Black Zodiac Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Charles Wright’s extensive and informative discussions of the shape and structure of poetry—his own and the work of the artists he admires—are an indication of the importance of these elements for him, but at least as important is his emphasis on the spiritual dimensions of a poem. In one of the first entries in “Improvisations on Form and Measure” (which he published in 1987 as an explanation of his aesthetic intentions in the form of a series of brief statements and quotations), he declared, “Form is nothing more than a transubstantiation of content.” This assertion forms a gloss on a familiar theme that combined the linguistic invention, which is a central feature of his work, with a vocabulary redolent with religious implications. Several entries later, again casting formal concerns within a religious context, he states, “Each line should be a station of the cross.”

These assertions seem to derive from a traditional Catholic foundation, but Wright has considerably complicated this impression with his observation that he “was formed by the catechism in Kingsport [Tennessee], the evangelical looniness at Sky Valley Community in North Carolina, and by songs and hymns,” and through his juxtaposition of High Renaissance depictions of religious icons (derived from the work of Dante Alighieri and other European classical masters) with the gospel music of American legends such as the Carter family, near Kingsport. Calling their music “God-haunted, salvation-minded and evangelical,” and identifying its theme as “death, loss, resurrection, salvation,” Wright has, in his poetry, developed a distinctly personal version of a powerful spiritual vision from seemingly disparate components.

The poems in his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Black Zodiac form a polished, nuanced expression of this vision. The volume is divided into five sections, beginning with the classic “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” in which the poet accepts as a matter of being that “The love of God is the loneliest thing I know of,” wondering “Who can distinguish darkness from the dark, light from light.” The poems are designed as an exploration of a cosmos that has come into existence through a divine verbal declaration of light, but a cosmos that remains wreathed in shadow and darkness, its outlines and substance often obscure and untenable. “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” serves as an explanation, after the well-known poem of the same title by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), for an individual’s progress on a spiritual journey, a journey that...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)