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God's Silence
God's Silence
Franz Wright
Knopf, 2006
160 pp., 26.86

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Earlier Poems
Earlier Poems
Franz Wright
Knopf, 2007
272 pp., 26.95

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Nate Zoba

Supper with the Infinite

The poetry of Franz Wright.

Whether in a phone suddenly gone dead or the predawn serenity of a seaside town, silence carries power. It can be terrifying in emphasizing the absence of an other, or comfortable in an immense familiarity with an other requiring no communication. The silence of God amplifies both: the dreadful fear and alienation provoked by not hearing the Almighty, and the unspeakable peace and sublimity of being wordlessly in his presence. Both extremes are captured in Franz Wright's book of poems, God's Silence. When God's silence is terrifying, the poems reflect upon a painful past. When God's silence comforts, they celebrate in worshipful desire to linger in communion with him. In his most powerful poems, Wright evokes both types and the shift between the two, illuminating the tension between the silences.

Containing nearly a hundred poems in four sections, God's Silence follows Wright's 2003 Pultizer Prize-winning Walking to Martha's Vineyard and The Beforelife, published in 2000. Together these books constitute a trilogy of sorts, in which Wright's spiritual journey emerges as the defining theme. (If the term "spiritual" sounds imprecise, it nevertheless fits Wright's faith as expressed in his work, a faith which, though rooted in Catholicism, is neither orthodox nor outlandish but largely undefined and exploratory.) In The Beforelife (the book that sparked my serious interest both in Wright and in poetry itself), the poems convey an awakening into a spiritual life. Here he tastes the joyous astonishments of conversion and confronts painful regrets from the old life. Walking to Martha's Vineyard continues in this vein, more celebratory perhaps in expressing the beauties of a changed life yet still not shrinking from the past. God's Silence, with greater distance from the first rush of euphoria and guilt that accompanies conversion, is informed by a deeper spiritual maturity.

The opening poem, "East Boston, 1996," one of the book's strongest, begins with experiences of a troubled and troubling youth, from shooting a bird for the first time (and the last, apparently), to riding a late-night bus, to contemplating suicide, to self medication—images of terror, alienation, and isolation. Toward the middle of the poem, the tone shifts to a moment of crystalline reflection:

The long silences need to be loved, perhaps
more than the words
which arrive
to describe them
in time.

The final section continues the movement toward the consolation of silence. Speaking of forgiveness the poem ends:

If it is to come
it will come of itself like a separate
a mystery, working
unseen as a wind causes still
leaves or water to move once again.
And hide me in the shadow of Your wings.
Let the heart be moved again.

The poem's structure suggests the ebb and flow of the entire book: reflection on the past, moments of illumination in present spaces, resolution in prayerful supplication.

God's Silence is weakest where the poems give only one element of this movement without concrete imagery or metaphor, where a spiritually intense but rather vague discourse tends toward abstraction.

The recently published Earlier Poems, a collection of four earlier books, helps to fill in the context from which Wright's newer work has emerged. With a few omissions and revisions, this collection remains close to the original books. These earlier poems (the latest of the four books was published in 1995) are full of the darkness often referred to retrospectively in God's Silence, Walking to Martha's Vineyard, and The Beforelife.

Here the prevailing tone is despondent. "Certain Tall Buildings," for example, begins: "I know a little / about it: I know / if you contemplate suicide / long enough, it / begins to contemplate you." The poem closes with the line "Don't leave me here without you," ending on a note of desperation. In much of Wright's later work, this sense of peril and abandonment would not go unaddressed but would be assimilated into a larger perspective. Earlier Poems gives us a better understanding of the silence that so many of his later poems take as a point of departure. The poems gathered here reveal despondency in a raw and honest way, just as his newer poems express spiritual joy and struggles without reticence.

In all his work, early and late, Wright is drawn to polarities that yield glimmers of clarity, moments of spectacular, sometimes crushing, illumination. "The Only Animal" (from Martha's Vineyard) is a case in point: "The only animal that commits suicide / went for a walk in the park." Here, characteristically, being human is defined in extremes: to be human is to be a sentient animal able not only to conceive its own death but to bring it about by its own accord, yet also capable of enjoying the leisure and peace of a walk in the park, that quintessential quotidian pleasure. "A Successful Day (Fill in the Blank)," from God's Silence, works on the same principle:

What have I ever gained by (1) answering the telephone
(2) reading the newspaper
This morning I had supper with the infinite.

This incongruous combination—yoking desperation, the routine, a sense of loss, and a degree of shock at encountering an evidently benign all-powerful force—is served up in a perfectly judged deadpan voice. So too, in the same volume, with the poem "Introduction," which refers back to Rilke:

And either I am too alone
or I am not
alone enough
to make each moment
(No one bats 1000, friend
no one
bats 500)
And I have heard God's silence like the sun
and sought to change

I am just going to listen to the silence

till the Silence.

Without the delicate balance Wright achieves here, the demotic authority of "No one bats 1000, friend," this could easily slip into kitsch.

Wright's later work routinely succeeds in just this way: by defining and redefining what it is to be human, to be lonely, desperate, confused, to desire to overcome that very self and find resurrection, to find joy and wonderment in the midst of the ordinary.

Nate Zoba is a writer in Chicago.

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