Introduction

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Wright, Charles 1935–

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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

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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 they stand there on the page, the "Tattoos" group look a lot like Berryman "Dreamsongs"; and the "Skins" series not only looks like, but is, a set of loose, unrhymed, sort-of sonnets, as in Lowell's Notebooks or History or whatever it is next to be called. These appearances are appearances only: like skins, they are superficial, though maybe, like tattoos, they're intentional. But at first glance the resemblances suggested to me that here was nothing more than another mechanical effort, and a derivative one, to solve the problem that The Long Poem (or even the longish poem) poses these days: if you can't build a building, try a picket fence (or a chain link fence, as in the title of a shorter sequence of Wright's that I'm not considering here). Not so—or not entirely so. But though those resemblances are chiefly external, "Tattoos" is full of dreams and visions and full, too, of autobiography and Experience, accounts of the infringements, the imprints of the world or worlds upon a self. And "Skins" makes a kind of reach after History, the history not of the autobiographical I of "Tattoos" but of you—i.e., Wright and us—who, having reached "that moment / When what you are is what you will be," must struggle on in the face of limitation and mortality.

Among the interesting things about these poems is how reluctantly they forego the consolations of Christianity. I take it that the difficulty and the necessity of doing so are the leading concerns of the "Skins" sequence and indeed of the book at large. This may seem, in so bald a statement of it, a desperately old-fashioned business. And the conclusion reached, a submission to the natural, is something we may have heard of before … (at moments in the book certain of Dylan Thomas' poems seem to be speaking again). But how many discoveries are there to be made in this department of life? In the process of attaining to [a sort of] religion of process—in, say, poem 15 through 19 of "Skins," a meditation on the four elements—Wright secures our acquiescence in his poetic procedures. Surely that's enough. (pp. 453-55)

John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1975.

Carol Muske

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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

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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 movement-knowledge-guilt-limit with a progressive emphasis on limitation: "apple" signifying a transcendental causal function; "arrival," because it is used nonspecifically, signifying an abstract goal of movement; "railroad" reducing the abstract movement to a finite vehicle of movement; and "shoe" further restricting movement and the vehicle of movement. The limit-restriction element is both a reverberation back to and an amplification of the first line—that is, it amplifies the sense of stress of "oval" and "push, pull" and it extends the notion of imperfectness implied there. The movement-knowledge-guilt-limit motif is also evident in the second, third, and fourth lines: "windowpanes," suggesting consciousness itself which receives the knowledge, immediately becomes contaminated with the "smell of tar," black, sticky, clinging guilt. Further, all of these motifs get connected with the "meaning" of words: after the first line, which simply establishes a process, comes the first subject in the poem ("words") and all the subsequent subjects which follow must be seen as substitutions, replacements, which serve to multiply the significations connected with that first subject. So, the first stanza as well as the entire poem is about words, about the way they come to carry meaning, the dynamic that exists between words as signifiers and the things they signify, the guilt of words as opposed to the purity of silence. (p. 627)

Wright's power as a poet lies in [his] ability to hook us, to intoxicate us with a language that radiates paradox—that is, the realm of symbol. To accomplish this demands, I think, a kind of surrender on the part of the poet, a loosening of intent, a trusting in the mad sense of language. And, in fact, Wright's poetry fails when he refuses to surrender enough, when he holds the reins on the words too tightly, when he seems too intent upon getting an idea across and, ironically, ends up writing poems less rich in meaning. But when the right balance between abandon and control is achieved, the nature of the tension is erotic…. (p. 628)

The connective threads, the concepts, that run through Wright's poems and make his collection read, as James Tate puts it, "like a book not a miscellany," have to do with Wright's insistence that the human is but one system, one way of ordering, one center exerting its force while simultaneously being permeated by the force of other systems, that progress in terms of any single system is an illusion; the center is always shifting. There is simply process, displacement, the perpetual turning of transformation…. In each of his books, Wright has moved closer and closer to this radical level ["where all is a true turning, and all is growth"]: in his latest book, he situates himself, metaphorically, in the flux itself. It is the numen of the blood that Wright explores in Bloodlines, In "Virgo Descending." the first poem in the collection, Wright draws us directly into a transformative dissolution and leads us to an archetypal image of the blood, the high priestess of the irrational, chthonic forces—the Great Mother…. (pp. 628-29)

Significantly, in "Virgo Descending" there is no directive agent, no subject which initiates the action. Instead, there is simply process itself and various stages in this process; the grandmother image does not signify an end stage of the process but rather its final opening-out…. Wright takes us into a place where there are no stable subjects, only momentary foci or centers of action, where the "I" itself is a "something else" that is, subjectively, nothing because it is perpetually subject to change…. The release from stable identity to process brings with it a "release" from security. It is a willingness to accept a subjectless play of forces similar to the Oriental concept of Tao and Wright's insight is that as long as one yearns for a permanently fixed center, an arbitrary pattern not found within the flux, within the blood (blood lines) there will, ironically, be only emptiness…. (pp. 629-30)

Kathleen Agena, "The Mad Sense of Language," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1976 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 4, 1976, pp. 625-30.

Harold Bloom

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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

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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

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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

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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), and James Wright's hammock poem ("Green apples, a stained quilt, / The black clock of the heavens reset in the future tense. / Salvation's a simple thing"). Charles Wright would be more intriguing if he found it not so fine a thing to relax into each inexpensive but portentous phrase as it rose to his mind and fell from his pen.

His reliance on phrases makes him seem, probably the last thing he wants to seem, fluent: "necktie of ice," "sleeves of bone"—these from different poems—and on a grander scale, "Daylight spoons out its cream-of-wheat," "God is the sleight-of-hand in the fireweed," "Heaven, that stray dog, eats on the run and keeps moving."… Wright sometimes thinks of himself as a Tiger of Instruction. Let us wish him a swift recovery from the illusion that anything very edifying can be made of the paradox. In the meantime, faced with so ripe a specimen of our current poetic diction as

  Each night, in its handful of sleep, the mimosa blooms.
  Each night the future forgives.
  Inside us, albino roots are starting to take hold,

the Socrato-Philistine who lurks in every reader will leap unembarrassed to the offensive, one sally for each line: (1) Why "handful," where the image is lost in the time it takes to think out the wit? (2) How do you know? (3) Oh, ick!

At his best, Wright deserves something better than the flippancy that is the healthy response to his easy jockeying for effect. [China Trace] has a few passages of tenderness and manly reserve, very close to Whitman in spirit and in sound…. The step-down to "enact" exhalation is mannered, and could simply have been a new line; but it is the Pound and not the Socrato-Philistine in every reader who says this…. And even when Wright is unforgivably slick, his cadences are measured and sure. Anyone who can imagine how this might be so, should inspect once again the emotionally ugly passages that have been quoted, and listen to the way they move. Wright's most impressive work has been appearing lately in the magazines and was evidently written after China Trace. We may come to regard him after all as a good poet who educated himself in public. (pp. 169-71)

David Bromwich, in Poetry (© 1978 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1978.

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