Henri Cole on Visiting Martins Ferry, Home of the Late James Wright
Ohio sure knows how to do spring. Everywhere the trees are blossoming-white, pink, and purple—making me feel how abruptly life can begin again.
Yesterday, I drove two hours with my student Ben and his pretty wife Lily to Martins Ferry, Ohio, where the poet James Wright was born in 1927 and graduated as valedictorian from the local high school.
Martins Ferry—which Wright called “my home, my native country”—is one of many steel-producing towns along the industrialized upper Ohio River Valley.
Even in hopeful April, I thought of Wright’s bleak lines immortalizing his blue-collar hometown:
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
On the town’s lower plateau, we crossed Ohio State Route 7 to see the stadium—where Wright portrayed the local boys galloping “terribly against each other’s bodies”—and then we visited the Martins Ferry Public Library on James Wright Place.
There was a book sale and Lily bought a cookbook for one dollar. The library director, Yvonne, greeted us warmly and showed off a handsome framed portrait of Wright, taken by his brother Ted, displayed in the main reading room.
With Yvonne, we walked down the street to see the town’s new historical plaque honoring Wright.
And she pointed out that it faced the library, rather than Dutch Henry’s, a popular bar across the intersection, telling us that this fact delighted Annie, the poet’s widow.
Driving along the Ohio River, we encountered a family on the railroad tracks collecting cans in plastic shopping bags. “The beautiful river, that black ditch of horror,” Wright called it in one of his radiant poems.
At a nearby restaurant, we sat in a booth and Lily ate chili while Ben devoured a delicious greasy hamburger with fries. The Martins Ferry ambulance squad was there eating lunch, too.
Later, driving home, we listened to a CD of Wright reading in 1978. He was introduced by Mark Strand, who praised Wright’s poems for their sincerity and lack of melodrama. “It may sound at times like despair, but ultimately it’s not,” Strand said eloquently, “for its very utterance is a victory in which the inner world of the poet is given substance and the outer world of things is given meaning.”
—Henri Cole, April 19, 2010