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The Beforelife
Franz Wright
Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (cloth)


by Ethan Paquin

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 were psalms.

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 —
for example

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 for One":

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
of everyone.
But now

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.

Originally published in the April/May 2001 issue of Boston Review



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