Charles Wright Wright, Charles (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright, Charles 1935–

Wright is an American poet. His self-professed poetic concerns are with the "half-truths and fictions of the American Dream." His poetry is characterized by a catalogue-like rush of imagery, producing a dazzling kaleidoscopic effect. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

John N. Morris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Wright's books seem to be coming fast now, perhaps too fast: in 1973 Hard Freight and here, early in 1975, Bloodlines. I think it has to be said that Bloodlines is not quite so sustained a performance as Hard Freight was …, and perhaps the reader new to Wright should begin with that earlier elegy upon and qualified celebration of "The infinite rectitude / Of all that is past," that series of forward journeys backward "always into the earth." In Bloodlines, to be sure, much is much the same, as in the phrase "the clouds, those mansions of nothingness," which so clearly remembers "The clouds, great piles of oblivion." And I seem to recall from both The Grave of the Right Hand (his first book) and Hard Freight the largely mystifying private iconography of shoes, gloves, hats and hands that one encounters here. Indeed, not only in particular but in general, the manner here is much as before (and nothing wrong with that), a matter of making connections that are bizarre and appropriate at once.

Though I think that in Bloodlines Wright cares a little less than he used to do that that appropriateness be (however mysterious) immediately apparent. It seems sometimes that his devices leave us a little too much to our own. But this is quibbling. The pleasure this book affords has much to do with Wright's old clarities and graces…. (p. 453)

I confess that I was at first put off by both ["Skins" and "Tattoos," the principal] sequences. As...

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Carol Muske

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright himself is a contentious presence [in Bloodlines]…. He is on the move. His poems fairly explode from the page in hurly-burly refrain, elliptical syntax, and giddy shifts that recall Hopkins:

          Sucked in and sucked out, tidewash
          Hustles its razzamatazz across the cut lips
          of coral, the thousands of tiny punctures
          Spewing and disappearing….
                                             (p. 117)

Wright is a sped-up silent flick, these poems are ways out of ourselves, ways to accomplish "the getaway by the light of yourself," ways to dream the page, then disappear. Wright invites comparison with the cinematic: some poems have a grainy, pointillist texture, particularly the "memory sequences"—flickering home movies with a hand-held camera. There is something "inhuman, something you can't know" in beauty and the poet does not want to dwell too long anywhere, or move too close to the mystery—home is "what you keep making." Wright's a perennial tenant—moves in and out of every temporary shelter he creates.

These poems are forward-looking, light-seeking, if not exactly optimistic. But the labor is away from dark and the poet does know the darkness…. (p. 118)

Close [to despair], but not close enough to succumb, he moves through the dilemma of the past, the debris of memory, sidestepping the ruins. (p. 119)

Begin again is his lesson—and regret becomes narrative, reminiscence, Wright flexing his muscles before tightening the spring and moving on again. He is already into the story, deeper into language itself, its changing promise and intelligence. He is sequestered in a fullblown and recognizable style. (pp. 119-20)

Wright's [genius] is to stand in the light till his words catch fire, acquire patina, then reflect the sun on their own. (p. 120)

Carol Muske, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring-Summer, 1976.

Kathleen Agena

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Charles Wright's poems work, which is most of the time, the poetic energies seem to break the membrane of syntax, exploding the surface, reverberating in multiple directions simultaneously. It is not a linear progression one finds but rather a ricocheting, as if, at the impact of a single cue, all the words bounced into their pockets, rearranged, and displaced themselves in different directions all over again. And it seems to happen almost by accident, as if Wright simply sets the words in motion and they, playing a game according to their own rules, write the poem. Certainly Wright is aware of this strange power of words; all three of his books contain poems which, strictly speaking, refer only to words and their maneuverings. (pp. 625-26)

Oval, oval oval oval push pull push pull …
Words unroll from our fingers.
A splash of leaves through the windowpanes,
A smell of tar from the streets:
Apple, arrival, the railroad, shoe.
(p. 626)

One reads a poem like "Tattoos 12" and the first response is "that felt good!"; and only later … "what happened?" Of course Wright's poems are not without "sense," not without conceptual-symbolic dimensions, but it is the sense of primal consciousness, the sense of paradox and multiplicity almost, one might say, a syntax of eroticism—that binds these words and their meanings. Or, to use Lacan's terminology, it is "the letter in the unconscious," which, though it may oppose conscious purpose, is never arbitrary…. So in the afterglow of the initial reading one can go back and, unwinding the words from their embrace, realize, for example, that the reason "oval oval oval oval" works so well with "push, pull" is that an oval is a circle which has been squeezed, "pushed," or elongated, "pulled," at two points, that oval is the transcendent ease of the perfect equilibrium of the circle being subjected to pressure. The oval is also an egg, birth, the push and pull of form coming into existence. And what do "apple, arrival, the railroad, shoe" have to do with each other? Is this just perverse eroticism at work again? No, there is meaning in the apparent madness. All the words are related to movement—the "apple" to the movement toward knowledge, the expulsion from grace, the fall into the limits of temporal existence and guilt. With "apple" in the first slot and "arrival, the railroad, shoe" functioning as substitutions thereafter, the series together carries meanings of...

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Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Wright's China Trace … is a book of apparently slight but actually firm and brilliant metaphysical lyrics…. I have not read this poet before and have missed therefore an admirable writer, whose diction is always precise and illuminating and who sustains his own poetics: I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace. (p. 26)

Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 26, 1977.

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Wright is anything but a literalist in … China Trace, though such has not always been the case. Wright has progressed steadily away from clarity and directness in favor of an ever more personal, more private utterance…. The poems in Wright's first book, The Grave of the Right Hand, have the polished clarity one would expect from a master of the plain style. They are obviously meant to speak to the reader, to communicate something he can share. Among the best is "To a Friend Who Wished Always to Be Alone."… This is beautifully written—the pacing and the pauses, the images and the sounds, everything contributes to the quiet, wry effectiveness of this elegy.

Lyricism is still present in China Trace, but the clarity is long since gone, having been finally put to rest in Bloodlines. Various areas of the … volume reveal certain obsessive concerns, and there seems to be a consistent spiritual quest throughout, but what the specific form or goal of this quest may be, I cannot say…. The primary concern of the first part is mortality, particularly the death and decay of the poet's own body. (pp. 478-79)

Wright is clearly seeking apotheosis throughout this book, longing to shed the restraints of mortal dross in favor of spiritual freedom…. We are told on the jacket of China Trace that Wright conceives of it as concluding a trilogy begun with Hard Freight and continued in Bloodlines. After rereading all three volumes in sequence, I confess to having only the vaguest notion of why they might constitute a trilogy; the conceptual basis of these books is too private, at least for now. (p. 479)

Peter Stitt, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Summer, 1978.

Richard Jackson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright's epigraph for [China Trace], taken from T'u Lung, of the Ming dynasty, provides a key:

I would like to house my spirit within my body, to nourish my virtue by mildness, and to travel in ether by becoming a void. But I cannot do it yet…. And so, being unable to find peace within myself, I made use of the external surroundings to calm my spirit, and being unable to find delight within my heart, I borrowed a landscape to please it.

In the context of an Idealistic Neo-Confucianism, Wright's world becomes one of presences that are inadequate substitutes for the absence he desires. As a result, the objects of his landscape aspire to the condition of language, our substitute, if we can trust our linguistic critics … for what we cannot fully possess, for what is missing. In a roundabout way, he hopes language will bring him the void, will allow him to become, as another epigraph suggests, "an emblem among emblems." The poet's trick is thus to "mimic the tongues of green flame in the grass" ("Where Moth and Dust Doth Corrupt"). The irony of such a procedure is that language itself becomes ineffable: "In some other language, / I walk by the same river, the same vowels in my throat. / I wish I could say them now" ("Wishes"). And when the poet can speak, when he does write, the language becomes one of numerous signifiers whose significance is enigmatic. Though the consequence is often a poem inexcusably vague, or inaccessibly solipsistic, in many cases the metaphysical reality of absence is powerfully evoked…. This book is the third in a trilogy, and it is far more abstract than its predecessors; however, the world it explores is more rich, more mysterious, and the reality it often earns is rewarding. It will be interesting to see where Wright goes from here. (pp. 555-56)

Richard Jackson, in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1978), Fall, 1978.

David Bromwich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright is … a thoroughly professional poet, and he writes the off-real journal entry, the shadowy song of rural experience, which is the characteristic magazine poem of our time. His technique, the over-all look and feel of his poems, come from Pound: the lines always hang nicely, and do their wire-walk quietly, without appearing to show off. The local texture, however, is echt-1970s. Here are middle-period Justice ("I open the phone book, and look for my adolescence. / How easy the past is—"), and Merwin ("The banked candles the color of fresh bone, / Smoke rising from the chimneys beyond the beyond, / Nightfires, your next address …"—which sounds New Yorker-ish, and when you look it up, it is),...

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