Absence as a Window
By James K. A. Smith
Many imagine they can use poetry as therapy, a way to exorcise demons. But the result is usually indulgent sentimentalism. In place of a Germanic notion of the poet as conduit of the gods, we get the (false) poet as chronicler of symptoms, reveling in disclosures that are at once embarrassing, narcissistic, and immune to criticism. This kind of would-be creative spirit is currently embodied on the hit television series Rescue Me by firefighter Kenny Shea, who produces terrible verse as a mode of post-9/11 healing.
Among serious contemporary poets, Franz Wright might mistakenly be linked to an exalted form of poetry-as-therapy: he grew up at a troubled distance from his father, the poet James Wright, and then spiraled into a life of addiction and mental illness, spending time on the precipice during two years in a mental health hospital in the mid-1990s. But Franz Wright’s poetry isn’t his therapy; rather, it is a witness to exorcism by other means.
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Wright’s intensely spiritual poetry is the absence of the self-helpism that attends poetry-as-therapy. For at root, the poetry-as-therapy line remains confident in the powers of the poet to pull himself up by his bootstraps. “Poet, save thyself!” comes the challenge. “Don’t mind if I do,” the poet/therapist replies. In contrast, Wright’s poetry is a testimony of the helplessness of the poet—of anyone—in the face of the horrors that attend our broken lives. What’s needed is an in-breaking of grace; poetry then comes along trying to find words to name the event of that in-breaking from elsewhere. But if the poet can find the words, then the poem becomes an invitation to others to be hopeful and open to such grace, whereas the narcissism of self-helpism often leaves the brokenhearted even more despairing, because they can’t imagine mustering that kind of voice and chutzpah to take on the demons themselves.
Wright has commented that part of his recovery, which included a conversion to Catholicism, involved letting go of poetry as a substitute faith system. “For me,” he said, “poetry was a kind of religion in and of itself for a long time. I believed in poetry. I had an almost theological conception of it. But I came to realize that was a mistake.” What makes Wright’s poetry so spiritually inviting, and even theologically suggestive, stems from this sense of poetry’s being positioned by grace.
Since emerging from those darkest days, Wright has seen his star steadily ascend. His 2000 collection, The Beforelife, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and his subsequent book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2003), won the prize. His latest collection, God’s Silence, completes what could be read as a trilogy with a kind of narrative arc—not a tale of progress or even progressive sanctification, but more like the landscape of Book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions, where even the bishop has bad days. (For new poems by Wright, see pages 56 and 57.)
I was first drawn to Wright’s poetry in one of those wonderful sites of God’s providence, the clearance bin at a Book Mart in Los Angeles. Happening upon The Beforelife, I was hooked by the absence that resonated through the book—the absence of a father in particular. Having been estranged from my own father for 20 years, and having not even set eyes on him for at least a dozen years at the time, I felt that Wright’s laments named the absence in my own life, most powerfully in “Goodbye”:
But I have overcome you
I won’t behave
can’t hurt me now;
so you are not
to hurt me again
and I, I can’t
The 2000 and 2003 collections are haunted by a “you”—a second-person interlocutor of some ambiguity, and one isn’t always sure which father/Father is under consideration here (“At ten / I turned you into a religion,” the poet remarks), culminating in “Flight,” a heart-wrenching poem about father and son meeting, but certainly not communing. In this poem, included in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, the absence of the father takes on an omnipresence that echoes the psalter:
If I’m walking the streets of a city
covering every square inch of the continent
all its lights out
and empty of people,
even then you are there
The absence has the presence of a scar, making the poet a marked man: “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.”
But if his wounds are craters of absence, there is yet a sense in which Franz Wright’s poetry redeems absence—as if the hole carved by his father’s departure somehow also cut open a channel for grace. For emerging regularly and rhythmically with and in the absence is hope. “Flight,” for instance, ends with a dream sequence of Franz’s talking and laughing with his father. But even as a general trope, one finds Wright, in Bono’s words cribbed from Bruce Cockburn, kicking the darkness until it bleeds daylight. So in the same poem (“One Heart”), the poet recounts how “this morning a young woman / described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby / in your arms,” but then concludes with a doxology of gratitude:
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
with this love
The Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion has suggested that the really revelatory site of the icon—its revelational sweet spot, one might say—is the dark pupil of the eye that invites us through it like a window. One could say that Franz Wright sees absence in this iconic manner: as a window, a portal to transcendence. It is in God’s hiding that he shows himself, and it’s just this absence that staves off madness. Madness, after all, isn’t the result of the world dissolving into nothingness before our eyes, but rather a result of the incessant deluge of reality that overwhelms us. Madness comes not from absence, but from excess presence. And so for the one who feels pressed on every side by a world that is too present and keeps imposing itself without respite, absences are a gift. Thus, Wright concludes “Cloudless Snowfall” with an off-handed note of gratitude: “and / by the way thank You for / keeping Your face hidden, I / can hardly bear the beauty of this world.”
While Wright, Jacob-like, manages to wrestle a blessing from the dark spaces of absence, this is not to suggest that his poetry is triumphalist, dreamy, or utopian. To the contrary, especially in the earlier col-lections, the shards of hope are respites that let us briefly emerge onto the surface for air before being submerged again into the depths of depression. The meditations that emerge from his time in a mental institution are particularly haunting, arriving like scrawled messages in a bottle sent from some far-off island right there in East Boston. But one has the impression that if Franz Wright had been standing right next to you at that time, he would have been far off. And so the poems from the period have an almost extraterrestrial quality about them—or at least an exotic, even voyeuristic, feel about them, such that the reader feels as if the poet is a patient (not yet a cadaver) cut open on the table for all to see. (Something like the guilty pleasure of Phillipe de Broca’s film King of Hearts, taking us through the gates and into the asylum.)
This condition is displayed in the opening piece of God’s Silence, “East Boston, 1996,” wherein Wright admits: “I knew I looked like a suicide / returning an overdue book to the library.” The bus ride is an occasion for “some diverting speculations / on the comparative benefits / of waiting in front of a ditch to be shot / alone or in company / of others, and then whether one would prefer / these last hypothetical others / to be friends, family, enemies, total / or relative strangers. Would you hold hands?”
But what’s interesting is the very tenuous fulcrum on which Wright’s world turns. I imagine it as one of those flashy, hologram baseball cards. Hold it one way and Derek Jeter is squared up in the batter’s box, ready for the pitcher’s delivery. But turn the card just ever so slightly, and the whole picture changes, and Jeter has uncoiled and exploded, sending the ball hurtling to the left field wall. The picture only needs to pivot a slight bit, and the whole picture changes.
A lot of saints and others seem to inhabit the world close to that fulcrum. On bad days the world is a dark, cold monstrosity; but on other days, on a good day, the picture tilts just a bit, and all of a sudden the world breaks open and shows us something we couldn’t see before. Wright’s poetry teeters on this fulcrum, too. “I just noticed,” he writes, “that it is my own private / National I Hate Myself and Want to Die Day / (which means the next day I will love my life / and want to live forever).”
There’s a fine line, it has been said, between faith and madness; indeed, faith as madness has a long pedigree, from Paul (1 Cor. 1–2) to Kierkegaard. (A picture of Wright in the magazine Poets & Writers shows Joakim Garff ’s mammoth biography of Kierkegaard on the floor beside his chair.) Wright’s poetry attests that only a world that totters on the edge of nothing-ness could turn in such a way to be revelatory and translucent.
The sense that absence is revelatory feeds into another theme that reaches its crescendo in God’s Silence: the paradoxical principle that silence speaks. Just as God’s hiding is not concealment but manifestation, so also, for Wright, is God’s silence not that of one who refuses to speak, but rather of one whose silence speaks volumes. This is counterintuitive for many. Those of us who cut our teeth on the American evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer have been indelibly marked by the claim that “he is there and he is not silent,” and embedded in this is a kind of imperative from humanity to God: “If you’re there, say something!” But Wright’s poetry struggles to make sense of a silence that speaks more than words—silence as a kind of “tongues” that exceeds words. And so the poet is confronted with a challenge not unlike the theologian or the preacher: how to put into words that which exceeds them, including the silences that say so much? What would it mean for poetry to testify to such silence?
In “From a Discarded Image” (in Beforelife), Wright struggles with this as a threat of violence, the harm that can be done to “the world’s wordless beauty” by the words of the poet. Later, in “Icon From Child-hood,” Wright picks up an Augustinian line regarding words as things and all things as signs, but sees through them to their emptiness: “that these words / are only / things, but / that all things are shining / words, busy / silently / saying themselves— / they don’t need me.”
In God’s Silence, the theme begins to take on echoes of the psalter (indeed, the cadences and rhythms of Wright’s poetry live off of the liturgy and the scriptures). This is embedded in a refrain that appears six times in six different poems, first announcing itself in “The Hawk,” where Wright reflects on “this three-pound lump / of sentient meat electrified / by hope and terror has learned to hear / His silence like the sun.” That trope—“I heard God’s silence like the sun”—returns as a chorus through-out the collection, and seems to allude to Psalm 19, where the psalmist points to a declaration that exceeds and transcends language. The words of Wright’s poems are trying to be this kind of oblique pointer. This requires relinquishing the poetic pre-tension to “capturing” experience:
The long silences need to be loved, perhaps
more than the words
to describe them
Franz Wright’s poetry invites us to the edge, to that risky precipice where words succeed in their failure; to that frightening fulcrum where the world teeters, back and forth, between abyss and icon; and to the dark corners of a brokenhearted world where there are holes cut out for the grace to get in.
James K. A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book is Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic).