When I knew I would write about Franz Wright’s new collection of prose poems, Kindertotenwald, I wrote to my German friend Thilo von Debschitz, whose English is decidedly better than my German, to ask him how he understood the title. Kinder was easy–the plural of children. But the rest of the compound was harder. Thilo wrote: “Totenwald is the Wald (forest) of the Toten (death people). And as a linguistic sequence, it really gives the impression of a nightmare because in my inner eyes I see deathly pale kids lying in the dark woods.”

Thilo’s impression of the title captures the feel of Wright’s book. It has the sense of nightmare, is filled with the weird precision and inexplicable jumps of dreams, and is both frightening and sometimes humorous in a dark and troubling way.

Wright has been working for a long time to craft poems in which each word carries evocative weight. His words and lines often fall next to others that seem to bear no relationship to them, yet together they craft an emotional whole–sometimes even a nuanced statement about the largest issues (death, God, survival in the face of suffering). His recent books have been small masterpieces of demanding but provocative verse. One, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. (Wright and his father, James Wright, are the only father-son combination ever to win our biggest literary prize in the same genre.)

Wright has adapted the prose poem, a form that often works best to capture the dream life, to his particular vision. Some of his poems are genuine nightmares that call up images of family and history that preoccupy us all; some are ironic comments on literary life; and others are weird little narratives that remind us of Kafka, Beckett, or even Edgar Allan Poe.

A poem titled “The Last Person in Purgatory” begins: “It seems to be getting a little darker each day. No doubt there are now too few people on earth who believe in its existence to provide the power required to keep the place running …” And since no one any longer believes in purgatory, the speaker thinks, it must have few inhabitants; perhaps he is the only one left, wandering the netherworld forever without companionship or hope. He ends: “What else are you going to do? And wondering, not for the first time, if I have simply been forgotten. I am having great trouble with this. If I have been forgotten, if I have been left here and forgotten.”

Franz Wright reads from Kindertotenwald at Copper Colored Mountain Arts on September 23.