The summer of ’99 I was in Boston for two weeks of hockey camps and a week of touring. I was traveling with my friend and his father and one sunny morning we boarded a ferry out to an island I’d never heard of. We walked along the shore and played in the Atlantic Ocean. My friend’s father noted the unusual presence of newscasters and helicopters headed towards the opposite side of the island.
That evening we heard on the news that John F. Kennedy Jr. had died when his plane crashed into the ocean on his way to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s believed that JFK Jr. plunged into a graveyard spiral where he was unable to determine up from down. He lost sight of the horizon.
In Franz Wright’s poem “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard” it’s the “horizontal light” that guides the movement.
And the ocean smells like lilacs in late August–how
The light there muted (silver) as remembered light,
Do you have any children?
No, lucky for them.
Bad things happen when you get hands, dolphin.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing?
There is no down or up in space or in the womb.
If they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it
would have been an act of mercy.
Like the light the last room, the windowless room at the
end, must look out on. Gold-tinged, blue
vapor trail breaking up now like the white line you see,
after driving all day, when your eyes close;
vapor trail breaking up now between huge clouds resembling
a kind of Mount Rushmore of your parent’s faces.
And these untraveled windy back roads here–cotton
leaves blowing past me, in the long blue
if I am on an island, how is it they go on forever.
This sky like an infinite tenderness, I have caught
glimpses of that, often, so often, and never yet have
I described it, I can’t, somehow, I never will.
How is it that I didn’t spend my whole life being happy, loving
other human beings’ faces.
And wave after wave, the ocean smells like lilacs in
The narrator is constantly losing his or herself to the past, but the reality of the island returns the thoughts. The leaves, the blue light, its tenderness, and the smell of lilacs is contrasted with the shameful thoughts of a wasted and fruitless life. Love is illusive, indescribable, but it’s represented in the concrete leaves and light and lilacs that are infinite, endless like continuous waves.
But where is speaker going on this island? To death? To life? The destination isn’t important because space is replaced with the timeless, the forever.
Can you live in forever knowing you haven’t loved other human beings? That is the question.
The Pulitzer Prize winning “Walking to Martha’s Vineyward” book of poems.
Listen to Franz Wright read.
The Image Journal has an essay by Wright entitled “Language as Sacrament in the New Testament.”