Kindertotenwald: Prose Poems

  • Franz Wright
  • Knopf
  • 128 pp.

This haunting collection by a “philosopher poet” is a conversation with himself.

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Kindertotenwald is the Pulitzer Prize-winner Franz Wright’s new book. Experts say the title translates to children + the dead + woods/forest; perhaps, “Forest of Dead Children.”  This haunting title presages a haunting reading experience. Wright is a philosopher poet. Perhaps all poets who present new thoughts about our humanity are philosophers. Certainly, the way Wright studies the human condition and its illusions qualifies.

This book is a departure from the best known poems of Wright. I love to see established poets try forms that go beyond their previous work. I like those who meddle with success. These prose poems are intriguing thought patterns that show poetry as mental process. This is original material, and if a great poet cannot continue to be original, then he is really not all that great. “Prose poetry” is not what we expected. Wright is known for his elegant verticality, the terse phrase and a zinger ending. However, prose, to be poetry, must also have a springiness within the long line or it’s just margin to margin. Some call this springiness “music” or “lyricism.” It depends on tension and release, both which must be done as carefully as with any line of poetry. Paul Valery and Arthur Rimbaud told us that.

The utility of the horizontal poem is that it allows a stream of connectedness to lead us by the hand through the poet’s thought process. The danger is that it goes into auto drift. The trick, it seems, is to manage and control with the aid of momentum and tone. Much of this probably cannot be done consciously as it depends on the intrinsic language humming inside the poet. Tone comes as a result of diction that comes from word choice. Put all together and we have beautiful glue so that the center will hold and we don’t get bored. With Franz Wright this all works to the good.

A secret I know about readers is that a terrific job makes everyone feel “I want to do this.” Instead of “How did he do this?” It inspires. Bad art depletes and makes the reader think “I could not possibly say this, or tell that.” In this text there is a joyfulness that energizes and makes us feel the writing as a purposeful surge. It is a life force. This is a good indicator of literary art. And if the poet chooses a form close to stream of consciousness at times, the consciousness better be a very rich one. No one could accuse of Wright of less. Poetry is an illusion of an imagined life, biography filtered through intuition.

There are many wonderful poems assuming autobiography in Kindertotenwald. Memory and the past, mortality, longing, childhood, time, space, geography and loneliness are all the poet’s playthings. In these conversations with himself, Franz Wright shows how the mind works with his feelings and his brain’s agility in its struggle with the heart.

Sometimes the poems are very funny.

From “Letter”: “… I am verbal, very verbal; I’m the answer to psychiatry’s prayers. / I am to the mental health business what a talking pig might be/ to a veterinarian. One who makes ends meet by moonlighting as/ a butcher…”

Sometimes the poems are very sad.

Home for Christmas

Fifteen years later the old tollbooth keeper is still at his post but/ cannot break a twenty, regrettably, his brains blown out, or pro-/ vide the forgotten directions. I did phone, what do you think?/ Before I can blink I’m parked out front of the unbelievably small,/unlighted house. I’ve got my finger on the buried bell, nothing. For/ hours I’ve been walking around, and I hate to be the one to tell you/ this, but no one is home in Zanesville, Ohio. My dusty toothbrush/ waits for me, of this I feel quite sure, my teenage image in the/ dust-dimmed mirror waits. Only now I am afraid I’ll be forced to/ disturb the slow fine snow of dust that’s been coming down, year/ after year, on my blanket and hair, and put on my dust-covered/ clothes, and walk without making a sound, trailing my eternal/ lunar footprints down the windless hall, and down the stairs at/ last. It’s not going to happen overnight. But one of these days I’ll/ arrive; I will go down to sit with the father. The elderly father,/ strictly speaking, of never really having been there. I will sit down/ and eat my bowl of dust like all the rest.

What I applaud most is the courage that is evident. His poetry is written as if there is nothing to lose. And so it wins everything. These careful cadences are one man’s bitter love. They are also what Joseph Brodsky calls “the highest locution.”

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, celebrating her 34th year on-air with the series.

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