Sunday, August 17, 2008

The personal in poetry:
Frances Richey’s The Warrior

This is a long-overdue post about a stellar poetry collection: The Warrior: a Mother’s Story of a Son at War, by Frances Richey. Two of the poems in this collection, “His Gun” and “He Tells Each Story,” first appeared in upstreet number two, and another, “The Power Lifter”—the poet’s favorite—was published in upstreet number three.

Fran Richey, who raised her son, Ben, as a single parent, began writing these poems when he, a West Point graduate and Green Beret, was deployed to Iraq in 2004. While they had long been at opposite ends of the political spectrum, they had always been able to discuss, and even argue about their differences openly, without damaging their relationship. On September 11, 2001, the very day that Ben was selected for Special Forces training, the likelihood of his eventually going into combat became a certainty. From then on, their differing attitudes toward the war developed a stronger personal relevance, the channels of communication between Fran and Ben started closing up, and Fran began to feel as if she were losing her son. She wrote the poems as a way of coping with her own feelings and saying the things she could not say to him directly, and doing so made her feel closer to him. While she didn’t show him the poems until he returned from overseas, she did tell him she was writing them. “But don’t worry,” she said. “No one reads poems.”

In hindsight, this statement is ironic. Fran’s agent put the manuscript out for auction, and four or five publishers bid on it. This in itself is unusual for a poetry collection. The winning publisher, Viking, gave the book national publicity and sent the author on a reading/signing tour of nine major cities from New York to San Francisco. The book tour was preceded by appearances at Fort Bragg and West Point with Ben, a 34-year-old Special Forces Major who has returned home safely after two tours of duty in Iraq.

Besides the coverage of Fran Richey’s book tour that appeared in local papers across the country, The Warrior has been written and talked about in places where it is unusual to find poems or discussions of poetry. It was featured, and one of its poems reprinted, in the November 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, and that article has been included in a book of the best articles that appeared in the magazine in 2007. Another poem—the first poem ever—was featured on the “Lives” page of the March 2, 2008 New York Times Magazine, which is usually devoted to a personal essay. The book was discussed in Anna Quindlen’s April 14, 2008 Newsweek column, in a June 2007 New York Times op-ed column by Nicholas Kristof, during a Mother’s Day appearance on “The News Hour” (PBS, May 9, 2008), and in appearances on NPR’s “The Story with Dick Gordon” (May 22, 2008) and “All Things Considered” (May 25, 2008).

This upstreet Fan Club post was partly prompted by a full-page review by David Orr that appeared in the Sunday, July 20 New York Times Book Review. Most of that review was devoted not to the book itself, but to a discussion of the personal element, or the story behind the poems, with the suggestion that this, rather than the poetry, is what Viking had paid such a (presumably) large sum for. Although he does grant that “Frances Richey is a poet, fortunately…,” and that she “is an actual writer, and she knows how to put together a clean, solid contemporary poem,” there remains the clear implication that poems about the poet’s personal experience are somehow less adequate than detached lyrics about Greek gods or Celtic myths. (Fran Richey, by the way, was an award-winning poet before she wrote The Warrior; her prior collection, The Burning Point, won the 2004 White Pine Press Poetry Prize.) As William Wordsworth defined it, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” My own belief is that, were it not for “the personal,” very few poems—indeed, very few essays, stories, plays, or novels—would ever be written.

I dislike political art; that is my bias. Others believe that all art is political; that is their bias. Inevitably there will be those who use others’ work to grind their own political axes, on one side or the other of any issue. But as Fran Richey says herself, these are not political poems—and her son does not feel them as political, but as his mother’s expression of the effect his being placed in harm’s way had on her. He also sees the poems as her effort to cope with the growing rift between them, and believes, as she does, that her work has had a healing influence on their relationship, enabling them both to recognize that love is more important than political differences.

The strength of The Warrior, in addition to the obvious timeliness of its subject matter, lies in its memoir-like personal narrative quality and its accessibility to a larger audience than the usual readers of poetry collections. Most important, however, is the ability of its author to make the reader feel what it would be like to have a son who is risking his life, by his own choice, in the service of his country.

He Tells Each Story
with his hands, all the lines
in his palms deeply creased.
When he makes his right
a gun, it is a gun;
the third and index fingers
fused, extended;
the thumb bent sharp
at the knuckle. Sometimes
his left hand hovers
over his chest,
as if he still wears armor,
as if his heart must be
protected from his touch.

From The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War, by Frances Richey (Viking, 2008). Reprinted by permission.