The contemporary poet Franz Wright expresses a sense of human life as a brief hiatus between an immense before and after. The cold and dark was Wright’s environment for decades of his life, starting from age eight, when divorce took his much-admired father, the poet James Wright, out of the house and away from his admiring young son. Franz grew up full of fearfulness of others and of his surroundings. He grew up with the gift of words but also the demon of drink, both passed on from his father. He grew up hyper-aware of death and drawn to it. He was cared for in institutions; he roamed the streets in a disheveled state.
These dark times are reflected in the title of Wright’s collection from 2000, The Beforelife, a frank and at times conscience-stricken exposure of his missteps. It is dedicated to his wife, Elizabeth, who was his lifesaver, as was his discovery of a local church and morning Mass.
The poems of his next volume, the Pulitzer prize-winning Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2003), bear more frequent marks of an entry into grace. Walking near Walden Pond, for example, Wright acknowledges, “There is a power that wants me to live,/ I don’t know why” (“Walden”). After some images of the world of nature faltering badly at the start of summer, he can still envision “appalling and incomprehensible mercy.” If only people could see what lies beyond them; “the seeing see only this world” (“To John Wieners: Elegy and Response”). In a mid-March reunion at Oberlin College, his alma mater, Wright finds a metaphor for his new condition—“snow over the scarred fields just ending” (“Reunion”).
The stage was set in these earlier poems for Franz Wright’s next and newest book, God’s Silence (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). The phrase “God’s silence” becomes recurrent in this collection. He is alluding not so much to noncommunication on God’s part as to God’s refusal to interfere with our exercise of freedom. He ends his poem “Introduction,” for instance, by saying:
And I have heard God’s silence
like the sun
And sought to change
I’m just going to listen to the
Till the Silence.
A contemplative silence is what Wright listens to “now,” in view of the awesome “Silence” that stretches beyond this life. The capital S could merely personify something abstract, but the context suggests divinity. If God’s silence, incidentally, is like the sun, then it cannot be ignored or go unattended.
The poet talks also about going back beyond the beginning. His thought and vision stretches way back before the individual enters the lighted hall of life. Wright does not find darkness there. He wants to tell everybody that, and is unhappy that he can’t. “Delivered, I’m still stung by my abandonment/ of those unmeetable/ ones who still live there/ in Hell.” He adds, a little later, “There must be a way: how/ assure them, remind them/ they too come from the light at the beginning of time” (“I am Listening”). In this final poem of the book, Wright pauses for a blank line, a space of breath, and then concludes, “Proved faithless, still I wait.”
His present waiting is recorded in God’s Silence, where Franz Wright seems not so much faithless as blessed. He recalls a touch of grace, a moment of real communication from another realm: “I squeezed / my eyes closed, gazing into / a darkness all of light” (“The Visiting”). The phrase makes us remember “La Noche Oscura,” “The Dark Night,” by Saint John of the Cross. Wright says, of this mystery of presence within the darkness: “There is another world / and it is this world.”
The poems of God’s Silence are not always accessible on first reading, but with attention they communicate memorably. Such is the case with “The Beloved Illusory.” The very title is not a little baffling, yet it sums up the poem (see box).
For help with the opening few lines we can go to the interview with Franz Wright by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler for Image magazine in fall 2006. He talks there about the ecstatic effect on him of his first venture into poetry at about age 15. He never afterward “stopped being obsessed with this sense” of a calling. “It made me happy in a way that nothing else did.” He admits, “I perceive the world in terms of language.” In God’s Silence, he even entitles one poem “Language my Country.”
Here, in “The Beloved Illusory,” Franz Wright has to ask whether this peak of sensation in exercising his art is a good or bad thing. He has mixed feelings, as he admitted to Image. “I can’t break free of my love of literature. It’s too deep in me. There’s something idolatrous in it.” So his beloved poetic language is illusory too, because beyond it, and beyond the ego of the writer, lies the ultimate reality. He thanks God for being allowed to realize that.
Construing a poem is a delicate operation, but we do our best. So in the second unit of this poem, which begins, “I greet our star each day with words/ of immeasurably mortal breath,” we have to ponder those last three words. Why “immeasurably mortal”? That seems paradoxical—“vastly aspiring but perishable nevertheless.” The poet is reminding the most glorious mortal creature he knows, the sun, “You too must die.”
Wright exclaims in the following section that, for him, this admission of limited time is tremendously liberating. It lets him out of some prison, and away from an ever-vigilant guard—driving ambition, unshakable fears, or simply the superego. He can now act unhampered. His lifelong aloneness is at an end. Some all-encompassing union with a capitalized “One” has begun.
The poet admits he is not in control of this blessed state of being. In sleep, so much of what he finds ignoble—“myself,” “my terror and ignorance”—reasserts itself; but while awake the whole universe is his apple.
Anyone reading this poem may be tempted to say to Wright, as many of his friends did during the months of his awakening, “You are losing your mind.” He responds, Zen-like, “I have no mind to lose.” His explanation can seem in itself a riddle: “The sky is my mind.” But it can be his way of echoing a spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. When praying, the medieval author advises, let the mind rest; leave aside even holy mysteries and considerations in favor of “a naked intent toward God” (Chapter 7).
“The beginning beckons,” says the speaker next. “I’m tired of just talking about it.” Is he beckoned to return to the light at the origin of created being, or is he called to begin a new itinerary, a kind of vita nuova like Dante’s at the discovery of intense young love? Poetry can bear multiple meanings, so we perhaps do not have to choose.
Starting his final stanza, Wright refers to “the book almost done.” He could be referring to his life in general. His life, his books too, are a “dark entertainment”—“dark” given the amount of pain in those pages and “entertainment” in that they engage the interest of those waiting to disappear from our planet. This disappearance, far from calamitous, is “our blessedness.” We talk about a birth as “the blessed event,” why not talk thus about our finale?
The poem’s final word, “Redisappear,” is a mysterious corrective. It assumes we have disappeared once already. Perhaps in being born to life on earth, we disappear from the light at the beginning of creation. Departing earthly life, we disappear again, from human darkness into divine light.
As a poet in the free-verse form, Franz Wright is unpretentious. His grammatical structure, once we sound it out correctly and work out where the stops and starts are (where the punctuation marks go), is simple, and so is his vocabulary. Still, this straightforward language can mask quite a bit of allusion and quotation. The phrase “dark entertainment,” with its clash of opposites, has the ring of quotation. As to allusion, the poem’s sense of the world as illusory sounds very Hindu. Furthermore, we have to attend to the lines “I can suddenly see the whole universe/ like an apple I hold in my hand!” It echoes a well-known and moving passage from the Showings of Dame Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, which begins:
And God showed me a little thing, in the palm of my hand, round like a ball, no bigger than a hazelnut. I gazed at it, puzzling at what it might be. And God said to me, “It is all of creation.” I was amazed that it could last and did not suddenly disintegrate and fall into nothingness, for it was so tiny.
Richard Chilson, All Will be Well)
The center of “The Beloved Illusory” lies perhaps in its simplest lines: “I am free/ and not alone/ already One.” The poet is describing a mystical way set forth by Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in the 16th century. Gerald May labored to make their contemplative teachings accessible in his book The Dark Night of the Soul, subtitled: “A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth” (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004):
In my experience, the most universal change accomplished by the passive night of the spirit is the blurring of one’s belief in being separate from God, from other people, and from the rest of creation. Increasingly, one feels a part of all things instead of apart from them.
In “The Beloved Illusory” and in the rest of God’s Silence, Franz Wright says just that. For him this is the light that shone from the beginning, that can dawn in our daily lives and that waits for us ahead.
By Franz Wright
Knoff. 160p $25
The Beloved Illusory
At some point, forever, I crossed
into a state where my words
became more real than I am (even to me)
Is that a good thing
or a bad thing, I
have absolutely no idea
but every day I thank God for this consciousness
one is real—
I greet our star
each day with words
of immeasurably mortal breath
to this effect: the sun
itself will die
At which I find my prison
I am free
and not alone
In sleep I still tend to decay
back into myself
back into my terror and ignorance, but once awake
I can suddenly see the whole universe
like an apple I hold in my hand!
And while we’re at it
let me state for the record I have no mind
to lose. Now
the sky is my mind.
The beginning beckons
I’m tired of just talking about it
The book almost done, a dark entertainment
while they wait