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When I Dreamed I Was Lost

The God-Haunted Poems of Franz Wright: A Review of "God's Silence"

Honest, haunting, human --- all might describe Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Franz Wright's poetry.  Wright's latest collection, God's Silence, features just short of 100 poems, from one line on an otherwise white page to a longish poem covering four pages, exploring death, nonspecific hardship or trauma, or other loss buoyed, if you will, only by God or, more accurately, God's silence, and yet God nonetheless and with constancy.

Many of Wright's poems may confound by their obtuseness, by their lack of particularity.  Seldom do we know the context of his loss, and the cryptic nature of his lines often leaves us hanging.  Take this one, for example, called "Petition":

Kneeling
at the foot of the universe

I ask

wright from this body
in confusion

and pain (a condition

Which You
may recall)

Clothed now in light
clothed in abyss, at the prow
of the desert
killed
into everywhereness ---

have mercy

Mercy on us all.

This is obviously a prayer to God, a psalm the poet cries out, and yet we know not why, know not what pain inflicts him.  It is not ineffective, as we might supply our own pain, our own particulars for the petition, and yet would it not be better to root this in particulars, making it more accessible?

When there is a specific event, his poems become immediately more accessible. For example, in "On the Death of a Cat," I find myself smiling sadly (inside at least), understanding exactly what he is talking about, sharing a moment with him:

In life, death
was nothing
to you

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occurred

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised
to an infinite
power and perfection) --- no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered
night
friend ---

go.

But this is the exception.  At least half of these poems lack context and particulars, providing a feeling but no framework to hang it on, nothing to quite identify with.  Cryptic fragments, mostly.  But who am I to criticize?  The man won a Pulitzer!

In the end, Wright wants not only to communicate his humanity --- difficulties he has been through and might share with us --- but wants to offer hope.  The last poem, called "I Am Listening," holds out that hope:

I could not get out of bed
for sixteen years a day.
I could not
rouse myself to take a bath. How
resubmerge this broken
body in the waters of electrocution ---
how return, redescend
to find a book
or wash its bruised clothes
the basement stairs
to the site of its hanging, a failure
even at that?

Delivered, I'm still stung by my abandonment
of those unmeetable
ones who still live there
in Hell.

Tell me.

Could I be allowed
with them
a quiet word?

                    And what
might that word be?

There must be a way: how
assure them, remind them
they too come from the light at the beginning of time.

Proved faithless, still I wait.

Critic Denis Johnson has said, of the poems of Franz Wright, "They're like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers--miraculous gifts."  Sometimes they are jewels.  Sometimes they are just blunt.  But always they are haunting pleas to a God who is really not so silent, to a God who is there.  Silence can be deafening.

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