Black Zodiac is an impressively constructed sequence of poems by one of the finest contemporary American poets. This book of poems follows Wright’s highly praised Chickamauga (1995) and shows no diminution of power, but a clearer focus and, in some ways, a deeper concentration. The poems are linked by common themes: The poet is in his sixties, racked by melancholy and thoughts of death and loss, and searching for that “small, still center of everything.”
The first part of the book is a sequence entitled “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” an allusion to the memoir of nineteenth century English theologian Cardinal John Newman; Wright’s poem is, however, more an arraignment of his life than a defense. It is divided into three sections and an envoi. The melancholy of the poet-speaker is very clear, and he extends it to “we” who have “come to road’s end.” Spring is just beginning—and the book is structured by the passage of the seasons—but this spring brings no comfort. It is “Spring’s via Dolorosa/ flashed out in dread profusion.” Transcendence is a possibility, but who will “step forward”? The past is metaphorically compared to “clouds,” but that will not “resurrect or redeem us” either. The section ends with time, which is both our destroyer and our “only-begetter.” There is “light” in the dandelions, but “more work to be/ done.” The first section sets the theme and tone for the larger unit, but it is incomplete, awaiting some resolution.
The second section continues with the melancholy. The speaker contrasts it to scenes from his past: his joy as a boy playing golf, watching a fellow camper go off to a sexual experience. Yet this too darkens as a return to Paris brings with it rain and more darkness. The last of the narrative episodes is also a negative one: Wright and a friend are working as collectors of bad debts on cemetery plots. This section is also incomplete: “Some afternoon, or noon, it will all be over. Not this one.”
The third section deals primarily with memory: “What I remember redeems me.” Nevertheless, the speaker has fallen into forgetfulness. The ending does, however, come closer to an affirmation: “Affection’s the absolute/ everything rises to.” Wright defines his desired spiritual state in a number of ways: It is usually connected to light images, to stillness, and here to human “affection.” This is a variation in Wright’s approach; in a number of earlier poems, love is seen as an obstruction to the spiritual search.
The poem ends with an envoi that finally overcomes the melancholy and near-despair. It begins with negative aspects of life, which are then contrasted to the instinct and sureness of the animals: “What happens is what happens,/ And what happened to happen never existed to start with.” He rejects mere instinct, asking, “who wants a life like that?” Acceptance then replaces the questioning and uncertainty that have underlain the melancholy: “As for me, I’ll take whatever wanes,/ The loosening traffic on the straightaway, the dark and such.” In a brilliant metaphor he compares this acceptance to the breaking down of the paint in the paintings of American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder. The poem ends with a reconciliation of the spiritual and the particulars of landscape: “I’ll take as icon and testament/ The daytime metaphysics of the natural world,/ Sun on post, rock on rock.” Wright’s poetry is a compelling mixture of the spiritual and the everyday, and the last line embodies the union of those elements, although the details of landscape are always the “base.”
The second part of the book is made up of separate but thematically linked lyrics. The two meditations in this part are the most compelling poems. In “Meditation on Form and Measure” the affirmation and definition come in Wright’s familiar terms: “Time and light are the same thing somewhere behind our backs./ And form is measure . . . and form is splendor.” It is as full an expression of unity as readers are likely to get in Wright, and it owes a great deal to Ezra Pound since it uses his key images. The poem then speaks of how we “pattern ourselves against the dead.” There is a continual dialogue in Wright between him and his lost family, the poet and his lost poetic mentors. The poem ends with images of light, in this case the stars: “My life, like others’ lives, has been circumscribed by stars.” The speaker then connects himself to the light images and one of his dead masters: “Tonight I take it again, that I, like Leopardi, might/ One day immerse myself in its cold, Lethean shine.” The images have been reversed; the union with light is “cold” and the comfort is in Lethean forgetfulness.
“Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness” is much more negative in defining the speaker’s situation. He is caught in a routine with the “pill” and the “eye drops,” followed by night and “then back to the black beginning.” His masters are now Candide and Tiberius rather than the great affirmers and mentors of the past such as Dante. The “last lights go out,” and the poet is left with a bare paradox: “To be separate, to be apart, is to be whole again./ Full night now and dust sheet—/ the happy...
(The entire section is 2147 words.)