Franz Wright's poetry is among the most honest, haunting, and human
being written today. From The Earth Without You (1980) and continuing
through the selected poems of Ill Lit (1998), Wright's is insistent,
urgent verse that flows with real sadness and compassion but never self-pity.
Wright doesn't deal in linguistic pyrotechnics: a craftsman who seems
genuinely to stay away from arguments of sensibility, theory, "modes,"
or "schools," he deals in tangible human struggles, emotions, and paranoias,
not heavy sonic veneer and experimental yearnings. Wright inspires with
his plain-spokenness and straightforward sentiment, which is not to
imply that his work is not challenging—on the contrary, he deals
in a disjunctive logic whose timbre is tinged with riddle, koan, and
warning. Though resonating with some of the tension and darkness seen
in his previous twelve collections, The Beforelife is fueled
by a Wright who has turned a corner and found the willingness to directly
confront his demons—primarily himself—and finally cast away
the pall from a life riddled with trials and profound lows.
Born in 1953, Wright draws from a deep well of spiritual poetry confined
not only to the twentieth century. The disparate voices that echo in
The Beforelife include Rene Char, Rainier Maria Rilke, and Ingeborg
Bachmann—all of whom Wright has translated—as well as St.
John of the Cross, Fernando Pessoa, John Clare, Kenji Miyazawa, Frank
Stanford, and Bill Knott. But the echoes are faint; Wright's voice comes
to us almost entirely sui generis. The result: half-surreal, half-aphoristic
vignettes (the majority of his poems are, as Charles Simic has said,
short enough to have been written on matchbook covers) that lurk quietly
on the page and, in such a compact state, appear visually as if they
This form—jolting, fragmented, frank, journal-like—provides
the perfect vehicle for Wright to chronicle his battle with alcoholism,
including the tests of will and spirit when retreating from the brink
of self-destruction and then his coming to terms with the shadow of
his great father, the late poet James Wright, who was often an overbearing
and abusive figure. Though propitiation with and repentance for one's
past, one's conscience, and one's actions are Wright's key motivators,
his is no mere "poetry of healing." The can-do language of empowerment
and recovery are seldom seen; his forms of self-address—using
either "I," "you," and even third-person references—sets as much
an accusatory tone as a redemptive one: "It was night, I was / having
a fairly nice time / for a cockroach // in a psychiatrist's kitchen."
Thus, we watch human growth burgeon before us in measured language,
enriched without the usual pitfalls—cringing at self-indulgence
on the poet's part, or being prodded by saccharin, New Age-type "coping."
Striking the right note, the first poem places us in an empty cathedral,
the figure of Christ hanging above and directing us to "light / one
candle / for the here." Thus doubt and salvation enter hand-in-hand
and walk through the entirety of the book, which unfolds through the
beautiful, crystalline words of a skeptic shifting his spiritual center
from exacting and illusory pleasures of the flesh toward a healthy,
if never entirely optimistic and seldom cheery, realization of love
and self-acceptance. "Description of Her Eyes" ignites a spiritual journey
fueled by these ideals ("I change my mind. // Eyes so sad, and infinitely
kind"), and the Bly-like energy of "Aesthetic" is a point of passage
from the netherworld of oft-frequented smoky bars and dark streets to
a hopeful, fresh environ:
The instant before
the slash bleeds —
her hair getting long like the night in late fall.
Kayaking alone on Lake Kakapoopee.
Crown of barbed wire, no one is born sad.
One could say this is apt because at this stage in Wright's life—he's
resumed writing copiously after swearing it off for a period and seems
to have found a level of domestic and religious happiness—the
emergent theme is one of reconciliation with "the movie / of every last
terrible / thing [I] have done." The poet who only several years ago
wrote of being "desolate like a poor person's shoe" can now, in The
Beforelife, admit to less caustic conceptions of self, as in "I
I for one never asked
for my youth back; when I was young
I was always afraid.
Like somebody in a war
with no allegiance
I was terrified
now I am amazed
and grateful every day.
I don't know how that happened.
I am so glad
there is no fear,
and finally I can
ask no second life.
Teetering between clarity and madness ("Exclusion doesn't hurt / that
much, in fact // I've visited the stars on foot"), self-imprisonment
and regeneration ("now / I am alive again / and it is you / who're deceased,
despite appearances / and I like this / so much better"), and pure religiosity
and depravity ("The champagne shopping binge / is over / The check is
about to arrive"), Wright tempers self-reproach with self-effacement.
There's a certain sardonic brand of black comedy in his oeuvre, pointed
and unsettling ("I'm sorry / I was ever born.com"); it's not the light,
guilt-free jokiness one is accustomed to seeing in the reflections of
Ashbery or Koch. This humor is strangely alluring, for it speaks frankly
to that universal crux: being able to accept and embrace mortality.
The gravity of dying ("He will be buried with / a little gold // cross
hanging from his neck / pulling him down") and living on the cusp ("Patient
shall hereby refrain / from further experimentation / with the windshield
wipers / and various rock & roll stations") is leavened by Wright
time and again.
Also lurking all the while beneath his edgy cadence is an uncanny candor
("my body's / filthy, / face and hands // completely filthy / with /
the man of dust // This mask / this glove / of human flesh // is all
I have / and that's not bad / and that's not good / not good enough
// not now," from "Not Now") and tender reverence, as in the exquisite
"Thanks Prayer at the Cove":
A year ago today
I was unable to speak
one syntactically coherent
thought let alone write it down: today
in this dear and absurdly allegorical place
by your grace
I am here
and not in that graveyard, its skyline
visible now from the November leaflessness
Indeed, Wright is the kind of searcher whom Antonio Porchia must have
had in mind when he wrote, "Where would this eternal seeking be if the
found existed?" Since Wright knows much about irresolution and mutability,
and is propelled by the fearful prospect of slipping back into the void
at any moment, he does not succumb to the trappings of maudlin pathos;
simply put, he's got too much at stake. One can taste the heft of supreme
urgency in his economic balance of words and empty page, his brilliant
use of enjambment, and his head-on dive into the intimacies of despair
("the leopard the beautiful / death / who puts on his spotted robe when
he goes / to his chosen / the // what was the not now the what will
be // Like suddenly using a dead friend's expression," from "The Poem
Said"). Wright's deliverance (or, more accurately, his striving toward
it one day at a time) from all manner of ghosts is hard-fought, the
kind gained by good souls who have much to teach us. Wright recalls
St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote in Interior Castle, "however favoured
by God a soul may be, I should not think it secure were it to forget
the miserable state it was once in."
Plying a world that, to quote the title of one of his earlier poems,
is no longer or not yet, Wright writes from a point close enough to
both salvation and ruin that we may feel like sympathetic voyeurs peering
into someone's tense, confessional moments. Yet we know we are elucidated,
watching the pieces of a soul re-assemble itself through language, through
love. The Beforelife is lyric poetry at its optimum—a rare
blend of careful dexterity and treatment of subject matter wrought by
a delicate and pained voice, one that engrosses and captivates us with
its genuine cries and whispers. •
Ethan Paquin edits Slope. His first book of poems, The
Makeshift, is due out this fall.