The Beforelife by Franz Wright

by Steve Mueske


Out of His Own Shadow

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once wrote, “Why are there objects rather than nothing?” suggesting that we never question what we see unless we enter into some kind of manic state, such as an existential crisis or psychosis. To ask the Question is to ask how our lives are possible, how anything at all is possible. Franz Wright, son of the poet James Wright, has been to the edge of sanity and back, and his new book, The Beforelife, chronicles his climb out of “a place of isolation and wordlessness.”

In this, his thirteenth book of poetry, Wright maps the territory of his soul. At first glance, the topics may seem off-putting — depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, low self-esteem, dementia — and they are, but the book is written with such emotional honesty that his pain becomes ours. Take for example, this passage from “Self-Portrait at 40” in which he describes himself in third-person, a technique, perhaps, that allows his feelings of alienation and neurosis to bleed through:

cover art

The Beforelife

Franz Wright

(Alfred A.Knopf)

A strangerness
that will always be with him
and often funny
scared to death
every so often
for days on end,

Even in this brief passage we see the strengths of Wright’s style: simplicity, comedy, darkness, and the ability to turn a phrase on its head. We also see his uncanny ability to make us see little bits of ourselves in these poems, for who hasn’t felt a quality of “strangerness” in his or her own life?

What interests me even more about this book — and it is clearly a “made” book (that is, everything from the title, which seems to be a play and inversion on the word “afterlife,” to the selection of poems inside signals careful orchestration) — is the feeling that we are watching a mind make art, or at the very least, grappling with the issues of art-making. We have the art itself, yes, wonderful turns of phrase and images that display a wealth and generosity of spirit, but we also have the self-doubt, the loathing, and the honest, unflinching gaze into his own fear, his own darkness, and it is this gaze that makes it hard not to empathize with him: here is a man who can make art out of his own shadow. This book is no less than his affirmation that he can still write, and that through the act of writing, he claims himself.

Of course there are faults in this book. No one poem in here stands out as being memorable in the sense that we usually invoke the word — what I mean to say is that no one poem grabs you and says, “If you never read another poem, you must read this one” — and because of the personal nature of many of the poems, pronouns like “she” and “he” can lose relevance. What becomes important is the collection as a whole, the movement from the comic to the sad, the quick turns of phrase that are his great gift. The poems are deceptively simple, but yield to deeper scrutiny.

There is an obsession with death in this collection. It surfaces in titles — “Body Bag,” “The Dead Dads,”, “Resurrection: Elegy” — and as well in poems. We begin to sense Wright’s relationship with death — whether just fear or recognition of a fate averted — and it is sobering. The title of the book itself seems to suggest that the author is looking back on himself as another person, a kind of double use of the word in which he suggests both that his previous life is dead and that he has awakened to a greater perception of himself. As with the antonym that he implicitly signals, there is a thread that connects the two lives together — the before and the after — and that is his humanity.

One of the great joys of poetry is encountering lines which live in our hearts for awhile, such as these from Wright’s “From a Discarded Image”:

The world’s
beauty intact, indeed

I, for one, am glad that he is writing. Every detail of this book does much more work than would seem. It is a powerful, arresting collection that is well worth checking out, if for no other reason than curiosity.


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