The Strangeness of Being Here at All: Franz Wright’s Redemption Story

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Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

There are days I wake up in sluggish wonder, newly aware, as a last dream image drifts away, of the marvel of my beloved still beside me in the bed, the fan beating time through the air, and the persistence of this body and mind. Or as the poet Franz Wright would put it in a prayer:

You gave me

in secret one thing

to perceive, the

tall blue starry

strangeness of being

here at all.

—‘The Only Animal’

“It is strange to be here. The Mystery never leaves you alone.” The Irish priest-poet John O’Donohue begins his Anam Cara with these words. When you awaken to this truth, as many of us from time to time do, it breaks open the disenchanted world and shows it up for the lie it is.

Breaking down, breaking open—these were the registers that Wright knew and wrote about so profoundly in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems titled Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. He’s not an easy poet. I often feel invited into the fragmented impressions of someone else’s mornings when I read his poetry. And the terrors he knew in his own life—the suicidal thoughts, the abusive father, the hard park benches of his times of homelessness—are never far from the surface.

He always seems to be in that liminal state of gaining consciousness. Old desires linger, especially the longing to connect in intimacy, but a new desire, God-related, is emerging. “I don’t want to sleep with you,” he tells an unidentified interlocutor in ‘Quest.’ “I want to wake up with you.”

He revisits old wounds. His father, James Wright, also an acclaimed poet, hovers in the background of ‘Flight,’ haunting the son’s attempts to bridge the distance to others:

If I’m walking the streets

overwhelmed with this love for the living

I will still be a blizzard at sea

Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely

star-far from the person right next to me, but

closer to me than my bones you

you are there

—‘Flight’

In ‘Baptism’ he celebrates that the waters have drowned the man he was, defined by mental illness.

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.’

—‘Baptism’

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Franz Wright

There are small ecstasies in this life-on-the-way. The old things persist, but he glimpses the miracles at the edges of awakening:

Vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats

awakens me and I look up

at a minute-long string of black geese

following low past the moon the white

course of the snow-covered river and

by the way thank You for

keeping Your face hidden, I 

can hardly bear the beauty of this world.

—‘Cloudless Snowfall’

I had the pleasure of seeing Wright before his death in 2015 and of interacting with him around a sermon in which I quoted him, (something I wrote about on Jeanne Torrence Finley’s great ‘Tell it Slant’ site). When he died, obituaries noted his traumatic life, but what I appreciated about him was his redemption story. It was full of gratitude and wonder and produced this wonderful collection, perfect for those of us looking for light in the latter years.

Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the

sane; thank You for letting me know what this is

like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening

blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without

terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly

lost

with this love

—‘One Heart’

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