From the Homicidal to the Ecstatic
A review by Helen Vendler
[Ed. Note: This review discusses the contents and context of two books; God's Silence and Earlier Poems.]
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
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)...
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
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, I did not
know you then....
There is a marvelous fluidity here in the way the lines and words replicate the mutating face. Franz Wright's short lines may be drawn from the practice of his father, the poet James Wright, as has sometimes been said; but that does not matter if his line breaks justify themselves, as they do in this unnerving description of "these scary and extremely/realistic rubber masks," human faces as seen by the psychotic observer. Written out as prose, the poem loses its moment-to-moment montage effect:
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, etc.
Wright's short lines are apt for aphorism and for satire; and the successful poems, even in the earliest volumes, make you feel the worth of their end-line hesitations as they delineate impressions. The lines are enabled by their strikingly original metaphors to carry substantial freight. In "Mosquitoes" (1982) it is night, and mosquitoes keep Wright from sleep; he has no electricity, and so has to hunt them down with a match. The situation is ordinary enough, but Wright's metaphors are all alive with feeling as he addresses the mosquitoes:
Playing your trumpets
thin as a needle
in my ear,
standing on my finger
or on the back of my neck
like the best arguments
against pity I know.
You insignificant vampires
who sip my life
through a straw;
you drops of blood
I search for
with a lit match.
Wright's piercing and prodigal gift for metaphor is what most enlivens his poems: here the thin trumpets, the insignificant vampires, the straw, the drops of blood with wings.
He has always been a close observer: in "The Wish," for instance, observing the wolf spider, he adds another fine spider poem to those by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Tired of his "huge, misshapen body," the poet wants a different one:
and what could be prettier
than the wolf spider's, with its small
hood of gray fur.
I'm told it can see in the dark;
I'm told how its children
spill from a transparent sack
it secretes, like a tear.
I'm told about its solitude,
ferocious and nocturnal.
I want to speak with this being.
I want it
to weave me a bridge.
There are echoes here of Elizabeth Bishop's Man-Moth and the tear it secretes, and of Whitman's spider, casting its filaments "Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold." However, Wright differentiates his spider from Whitman's: while Whitman's allegory is erotic and purposive, Wright's childlike wish is wistful.
Although many of the early poems are introspective, not all of them are cloistered. A poignant and austere poem about veterans, "Those Who Come Back," addressed to one who came back whole from battle, becomes a poem about all revenants. It ends with a sudden reversion to the present tense, as the poet recognizes his obligation to give a name to the lost, who never come back in the flesh:
You are one of those
who came back miraculously
whole. And yet
if someone shakes your hand,
if he welcomes you
into his home, without knowing it
he also welcomes in those who did not:
those who came back with hooks
protruding from their sleeves,
who came back in wheelchairs
They fill the house,
those who came back
with empty pant legs
or black glasses; those who
came back with no voice; those
who come back in the night
to ask you their name.
Like many of Wright's poems, this one is patterned by a form of repetition both unobtrusive at first reading and almost ostentatious once noticed. The poem resembles the result of a task set by a severe imagination: "Using chiefly the words 'if,' 'welcomes,' 'home/ house,' 'those who,' and 'came/come back,' make an eighteen-line poem about disabled veterans and the poet's responsibility to report their case, and that of the dead." Wright, even at the beginning, even in this minimalist mode, was a poet of linguistic cunning.
And it is not as though Wright had only minimalist aims. One of the best of the earlier poems is "Entry in an Unknown Hand" (1989), a self-amplifying transcription of paranoia, but a darkly comic one. I quote only part, but the rest is equally imaginative:
And still nothing happens. I am not arrested.
By some inexplicable oversight
nobody jeers when I walk down the street.
It's like this everywhere --
they think they are going to surprise me: I,
who do nothing but wait.
Once I answered the phone, and the caller hung up --
They think that they can scare me.
I am always scared.
I go on
dodging cars that jump the curb to crush my hip...
And the poet ends suicidally, as he moves
toward my place,
the one at the end of the counter,
the scalpel on the napkin.
Wright's verse, understandably, came under the spell of John Berryman's poems of madness. Like Berryman, Wright exaggerates for aesthetic effect, sometimes unsuccessfully. "The Street" offers a no-holds-barred cartoon "autobiography" too lurid to be convincing:
Here's what really occurred, in my own words
I murdered my father -- and if he comes back, I'll kill him again -- but first I persuaded him to abandon my mother. Now you know. It was me all along. Then I got bored, held a knife to her throat, and forced her to marry the sadist who tortured my brother for ten years.
Wright's scale of experience, like Berryman's, runs from the homicidal to the ecstatic. Even in the early work, happy endings were perilous to the success of a Wright poem. Clichés spring to lips that ought to have scorned them: "for me, too,//a hunger darkened the world,/and a fierce joy made it blaze/into unrecognizable beauty." Banalities seem to follow inevitably on joy: "Is there a single thing in nature/ that can approach in mystery/the absolute uniqueness of any human face?" A temptation to profundity sabotages quasi-religious revelations: "There are hidden things waiting to utter anyone who needs them."
These are the pitfalls into which Wright once again tends to fall in God's Silence. Here is the ending of one poem:
with shocking clarity
I heard my mother's voice
pronounce my name. And in an instant I passed
beyond sorrow and terror, and was carried up
into the imageless
I came from
and am. Nobody's
stronger than forgiveness.
The poem, entitled "Did This Ever Happen to You," provokes resistance in this reader: "No, such a thing never happened to me, hearing my dead mother's voice. Nor have I ever passed 'beyond sorrow and terror to an imageless realm, brightly dark or darkly bright.'" (There are echoes here: Shelley's "The deep truth is imageless"; Henry Vaughn's "a deep, but dazzling darkness.")
All too often, in God's Silence, Wright cannot take me with him. Religious experience has long been a part of lyric; George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins carry me along almost no matter where they go. But Wright is given to flat announcements -- that "it has been given back.../a cheerful self-confident trust that I am at home in this universe" -- or to equally blank vows:
I would like to give my life
the sad and awful simplicity
of an early weekday mass with
a handful of most lonely humans in attendance.
Announcing his creed, he describes his spiritual renewal, and his fear of its loss:
I believe in a higher unseeable
of which light is mere shadow, and yet
already, at times, and with desolation
with bereftness no words can express, miss this light
of the earth, this bright life
I yesterday only began to love, to understand.
No reader will doubt the poet's word; but one can doubt his words. One has encountered the proffered concepts ("inconceivable/light/of which light is mere shadow") in the writings of mystics, but Saint John of the Cross brings moving conviction to the page, rhythmically as much as metaphorically. Wright's light has not found its words: it refuses to glow with the glory he claims for it. And Wright's prayers are often vacant in their language:
Empty me of the bitterness and disappointment of being nothing but myself
Immerse me in the mystery of reality
Fill me with love for the truly afflicted...
Admirable sentiments, forgettable language.
It is a relief, in God's Silence, when Wright's wry humor is allowed its way, as in the poem called "Hell." Pondering the argument that suffering is God's way of perfecting the soul, the poet draws, in three brief lines, the logical conclusion concerning the damned:
But if they were condemned to suffer
this unending torment, sooner or later
wouldn't they become the holy?
And in this collection so given to relentless cheer (or faith, or hope), it is a relief to come across Wright's gifted parody, "Contributor's Note":
My parents (all
four of them) did
their very best, and yet
I did not die.
I received the dark crown --
Of course, it crushed my head
a stroke of sorts, but now
I walk again
like a broken doll
again I talk
and stranger still
you are all listening
To Wright, once so broken and shamed, it is astonishing that he can walk again and talk -- and, as he says, "stranger still" that we are all listening. The world has certainly been listening to Wright, the poet of such arresting and well-known poems as "Slander," "Shaving in the Dark," and "The Only Animal." In the tragic and funny "Address Search," Wright, his ear always attuned to common speech, became the first poet of e-mail:
And you will find me
at the motherless sky.
How dare you
I was ever born.com
you can always find
in the damned world.
Perhaps, as the flush of religious conversion stabilizes itself, Wright's poems can win back their best forms of originality: deftness in patterning, startling metaphors, starkness of speech, compression of both pain and joy, and a stoic self-possession within the agonies and penalties of existence.
Helen Vendler's new book, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, will appear this autumn. She is preparing her recent Mellon Lectures for publication under the name Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill.
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