A Short History of the Shadow Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his later sixties Charles Wright surveys his worlds, outer and inner, with courage and philosophical wit. Having earned many of his prizes—the National Book Award (1983), the Ruth Lilly Prize (1993), the Pulitzer Prize (1998)—relatively late in his career, he embodies the figure of poet as sage. However, the wisdom comes naturally, almost trippingly, to a poet essentially Romantic. There is a preserved youthfulness and idealism in his sensibility which rises to the surface of his darkest meditations. In the midst of this collection, in the long poem “Night Rider,” he exclaims “O Something be with me, time is short,” but near the end Wright consoles himself in “Body and Soul” with the following:

I used to imagine that word-sway and word-thunder Would silence the Silence and all that, That words were the Word, That language could lead us inexplicably to grace, As though it were geographical. I used to think these things when I was young. I still do

It is his own gift that saves him from despair; the poet saves the man. In the opening section, “Looking Around,” Wright is the proverbial poet-as-dog, circling his spot before sitting down. He is not at peace with himself or the world but assumes a vantage point, a resting place where thought and feeling can take hold: “Caught in the weeds and understory of our own lives,/ Bad weather, bad dreams./ Proper attention is our refuge now, our perch and our praise.”

Attention to nature and the conflicting emotions that rise from introspection do not guarantee deliverance from depression. Nevertheless, the very nature of poetic contemplation is such that poesis, the crafting power of language, lifts the poet into a transforming world where all that is turbulent and dark in nature and the mind settles into the serenity of art. Wright uses the simile of the triptych as an analog for figurative language itself, and he is a master of the stunning trope, metaphor, or simile. Eschewing rhyme and constantly varying stanza and line, Wright repeatedly astonishes the reader with the freshness and revelatory power of his figures. They are always the result of intensive observation, usually of natural phenomena, but they are often so strikingly original that they seem to speak for a higher vision, an eerie power to touch the nerve centers of reality. With characteristic humility Wright credits his mentors in poetry—from Renaissance Italian Dante to twentieth century Russian Osip Mandelstam—with precisely the poetic skill that he himself has brought to unique perfection, using similes not to describe but to “Expos[e] the inner image of the structure’s force.”

“Looking Around” closes with Wright meditating on the landscape of his mountain retreat. With high simplicity he coins a brilliant simile (trees are likened to ears), an “inner image” that unlocks the force of the landscape’s structure and invites a spirituality “as radiant in its disregard” as the “medieval triptych.” The art of poetry enables language to go beyond the mere description of nature to the paradise at its core. “Looking Around” is the prologue to an internalized lyrical drama. The first act is entitled “Millennium Blues”—a somewhat flippant title for what it lays out. The poet’s somber state of mind derives small comfort from nature’s cyclical self-assurance:

Morning arrives and that’s it.
Sunlight darkens the earth
Nature keeps rediscovering the springs of life, but humanity cannot escape the signature of
death that nature herself has stamped on its brow:
We all have death’s birthmark on our faces,
sometimes red, sometimes unseeable

Nevertheless, the poet senses that nature will not let him go. In the very act of charging his mind with thoughts of death, nature keeps confronting him with the unrelenting experience of time. With the demands of the “days” in all their serial persistence comes another call, no less a task master. The poet must find a place for “Lost Language” (the title of a poem at the center of “Millenium Blues”). Words will not let Wright off the hook. The teeming thoughts in the poet’s mind, buoyed up by the play of words, must have their release. The sunlight that “darkens the earth” in a previous poem is now “Sunlight thin as Saran Wrap/ . . . One lives one’s life in the word.” The word is not just the result of the mind’s free associations and irrepressible wit; it is also the beneficiary of memory in all its forms—from nostalgia to remorse. Memory wards off the inevitability of death by opening up doors to the infinity of the past. “Boundless” memory can also be frustrating and full of “ghost whispers, lost voices”; although the only thing one needs to find is poetry, poetry is nonetheless “hard to find.” “Millennium Blues” ends on a despairing note: “The song of the north wind fills our...

(The entire section is 2014 words.)