All Saints: Franz Wright
Three epigraphs prepare the way for Franz Wright’s poems in Wheeling Motel. I find the second arresting each time my eyes alight on that opening page. It is Samuel Johnson’s contention that “A man writes much better than he lives.” Wright became one of my personal patron saints when I realized his poems underline the worth of those words.
Wright wrote much better than nearly all of the 62 years he lived. He chased Johnson’s words as if they represented more than mere aspiration, as if they were truer than any natural law. Wright never wrote himself into his work as a more sympathetic character, trying on the virtues like ill-fitting suits. Instead, his poems read like tattoos across a naked torso—some scarred, others faded, all bold expressions in their time and place.
Wright composed something better than his life by lifting his eyes long enough to spot transcendence, then scribbling down what he saw.
Laid up in their deathbeds, departing souls commonly recount a snatch of brilliant light, the sight of a long-gone loved one, a glance at the welcoming Christ. Wright saw the same goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. He bumped into Jesus in psych wards and halfway houses, sensed him in the smell of a gathering snowstorm, heard the divine whisper clearly through the buzz in his own head. Wright either wrote of God breaking through or pined in his perceived absence, knowing exactly what he was missing.
Images of a mature Wright, who died in 2015, resemble a smaller, less threatening Tom Waits. He wears the same ragamuffin intensity yet bears the lines of all he’s seen—and all that’s seen him. His work reveals courage’s rarely-beheld twin: the bravery to flinch during a staring match with life.
Wright knew the weights of the world; among them, the burden of treading within the tracks of his father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright. (Franz himself would win the Pulitzer in 2004 for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.) He grew intimately acquainted with the heaviness of mental illness and addiction.
Each of his poems reads like an unburdening; Wright lays down the load and describes it from an acute angle. Then he wrestles his own will, deciding whether to hoist it up again. In “Für Elizabeth,” he echoes the Biblical exhortation to put on and put off:
Say I was one naked blind man carrying
this infinite blue mountain on my back,
and all I might have done for love’s sake,
and my best words, written in sleep and forgotten.
Now I have laid them down.
Wright came to me only after his death, a staggering fulfillment of Joni Mitchell’s prophecy that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” To my shame, I didn’t know I needed him. But, as the best poets do, he lent language to experiences that had been there all along. He wrote poems resembling my life as it is and could be, for better or worse, then scribbled all across the chasm.
Only Wright could make a poem of an “Intake Interview” under the dim overhead lighting of a state hospital. Only he could craft an image as carnal as “a mannequin-like pubic region, nothing there but blank hairless flesh hallelujah”; and then, just a few lines later, pray “But I ask you voice that is nowhere and everywhere— / What did not in time become a source of suffering?” (from “Another Waking Dawn”).
And only Wright could teach me the hidden names of God, names like “Utterer of leaves, most mysterious / author of water and light; / taker and restorer of oblivion” (“The Our Father”).
We teach our children to see themselves within the curves of Biblical characters. Wright sketched his face atop every one of their bodies. He bears Isaiah’s unclean lips, then knows the saving sear of coal. At times, he is Moses, shedding his sandals upon reaching holy ground; or he is Job, bereaved and talking to himself. And he is Paul, crafting any number of divinely-inspired letters.
In his best moments, Wright was mere inches away from being one with the cosmos (“At the core the seen and unseen worlds are one,” he writes in “Solution”)—or another soul. In “Günter Eich Apocrypha,” he delights in giving up the space between him and another:
I have seen my end
and it is someone else’s body, breath
and lovely inspiration.
Students of poetry interrogate the lines blurring narrator and writer. The details of Wright’s biography populate his work time and again; but even if the speaker isn’t him—the real him—he recognizes the machinery of sin and recreation at work everywhere.
Minding the gap between honesty and ultimate reality, Wright’s poems come closer than any to rewriting the Psalms in modern hand. This is why I name him my patron saint of reupholstered souls. To Wright, God was both seam-ripper and tailor. In these poems, he holds us all together and insulates us against the worst of our possible ends. Yet he knows which patches must go in order for light and air to have their say. No new wine in old wineskins.
The presence of God became Wright’s greatest consolation. Where it left him—or he left it—there was grief; in “Out of Delusion,” he writes of being “so desperately tired of the long, long flight from God.” And yet he learns to trust in the certainty of presence over his unreliable perception. “Entries of the Cell” bears out this mystery:
For all intents and purposes abandoned, Your love unrequited, You have
not turned away from my mind, its former numb and sleepless
coma. And I know my failure to perceive You can in no way
diminish the fact that You are here!
If God’s presence is a person’s everything and their nothing, maybe writing better than we live simply means writing ourselves in and out of proximity. Wright seemed to believe he could manifest God within his words, not as a matter of talent or dispensation—but trust that the Word does indeed become flesh. From “After Absence”:
God’s words translated into human words
are spoken and shine
on a few upturned faces.
There is nothing else like this.
Give me another thousand words to devote to Wright’s sins, to the times he brushed against other writers like a cactus—even after God found him. I prefer to spend myself on the warmth that travels up from his poems like a blanket. Tucked up in his words, I might deal with myself as I am—anxious, jealous, cowardly and infinitely loved.
“Life has taught me to understand books,” Wright once wrote. And his books have taught me to understand life—today’s portion and the better one so often breaking through.
Where to begin with Franz Wright:
“Baptism” from Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2003)
My favorite poem from anyone’s pen. Wright honors the profanity and ecstasy of redemption, perfectly describing what it’s like to disappear into Christ and be raised in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost: “That insane asshole is dead / I drowned him / and he’s not coming back. Look / he has a new life / a new name / now / which no one knows except / the one who gave it.”
“Wake” from God’s Silence (2006)
In one of several places that bear the book’s name, Wright reaches through a friend’s wake to describe exactly who is dying and who’s really living: “And: I have heard God’s silence like the sun / and longed to / change.”
“Night Walk” from God’s Silence
Few poets invested snow with such spiritual import. As someone similarly obsessed with winter weather, I could underline any number of Wright’s references. I’ll settle on this one: “And the night smells like snow. / Walking home, for a moment / you almost believe you could start again. / And an intense love rushes to your heart, / and hope. It’s unendurable, unendurable.”
“Kyrie” from Wheeling Motel (2009)
Something like a prototype, this piece threads together oxycodone, sacred composer Arvo Part and the stillness of snow, as one man’s waiting turns into something like communion. Pick up in the middle of a stanza: “... he was legibly told what to say and he wrote, / with mounting excitement and pleasure, / and sent friendly e-mails to everyone, Lord / I had such a good time and I don’t regret anything— / What happened to the prayer that goes like that?”
“Dedication” from F (2013)
This one’s worth its weight, if for no other reason than to live with these lines: “See / we are so busy trying to cure me; / and I’m condemned—sorry, I have been given the job / of vacuuming the desert forever, well, no less than eight hours / a day.”