Franz Wright has passed…just fuck. The reason I ever cared about poetry. ‘Entry In An Unknown Hand’ made me a poet. I’ll be in David Dodd Lee‘s debt forever for teaching Franz’s work. I was lucky enough to correspond with him occasionally over the past few years and he was always genuine, generous with his advice and time to a nobody writer like me.
“…All will be
forgotten, everything you perceived, thought,
dreamed, hoped, remembered . . . all the past
all the crawling fucking coughing chestpounding
nose-picking and deathward attempts
to make real some desperate desire, like
standing upright for a minute in the sun. The
sun that will die.
Let’s say that five a.m. arrives and finds you fully dressed in
the clock set for six.
It’s bad, no question about it, and yet.”
In honor of World Poetry Day, I’m sharing my favorite poem, the one that made me want to write poetry, ‘Entry in an Unknown Hand’, by Franz Wright.
I first read this as a Xerox’ed handout in my first Creative Writing class. I took this class after a year spent as a relatively successful Computer Science student, feeling intensely unfulfilled about what I was doing with my life. After the campus literary journal took a couple of my dreadfully awful poems, I felt inspired and switched my major to English, much to the horror of my parents who, to their credit, were supportive of me following my passion at the cost of anything resembling job security. I was very fortunate to encounter the poet, editor, and teacher David Dodd Lee, who introduced me to the work of Franz Wright and many other poets that remain my biggest inspirations and influences (including Lee himself). This was quite literally the first poem we read in that class, and was the first contemporary poem I had ever read in my life. Like most I had never really thought about poetry since reading Shakespearean sonnets in high school and simply didn’t know that people still wrote it outside of Hallmark cards.
This poem by Franz was an immediate and lasting wake-up call, hitting notes of loneliness, self-deprication, anger, sadness, bitterness, sarcasm, wit, and so much more, that resounded with me very deeply. Simply put, reading this poem both enlightened me that not only was poetry still being written but it was (often) poetry divested of end rhymes and overly sentimental tone. Poetry could be vulnerable, angry, biting, wan, funny, brutal, hopeful. It was for me a singular moment of ‘I love this, I want to read more of this, I want to write this, I want to be in conversation with whatever this is as often as I can for as long as I can’.
And not to feel bad about dying.
Not to take it so personally—
it is only
the force we exert all our lives
to exclude death from our thoughts
that confronts us, when it does arrive,
as the horror of being excluded— . . .
something like that, the Canadian wind
coming in off Lake Erie
rattling the windows, horizontal snow
appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.
(Franz Wright, of course…)
“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”
The sick wolf wandered off
in his wound’s limping shadow
sidereally alone and immune
with no need
to describe how he felt
and no need of doctors to die
I can write to Valzhyna
I woke up this morning
groping around for a pen
to write these words down
on the palm of my hand
I don’t know what they mean
it is just what we do.
The wolf woke with steel teeth
of the trap laid by men
clenched his wrist
and did what was necessary
and wandered off.
To be able to say it: rose, oak, the stars.
And not to be blind!
Just to be here
for one day, only
to breathe and know when you lie down
you will keep on breathing;
to cast a reflection–,
oh, to have hands
even if they are a little damaged,
even if the fingers
leave no prints.
* * *
Another old favorite. It’s interesting reading his newest collection, Earlier Poems; there are lots of old familiar faces, and new ones to fall in love with.
I’ll probably regret posting this, but I have to get this out a bit: I just had one of the longest, most vivid dreams I’ve ever had in my life last night. Those that know me have probably heard me talk about the fact I very, very rarely remember my dreams, and so this has really stuck with me.
I’m at some kind of banquet or gathering of writers, maybe even all poets, I’m not quite sure (I’m already losing most of the dream, as I struggle to remember it. . .) and apparently I’m there with James Wright, except that in my dream he is Franz Wright (probably because I don’t know what James Wright looks like?). So we’re there at this banquet, except I feel like an outsider because I’m not a famous writer/poet and everyone else there is. At some point James/Franz hands me this absolutely massive book (it looks like some of those monstrous expensive dictionaries you might see somewhere), and it’s basically an anthology of poetry, signed by everyone who has a poem in the book, and the title page has a massive autograph from Franz, who isn’t there, but the book is a gift from him to myself. At some point I have to stand up and give a little speech introducing myself to everyone, and I say something about growing up in a tiny Indiana town and then something else and then everyone claps, and then I wake up.
I want to say something like ‘how weird!’ but, of course, all dreams are. Obviously there was a lot more I’ve forgotten. . .
Day One (an excerpt from the poem by Franz Wright, one of those read in the video above)
We should really examine
your life, the one you bought,
and what happened when you got home
and attempted to assemble it:
that disfiguring explosion
no one witnessed, no one heard,
which you yourself cannot recall,
and by whose unimaginable light you seek
to write the name of beauty.
* * *
And what happened, indeed…