First, the poem:
AUTUMN BEGINS IN MARTINS FERRY, OHIO
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.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
It’s heightened attention to the NFL this year that brought a very vague memory of this poem to mind, I think; as a piece, its overuse of abstract nouns makes for melodrama, as does its tendency to typify a crew of one-dimensional characters. More importantly, though, a few of the images that Wright crafts have both truth and power, and these color his overarching hyperbole, creating a scene that is so desperate in its pulsing neon that its plug nearly cries to be pulled.
I admit ignorance as to why Wright’s ‘[P]roud fathers are ashamed to go home’—perhaps the mechanism of their work, as stirred by the first stanza, is explanation; perhaps their hearts are with their sons on the field, having themselves passed out of ‘play.’ In any event, the visual of ‘Their women cluck[ing] like starved pullets’ is dead-on. From the front step to the driveway, this is the verifiable sound of the voice that wants to the ear that half-cares. ‘Pullets’ is a brilliant choice to this end: beyond setting the women at a certain age, it visually cues their thin, drawn-out, ‘pulled’ call. The ammo of this image almost rescues the broad (and therefore too vague) ‘[d]ying for love.’
It’s tough not to marvel at the gutsy ‘[t]herefore’ adverbial connector following: the fact that Wright sees a consequent connection between the menagerie of flash personages in the first eight lines and the scene in the final four speaks to his compelling imagination. So the boys’ beauty (are they so beautiful that an onlooker is drawn to kill himself? or is it beauty who wants to off herself, being bodied?) becomes the result of a love that is taciturn in father, desperate in mother, and this is a call to ‘[G]allop terribly against each others bodies.’ In terms of purity of metaphorical relation, I’m hard-pressed to find something more accurate than this description of how a tackle and end meet at the line, without real hope for advancement, one bucking north, the other south. Wright’s moments of inspired descriptive accuracy mean that—while I continue to question parts of his method—his poetic in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” feels utterly achieved. So what if I don’t like a wash of abstract nouns?
Thinking of football’s recent issues, from Mr. Paterno to Suh on 11/24 (by the way, check out Jeff MacGregor’s thoughtful piece on football violence here), there’s little doubt that aggression, metered anger, and denial play a part in our interest in footballing. Wright’s piece colors that contact, again, by lending lens to the urge to pummel what we would embrace.