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This review is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS FRANZ WRIGHT, Walking to Martha's Vineyard (Alfred A. Knopf) $23.00

In 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', Randall Jarrell used womb and still-birth imagery to powerful effect in juxtaposing the powerlessness of the individual against the modern state at war. The poem begins, 'From my mother's sleep I fell into the State', and having established this state of insignificance Jarrell concludes with a cruel image of the now dead gunner's eradication, 'When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.' In the title poem of his collection, Walking to Martha's Vineyard, Franz Wright uses abortion or infanticide to different effect: 'If they'd stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it / would have been an act of mercy.' How each poet, separated by sixty years, deploys his respective 'they' signals much about the evolution of American poetry over those years. And Wright's usage is an indicator of an important, but perhaps unwelcome, strand in the development of confessional verse.

Jarrell specifies who the 'they' are in his poem, while Wright leaves his 'they', his killer and saviour, unspecified and indeterminate. Jarrell, writing somewhat melodramatically, poses the dilemma of the individual's puniness against the world, inflecting that timeless question with a specifically modernist, technological determinism. On the other hand, Wright, writing somewhat self-pityingly, short-circuits the whole futile process of life by calling for his own infanticide. That act not having happened, Wright plots his own demise: walking to Martha's Vineyard (unless, I suppose, you're the Saviour) is ...


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