Online Edition: Spring 2001

The Beforelife by Franz Wright

The Beforelife

Franz Wright

Knopf ($22)

by Dobby Gibson

If you haven't made the connection, the very first phrase in Franz Wright's dust jacket biography makes it for you, introducing him as the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet James Wright. This is not trivial background. As "The Dead Dads" puts it:

It's easier to get a rope
through the eye of a needle than
the drunk son of a drunk
into stopping

A cynic would presume there's nothing like being the drunk son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drunk with a manuscript of short lyric poems about being the drunk son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drunk to make the A-list at Knopf. The problem with attempting to dismiss Franz Wright in this way is that it took 13 small-press collections and 28 years for his work to find a major New York publisher. Surprisingly, in an era of show business poetry ruled by the Q ratings of Jewels and Sapphires and those self-described "tantalizing" Birthday Letters, Wright hasn't benefited much from his famous pedigree.

Of course, this may be because his poetry is sincere rather than sensational. When Franz Wright is at his best (which is not infrequently) his poems will burn themselves onto the backs of your eyeballs. In The Beforelife he offers us a singular volume of woeful prayers written in his spare style, prayers that, echoing Shakespeare's maxim "the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children," seemingly chase his father's ghost on a binge of heroin, pot, codeine, booze, and more. Wright's work is confessional in the best sense: intimate, beseeching, and even occasionally maudlin. It is also, despite recent appearances in The New Yorker, vastly under-appreciated, relegated to a somewhat cult following.

Denis Johnson has written for the back of Wright's newest book, "At any one time only a handful of genuine poets reside on the planet. I consider Franz Wright to be one of these . . ." This, not incidentally, is almost word-for-word the same blurb Johnson recently gave to Michael Burkard; indeed, Wright, Burkard, and Johnson share a boozy, end-of-their-rope prayerfulness inherited at least in part from John Berryman. Here, for example, is Johnson from "Now":

Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,
and I am almost ready to
confess it is not some awful
misunderstanding that has carried
me here, my arms full of the ghosts
of flowers, to kneel at your feet.

Compare Johnson's sleepwalking soliloquy to these similarly plangent lines from Wright's "Thanks Prayer at the Cove":

in this dear and absurdly allegorical place
by your grace
I am here
and not in that graveyard, its skyline
visible now from the November leaflessness
and I am here to say
it's 5 o'clock, too late to write more

The movement in this poem--one of the collection's strongest--is stunning. What other contemporary American poet would dare resist temptation and follow the line "and I am here to say" with the admission that "it's . . . too late to write more"? This moment encapsulates what's so unique about Wright's vision: he's more interested in articulating what's sufficient than he is in articulating all that he is able.

The two subjects central to Wright's body of work--the torture of chemical addiction and the haunting of an abusive father--are, to put it mildly, not uncommon in contemporary American poetry. Such subjects are mishandled almost as often as they are used, the poet too frequently depending on an outdated measure of shock and mistaking frankness for edge. (As John Ashbery says in a poem, "You can't say it that way anymore.") Poems about chemical addiction and abusive fathers are the kinds of poems that can give poems a bad name. But not only does Wright's work not succumb to the traps of the confessional model, it flat-out capitalizes on them, subverting expectations rhetorically, sometimes with broken-off lines, other times with the indeterminacy of metapoetics. He writes in a style unlike any other living American poet, one that can acquit him on all counts of solipsism. Wright's poems are confessional, yes, but hardly the transparent bad-bad-daddy poems of the American creative writing workshop.

Witness the transformation Wright's self-loathing undergoes in "The Ascent of Midnight":

Sometimes I'd like to give up--
I want to blindfold this head
put a gun to it . . .

On the one hand, if you've watched even two minutes of Sally Jesse Rafael ("Tonight at 11, Suicidal Addicts of Successful Dads") you're schooled enough in this particularly American brand of woeful threat--dramatically overly-accessorized (why the blindfold?) and violent--to react with little, if no, shock. On the other hand, examine where this poem travels from its theatrical starting point.

Sometimes I'd like to give up--
I want to blindfold this head
put a gun to it and say
shitface
this is the way
you caused me to feel
nearly all the time.
But what is the use of that type
of behavior. I'm getting so tired, and I'm nowhere
nowhere near
my illustrious friends (yet
I'm still fairly high
in the mountains
beneath the sea . . . )

For the speaker (though to retreat behind the shield of "speaker" when discussing Wright seems a silly formality) to refer to himself as "shitface" in this context is, obviously, darkly humorous, if humorous at all. Or is this a note addressed to "shitface"? And then there's the [almost] unnecessary qualifier "nearly," which reveals this consciousness to be thinking with little clarity. The repetition of "nowhere / nowhere near" signals exhaustion, setting us up to be mystified by the eerie inconclusiveness and lovely illogic of the poem's final image.

To be sure, like most addicts--especially addicts who write poems about being addicts--Wright can be a self-mythologizer. He writes about himself in the third-person with frequency and, worse, only occasionally winks at us when he does. He tries to get away with lines like "you will find me . . . at the motherlesssky. / com," forgetting that URL bon mots haven't had an ounce of freshness in them since the night Jay Leno told his 345th dot.com joke, or "I'm Franz, and I'm a recovering asshole," which is similarly TV lame. There are also the obligatory poems alluding to the petty jealousies and inferiority complexes of those cocooned in the American Poetry Business ("Accepting an Award," and "Bathtub Improv," which begins, "Book composed of poems no one will ever read.") But to be fair, the restless movement of Wright's poems allow them to transcend even these conventions. Their intense, lateral movements defy any attempt to stuff them into some other package.

The poems of The Beforelife differ from those in Wright's earlier books in the more extreme degree of their compression, concision and brief, twisted syntax, which constantly calls attention to the surface of the page. There's plenty of intricate brushwork to admire, yet rarely are the poems in this book more than a few lines, let alone a page. The Beforelife abides by the central tenet of slo-core music, summed up by The Kings of Convenience album title Quiet is the New Loud: we're so bombarded by the 4/4, that balancing on the precipice of silence is the only place to find an edge. In an era of MFA chattiness, in which the only thing that separates prose from poetry is a hard return and in which poets stack figurative language upon figurative language as if playing a kind of Jenga of poetics for tenure, Wright dares to, as Charles Simic once said of him, "write an epic on the inside of a matchbook cover." Most of these poems would set fire to anything you struck them with.

As Wright himself has said of his own poetry, its mission lies in "giving a voice to conditions or states of mind normally associated with speechlessness." Like their ancestors the haiku, these poems barely stave off the onslaught of the infinite, the white of the page all but swallowing these fortune-cookie misfortunes. And so one reads Wright in a fevered state, as if handling Sapphic fragments, devouring the language while simultaneously praying it doesn't disintegrate any further. Of course, if I were half the reviewer that Wright is a poet, I could have said all of this in three paragraphs.

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Spring 2001 Table of Contents