Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1441
Charles Wright’s Appalachia completes a poetic trilogy that began withChickamauga (1995) and continued with Black Zodiac (1997), which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The trilogy, actually Wright’s third, can be viewed as the culmination of his career, a career marked by numerous other awards. Appalachia shows again why Wright is generally considered one of America’s leading contemporary poets, although not all reviewers have cared for his characteristic style and themes. The important point is that enthusiastic reviewers (the majority) and those less enthusiastic have recognized and reacted to the same thing—Wright’s distinctive voice, which is both of his time and not of his time.
In some ways, Wright’s style is the epitome of laid-back postmodernism. His poems tend to be loose collages of images, allusions, and ideas. Since he often repeats the same themes and strategy from poem to poem—look at a landscape and think of time, death, and maybe God—the images, allusions, and ideas seem almost interchangeable. The different poems give the impression of being variations of the same work in progress. This impression of loose, repetitious form is emphasized by free-verse lines that usually carry across the page, that sometimes break down to the next level, and that are grouped in short segments of the poem. Wright also offends linguistic purists by jauntily mixing levels of discourse, juxtaposing popular culture and expressions with serious intellectual fare, as illustrated by some of his titles: “Autumn’s Sidereal, November’s a Ball and Chain,” “Giorgio Morandi and the Talking Eternity Blues,” and “After Rereading Robert Graves, I Go Outside to Get My Head Together.” As these titles also illustrate, Wright does not scruple to use a cliché, even outdated ones: “God is the fire my feet are held to,” “keep on keeping on,” “[h]ow few and how far between,” and “hubba-hubba.”
Naturally, a few reviewers have found Wright’s style prosy, but his rich mix of images, allusions, ideas, and levels of discourse gives his work tension and density not found in prose. Yet his style remains flexible enough to move with ease and suddenness from the mundane to the spiritual. He can also suddenly turn on an image: “Sunlight suffused like a chest pain across the tree limbs”; “As leaves fall from the trees, the body falls from the soul”; “. . . my body snug in my life/ As a gun in its carrying case”; and “Eternity puddles up.” Finally, in his style Wright has succeeded in capturing the American vernacular. Such a smart-alecky mixing of levels of discourse is quintessentially American, and it fits right in with Wright’s title: In Appalachia, such linguistic freedom is favored as a sign of independence, verbal agility, and perspective. While Wright is not from Appalachia (he was born in western Tennessee), he has lived in close enough proximity to pick up on the practice, which at any rate is common throughout American society.
His style, then, makes Wright an American spokesperson for his time. What is most impressive about Wright, however, is that even with this laid-back style, in the midst of a time when the media have trivialized thought, he has held onto a sense of the timeless, the spiritual. He can go from his backyard to the big issues in a moment, somewhat like a contemporary Plato explaining the eternal forms or Immanuel Kant discussing the noumena. In Wright’s thinking, there is “the secret landscape behind the landscape we look at here,” and “[t]he body inside the body is the body I want to come to. . . .” As Wright acknowledges, “[t]he dregs of the absolute are slow sift in my blood. . . .” Some of the inspiration for Wright’s thinking can be seen in his allusions and in a page of notes at the end, where, along with references to Bob Dylan and Mac Wiseman, he lists such sources as Simone Weil, Martin Buber, and Thomas Merton.
Wright’s thinking is not dogmatic but inquiring, a search: He reflects the modern dilemma of facing time and death in an age of religious disbelief. Wright cannot seem to decide whether or not God is dead. He says it is so several times, but in other places he speaks as if God exists. Time and death, however, remain certainties, as evidenced in the succession of months and seasons described in Appalachia. Against time, one can shore up very little:
It’s all so pitiful, really, the little photographs
Around the room of places I’ve been,
And me in them, the half-read books, the fetishes, this
Tiny arithmetic against the dark undazzle.
Death would seem to be even worse, a total dissolution of self.
Yet in the very mystery of death there is hope. No one knows what lies on “the other side,” as Wright calls it. Much of Appalachia is an exploration of possibilities of “the other side” that is posited on the existence of a realm beyond the material. In the ages of religion, this realm was clearly mapped; in the modern world, however, it can only be intuited or known indirectly through language and material evidence. The saints and mystics whom Wright studies rely on the first method, intuition, but their method is too rigorous for Wright: “Only perfection is sufficient, Simone Weil says./ Whew. . . / Not even mercy or consolation can qualify.” Instead, as a poet Wright relies first on language, especially a set of analogies, and then on the material world that supplies the analogies: “What mask is the mask behind the mask/ The language wears and the landscape wears, I ask myself.” ThroughoutAppalachia, Wright carries on a running debate with the mystics about which method is most effective.
For mystics, the spiritual realm is beyond the reach of language. Conceding that language consists of “[s]ad word wands, desperate alphabet,” Wright sums up his and the mystics’ positions as follows:
Still, there’s been no alternative
Since language fell from the sky,
Though mystics have always said that communication is languageless.
And maybe they’re right.—
the soul speaks and the soul receives.
Small room for rebuttal there . . .
In turn, Wright finds the mystics’ spiritual trance unappealing:
Some dead end—no one to tell it to,
nothing to say it with.
That being the case, I’d like to point out this quince bush,
Quiescent and incommunicado in winter shutdown.
I’d like you to notice its long nails
And skeletal underglow.
As these lines indicate, the dormant quince bush provides a small example of the analogy on which Wright rests his case.
Wright develops his case at length in Appalachia, especially in two series of poems entitled “The Appalachian Book of the Dead” and “Opus Posthumous.” There are six poems altogether entitled “The Appalachian Book of the Dead,” which is an obvious allusion to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of ancient writings centered around the theme of immortality, of new life rising out of death like the lotus plant warmed by the breath of Ra. The analogy still applies in the succession of months and seasons described in Appalachia and seems to be confirmed by the “Opus Posthumous” poems that end each section of the book. The analogy is also suggested constantly in imagery. “April eats from my fingers”; people are “hardy perennials” with “knotty egos like bulbs”; “. . . the gates of the arborvitae/ The gates of mercy look O look they feed from my mouth”; “All forms of landscape are autobiographical.”
In several poems, Wright spends quality time lying on his back contemplating the heavenly bodies, but for the most part he finds the source of his analogy closer to home, in the landscape. The Blue Ridge, which stretches up and down the Appalachians like a spine, rises impressively just west of Charlottesville, where Wright lives and teaches at the University of Virginia. It is this landscape that most often inspires Wright’s work, though he also finds inspiration in the Apennines, which form the backbone of Italy. The misty Blue Ridge also is a link to the ancient Chinese poets to whom Wright alludes; they too anchored their work in spectacular mountain landscapes and focused on the spiritual. Traditionally, mountains have been thought of as closer to the divine: God met Moses halfway on Mt. Sinai, the Greek gods lived on Mt. Olympus, and West Virginia is almost heaven. Wright’s continuing search for this realm makes him a poet to be read and valued.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCV, November 1, 1998, p. 466.
The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLV, September 18, 1998, p. B10.
Kirkus Reviews. November 15, 1998.
Library Journal. CXXIII, October 1, 1998, p. 94.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, September 28, 1998, p. 95.
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