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,…


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