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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2147

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.”

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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 life is the darkened life.” Wright continually uses a dualistic vision, so if the still point cannot be found, its opposite, a forgetful oblivion, is evoked as a via negativa that is a stage on the spiritual journey.

The third part of the book is made up of some fine lyrics and two sequences, “Lives of the Saints” and “Lives of the Poets.” In “Umbrian Dreams,” Wright contrasts the landscape of Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Umbrian sackcloth.” He dreams of a “mythic body,” like Irish poet William Butler Yeats, but that dream and a “white” landscape “flickered and went out.” The ending, however, is a moment of vision:

So weightless the light, so stretched and pained,
It seems to ooze, and then not ooze, down from that one hurt.
You doubt it? Look. Put your finger there. No, there. You see?

The vision of light comes out of that “hurt,” and the involvement of the reader in what has been an individual search is convincing and compelling.

“Lives of the Artists” is the better sequence in this part. It has the same images of light; here it is the “unidentified bird on a limb, lung-light not of this world.” Yet it also has the practical advice of the masters, such as Michelangelo’s “learn how to model before you learn how to finish things.” The “word” is evoked once more, but it is qualified: “Don’t give the word to everyone” and “the true word/ Is the word about the word.” The poem ends, however, with the “sins of the uninformed” that are the shame of their teachers. The focus again is on the masters. Poem “4” deals with landscape and with “belief in something beyond belief” that is solidified by the image of blossoms falling “through the two worlds.” With that affirmation pronounced, the poet defines our role as writing in the margins of the sacred text “whose one story we tell, and keep on telling.”

“Deep Measure” has a barren landscape, the “Shank of the afternoon, a wan weight-light,/ Undercard of a short month,/ February Sunday.” Humans may be forced to play the cards they are dealt, but Wright’s “hand says measure.” The landscape does embody that measure; it is “Deep measure,/ deep measure that runnels beneath the bone.” The role for the seeker is again redefined: “Pilgrim, homeboy of false time,/ Listen and set your foot down,/ listen and step lightly.” Wright’s spiritual search in these poems is serious, but there is a refreshing humor in his acknowledgment of the necessity of a resting place in seeking the absolute.

The fourth part of the book is made up of six lyrics. “Jesuit Graves” is the first of these, and it describes the Jesuit graves in a section of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. Their lives and final resting place are “strict” and “self-effacing.” One of those graves, however, belongs to English poet Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, another of Wright’s masters. The “self-effacing” grave of the others is not suited for Hopkins, who is called here “Father Bird-of-Paradise.” The poem ends by distinguishing Hopkins from the others: “But you, Father Candescence? You, Father Fire?/ Whatever rises comes together, they say. They say.” So there is a union of Hopkins with the others if, as they say, everything that rises must converge.

The title poem of the book, “Black Zodiac,” is, appropriately, a central one. The poem begins in memory and then contrasts the frustrated seeker with the believers who can cast off the flesh in this life, the “twice-erased.” The “unexamined life’s no different from/ the examined life.” One’s role, then, is to “write it all down,” to record the quotidian and the illumination; the act itself is necessary, even in the midst of God’s sleep. The poem goes back to despair and premonitions of death. In death, however, “What letters will we illuminate?” The last part of the poem turns to prayer and then the landscape, which is dominated by rain. In that rain, “the necessary word” is clarified for the seeker: “Autumn’s upon us./ The rain fills our narrow beds./ Description’s an element, like air or water./ That’s the word.” The union of landscape and the word, and the announcement of that union by the poet, are simple and ecstatic. Description is not a mere poetic technique but an “element” that is one of the building blocks of the universe.

The fifth part of the book is a sequence called “Disjecta Membra.” It functions as a denouement after the climax of “Black Zodiac.” The advice to the seeker in this part is simple and prudential. For example, in poem “1” the speaker is ordered to “Simplify, open the emptiness, divest.” At the same time, however, “What nurtures us denatures us and will strip us down.” Since death is “the secret of life,” we are urged to accept it: “Sit tight and hold on.”

Poem “2” continues the prudential wisdom, although it is more specifically rooted in the language of prayer: “Lord of the broken oak branch,/ Lord of the avenues,/ Tweak and restartle me, guide my hand.” It is interesting that God is the Lord of “the broken oak branch” rather than the burning bush, and the poet asks that deity to “restartle” him, to reawaken him to the world that is before him.

Poem “3” ends in winter and “white light.” The poet goes back to questioning the place of humans in the natural world. He asks, “Is this the life we long for,/ to be at ease in the natural world?” In contrast to the earlier rejection of being merely natural, now to be at ease in nature is the desired state. With that acceptance, Wright evokes some advice from his father-in-law: “Take a loose rein and a deep seat.” At the end of the poem, that is enough.

Black Zodiac is a strongly unified book of poems. Every poem in the book is directly connected to the major theme of spiritual transcendence. The book also has a seasonal and an emotional movement, as the poet-speaker moves from spring to winter and from melancholy to acceptance. Wright has been writing on this theme for a number of years. What can possibly follow? He cannot complete the spiritual search because, if he does, it would be beyond language. When an interviewer asked him what he was trying to say, Wright replied, “What I’m trying to say is—I just don’t know what I’m trying to say. I think if I knew what I was trying to say, I’d say it and stop.” He might attempt a long poem, a DantesqueParadisio, but his bent is lyric rather than epic. In addition, a Paradisiowould need a Beatrice in the landscape in addition to himself. It is noteworthy that Wright is the only figure in the landscape in this and in his other books of poems. The other people that he mentions, such as his parents, are dead or are only memories. The lone figure meditating on the eternal in a changing landscape is very American, and a reader of these poems would not wish Wright to move away from such fruitful and diverse meditation, whatever future shape it takes.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1377.

Boston Globe. August 17, 1997, p. N13.

Library Journal. CXXII, April 15, 1997, p. 85.

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.

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