Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright
New York: Knopf, 2009
91 pp., cloth, $26.95.
Lucifer at the Starlite by Kim Addonizio
New York: W.W. Norton, 2009
89 pp., cloth, $23.95.
Refrigerate After Opening
The novelist Denis Johnson said of an earlier collection Franz Wright’s poems, “They’re like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers–miraculous gifts.” I think of them as thimbles of raw carrot juice, intense and flavorful––experiences served up to us straight, pulled from the dream worlds of sleep or altered states, and grated to juice, like the bright orange carrot juice behind the glass refrigerated case in my favorite organic yoghurt store on Fillmore Avenue in San Francisco. Wright’s poems are a quick drink with a short shelf life. Yet they retain an undisputed place in our vast, complicated cannon of the lost soul, as raw slices of American life in the waning days of empire.
The poems have the same interest, even fascination, as a diary left carelessly open on a table. Some of the appeal is the voyeur’s. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had in his stuporous performance of his brilliant work, a similar fascination for his contemporaries. Most in this latest collection of Franz Wright’s—as in earlier collections—concern the poet as recovering addict saved by interventions from multiple sources––psychiatric wards, the Church, his own writing. In “Kyrie,” a suicide
took the oxycodone
and listened to Arvo Part’s “I Am the True Vine”
over and over, the snow falling harder now.
He switched off the light and sat without dread
. . .
and sent friendly e-mails to everyone, Lord
I had such a good time and I don’t regret anything—
What happened to the prayer that goes like that? 
“Kyrie” is one of the more structured narratives of the collection, although there are others with a “punch line” like this one’s, a kind of sick joke. Wright’s highs seem to have less to do with illicit drugs than with an ecstatic state of mind channeled through prayer—“the holy dove of tongues on fire released—“
The poet’s wretched childhood, particularly his esteemed father, the poet James Wright, hovers in the background. (As Faulkner knew, the past is not over, “it is not even past.”) In addition to death wishes, many poems evoke what it’s like being high, abusing drugs and alcohol.
Wright’s subtext is “Down and Out in Ohio and New York” (although he appears to live in more genteel Massachusetts). In “The Call,” the poet’s mother is “the knife/giving the wound/some more free advice.”  But like a repentant St. Augustine, Wright remains clear about his own complicity: He’s “the one/who’s done vastly/more harm in his life,/incalculably more than/that lonely old woman/he has never missed/an opportunity/to torture with a shrug/of clearly feigned/forgiveness. . .” The religious poems, too, use language that might come from addicts sitting around in AA meetings chewing the fat; Wright has a keen ear for the casual, colloquial expression, whether the utterance is prayer or tirade.
A few poems are about dreams, writing, and writing classes, which apparently Wright teaches. A handful of the best are simply statements in the moment with intimations of Rilke or the biblical prophet Isaiah. In “East Window: Little Compton” the poet writes
sunlight meanwhile comes and goes
across the sea of beaten lead
one instant and the next
(Achillean) of beaten gold
and next a diamond vast abyss of light
until it is mere ocean once again—
nothing in itself was ever
good enough. Though soon
things as they are will become far
more memorable than you can endure. 
Few poets in my limited reading have described so accurately the bodily state of utter porosity, however it is come by:
How are you feeling.
. . .
. . .like a window with light coming through it, he said. 
Wright writes with immediacy about his trials by the fire of drugs and insanity, as if he wakes in the morning with a fountain pen in his throat, ready to etch the words of his demon brain onto his skin. I wonder if he may be crucifying himself on his writing pen: Might he in a future project step back from the easy jibe as in these lines: “some subdoormat psychiatrist writing for just what you need lots more rugs/to pay his mortgage Lexus lease and child’s future tuition” ? Might he yet explore more nuanced, textured and complex ways of responding to neglect and abuse, insanity and addiction? The writing of poets from W. B. Yeats to Thomas Hardy went through many permutations in their careers. And as Wright himself has told us, he has already been resurrected once “by the force of love” , why not again?
Alas, his readers like him as he writes now. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Unlike Wright, the poet in Addonizio’s new collection, Lucifer at the Starlight, does not repent her profligate ways. In “Yes,” the poet asks,
That empty feeling crawling toward you—
Should you kill it with a wadded paper towel
Or trap it in a jar and shake it out
And send it flying into the grass?
Is your head full of frozen tamales
And a vodka bottle curled on its side?
This is genre poetry, like Wright’s but more stylized, with a characteristic scherzo tempo and hip slang detailing the slumming life—a sort of poem noir, circling around the miserable childhood, the drug addled adulthood, one long cry in the dark, yet embedded in the democratic principle that even the high culture of poetry is ours. One of Addonizio’s appeals for me is the way she snakes into high culture, T.S. Eliot or Dante, when you least expect it, as when “Yes” directs–
Now get out of your car,
Stand by the side of the road
And take a step. Now recite
The Waste Land, backwards,
Beginning with that sexy Sanskrit word. 
In “You Were,” musing on a teen’s promiscuity, the poet invites us to “think/of Clytia, singing for Apollo. . .”  Or take “Splendor Hour” , which begins with a quote from Wordsworth (. . . “splendour in the grass . . .”) and then notes the poet’s taste for grape jawbreakers, as if to say even the kid guzzling Diet Mountain Dew—even you, dear reader–– experience the mythic longing for the Beloved known to the Greeks, et al., and canonized by Wordsworth. Addonizo’s facility with language enables her to take an idea from, say, Rilke, and recast it in hot, new colors, strangely flat and well, depressing. Take, for example, the opening lines of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. . . .//Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing.
And here’s Addonizo in “Storm Catechism,”
The gods are rinsing their just-boiled pasta
In a colander, which is why
It is humid and fitfully raining
Down here in the steel sink of mortal life.
. . .
The gods were here first, and they’re bigger.
They always were, and always will be
Living it up in their father’s mansion.
. . .
Do the gods see us?
Will the waters be rising soon?
The waters will be rising soon.
Find someone or something to cling to.[25-26]
In “November 11,” the poet gives us a two-second elegy for a list of people including Arafat, Iris Chang, Muslims and U.S. Marines dead in the Iraq war.  What are we to make of this? The 18th Century poet Thomas Gray, in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” memorialized the lives of England’s rural poor, the ploughman “homeward plod[ding] his weary way, the “busy housewife ply[ing] her evening care.” In a hundred and twenty-eight graceful, cadenced lines, Gray celebrated “their useful toil,/Their homely joys, and destiny obscure.” It may have been the first time such homage was paid by a poet. Twenty-first Century poets, it seems, memorialize our dead in sound bites, assuming that we otherwise “mute, inglorious Miltons” prefer fame––singing our sound bite on the world stage––to living out our lives in quiet obscurity with our daily pleasures and pains, struggles and accomplishments, honored and acknowledged in our small circle.
There’s little excitement in such obscurity; it doesn’t suit Addonizo’s thrill seeking. In addition to nine books, she has produced a music CD, Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing, and performs, singing and playing harmonica in venues around San Francisco. In “Sign Your Name,” she extends the invitation to all.
And farewell: you’re stacked or stashed
Or set aflame, turning on the spit,
The axis, the long pole that runs
Through everyone. If you’re here
You’re already nearly gone. Write
If you can. If you can, give us a song. 
There’s no denying the power of such lines, crooning down the page like the tune of a blues song. When you die, the poet says in “Easeful Death,”
There they’ll be, your loved ones,
Scrounging in the urn for a bit of you
To rub between their fingers. 
The material is familiar. Addonizo powerfully vocalizes the underworld sentiments of blues, the poem noir.