By Franz Wright.
Offhand and comic, and yet intense and searching too, Franz Wright's poems present a speaker who is emotionally naked and vulnerable. They invite us into a fitful, continuing monologue in which Wright's "I" addresses a (frequently) capitalized "You," his name for God. The "I" is a shuffling, self-mocking example of "some hairy / primate's fall from grace — / one of the patients of God, / one of the orphans of light." God keeps silent, but his silence is resonant. Wright hears in it an anticipation of the end of things, an apocalyptic release (desired, not dreaded) from the tragicomic suffering and injustice that is his vision of life in America today.
When Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his previous book of poetry, "Walking to Martha's Vineyard," he followed the example of his father, James Wright, who also won the award. The poet's connection to his father, who died in 1980, has made him a figure of some fascination in the poetry world. The son's poetry can sometimes seem to channel the father's poignant self-accusations and ecstatic sympathies; and like his father, he has struggled with alcoholism and depression. Wright is also known for an exchange of letters with William Logan, a famously sharp-tongued critic. When Logan called his poems "the Hallmark cards of the damned," Wright wrote to the editor of The New Criterion to complain. Logan responded by publishing a letter Wright had written to him privately, in which he warned the reviewer: "I do not wish to kill you or hurt you, and so I beg you to get away from me, without delay, if you realize we are in the same room somewhere." In the polite world of poetry criticism, trash talk is rare.
What kind of apocalypse does Wright imagine in his new poems? He is not waiting for the Rapture, but he is a Roman Catholic devotional poet of mystical hope. He is impatient with the real and visible ("concrete things stand for / invisible things"), and he pushes past them toward "real reality," "a higher unseeable / life, inconceivable / light / of which light is mere shadow." This impatience extends to people — "a human face" is "the mask / of some being no one can see" — as well as to language. Wright describes a moment of past vision in which "The mask was gone," "There was no / I," and
there was no text, only
what the words stood for;
what all things stand for.
Wright's poems pursue this state of revelation, as if there were a word just out of reach, beyond the words on the page. He calls that goal "some radiantly obvious thing I need to say, though quite what that might be escapes me at the moment, as it always has, and always will."
In his best poems, Wright grasps at the "radiantly obvious thing" in short-lined short lyrics that turn and twist down the page. The urgency and calculated unsteadiness of these utterances, with their abrupt shifts of direction, jump-cuts and quips, mime the wounded openness of a speaker struggling to find faith as he recovers from addiction and despair.
At times, in his longer poems, the verbal tension drops, and, perhaps to counteract this, Wright raises his voice and loses rhetorical control. In "Delirium," we see both effects in quick succession. Here the poet says that when he dies he will become part of "the wheat, the changing light, the clouds." The catalog of clichés continues, ending in a pileup of hyphenated words when Wright suddenly brings up the question of whether God or man should be held responsible for genocide: "shimmering remoteness / the color of just barely audible / children's voices singing, the God- / did-not-allow-those-many-holocausts- / to-happen-we-did distances!"
Killing and collective guilt are often on Wright's mind. "Not all mankind will be cast into fire," he says in "Everyone's Elegy," "though / quite a number of them were / during the decade preceding my / birth and no doubt even more will be / shortly." The matter-of-factness of this sentence ("quite a number," "no doubt even more . . . shortly") may parody a murderous official announcement, but it risks giving the impression that Wright accepts cruelty as a fact of human nature. It does not help when he claims that the victims of mass murder in World War II were "burned / clean of themselves." For, he declares, "no one deserves this / and all deserve this, almost / all. . . . And only You / know which group, the spared or murdered, / represent the doomed and which / the blessed." In what sense could "all" or "almost all" possibly "deserve" to die in this way? To feel this way, one must believe that, as Wright declares in another poem, "To live is to do evil."
But it is not clear how seriously we should take this dark wit who, he admits, "was always the death of the party." He means to disturb us. His poems are full of a prophetic anger attacking American confidence and complacency. "The Sons: March 2003" marks the start of the Iraq war. "This Fourth World War with sticks and stones," Wright calls it, "This month in anesthesia history"; the poem ends when shrapnel brings a soldier to his knees, "and death was a red fog about him." Fear and anesthesia are routine at home too, in a nation divided by class and race and driven by the empty promises of consumer bliss. The bus passengers in "East Boston, 1996" know the rules: "No eye contact: the eyes of the terrified / terrify." In another poem Wright asks, "Why am I afraid / to go grocery shopping? / I suppose there is a pill for that, but / why?"
It may be that the apocalypse Wright longs for is simply freedom from that numbing pill. If so, as Wright suggests in "From a Line by Reverdy," Heaven is "not far"; in fact "a little face turns to the window / and it is there." Happily, at a moment like this, revelation does not mean the end of the world.
Langdon Hammer is chairman of the English department at Yale and poetry editor of The American Scholar.