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

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

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
which no one knows except
the one who gave it.’

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
with this love
One Heart

Blurry photo of group of people
Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Alex Joyner
Alex Joyner is a United Methodist pastor and writer on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He is editor of the Heartlandsblog.

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