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From the Homicidal to the Ecstatic

Two books by Franz Wright have appeared in the past year and a half: a new collection, God’s Silence, and a reissue called Earlier Poems, which includes poems from 1982 through 1995. Between these earlier poems and God’s Silence, Wright published, among other volumes, The Beforelife and Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. In his poems and interviews he has described a theme underlying all his writing: the intense joy he experienced when he first wrote poetry and the way he dedicated himself to recapturing that joy, whatever it cost, whatever the damage to others.

One can piece together, from his accounts in prose and verse, a life story of a child ravaged not only by his divorced father’s absence and subsequent death, but also by physical abuse suffered at the hands of his stepfather. In adolescence, Wright was diagnosed as bipolar. Once he became an adult, he descended—via alcohol, drugs, and psychiatric hospitalization—to a condition of rage, despair, and inability to write. His guilt and remorse were profound, and his alienation and loneliness became unspeakable. Miraculously, he was then enabled—through marriage to his wife (a former student) and a conversion to Catholicism—to come back from catatonic depression to sobriety, sanity, work, and writing. This last state is understandably represented as a condition of intense gratitude and happiness, a happiness that is—or so it seems to me—unfortunately inimical to the sort of grim and witty poetry that Wright has been best at.

The poems in The Beforelife announcing his conversion were prefaced by the poem “Memoir,” describing with bitter trenchancy the way his friends felt about him when he was addicted and psychotic:

Just hope he forgot the address

and don’t answer the phone

for a week:

put out all the lights

in the house—

behave like you aren’t there

if some night when

it’s blizzarding, you see

Franz Wright arrive

on your street with his suitcase

of codeine pills,

lugging that heavy

black manuscript

of blank texts.

He added a description of his earlier psychosis in “Thanks Prayer at the Cove”:

a year ago today

I found myself riding the subway psychotic

(I wasn’t depressed, I wanted to rip my face off)…

  I…looked up

at the face of the man

directly across from me, and it began

to melt before my eyes

and in an instant it was young again

the face he must have had

once when he was five

and in an instant it happened again only this

  time

it changed to the face of his elderly

corpse and back in time

it changed to his face at our present

moment of time’s flowing and then

as if transparently

superimposed I saw them all at once

OK I was insane but how insane

can somebody be I thought, I did not

know you then….

There is a marvelous fluidity here in the way the lines and words replicate the mutating face. Franz Wright’s short lines may be drawn from the practice of his father, the poet James Wright, as has sometimes been said; but that does not matter if his line breaks justify themselves, as they do in this unnerving description of “these scary and extremely/realistic rubber masks,” human faces as seen by the psychotic observer. Written out as prose, the poem loses its moment-to-moment montage effect:

I looked up at the face of the man directly across from me, and it began to melt before my eyes and in an instant it was young again, the face he must have had once when he was five; and in an instant it happened again, only this time it changed to the face of his elderly corpse, etc.

Wright’s short lines are apt for aphorism and for satire; and the successful poems, even in the earliest volumes, make you feel the worth of their end-line hesitations as they delineate impressions. The lines are enabled by their strikingly original metaphors to carry substantial freight. In “Mosquitoes” (1982) it is night, and mosquitoes keep Wright from sleep; he has no electricity, and so has to hunt them down with a match. The situation is ordinary enough, but Wright’s metaphors are all alive with feeling as he addresses the mosquitoes:

Playing your trumpets

thin as a needle

in my ear,

standing on my finger

or on the back of my neck

like the best arguments

against pity I know.

You insignificant vampires

who sip my life

through a straw;

you drops of blood

with wings;

carriers

of insomnia

I search for

with a lit match.

Wright’s piercing and prodigal gift for metaphor is what most enlivens his poems: here the thin trumpets, the insignificant vampires, the straw, the drops of blood with wings.

He has always been a close observer: in “The Wish,” for instance, observing the wolf spider, he adds another fine spider poem to those by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Tired of his “huge, misshapen body,” the poet wants a different one:

  and what could be prettier

than the wolf spider’s, with its small

hood of gray fur.

I’m told it can see in the dark;

I’m told how its children

spill from a transparent sack

it secretes, like a tear.

I’m told about its solitude,

ferocious and nocturnal.

I want to speak with this being.

I want it

to weave me a bridge.

There are echoes here of Elizabeth Bishop’s Man-Moth and the tear it secretes, and of Whitman’s spider, casting its filaments “Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold.” However, Wright differentiates his spider from Whitman’s: while Whitman’s allegory is erotic and purposive, Wright’s childlike wish is wistful.

Although many of the early poems are introspective, not all of them are cloistered. A poignant and austere poem about veterans, “Those Who Come Back,” addressed to one who came back whole from battle, becomes a poem about all revenants. It ends with a sudden reversion to the present tense, as the poet recognizes his obligation to give a name to the lost, who never come back in the flesh:

You are one of those

who came back miraculously

whole. And yet

if someone shakes your hand,

if he welcomes you

into his home, without knowing it

he also welcomes in those who did not:

those who came back with hooks

protruding from their sleeves,

who came back in wheelchairs

and boxes.

They fill the house,

those who came back

with empty pant legs

or black glasses; those who

came back with no voice; those

who come back in the night

to ask you their name.

Like many of Wright’s poems, this one is patterned by a form of repetition both unobtrusive at first reading and almost ostentatious once noticed. The poem resembles the result of a task set by a severe imagination: “Using chiefly the words ‘if,’ ‘welcomes,’ ‘home/ house,’ ‘those who,’ and ‘came/come back,’ make an eighteen-line poem about disabled veterans and the poet’s responsibility to report their case, and that of the dead.” Wright, even at the beginning, even in this minimalist mode, was a poet of linguistic cunning.

And it is not as though Wright had only minimalist aims. One of the best of the earlier poems is “Entry in an Unknown Hand” (1989), a self-amplifying transcription of paranoia, but a darkly comic one. I quote only part, but the rest is equally imaginative:

And still nothing happens. I am not arrested.

By some inexplicable oversight

nobody jeers when I walk down the street.


  It’s like this everywhere—

they think they are going to surprise me: I,

who do nothing but wait.

Once I answered the phone, and the caller hung up—

very clever.

They think that they can scare me.

I am always scared.


I go on

dodging cars that jump the curb to crush my hip…

And the poet ends suicidally, as he moves

toward my place,

the one at the end of the counter,

the scalpel on the napkin.

Wright’s verse, understandably, came under the spell of John Berryman’s poems of madness. Like Berryman, Wright exaggerates for aesthetic effect, sometimes unsuccessfully. “The Street” offers a no-holds-barred cartoon “autobiography” too lurid to be convincing:

Here’s what really occurred, in my own words

I murdered my father—and if he comes back, I’ll kill him again—but first I persuaded him to abandon my mother. Now you know. It was me all along. Then I got bored, held a knife to her throat, and forced her to marry the sadist who tortured my brother for ten years.

Wright’s scale of experience, like Berryman’s, runs from the homicidal to the ecstatic. Even in the early work, happy endings were perilous to the success of a Wright poem. Clichés spring to lips that ought to have scorned them: “for me, too,//a hunger darkened the world,/and a fierce joy made it blaze/into unrecognizable beauty.” Banalities seem to follow inevitably on joy: “Is there a single thing in nature/ that can approach in mystery/the absolute uniqueness of any human face?” A temptation to profundity sabotages quasi-religious revelations: “There are hidden things waiting to utter anyone who needs them.”

These are the pitfalls into which Wright once again tends to fall in God’s Silence. Here is the ending of one poem:

with shocking clarity

I heard my mother’s voice

pronounce my name. And in an instant I passed

beyond sorrow and terror, and was carried up

into the imageless

bright darkness

I came from

and am. Nobody’s

stronger than forgiveness.

The poem, entitled “Did This Ever Happen to You,” provokes resistance in this reader: “No, such a thing never happened to me, hearing my dead mother’s voice. Nor have I ever passed ‘beyond sorrow and terror to an imageless realm, brightly dark or darkly bright.’” (There are echoes here: Shelley’s “The deep truth is imageless”; Henry Vaughn’s “a deep, but dazzling darkness.”)

All too often, in God’s Silence, Wright cannot take me with him. Religious experience has long been a part of lyric; George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins carry me along almost no matter where they go. But Wright is given to flat announcements—that “it has been given back…/a cheerful self-confident trust that I am at home in this universe”—or to equally blank vows:

I would like to give my life

the sad and awful simplicity

of an early weekday mass with

a handful of most lonely humans in attendance.

Announcing his creed, he describes his spiritual renewal, and his fear of its loss:

I believe in a higher unseeable

life, inconceivable

light

of which light is mere shadow, and yet

already, at times, and with desolation

with bereftness no words can express, miss this light

of the earth, this bright life

I yesterday only began to love, to understand.

No reader will doubt the poet’s word; but one can doubt his words. One has encountered the proffered concepts (“inconceivable/light/of which light is mere shadow”) in the writings of mystics, but Saint John of the Cross brings moving conviction to the page, rhythmically as much as metaphorically. Wright’s light has not found its words: it refuses to glow with the glory he claims for it. And Wright’s prayers are often vacant in their language:

Empty me of the bitterness and disappointment of being nothing but myself

Immerse me in the mystery of reality

Fill me with love for the truly afflicted…

Admirable sentiments, forgettable language.

It is a relief, in God’s Silence, when Wright’s wry humor is allowed its way, as in the poem called “Hell.” Pondering the argument that suffering is God’s way of perfecting the soul, the poet draws, in three brief lines, the logical conclusion concerning the damned:

But if they were condemned to suffer

this unending torment, sooner or later

wouldn’t they become the holy?

And in this collection so given to relentless cheer (or faith, or hope), it is a relief to come across Wright’s gifted parody, “Contributor’s Note”:

My parents (all

four of them) did

their very best, and yet

I did not die.

At nineteen

I received the dark crown—

Of course, it crushed my head

a minor

side effect

a stroke of sorts, but now

I walk again

a little

like a broken doll

but walk

again I talk

and stranger still

this time

you are all listening

To Wright, once so broken and shamed, it is astonishing that he can walk again and talk—and, as he says, “stranger still” that we are all listening. The world has certainly been listening to Wright, the poet of such arresting and well-known poems as “Slander,” “Shaving in the Dark,” and “The Only Animal.” In the tragic and funny “Address Search,” Wright, his ear always attuned to common speech, became the first poet of e-mail:

And you will find me

any night

now, try

at the motherless sky.

com

How dare you

interrupt

me.com

I’m sorry

I was ever born.com

No doubt

you can always find

me any

time, any

where

in the damned world.

Perhaps, as the flush of religious conversion stabilizes itself, Wright’s poems can win back their best forms of originality: deftness in patterning, startling metaphors, starkness of speech, compression of both pain and joy, and a stoic self-possession within the agonies and penalties of existence.

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