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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1560

First published: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997

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Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry; meditation and contemplation

Core issue(s): The divine; God; nature; recollection; soul


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 continues to be marked by, as reviewer Carol Muske put it, the “’dark stars’ that guide our fate and provide the contrast that shapes us; the shadow, the photographic’s negative, the mirror’s reversals.”

“Apologia Pro Vita Sua” is divided into three sections, followed by an “Envoi” in which Wright offers some tentative conclusions about what matters most to him at this stage in his life. The first part is a philosophic excursion regathering ideas and insights that Wright has assimilated into a philosophic overview of a cosmos he describes as a “shapeless shape of darkness.” Asserting as one of his core precepts that “Landscape’s a lever of transcendence” (with the image “The dew bead, terminal bead, opens out/ onto a great radiance” as an example of an infinitely intriguing terrain to be explored), Wright asks “St. Stone” to “say a little prayer” as an offering of assistance drawn from the divinity of the substantive world. The second section is a recollection of instances of insight, each moment linked to a specific geographic location that corresponds in an emblematic fashion to a counterpart of the human psyche. “What I remember redeems me,” Wright asserts here. The third section continues the mode of transport through inner consciousness in an exploration of the poet’s essential self, a series of queries carrying a search forward and inward. The concluding section, the “Envoi,” is an expression of acceptance, Wright observing, “I’ll take as icon and testament/ The daytime metaphysics of the natural world,” reaffirming his faith in the possibilities of profundity within the “metaquotidian landscape.”

“Apologia Pro Vita Sua” forms a frame for the volume, whose last section, “Disjecta Membra” (or “scattered parts”), is a meditation in the mode of Guido Ceronetti’s commonplace book Il silenzio del corpo (1979; The Science of the Body, 1993), which Wright notes is a compendium of “elusive, coveted and vaguely scented knowledge.” “Disjecta Membra” is designed as a means of establishing a pattern of coherence, relying on the fundamental principles of Wright’s aesthetic credo, which are epitomized by the statement near the close of the poem, “I think of landscape incessantly.”

The three sections within the frame all, in some way, attend to this guiding principle. This middle section of the book includes a group of poems linking the landscape near Charlottesville, where Wright has been a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia, with his travels in Europe. It includes several poems in which he “seances with the great dead” (including Li Ho, Robert Johnson, Giacomo Leopardi), while the fourth group moves toward the title poem, in which the volume’s central concerns are intensified and summarized. Wright’s quest for understanding in a cosmos depicted as a “Black Zodiac,” where nothing is ultimately fixed, stable, or permanent, is portrayed as “A pilgrim’s way” outlined by “a sidereal roadmap.” As he considers “Unanswerable questions, small talk/ Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments—” his ultimate wisdom is that “You’ve got to write it all down.”

Christian Themes

Throughout his writing life, Wright has made his deep and driving interest in theological issues a major focus of his poetry, expressing a belief that “the true purpose of poetry is a contemplation of the divine and its attendant mysteries.” In a revealing interview with Morgan Schuldt in 2002, he proclaimed that “Poetry is a matter of ’soul making’ as John Keats said,” and for Wright, the human soul is illuminated through the “contemplation of the divine.” In Black Zodiac, this is primarily a contemplation of landscape, the “lever of transcendence” that elevates the human above the profane. Given the disparate sources of Wright’s religious background, the poetry here depends on a search for God’s presence within every aspect of the landscape he encounters. In the opening lines of “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” Wright sees the blossoming dogwood trees doting the landscape as a “via Dolorosa,” the path Christ walked on his way to the cross, with individual trees as “part-charred cross points.” Such images link the local with the manifestation of God on earth in human affairs, leading toward this image in the third section:

The Unknown Master of the Pure Poem walks nightly among his roses,The very garden his son laid out.Every so often he sits down. Every so often he stands back up.

The wry humor of this conception—a sort of shield against the awesome implications of God’s actions—does not detract from its awareness of God’s existence. The heart of the whole volume is a record of the poet’s responses to this phenomenon, an attempt to convey in language something he feels profoundly, if somewhat abstractly. Quoting Saint Augustine with approval, the poet acknowledges that “God is neither imaginable nor conceivable, but is the ground and condition of all existence and knowledge”—thus, the image of “The Unknown Master” and the quest for evidence of the Master’s work.

That word is written in many languages, such as (in the poem “Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness”) the “cloud-ragged, cloud-skutted sky,” which Wright calls “God’s wash”; or as the “respirations of the divine,” in the poem “Lives of the Saints,” which concludes with the admonition, “God says, watch your back”; or (in “Disjecta Membra”) as an image of “God’s blue breath,” which he calls a “compulsive cameo” that is “so light on the skin, so infinite.” These, and many other images and invocations throughout the volume, testify to the presence of God, if glimpsed aslant, or through shadows. “Is this the life we long for?” Wright asks in a kind of summation in the last section of “Disjecta Membra,” and then answers, “Well, yes, I think so.” The conclusion might seem like a step down from the exalted; it is actually a characteristically subdued capstone, bringing the vivid, intense images of the divine back to the level of everyday human existence.

Sources for Further Study

  • Andrews, Tom, ed. The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1995. A wide range of essays on Wright’s work, representing many different critical perspectives and judgments.
  • Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1377.
  • Boston Globe. August 17, 1997, p. N13.
  • Library Journal. CXXII, April 15, 1997, p. 85.
  • Muske, Carol. “Guided by Dark Stars.” The New York Times, August 31, 1997. A discerning review of Black Zodiac by a fellow poet.
  • The Nation. CCLXIV, April 14, 1997, p. 27.
  • The New York Times Book Review. CII, August 31, 1997, p. 11.
  • Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, February 24, 1997, p. 84.
  • The Village Voice. April 29, 1997, p. 55.
  • The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 136.
  • Wright, Charles. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-1987. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. Illuminating comments about his art by the poet, with revealing interviews. See also the companion volume Quarternotes: Improvisations and Interviews, 1988-1995 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

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