Redemption found after great loss

Franz Wright spent years battling depression and substance abuse, searching for the father who abandoned him

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When Franz Wright was awarded this year's Pulitzer, he won more than poetry's most prestigious honor. He also managed, in some small way, to form a lasting bond with his father, James, who died in 1980.

Now the two men, both Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, are linked in ways they never were when the elder Wright was alive.

This adds to the poignancy of "Walking to Martha's Vineyard," a haunting book that illustrates how deep the chasm was between father and son. It would have been easier, as the title suggests, for Franz to walk across the water than to heal the wounds caused when James abandoned his young family.

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This sense of loss colors many poems in Wright's 16th collection. The author keeps looking back over his life, trying to fill the void created by his father's absence. He writes in "Flight":

If I'm walking the streets of a city
covering every square inch of the continent
all its lights out
and empty of people,
even then
you are there...
Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely
star-far from the person right next to me....

James Wright died when Franz was 25, causing another painful break. Franz sought solace in drugs and alcohol, and struggled with addiction for years. He also battled mental illness, living for a time on the streets.

Then, in 1999, Wright converted to Roman Catholicism. This change saved his life, as the poems in "Walking" make clear:

Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the
sane; thank You for letting me know what this is
like....

God does give Wright some of what his human father did not. But redemption is always a work in progress: "If You can make a star from nothing You can raise me up," he writes. Over and over Wright tells himself that he has been saved, as if he wants to savor the fact, or still can't believe it.

Even if one suspects the latter, there is still great pleasure to be found in his crisp lines and tight imagery. Wright has a gift for suggesting another level of reality, something spiritual and hidden that others can't see:

The church is a ship in the brightening snowstorm;
shafts of light falling in through blue windows. It's almost night and starting to get light!

"Walking" is a moving collection, partly because Wright struggles so hard to maintain his equilibrium. The reader almost wants to pray on his behalf.

At the same time, though, she wonders what Wright has left out of many poems. How, for example, did he find God? What would he add to his shorter poems, the ones that try so hard to reach a tidy, upbeat conclusion?

The collection ends on a surprising note when Wright, who has clung so tightly to his demons, suddenly writes as the voice of God. "I do not condemn you," he says in "The Only Animal."

The reader wants to believe this revelation, but wonders how Wright reached such a turning point. There isn't enough foreshadowing earlier in the poem - or the collection - to justify such a major psychological shift.

The book would be stronger if there were more complex moments. That way the reader would celebrate Wright for the journey he has walked, not just for where he says he has been.

Elizabeth Lund covers poetry for the Monitor. For more in-depth features, go to www.csmonitor.com/specials/poetry.

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