God’s Silence by Franz Wright

I picked up God’s Silence from a big-box brick and mortar store last fall. God is an interesting subject in the literary world. Additionally, the cover of the book says “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize”. Wow,  prize-winning book about God. What is it Wright says about God? Is God God or is the book some sort of metaphor? Is it a piece of atheistic work? (I read a quote somewhere that said an atheist at the window is closer to God than a superficial, legalistic church-goer.) I have to check this out. Come to find out, Wright won the Pulitzer for his work Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (tricky cover designers). My interest was piqued even more when I read that Image had awarded him for his work in regards to faith. That takes care of the atheism question. I finally got a chance to read Wright’s work once summer break got under way. And now it’s at or near the top of the best poetry collections I’ve read.

The collection begins with a feeling of loneliness, solitude, darkness, and winter. It is pretty obvious very early that Wright is contemplating salvation, eternity, and the juxtaposition of a loving and wrathful God. There is a motif of God, salvation, and light throughout. In the acknowledgment section of the book Wright thanks somebody for introducing him to the writing of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thich Nhat Hanh. I wasn’t familiar with either of these names but it turns out that they are a Jewish scholar/poet and a Buddhist exile respectively. In the poem “D., 1959-2004”, Wright describes the deceased as “resting/on Christ’s breast . . . [and] comfortably seated/at the Buddha’s feet”. Obviously, Wright is allowing his faith to be informed (not defined) by the thoughts of other spiritual beliefs. It seems to me that Wright takes the Buddhist idea of light and uses that tangible something to help him understand heaven, hell and the afterlife. I’m saddened that some “Christian” readers may be offended and accuse Wright of universalism (all paths lead to God, salvation, and or eternal life). I’m not sure Wright is necessarily a universalist because (in this collection) because he wrestles time and again with the idea that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. What I like about Wright’s stance in these poems is he reveals he doesn’t understand why it seems like God chooses some and not others, that he may very well spend eternity separated from people he loves here on earth. He isn’t condemning anyone, isn’t pretending or claiming to have all the answers–instead, Wright seems to be exploring how to come to grips with his faith, his salvation, and his God.

Wright doesn’t only explore his faith, though–he also writes some pretty fantastic poetry. Stylistically, he excels at the imaginal and synthesizing antithesis. I’ve written frequently on the imaginal, and will write more in the near future as I will blog about Williams’ Spring and All. In a nut shell, the imaginal establishes the imagination as a necessary component of art, humanity, and reality. Dream poems are great examples of the imaginal because dreams often bring to the surface something going on in our subconscious.  Many of these poems are dream poems that seem to force Wright to further face his faith. “The Two” is one such example:

The Two by Franz Wright

They were standing there
above me when I woke
Franz I heard them say
in unison though neither’s lips moved

and there was no sound
no interruption
of the silence I heard
the word in my mind

as if I had imagined it
or spoken aloud
myself
but the voice was not mine

the voices I should say
then like sunlight
when a cloud obscures the sun suddenly
they were gone.

This poem provides the uncertainty of the details and truths of the dream. The dream itself seems not to matter as much as the potency of the dream demanding the writer’s attention. Other dream poems are flat-out weird (like being wrapped in plastic wrap, condemned to mop floors for eternity). It seems as thought Wright has come face to face with the divine in his dreams (if they are dreams…they could be strictly imagination which makes them that much more extraordinary) as he tries to come to some sort of understanding.

Finally, Wright does a superb job presenting opposites through images and line endings. One great example is “The Knowers”:

The Knowers by Franz Wright

Little bird bones come back
as a bird, as a bird
loudly singing
again
in the dead leaves
come back as green
leaves: only
we
don’t return.

In this poem, life and death coexist, similarities show between birds and trees, both in opposition to the journey of the human after death. Is there joy or disappointment in being separated from the circle of life as we know it?

Wright concludes the entire collection with the line “Proved faithless, still I wait.” The irony of this lines sums up the entire collective work. If not having all the answers or not being able to make complete sense of everything means that he is faithless, then sure, he is faithless. But the journey of the collection proves otherwise, as Wright seems to be rejecting the self and pride instead of the character of God, which (I think) shows a deep, passionate faith.

God’s Silence is a fantastic collection of poems because the poet confronts his own heart and writes poems that are powerful as individual poems and as contributors to a larger work.

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