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April 5-11, 2006

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Franz Wright

Grateful humility: Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright's newest collection considers the power of faith.

Like the Sun

Poet Franz Wright suffers in 'Silence'

By John Freeman

For some believers, God's silence during trying times is a deal breaker, an example of the Almighty's indifference. Others make their peace with it by simply saying such moments provide the essential tests of their faith.

Poet Franz Wright would clearly fall into the latter category. In his latest collection, God's Silence (Knopf; $24), the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Walking to Martha's Vineyard) has assembled a series of meditations provoked by passages where he went it alone, as they say.

The Holocaust, depression, the death of friends and family and his own descent into weakness--all of these events threaten Wright's belief in a higher power, but he emerges from them grateful, jittery with a newfound humility.

"The long silences need to be loved," he concludes in "Home Remedy," a poem about one long and anxiety-filled night, "perhaps / more than the words / which arrive / to describe them / in time." Beautiful as this sentiment is, it feels like the conclusion of a damaged man, whose trial by fire has tipped him from metaphysics into territory best described as religious.

While some poems here build to epiphany through incantation, others spiral toward confession. "I have heard God's silence like the sun / and longed to / change" he writes in "Wake."

Statements like these place the reader in an awkward situation. Are we witnesses to Wright's spiritual pain, or are we his expiators, his colluders? As Wright prostrates himself before God, cursing his "scheming and chattering" mind, it's hard not to feel a little guilty for existing so fixedly in the workaday world. In this fashion, these poems do well to describe Wright's state of mind, but they do not always lift us up to meet him there. Phrases like "Let the heart be moved again" and "I am very afraid but still know You" have a way of quickly turning poems into echo chambers--rather than music halls--where a reader's mind has little purchase.

The brief snatches of the tangible world that appear in poems like "Nebraska Blizzard" and "Sitting Up Late with My Father, 1977" offer rare moments of much-needed corporeality. Suddenly, the concepts which feel as fine as gossamer in some poems acquire shape and weight.

But just as quickly, Wright upends them or turns his gaze outward with an almost un-Christian sense of spite. In "Woods Hole Ferry," he describes wealthy "users-up" who are "unconsciously remote / from knowing themselves" making their way to an island retreat. Their financial leg up is temporary, Wright instructs, "for we all meet and enter" the afterlife "at the same door."

For the most part, God's Silence avoids this kind of ugly finger-pointing. Wright is too fixed on his own desire to quit this world. One poem mentions suicide specifically, while others flirt with it from afar. In "From the Past," he anticipates his own death like it was an upcoming holiday: "I can just see it: I'll / be driven to the hospital for the last time with my toothbrush and razor at about two in the afternoon, the turnpike deserted, / the lights of some new isolated office building beckoning celestially on a distant hill."

One supposes there are worse ways to go. In fact, after spending time on the hard wooden pews of these clearly hard-won poems, it sounds a bit like summer camp.

Franz Wright reads from and discusses 'God's Silence' on Monday, April 10, at Book Passage. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7pm. Free. 415.927.0960. John Freeman is president of the National Critics Book Circle.

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