The first time I heard Franz Wright’s voice I had no idea of the identity of the speaker. It was 7 September 2013 and the premiere of The Kilowatt Hour, a trio of Christian Fennesz, Stephan Mathieu and David Sylvian, taking place at the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway. The venue was the main screen at the local cinema: the sound system powerful and detailed, the acoustics perfect.
Weaved within the music, high in the mix, were readings in a distinctive modulating voice that was both strident and world-worn. There had been no inkling beforehand that there would be a spoken word element to the performance, so in the absence of context all one could do was give total attention to the lines narrated. At the time, the experience of hearing passages confronting mental anguish, illness and death was extremely disconcerting… shocking even. I was unprepared for it.
The final lines uttered became seared into the consciousness as the musicians exited the stage. I was left turning them over and over in my mind whilst departing the venue and then later, back at the hotel, reflecting on the day’s events.
‘Wisteria rain, where is your child-mother? This must be the last bee on earth. So, you find no more grandeur or mystery here? Perhaps you neglected to bring any. Heckling sparrows, vast electron cloud of gnats on windless water. Night blue volume in a language no one reads . . . Are we tired yet? Are you finished debating the blind who insist that light doesn’t exist, and have proof of it? Nobody’s alone. God is alone. If you liked being born, you’ll love dying.’
‘If you liked being born, you’ll love dying.’ What an extraordinary closing sentence, addressing the reality of death: bold and unabashed. How could one enjoy dying? And did I like being born? I certainly enjoy the gift the life. It’s a line to contemplate – its syntax and its implication for me, for each of us.
Having those words indelibly etched on the memory was helpful in subsequently tracking down the writer’s identity, and within days of returning home to the UK a copy of the volume containing all the pieces heard that night was in my hands – Kindertotenwald by Franz Wright.
Just as the voice was unknown when first encountered, so were the circumstances of the speaker’s life: the harsh reality that he was seriously ill with cancer at the moment those lines were uttered, the diagnosis known even before the text was published. This isn’t theoretical musing about some distant moment when life might reach its end, these are the words of a man facing the very real prospect of his own passing. Wright would lose his life to lung cancer in 2015.
As I became more familiar with this prose poem – entitled ‘Song’ – the bleakness that unsettled me on first hearing subsided and in its place I found such richness: the imagery of ‘wisteria rain’, the wry humour in the observation that a lack of grandeur found in life might just be about what one contributes, the evocation of beauty in nature (‘vast electron cloud of gnats on windless water’), the futility of intellectual arguments confined by the limitations of our own experience, and the profound mystery bound up in that last line. Is there a glimpse of redemption, even death as transcendence?
In the Kilowatt Hour performance and in David Sylvian’s subsequent recorded setting, there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight, a pool of calm is elicited just before ‘Song’ which accompanies the poet’s words to their conclusion. It’s created using the denouement from Anton Webern’s String Quartet (1905) to mesmerising effect. You will recognise the haunting musical phrase from the excerpt below:
‘I was to meet Franz in his hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts, an hour or so from my own home at that time,’ remembered David Sylvian, ‘and spent all too few hours in his company recording his readings. Franz, it has to be said, was gravely ill and stoically riding a considerable wave of heavy medication. That he took the time out to make the recording was remarkable and it turned out to be uplifting for the both of us and although Franz’s stamina, due to his condition, was limited, we managed to get enough of the readings onto disc before our time was up.’(2014)
Prompted by a previous article on their collaboration (see ‘Wintersleep/The Wall’), I found myself in correspondence with Franz’s wife, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. ‘I don’t know if Franz ever mentioned this to David Sylvian,’ she confided, ‘but ‘Darkest Dreaming‘ was practically the soundtrack to the months leading up to our wedding… that and an Eddie Vedder song were on heavy rotation.’
That was more than a decade before Sylvian would approach the writer of Kindertotenwald with the outline of an idea for working together. ‘Appreciating David’s work already, when he saw his name the memory of playing ‘Darkest Dreaming’ for weeks did get Franz’s attention,’ Beth remembers. ‘Though I’d say generally, Franz was open to collaboration. Once underway, I think he was floored by David’s genuine engagement with his poetry. From then on, the momentum between them seemed to come from plain sincerity, depth and candour that was mutual and life-affirming. Franz felt free to be himself. It had a hugely salutary ripple effect on both of us during those years when Franz’s careening health was on its way to taking everything.
‘David came down one evening to do the recordings at a studio in Waltham about a mile away. We also met his young daughter. Franz sat behind the glass and two friends we invited sat with me on the other side watching. David stood at the sound controls and Franz read each poem as requested. Then from a list kept during the recordings, David asked for specific lines to be read over. At first Franz looked at me like, “Why? Was it ok?” and I’d nod, “it’s ok, it’s fine.” Later on, David looked over at me to check if Franz was getting worn out and I nodded, “it’s ok, he’s fine.” I was struck by how David approached it – decisively, quiet, gentle pacing – seamless. His mindfulness went a long way to offset any underlying anxiety. Franz was still in high spirits by the time they wrapped up. Besides it being the once in a lifetime encounter for us, it was also a serious detour from hospital trips – the series of life and death interventions Franz had been through months earlier. It seemed to renew a vitality, even a positive regard for his work in general.
‘The Kilowatt Hour was something from afar we found amazing, difficult to comprehend was happening – to see clips online and hear Franz’s voice booming in theatres overseas. Anyway, as a by-product of this, little by little our house filled up with all of their music, and various other recommendations independent of this project. Franz became a huge Fennesz fan.’
I realise now that because I came to Wright’s work this way, his voice has always been inseparable from the work itself. There was never a time when I was reading his poems from the page in my own “internal voice”. I was fascinated then to discover that hundreds of hours of tapes existed recorded by the poet himself. Beth explains, ‘Franz began using the small hand-held tape recorder a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer when a complication made lifting his wrists impossible. Initially recording only poems, he then recited other’s poems, then read from his written notes, drafts, fragments and seeds of imagery, returning to early material, “unfinishables”, and previously published poems, finally, composing and re-composing free-form iterations of single poems with no accompanying written text. In the meantime, he kept the recorder turned on days at a time for our “rough everything…all the horse-sh*t too.” By the time he regained use of his wrists, the recordings had become an essential part of his craft. Six years later, an essential part of my life.’
I first became aware of these digital “tapes” on hearing a podcast titled Two Years with Franz by Bianca Giaever (linked at the foot of this article). Bianca describes how she was invited to document Franz and Beth’s apartment in Waltham. Circumstances dictated that Beth would need to move out and the initial idea was to capture on film the place where Franz had lived and worked: his writing space, the chaos, the notes on the walls. On a visit to the property, Beth shared some photographs of Franz on screen and that was when Giaever saw the files of audio he had recorded. These digital files were shared, even before Beth had opened them herself. For the next two years Giaever listened to the voice of a man she had never known while he lived, experiencing those last years through him. He honed poems wrought through moments of hope and despair, and confided his inner-most thoughts, often recorded in the middle of night not knowing if they would ever be heard by another living soul.
It seemed to me an act of utmost trust and openness to allow a new acquaintance to explore those recordings. ‘I found Bianca to be a gifted listener. She inspires trust. I was still under the influence of the unguarded openness of grief – not always easy to take – and she responded graciously. I think I was also still under the influence of generous abandon Franz took towards anyone who approached him sincerely compounded by the generosity of their reciprocation. Historically I think I’m more on the private side, even if anyway that preference had already evaporated in early bereavement.
‘Ideally I would have sorted them out first, but at that time I hadn’t even tried listening. The original sketch of the project was a six-minute short film of ephemera around the apartment. I had imagined the recordings playing at a low nearly inaudible volume in the background. I didn’t think I’d been able to get across to her why I was having such a hard time letting go – of our things. Primarily I had wanted her to have a chance to hear Franz by Franz. Not on stage. I think it was a few months before the podcast aired that I learned the extent obsession with the recordings had on her life and the development of the once tiny film when we talked on the phone. She was the one who kept encouraging for me to listen to them.’
One of Franz’s sayings from the podcast stuck fast with me:
‘We are created by being destroyed’
It took Beth a little longer to be ready to engage. ‘It was painful in a way I’ve never experienced, the first time I tried listening to the recordings over a year later. At first it seemed possible to do, re-discovery, a treasure cache. But then it was too much absence inside too small a presence, a little recorder, disembodied sound. Full body split-second recognition came over me that what had been Franz’s constant energised presence had now been twisted and turned inside out with only his permanent absence showing – and the emotional pain of that. The total spiritual draw flips my circuit breakers and it’s lights out. I go to bed. Then I’d hear Franz yelling in my memory in one of our conversations where he anticipated this strategy, “You can go to sleep. You can do that. But you’ll never get up!”
‘So it wasn’t for another six months or so when I took time off to live alongside Episcopal monks I had known for a decade already, in their country retreat centre, ringing the bell and doing dishes, etc. A month into their gentle sacred and mundane choreography, a chain of events led me to write a letter to Franz, by hand. Immediately I found, carried by the integrated flow of their life through the dis-integration of initial grief work, the courage to listen, on shuffle, to his voice rising up from among my songs. Once I started, I had to limit myself to ten days out of thirty. This time, Franz felt more present than absent; the past shifted to the present with the first track – a synchronicity comforting in itself — soon also familiarly challenging.’
In 2017 the writer and film-maker M.A. Littler contacted Beth ‘with a proposal of a radio play.’ During their correspondence Beth mentioned the existence of the tapes, and from this an alternative idea was born. ‘I think what it was – he liked the idea of making a film about a person who would never appear in the film. An idea along the lines of Simone Weil’s “The presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforth it is his way of appearing.”’
Last Words is the film that M.A. Littler created. Running at over two hours, the entire spoken content is taken from Franz’s digital recordings.
Visually, the film is arresting. Each scene comprises a fixed camera position capturing a place, from majestic natural landscapes to everyday urban environments. Sometimes they seem to be still photographs but then you sense low cloud moving across the mountains or the agitation of an insect. The impact of having one’s gaze fixed on a single scene for several minutes is slightly uncomfortable at first, being so different from the way we consume images in what seem to be ever decreasing cycles of attention span, but it draws you in to really listen to what is being said. Everything is rendered in monochrome, ‘nature rapturous enough to leave colour to memory’ is Beth’s perfect description.
‘Marc chose black and white. I think it’s kind of a signature. He was also the one to frame the recordings, match them with the images and soundscape. Before any footage existed, I selected the recordings in blocks in my “preferred” order with only a few non-negotiable sequences. He told me at first he tried making a more literal connection with the images linking them biographically but was disappointed with the results. After that I understand he worked more intuitively. Some visuals were connected to Franz or to us in ways he had no awareness of. I felt the long-shot, real-time still scenes were perfect. The scene goes on just long enough that I lose all sense of manipulation, design or other-intelligence pulling strings behind-the-curtain. It brings my attention into “what is”, the present moment, without it having to stand for anything — even if it happens to. And for me this unclutters my thoughts and opens up deep listening.’
Selecting the material was a profound experience. ‘I was living alone in my first seven-month winter in the mountains, curating a selection for the film from the hours of recordings. I wanted to hear and comprehend every syllable and every possible nuance. I was able to become fully immersed and experienced just how visceral voice is – I don’t think disembodied is accurate. I think it’s true, from how I responded physiologically, voice is of the body and a body unto itself.’
The film takes us beside Franz as he faces serious illness and the reality of his own mortality. It’s not an easy place in which to dwell; at times being this close is troubling. As the trailer says, we are ‘listening to a man saying goodbye.’ Interviewed in 2014, Wright said, ‘There’s so much that’s beautiful about life. For all of the horrors and the f*cking ugliness of the world, there’s so much beauty. Now, especially when I know I have a terminal disease, the imminence of death makes… I mean, the poignancy of everything is almost unbearable. It’s just too much sometimes.’
That poignancy is almost overwhelming when first viewing Last Words. Passages jump out and confront you…
‘I don’t think I want to go to heaven. If there is a heaven awaiting me. I have loved the earth and I will spend eternity missing the earth if I am imprisoned in heaven without you. Or hell. It will be hell. It is very confusing. I don’t understand it all.’
The more I watch the film, even amongst the pain and brokenness, the moments of hope and affirmation are what strike me most.
‘I know that I am very sick and I must try to get well. It’s simple. I have to get well so I can do my work. It’s the only thing of value…I had something to do while I was alive that was of value.’
‘The poem, what does it mean to me?…it is the resolution of the chaos of my life.’
‘if I have a pen and a notebook, I am in contact with another world’
‘the opposite of fear is a poem’
‘As much as possible I tried to keep the cuts identical to Franz’s, to avoid chopping them into neat sound bites,’ says Beth. ‘It was only real reality, – imperfection, his “unfinishables”, fragments – their particular kind of authenticity, the intimacy and depth that had any power to reach me in grief. I listened to everything without grasping onto anything in order to let an order emerge. On the whole what emerged you could broadly call legacy and meditation on the afterlife, so — one’s questions and contribution beginning to end, with words, what and whom one is leaving being the thread.’
That phrase ‘legacy and meditation on the afterlife’ takes me back to ‘Song’ and its dumbfounding final line. Franz described it as being one of those pieces ‘I really could not tell you what I meant by them, I don’t know, and could not paraphrase them. They were simply given to me that way, and I didn’t ask questions, I wrote them down’ (2011). Beth told me that for her, ‘‘Song’ is both familiar and mysterious, so up to now I’ve just enjoyed kind of…singing it. I hear the poem say a few aggrieved things about the loneliness of creating – the longing to turn somewhere else for inspiration, finding it nowhere and winding back around to it being whatever you have, to bring. Then what to make of all the detractors and distractions, within and without. Seeking perspective. Think of how God feels…like that.’
Franz Wright’s work and the film Last Words can take me closer to the darkness than I am comfortable to be. I’m grateful to have been jolted from my own comfort zone, to confront aspects of life I prefer to put to the back of my mind, and yet to discover that hope can be found even in what seem to be the most desperate of situations. Redemption through the creative process and even in the anticipation of what is to come.
‘If you should find my body dead, when you come home, please let your own poor body have its say of tears, but keep in mind my body is not me, and I am not dead. Your body weeping is not you. And there is no time here where I am. You will be here in a moment. With me. Hand in hand I will know the touch of your hand as we fly across the world, as we sleep listening to the rain forever.’
Beth told me about one of the last things that Franz wrote, just two weeks before his death. ‘We’d been sitting on our porch it was just beginning to feel like Spring. We were talking about imperfections that Islamic weavers work into their cloth intentionally so as not to presume to rival the divine creator’s handiwork… which led us to the idea of three strings in a braid, three strings in a guitar chord… and this, which is one extra string and so intentionally imperfect…
Music composed by David Sylvian
Recorded and produced by David Sylvian, from there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight, samadhisound, 2014
Franz Wright’s ‘Song’ taken from the volume Kindertotenwald, © 2011 Franz Wright, recorded by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House llc.
The film Franz Wright: Last Words from Slowboat films is available for on-demand hire or purchase here.
A chapbook of readings from the film (in English and German) is available in a limited edition of 100 from the publisher here.
The soundscape to Last Words from Port de la Selva is available here.
Bianca Giaever’s podcast Two Years with Franz can be heard here.
My sincere thanks to Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright for her generous contribution to this article. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here.
The featured image is by photographer Nicholas Hughes, from the series In Darkness Visible, from which the cover image for there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight is also taken.
Download links: there’s a light... (iTunes)
Physical media links: there’s a light… (Amazon)
Books: Kindertotenwald by Franz Wright (Amazon)
‘I’ve really never totally despaired. I always had this little flicker of a belief that there was a possibility of some grace entering into my life.’ Franz Wright, 2014