Review: ‘Kindertotenwald’, by Franz Wright

Kindertotenwald: Prose PoemsKindertotenwald: Prose Poems by Franz Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“If he could only overcome the fear, like a deafening dial tone in his right ear where he lies alone dressed in night listening, listening.” from the poem “Mrs. Alone”

Having loved the often spare nature of Wright’s poems over the years, I was intrigued by this new collection of prose poems, many of them considerable in length. I was afraid perhaps of there being too much, of what exactly I’d be hard-pressed to articulate. There is quite a lot here, but not one word of it free of Wright’s veteran and nuanced touch orchestrating toward a compelling whole that continues to feel lean, even surgical, and always biting. The entire book feels to me…not restive exactly, as the trademark anger and anxieties and lashings are all present, but more emphatically reflective and considering. There is a funereal air about this book, with many continuing returns to rich concerns and anti-concerns about mortality, the past–it feels as if Wright has come around some kind of final bend, or crested a last hill and is pausing in his book to look both ahead and behind him.

I say the book is not restive despite this almost pastoral metaphor I’ve drawn up, because the darkness and emotion are as brutally unrelenting here as in anything Wright has done before. While some of the poems have the airy, expansive feel of a long sigh let out between bursts in an argument, most of them well up over and over, billowing upward and outward like mushroom clouds, seeming to encompass every person who has ever lived until dissipating, leaving the poet alone under his own merciless gaze. The images and language pile up more and more without any shelter in enjambment or stanza break, trapping the reader into dealing with them in a manner that feels appropriate in a book that deals so often with both emotional and physical flavors of imprisonment.

Wright’s speaker screams at the sky and himself and at anyone that is close enough to hear, realizing over and over the futility and absurd sadness of life, of looking around at perhaps this final hill and realizing one has gone nowhere, with a furtive and honestly-wrought recurrence of faith suggesting perhaps that only in looking upward is there anything to see. For all his work in anger and addiction and loneliness and desperation, one is always in danger of missing the genuine and unsentimental yearning for and solace in love that undercuts every poem, in whatever small places the speaker struggles to find it.

Art forever remains such a place for Wright, whose poems carry a charged, seemingly inherent sense of defiance to the senseless tedium and loss of life; the poems so often drawing up the landscape for consideration and then standing as their own testament to what Wright has done after considering its gray robbery of nearly everything.

“It is all forever written down on a page in your keeping, the palm of my hand: outworld the world time, outheartlesss the heartless, so much meaningless fear, filling the sky, why, why this insane waste of time, the whole world one faithless Gethesmane”, from the poem “Our Mother”

The continual piling of these stark and almost overly layered poems seems Wright’s way of fulfilling the instruction of the above lines, letting his pieces play the world’s games back at them tenfold while laughing all the way. His talent for an acidic, black wit shine in numerous one-liners and pristine, complex metaphors that manage to dance and swing like a prizefighter simultaneously. Take the blows, be dazed, spit out some blood and teeth–as Wright knows, we’re all losing and losing quickly, and this is another book that will offer him a stretch toward lasting a while longer.

“Like you and I, they did as they were told. To things already here, we were called forth and asked to join them, asked to live. Not forever, not even very long. But we are called forth, we are brought here, and we are not brought here to die…

…This world was here before me, is now here, and will be when I am not. There is no sadness in my face, not my true face. My blanket is green, with here and there patches of brown showing through. So the grave has come into the bedroom. I am sitting up in my grave, I knew it. It comes right up to my waist; but it is not covering my face. It is still very far from covering my face,” from the poem “The Window”

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