The Beforelife

The Beforelife

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by Franz Wright
     
 

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In this stunning collection, Franz Wright chronicles the journey back from a place of isolation and wordlessness. After a period when it seemed certain he would never write poetry again, he speaks with bracing clarity about the twilit world that lies between madness and sanity, addiction and recovery. Wright negotiates the precarious transition from illness to

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Overview

In this stunning collection, Franz Wright chronicles the journey back from a place of isolation and wordlessness. After a period when it seemed certain he would never write poetry again, he speaks with bracing clarity about the twilit world that lies between madness and sanity, addiction and recovery. Wright negotiates the precarious transition from illness to health in a state of skeptical rapture, discovering along the way the exhilaration of love—both divine and human—and finding that even the most battered consciousness can be good company.

Whether he is writing about his regret for the abortion of a child, describing the mechanics of slander ("I can just hear them on the telephone and keening all their kissy little knives"), or composing an ironic ode to himself ("To a Blossoming Nut Case"), Wright's poems are exquisitely precise. Charles Simic has characterized him as a poetic miniaturist, whose "secret ambition is to write an epic on the inside of a matchbook cover." Time and again, Wright turns on a dime in a few brief lines, exposing the dark comedy and poignancy of his heightened perception.

Here is one of the poems from the collection:

Description of Her Eyes

Two teaspoonfuls,
and my mind goes
everyone can kiss my ass now

then it's changed,
I change my mind.

Eyes so sad, and infinitely kind.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This luminous, courageous book is about all of us—about our daily torment and redemption, which we dare not speak even to our souls. But Wright has done so."

—Olga Broumas, author of
Rave: Poems, 1975-1999

"These poems break me; they're like jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers—miraculous gifts. At any one time only a handful of genuine poets reside on the planet. I consider Franz Wright to be one of these, and I'm grateful that we have him among us."

—-Denis Johnson

"Writers who are genuinely original, who beat their own path, make up a kind of visionary company, to which Franz Wright, with this new book, must clearly be admitted. These poems seem haunted by their own dark imaginings, yet at surprising moments turn all of a sudden humorous, if mordantly so. Reading them will train readers to stay alert for whatever devastating surprises may be coming up next."

—-Donald Justice

"In a language waking from delirium, these astonishing poems offer—-in their spare, raw, and pure lyric clarity—-the prayers of madness and the light of its aftermath. Wright is a poet apart in his gifts and his courage."

—-Carolyn Forche

"Intriguing and always accessible, with no 'irrelevant / lies,' this book will expand the audience for poetry by showing readers that, in spite of stunning obstacles, it is always 'possible to live.'"
Library Journal

"In these short meditations of anguish and hope, Wright achieves the clarity of 'seeing,' and a hard-won wisdom as well."—Kirkus Reviews

" 'Beforelife': the word is so striking that the halting suspence of a double-crostic puzzle overhangs the book, as each poem individually withholds final definition. These poems brilliantly duplicate the willfulness and self-spite of the drinker's impulse ... they're mostly miniatures, the beginnings or endings of Hopperesque stories with a European gloss, their diction mixing mid-American colloquial speech and turns that evoke out-of-context translations."—Elizabeth Macklin, The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The six books that Wright published in the '90s were more or less split between Carnegie-Mellon University and Oberlin College presses, with the latter publishing Ill Lit: Selected Poems to little fanfare in 1998. Clearly, however, Knopf editor Deborah Garrison was paying attention, having made Wright's 13th collection her first for the house since taking over for the late Harry Ford last year. The poems here slowly make explicit a psychologically acute back story, featuring Haldol, codeine, drinking and childhood abuse. (Wright's father was the late poet James Wright.) They depend almost completely on a pared-down, querulous, alternatingly grandiose and self-deflating depression-speak, which can be terrific when on, and much less impressive when even slightly off. A laconic rhythm drives self-revelations like "Not Now": "This mask/ this glove/ of human flesh// is all I have/ and that's not bad/ and that's not good// not good enough// not now." But too many of these short monologues can't sustain their self-reflection, as in "Primogeniture," which opens "My dad beat me with his belt/ for my edification" and closes "may my hand whither// may it forget how to write/ if I ever strike a child." Single lines and thoughts can be better than whole poems--"Dark the computer dies in its sleep"; "...so you are not/ going to hurt me again/ and I, I can't/ happen to you"; "I'll give you something to cry about"--giving this uneven collection depth and credibility. (Jan. 31) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The persona in these poems inhabits a psychic hell poignantly familiar to recovering addicts and to "Franz Wright with his suitcase/ of codeine pills." It is a world where a "guy in white" comes "to see/ if you've killed yourself." In this persona, Wright, son of the celebrated poet James Wright, confronts his alcoholism as "the drunk son of a drunk," a lowly "cockroach/ in a psychiatrist's kitchen," committed because of his "psychotic" visions on a subway train a year earlier. His only salvation is the "word world" where he contemplates the ineffable beauty of mallards swimming in a cove or "January snowfall" clean as a "new page." Addressed to his wife and written between December 1998 and December 1999, the poems are formatted like brief telegrams, shocking in their honesty: "my dad beat me with his belt." Intriguing and always accessible, with no "irrelevant/ lies," this book will expand the audience for poetry by showing readers that, in spite of stunning obstacles, it is always "possible to live." Recommended for all general collections.--Daniel Guillory, Millikin Univ., Decatur, IL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Elizabeth Macklin
Beforelife: the word is so striking that the halting suspense of a double-crostic puzzle overhangs the book, as each poem individually withholds final definition.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The dominant moods of Wright's latest work are repentance and resolution. The former covers a lot of territory, but Wright consistently circles back to the prison of addiction—to its vicious cycles and the possibility of release. The poet's Christianity is admittedly unorthodox, but unless we give some credence to the notions of sin (not necessarily original sin), grace, and salvation, we are unlikely to find his vision compelling. Three of the poems are explicit prayers, and many others read like prayers: they dance among the attitudes of atonement, thanksgiving, and petition. The longer, more narrative works do not have the snap and clear vision of his prayerful poems, but this is merely to quibble. In"Primogeniture" he tells of a legacy of child abuse handed down from father to son over generations. It ends on a note of defiance:"So that's how it is done / here, / I thought / and may my hand wither / may it forget how to write / if I ever strike a child." The pun on"write" works on several levels—since Wright's father, James Wright, was also a"writer"—and clarifies the need to work free of inheritance and destructive habit. In these short meditations of anguish and hope, Wright achieves the clarity of"seeing," and a hard-won wisdom as well.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375709432
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/02/2002
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
96
Sales rank:
361,090
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Empty Cathedral"

There’s this pew at the back that’s been waiting for you all your life, like your death bed.
Christ Criminal hanging above, eyes and mouth closed suggesting before you too enter the third person, light one candle for the here,
will you.

——————————————————————————————————

"Thanks Prayer at the Cove"

A year ago today
I was unable to speak one syntactically coherent thought let alone write it down: today in this dear and absurdly allegorical place by your grace
I am here and not in that graveyard, its skyline visible now from the November leaflessness and I am here to say it's 5 o'clock, too late to write more
(especially for the one whose eyes are starting to get dark), the single dispirited swan out on the windless brown transparent floor floating gradually backward blackward no this is what I still can see, white as a joint in a box of little cigars-
and where is the mate
Lord, it is almost winter in the year
2000 and now I look up to find five practically unseeable mallards at my feet they have crossed nearly standing on earth they're so close looking up to me for bread-
that's what my eyes of flesh see (barely)
but what I wished to say is this, listen:
a year ago today
I found myself riding the subway psychotic
(I wasn't depressed, I wanted to rip my face off)
unable to write what I thought, which was nothing though I tried though I finally stopped trying and looked up at the face of the man directly across from me, and it began to melt before my eyes and in an instant it was young again the face he must have had once when he was five and in an instant it happened again only this time it changed to the face of his elderly corpse and back in time it changed to his face at our present moment of time's flowing and then as if transparently superimposed I saw them all at once
OK I was insane but how insane can someone be I thought, I did not know you then
I didn't know you were there God
(that's what we call you, grunt grunt)
as you are at every moment everywhere of what we call the future and the past
And then I tried once more experimentally
I focused on another's face, no need to describe it there is only one underneath these scary and extremely realistic rubber masks and there is as I also know now by your grace one and only one person on earth beneath a certain depth the terror and the love are one, like hunger, same in everyone and it happened again, das Unglück geschah you might say nur mir allein it happened no matter who I looked at for maybe five minutes long enough long enough this secret trinity
I saw, the others will say I am making it up as if that mattered
Lord,
I make up nothing not one word.

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