hearing a recording is an experience that many of us will never have.  There are poets from the past whose readings are impossible to record. Contemporary poets may be prohibited, or lack the opportunity. There are so many stumbling blocks between poet and listener. But here, Ahearn, Rozon and Wright tear them down and present the poetry in a way that brings the reader, in Ahearn’s words “disorientation, transcendence, a strange peace.”