Meeting James Wright at Dutch Henry’s Bar in Martins Ferry

finally met up with him, one blustery cold friday night
saw him, sitting at the far end of the bar
hunched over a blue spiral-bound notebook
his right hand, like a machine gun
shooting words onto a shadowy white page

the only other time i’d been to dutch henry’s
was with uncle hank when i was eight
as my uncle pushed open the front door
he cautioned me: never bring a lady here
didn’t ask him why
but after my maiden visit
i knew exactly what he meant

i felt so important
just sitting on a bar stool next to my uncle
drinking a coke through a straw
listening in on his conversation with the two burly men
whose massive sandpaper rough hands swallowed mine
when we shook hands
somehow i knew one would ruffle my curly black hair
before our visit was over
jake, the taller fellow, did just that
not once, but twice

i never knew my uncle laughed so much

james looked older than i remembered
from his black and white celebrity photos
but i still recognized him
his heavy, black-rimmed glasses, were a dead giveaway
a balding portly man
his gut hung, like a small pouch of dough, over his belt

i reached him at the end of the bar
just as his left hand grasped the neck of his beer bottle
without letting go of his beer, and
only barely moving his torso
he swung his right arm around
extending his writing hand to me
managing just a hint of a smile
he said with a slight lilt “don, i presume. i’m james wright.”

his hand was soft and warm
i thought it would be rough and cold
from the hard life he had lived
it wasn’t till much later
i saw the thick writing callous on his middle finger
mine was negligible compared to his
but then, so is my poetry

he chugged the remains of his beer
we ordered another round
as i sat down next to him
i strained to read what he was writing
but his handwriting and the darkness prevented me
from making out even a single word
he didn’t offer, i didn’t ask

he asked when i had left martins ferry, and why
it was the why part he was after
i wanted to move on, talk about writing
and what it’s like once your poetry ends
why i left no longer mattered, but
why both of us returned, just for this visit, did
we both knew more than our poetry carried us away
from this near dead steel town along the ohio river

james made me feel like a mirror
allowing him to see himself
at first, i felt like some hyperbole to him
then i realized…
dead men can’t see themselves
then i understood why i was sitting
in the town’s dingiest bar, talking
with the ghost of martins ferry’s poet son

like james wright
i had seen autumn begin in martins ferry in 1963
he was long gone from this place
and well on his way to infamy
i was still there (here)
an aspiring player, galloping terribly against other young men’s bodies
on shreve high school football field

back then, every night i went to bed
dreaming about becoming somebody important
hoping to escape the choking smoke of the mills
and someday make a difference in the world
here i am 44 years later, literally dreaming
about meeting a dead poet in a bar
locals would remember far longer
than their town’s poet laureate

isn’t it odd how dreams and reality stare back at each other
not only in poetry
but also in fanciful meetings with long-gone poets?


Author’s Note: Like the poet James Wright, I grew up in
Martins Ferry, Ohio. Wright died in 1980. Dutch Henry’s
is still serving drinks, and it’s still not someplace you
should take a lady. Someday I plan to sit at the end of the bar
and write a poem.