cover image The Beforelife

The Beforelife

Franz Wright. Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (96pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41154-0

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""; "" 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)