Issue 7: Michael Vagnetti on Franz Wright
Review: Kindertotenwald: Prose Poems, by Franz Wright. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.00/ £16.48
In The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco holds constructional schemes in high regard as a tool for the prose poet. You know: auxesis, antithesis, epithonemia…if you are post-Latin, however (and who isn’t?), these are really just ways that a writer builds up a series, sets ideas in opposition, and summarizes. Turco’s exigesis of these kinds of things in Kenneth Fearing’s “Dirge,” for example, involves some impressive flips and general derring-do. One definitely gets the sense that Fearing was wielding sentences with deliberate intent.
In the poetry game, if you’re not writing in lines, do you need some flash way of making up for it? As Alfred Corn puts it, prose poems “have to deploy special syntactic energies in order to charge their texts with the rhythmic intensity associated with poetry.”[i] What, then, are Franz Wright’s chops in Kindertotenwald? I didn’t get a sense of Wright the word-charger, Wright the performer, Wright the deliberate wielder. I first went looking for techniques, and was let down (I’m sure I could have looked harder). When I say “let down,” I mean lowered, dropped off, “as into an abyss.” While listening to Rückert and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. In a dark forest. Late at night. With no maps. This poetry is the stuff of death, bad dreams, youth curdling with macabre adjectives – or all three together. This book would translate into a great death metal graphic novel – but large print edition only.
The stuff of death, of course, is that one-sided frame that gives the stuff of life some shape. I don’t mind a little agreeable ghoul, but I had a different catalog of expectations for what this book should do: use every word to tell, efficiently. Charge words in order to shock away the inanity and dullness of the modern media majority. Embrace variety. Don’t coast on your legacy. Acknowledge the reader. Embed memorable phrases that make the reader want to talk and write differently.
The poems of Kindertotenwald read like journal entries: Wright is a chronicler of Wright. Let’s face it: most of the time the speaker is within this spectrum of Wrights.
Now we will leave behind poetry and paranoia and get real for a while. This is now me speaking. It really is. At least insofar as I comprehend that term, and keeping in mind that in my case a degree of relativity is bound to accompany it, a range of entities.
—From “The Last”
Ontology aside (that’s a whole other dark wood), we might agree that the range of entities known as Wright are often described doing x: hearing crepuscular frogs, asking to be given a new name, reaching into his back pocket and finding an unfolded page. The diaristic style, however, amends the possibilities for readerly engagement. It’s all about adding value to the reader. (Like the productivity bloggers always say: “How is what you are doing making other people awesome?”) For every occasionally striking turn of phrase, there is an “I was just coming from a visit to my doctor” (From “One Hundred and First Reason to Stay in Your Room”). The big top spotlight shines on the author. He will have you know, he is writing poetry.
Wright, however, also combines this self-referential stance with its distant converse: the sense of being ignored (sample titles in this area include “The Loneliest Boy in the World,” “The Last Person in Purgatory”). Another throb of the verse is about being an outsider. Here, for example, what I take to be the enwombed Franz speaking:
You can’t hear the voice when it utters let there be speech, yet I faithfully spoke what I thought I was supposed to, inspired idiot, or dummy in the lap of language, the words themselves more real than I, words here before we were and when we are not again.
There is also Wright the dreamer. Not exactly the mystic seer-dreamer. More like a dream just this side of death – a vates that needs a vacation, or a shaman that lacks self-efficacy. This is the opposite of a waking dream. There are people telling him about dreams, he is having unremembered dreams, dreams are obstacles to love, and he is having trouble sleeping. When you are reading Kindertotenwald to your little ones, and they ask you, “Is Franz Wright dead?” You can answer, “No, dear, he’s just sleeping.”
“Litany,” for example, undulates with the repeating phrases “While we slept,” and the subsequent causes collide with each other like ripples in a deepening pool. It’s actualy more gonzo than that, slightly less poetic, and decidedly nightmarish (mice in locked drawers, entrails, gray matter, et cetera).
What monster dreams up this sort of thing? While we slept, I’m having trouble mastering the new gender–inoffensive grammar. I’m finding it extremely difficult to behave politely and diplomatically at all times.
What’s going on to bring out that kind of feeling? The most rewarding moments of the book came when I jettisoned “themes” and “techniques” for a journey into the brain of the verse. That is, I became a prospector for triggers, patterns, and chain analyses of emotions, and a tracker of the reflected invalidation that often results. When it comes to the geography of the brain, we are all provincial. One forgives the lack of acrobatics on a page saturated with foibles. If you turn the focus inward, you can approach something like readerly compassion, and make the reading worth it.
There are often a lot of commas. Occasionally, I felt like I was being force-fed like a foie gras duckling. This is not illegal, of course, but a little unethical. At its worst, generally, the prose poem can be poured out like so much grain slurry down a feeding trough, right “into” the four corners of the page. After the ensuing gruel of commas and their subsequent clauses, one wants some free range, some white space. I found the shortest poems the most refreshing and digestible.
How’s snowy frozen nowhere? I’d join you if I could. I must have misplaced the key in your dim wood, the yellow wolfsbane, I’ll bet: an excellent cardiac toxin or arrows, in case of a subtraction in the family, as was only to be expected.
I went into this book without the deep respect for the author, lacking the eager anticipation of the book as a next step in the Pulitzer-Prize winning career. (I got the book, free, as a printer’s sample, and am reviewing it nearly at random. A kind of self-dare.) Kindertotenwald bucked against my stern intentions to focus only on the poetry, without the requisite biological spelunking (I vaguely uncovered details of time spent in mental hospitals, addictions, along with awards and good press.)
The fact that you happen to be a distinguished and much discussed author proves to be less than impressive to the police departments of most major American cities.
—From “Glamorous Career”
This reminds me of Elvis Presley and his collection of honorary narcotics badges. Also like Elvis, there is a great deal of unresolved anguish in this book that does not become aestheticized. The emotional intelligence is not quite honed. You can sense the slightly wounded tone, coming to breath in the poems, and breathing on you, instead of through you. If readers are like police, I am a practical, workmanlike one, and just want to hear the singer’s concert and then get on with it. Cop or not, I’ll be the one that judges if you’re distinguished or much discussed, not those that draped on the medallions.[i] Alfred Corn, The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008), p. 4.
Michael Vagnetti graduated BA Honors in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and writes poetry and criticism, most recently for The Rumpus. He can be reached at http://about.me/mvagnetti