Franz Wright   photo of Franz Wright  


Franz Wright's creative output, which now spans over two decades--eleven collections of his own poems and four of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke, Erica Pedretti, and Rene Char--has invited a great deal of curiosity and attention for two reasons. One is literary, his development into a poet of first rank, and the other familial, the similarities and differences between his own work and that of his famous and critically-revered father, James Wright. Like his father before him, he has developed a reputation for dealing with the hard and often shameful realities of alcoholism in his poetry, a topic too often mishandled by lesser writers with slackness, myth-making, and self-indulgence. The title of Franz Wright's latest collection, The Beforelife, represents not merely an impish upending of a central eschatological question (the afterlife), but also implies a darker annulment of that concept: the concerns are not of the soul after bodily death but the soul after bodily recreation and emergence from a self-created Slough of Despond, in this case a darkness of addiction and alcoholism. Two principles immediately emerge from these poems: a stormy independence in matters of spiritual development; and a reliance on the idea that greatness and beauty not only exist in the world but are attainable and worthwhile. The governing poetic conviction that emerges from the conjunction of these is that one must rely on hope of the sturdiest sort and bear forth a wisdom tempered by a firm knowledge of what has been lost in the acquisition of that wisdom.

Readers of Wright's earlier collections will recognize the informal stanza construction and clipped lines that seem to snap in rage at times and stutter with apprehension at others. The lines are as often mono-, bi-, or trisyllabic as extended to a half-dozen variegated poetic feet. This flexibility lends varying degrees of morphological and lingual resonance to given words and phrases, but it also gives rise to a dangerously disarming semblance of breeziness. Though occasionally roguish, his poems are never breezy. His father, James, was best known for his seriousness, gained in hard years growing up in the Great Depression, the son of a factory worker. Franz inherited not only a degree of this seriousness but also the short lines his father began using in the early '70s. Compare his father's "Still, / I would / leap too / Into the light / If I had the chance" with his own "oh light, // I had forgotten // Rats prefer it to food." While borrowing, he tempers his father's rugged gravity with a sarcasm and volatility entirely his own.

Wright oscillates between direct and evasive dictions, between the barroom floor and the arts club podium, from aphoristic aside to icily poetic abstraction:

Death is nature's way
of telling you to be quiet.

Of saying it's time
to be weaned, your conflagration starved
to diamond.

I'll give you something to cry about.

And what those treetops swaying
dimly in the wind spelled.

This is taken from 'Translation', which approaches mortal despair with a callous, almost filial appreciation for things as they are; Wright also makes clever use of the medievalist notion of one's soul translated "unto God" much as the Word is translated from eternity to sheepskin and parchment.

The chief, in fact axial, voice of the poems is a man in middle life, a wiser anti-hero with bruises to show for his slips and stumbles, looking back over the course of a harsh education, requesting forgiveness for actions of youth that now seem little more than empty mistakes:

Child I helped
to do away with

you would be
almost an adult now

[. . . .]

you still bear the name
I gave you
again for my benefit
after your death
your cheap and meaningless
forgive me

The surface confessionalism of many poems in The Beforelife, while seeming to reflect little more than that description confers, allows greater depths to emerge for one who stares long enough through their surfaces. One recognizes the influences of Georg Trakl and German Expressionism, the bleak social dislocations of Franz Kafka, and a surrealism ratified by the bizarre twilight experiences of the author: "(yet / I'm still fairly high / in the mountains / beneath the sea . . .)" Wright consistently takes care to offer some levity in the midst of all of this desperation, giving not only a touch of humor but also to display an accomplished fastening of time and eternity, birth and death, the disposable with the beautifully human, as in 'Body Bag', a poem consisting of a single line:

Like the condom in a pinch one size fits all.

Above all, Wright's poetry is likeable, which is a rare thing in contemporary poetry. The humor may be bitter and even regretful, but it is compassionate and self-effacing. He drives the lyric form to its limit without betraying its most suitable themes, using it to express vastness through specific points, timelessness from given moments, to emphasize the paradox and irony that underlie our most sincere endeavors. Like the European surrealists and expressionists of the early twentieth century, Wright enjoys repressing continuity between images:

Martian polar storm as seen

in blue light with sound of the wind there

Recording of a Chinese bird bone flute 9,000 years ago

This is better than looking at pictures of gorging nineteen-year-old vaginas

The radical sense impressions set up and dissolved by these disjunctive images would make Tristan Tzara cheer, or catcall; one never knows.

The Beforelife, Wright's first book with Knopf, won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in 1996. It is a wonderful collection of poems, readable, sad, funny, and profound. Few things will prepare the uninitiated for a first encounter with his poetry. The best primer is his epigraph to Ill Lit, his selected and new poems. It is from Sören Kierkegaard:

One must never desire suffering. No, you have only to remain in the condition of praying for happiness on earth. If a man desire suffering, then it is as though he were able by himself to solve this terror:-that suffering is the characteristic of God's love. And that is precisely what he cannot do....

--Ernest Hilbert

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  Copyright ©2002, Ernest Hilbert  
Photo credit: Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright