F: Poems (Borzoi Books)
96 pp., $26.95
The "Soul Is a Stranger in This World"
I first came across Franz Wright's work in graduate school. It was in Nick Halpern's class on contemporary poetry, and we read Elizabeth Bishop, Denis Johnson, Jane Kenyon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carolyn Forché, and Wright, among others.
We didn't read Wright's latest book at the time, which would have been Il Lit (1998), but one of his most distinctive earlier collections, The Night World and Word Night (1993). The volume is vintage Wright. We have the gritty pathos, the conversational tone, the self-effacing (or self-indulging, depending on how one reads it) dark humor and the occasional aphorism. His drunk father (the poet James Wright) lurks here and there, but he does not dominate the volume. Wright's friends and girlfriend, conversations with dead poets, break in on the lament of lost childhood that has otherwise so much preoccupied Wright. Stylistically, this is the Wright of big white spaces and abbreviated phrases heavy with suffering. At times, it's almost as if the poet can barely write. "Mood-altering cloud of late autumn," he writes in "The World":
Gray deserted street
Place settings for one—dear visible things …
The insane are right, but they're still the insane.
While there is time let me a little belong.
A central characteristic of Wright's earlier work is the tension between confession and construction. The narrative flow of his poems is often coupled with a constrained word choice, enjambment and large spaces between lines or stanzas, sudden shifts in diction, and absurd or pathetic imagery. Similar to other "confessional" poets, Wright views the poet as a "surgeon," as he puts it in "To the Poet," who must cut up his life to save it. Drawing from René Char's practice of "enlèvement-embellissement" ["removing-embellishing/beautifying], Wright cuts words, adds spaces, shifts diction, surprises with absurd, pathetic, or startlingly beautiful images or metaphors to build something beautiful out of his suffering—to create poems that have, as he puts it, a "mysterious commonplace." For the earlier Wright the salvation that poetry offered was at best temporary. It created a momentary community, perhaps, and provided relief from loneliness but it was always unable to overcome that loneliness.
A lot has changed in twenty years, and a lot hasn't. Following a period of institutionalization, Wright converted to Catholicism in 1999 (though he was not baptized until 2003). And hope and joy, which had until then been almost entirely absent from his poetry, quietly announced themselves first in The Beforelife (2000), then on the first page of Walking to Martha's Vineyard (2003):
I was standing
on a northern corner.
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
of Your existence? There is nothing
Wright's coyness, as the final lines demonstrate, remained, as did his unflinching honesty, his interest in the downtrodden, and his preoccupation with his father. Wright also continued in more or less the same style—the white space, the surprise breaks, the sudden shifts in diction. But the silence of these white spaces is no longer heavy with a certain darkness, as in The Night World and Word Night, but became the "silence" of God out of which God nevertheless speaks and comforts—a theme Wright took up in God's Silence (2006), his follow-up volume to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Walking to Martha's Vineyard.
Wright began to speak of poetry as a sacrament. Poetry's redemptive potential, it turns out, is a reflection of Christ's redemption, not a replacement of it, as it was for Rilke. The near despair expressed in previous volumes is transformed in his later work. "There is hope in the past," Wright writes in "I for One": "I am so glad // there is no fear, / and finally I can // ask no second life."
In his three latest volumes—Wheeling Motel (2009), Kindertotenwald (2011) and F (2013)—Wright returns to his childhood in part, while at the same time continuing to explore his faith, but with a shift in style in Kindertotenwald. Mostly gone (though not entirely) are the white spaces and constraint. Instead we have big block—sometimes surreal—paragraphs.
Block after block text can be off-putting. When I first received the volume from the publisher, I skimmed it and put it to the side. I was wrong to do so. Kindertotenwald is a pleasure. The poems themselves are some of Wright's most varied in terms of subject matter. We have folk tales, vignettes of Nietzsche, Verlaine, Basho, Saint Teresa, Kierkegaard, and other unidentified voices.