Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1643
Charles Wright 1935-
(Full name Charles Penzel Wright Jr.) American poet and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Wright's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 13, 28, and 119.
Acclaimed as one of America's finest contemporary poets, Wright is known for his image-rich metaphysical lyrics that attempt to transcend the physical world, particularly the landscapes of the American South and Italy. The author of a renowned body of postwar American poetry—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Black Zodiac (1997)—Wright often is described as a “painterly” poet, who cites artist Paul Cézanne as one of his many influences. Wright's best known works are collected in his “trilogy of trilogies,” a series of three larger volumes that each reprint three or more collections of his earlier poetry. These anthology volumes are Country Music (1982), The World of Ten Thousand Things (1990), and Negative Blue (2000).
Born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright lived in both eastern Tennessee and North Carolina during his childhood. His father was a civil engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wright received his religious education in the Episcopal Church, and remained very involved in the organization well into his adult life. Although he eventually left the religion, his Episcopalian past at times manifests itself through the spiritual nature of his poetry and his occasional allusions to the rites and dogma of Anglicanism. Wright graduated from Davidson College in 1957, with a degree in history, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Intelligence Service for the next four years. He was stationed in Verona, Italy, for three of these years and began reading the poetry of Ezra Pound and Eugenio Montale, the Italian Nobel laureate. The poem “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” by Pound so impressed Wright that he began writing poetry himself. The landscape and architecture of Italy, combined with the literature he was encountering, left lasting influences on Wright's life and work. Following his military service, he returned to the United States in 1961 and entered the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he earned an M.F.A. in 1963. Wright spent the next year in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Rome and began translating the poetry of Montale, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Cesare Pavese from Italian into English, all under the guidance of teacher Maria Sampoli. Wright returned to the University of Iowa for the next academic year and later revisited Italy as a Fulbright lecturer. In 1969 he was married to photographer Holly McIntire. Wright taught at the University of California, Irvine, from 1966 to 1983 and has since served as the Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He has twice translated works by Montale, including The Storm (1978), for which he received the P.E.N. Translation Prize, and Motets (1981). Wright's first collected volume, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), encompasses his poetry written from 1963 to 1969. He followed with two small volumes, The Venice Notebook (1971) and Backwater (1973). Wright won critical acclaim for his collection Hard Freight (1973), which was nominated for the National Book Award. Wright won distinctions for subsequent volumes, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Bloodlines (1975); the National Book Award for Country Music; the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Chickamauga (1995); and the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Black Zodiac. Wright's entire body of work was honored with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1993.
Wright's three anthology collections—Country Music, The World of Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue—include the majority of the work in his oeuvre. These collections follow a Dantean structure of three works inside three larger works, each successively concerned with the past, present, and future. The poems in these volumes regularly use odd-syllable lines, with seven-syllable lines often serving as the foundation for the piece. Wright's principal themes of family, the presence of the dead alongside the living, and a preoccupation with the past have placed him as a distinctly southern poet, writing of matters that prominently figure in the southern consciousness. In Wright's poems, narrative is only present as an unseen thread that connects the whole—his primary concern is the expression of the contemplative moment. Wright's poetic worlds include the remembered past, the present, and the future, usually with himself as the narrator, juxtaposed against what has gone before and what will be. The first volume in Wright's series of trilogies, Country Music, is primarily concerned with remembrances of the past. It contains all of Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace (1977), and also reprints a brief prologue from The Grave of the Right Hand. The three separate works in Country Music all demonstrate different aspects of Wright's poetic sensibilities. Each poem in Bloodlines, for example, is fourteen lines long, though none are sonnets in the expository sense. The elegiac China Trace is composed entirely of twelve-line poems that, in their cumulative effect, seem to suggest one long poem. The brief lyrics in China Trace pay homage to the economy of form that characterizes classical Chinese poetry and are early examples of the journal poem style that Wright developed to great effect in some of his later works. Wright followed Country Music with Four Poems of Departure (1983) and The Other Side of the River (1984). Written while he was living in California, these works squarely confront Wright's fears of middle age and diminishing talents, as well as his reasons for moving far from his roots. Wright's next collections, Five Journals (1986) and Zone Journals (1988), explore the medium of the poetic journal and how it can be used to traverse time and place.
Wright's second volume in his trilogy of trilogies, The World of Ten Thousand Things, reprints all of the poems published in The Southern Cross (1981), The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals, and Xionia (1990), the last of which previously appeared only in a limited fine-press edition. The Southern Cross—which appeared after Colophons (1977) and Dead Color (1980)—bears the influence of American poet Hart Crane and represents an attempt at self-portrait for Wright. It opens with a long poem, “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” and closes with the even longer title poem, “The Southern Cross.” In between these long works in The Southern Cross, there are three distinct sections. The first is concerned with sense memory and the past, the second consists entirely of self-portraits, and the third section experiments with a technique borrowed from the composer John Cage. In it, Wright gives himself specific objectives, such as “write a poem that contains no verbs,” and then tries to accomplish his goals. Zone Journals is a quasi-diary of Wright's fiftieth year and describes various stages in his life, expressed through locations. These “zones” include California, Virginia, Tennessee, England, and Italy. Written in Wright's trademark meditative mode, Zone Journals muses about the nature of art and the life of the artist.
The final volume of his collected trilogies, Negative Blue, contains Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia (1998). The poems that comprise Chickamauga are concerned with small things in the world and the unique qualities of smallness. The longest poem in the book, “Sprung Narratives,” alludes to English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins's invention of sprung rhythm (a poetic rhythm that tries to approximate the natural cadence of speech) by suggesting that memory, rather than being a narrative, is actually composed of snippets of images, conversations, and impressions that continually overlap and then separate from one another, creating an evolving collage. Composed in his sixties, Black Zodiac finds Wright philosophizing about growing old and infirm, but not without recognizing the mystical qualities of aging. In Appalachia, Wright invokes the work of French philosopher Simone Weil and questions her assertions about who and what God is, a question that has long been at the heart of Wright's more spiritual poetry. Although his individual poems are well regarded, Wright's collections have received the widest praise, because as a whole, his work forms a unique vision and philosophy, with each separate poem seemingly structured to flow right into the next.
Wright has been lauded for the striking imagery in his poetry and his ability to create beautifully phrased stanzas, including his trademark mixture of long and dropped lines. In addition, Wright is esteemed for his ability to perceive the sacred in the ordinary and for his pursuit of profound existential questions in a combination of high-minded cultural allusions and folksy, self-effacing idiom. Critics have noted that his best work often maintains a tension between the physical world of nature and the metaphysical world beyond. Despite the regional descriptions that dominate his poetry, critics assert that Wright's work is neither autobiographical—at least not in a confessional sense—nor concerned with the particulars of history, unlike that of his early mentor Ezra Pound. In addition to Pound, critics recognize the influence of Emily Dickinson, Dante Alighieri, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot in Wright's work. Reviewers generally regard The Southern Cross as Wright's finest single work, along with China Trace and Black Zodiac. Following The Southern Cross, however, some critics discerned a period of laxity in Wright's poetry during the 1980s, a stylistic stagnation that receded with Zone Journals and the acclaimed Black Zodiac. Although some reviewers criticize Wright's tendency to use lush figurative language out of context, others find that the power of Wright's imagery makes up for any lapse in focus. Similarly, some critics find that Wright's musings about the nature of life and death often fall flat, owing in large part to his narrow focus and somber equivocation, while others praise Wright's attempts at finding insight from language and landscape. With the publication of Negative Blue as the capstone of his recollected “trilogies of trilogies,” Wright's poetry continues to win admiration for his distinct lyric meditations and well-developed poetic eye.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115
The Voyage (poetry) 1963
Six Poems (poetry) 1965
The Dream Animal (poetry) 1968
Private Madrigals (poetry) 1969
The Grave of the Right Hand (poetry) 1970
The Venice Notebook (poetry) 1971
Backwater (poetry) 1973
Hard Freight (poetry) 1973
Bloodlines (poetry) 1975
China Trace (poetry) 1977
Colophons (poetry) 1977
The Storm [by Eugenio Montale; translator] (poetry) 1978
Dead Color (poetry) 1980
Motets [by Eugenio Montale; translator] (poetry) 1981
The Southern Cross (poetry) 1981
Country Music: Selected Early Poems (poetry) 1982
Four Poems of Departure (poetry) 1983
Orphic Songs [by Dino Campana; translator] (poetry) 1984
The Other Side of the River (poetry) 1984
Five Journals (poetry) 1986
Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87 (interviews) 1988
Zone Journals (poetry) 1988
The World of Ten Thousand Things (poetry) 1990
Xionia (poetry) 1990
Chickamauga (poetry) 1995
Black Zodiac (poetry) 1997
Appalachia (poetry) 1998
Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems (poetry) 2000
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SOURCE: “Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1981 Poetry Selections,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 40, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 225-34.
[In the following excerpt, St. John offers a positive assessment of The Southern Cross.]
In a yearly roundup of this sort, because of the limitations of space, it is difficult to discuss in even the most cursory way more than a handful of books. Still, there were a number of poetry books published in 1981 that deserve mention. …
Charles Wright's stunning new book, The Southern Cross, is full of the familiar verbal iconographies and textural chromatics that have made his earlier books so distinctive and powerful. Wright's palpably physical sense of language—of language as sensual, supple material—invites us to see him in terms one usually reserves for the visual arts. Yet Wright's poems are clearly aware of and delighted by their own painterly and sculptural qualities; their architectures are simultaneously intellectual and spiritual, an achievement executed, as Wright once wrote, by “setting the Imagist technique loose in the Symbolist current.” Though Wright has always spoken of the profound influence Pound and Montale (the latter of whom he has translated) have had upon his work, The Southern Cross—even by its title—shows the enormously rich resource the poetry of Hart Crane has become for him. It could just as easily be Wright quoting, from Crane's “General Aims and Theories,” these lines by Blake: “We are led to believe in a lie / When we see with not through the eye.”
In many of the poems in The Southern Cross, Wright's concerns revolve around the idea of self-portraiture—not autobiography, with its implication of self-absorption and completeness, but self-portraiture. The distinction is important to Wright, as a quality of self-objectification details all of his poems. Just as each of the emblematic and imagistic strokes (of each poem's lines) in each self-portrait serves to approximate the figure, so the sequence of self-portraits in The Southern Cross serves to give us perhaps a less literal but more vivid and multidimensional reading of the poet.
For Wright, it is always language, its textures and music, that reclaims and collates all of the images of the self, all of the moments lost to the freeze frame of the blinked eye. Self, in Wright's poems, is the necessarily constant but web-cracked lens through which the world and the body are seen in their decomposition and regeneration. Self is that zero, that perfect circle of consciousness, through which all elemental shiftings—the blown dust, the drowned flame—and all spiritual aspirations are, for better or worse, to be regarded. Perhaps some of the special force of Wright's poetry can be illustrated by this poem, “Dead Color,” one of the many astonishing pieces in The Southern Cross:
I lie for a long time on my left side and my right side And eat nothing, but no voice comes on the wind And no voice drops from the cloud. Between the grey spiders and the orange spiders, no voice comes on the wind …
Later, I sit for a long time by the waters of Har, And no face appears on the face of the deep.
Meanwhile, the heavens assemble their dark map. The traffic begins to thin. Aphids munch on the sweet meat of the lemon trees. The lawn sprinklers rise and fall …
And here's a line of brown ants cleaning a possum's skull. And here's another, come from the opposite side.
Over my head, star-pieces dip their yellow scarves toward their black desire.
Windows, rapturous windows!
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SOURCE: “Problems of Youth … and Age,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 184-93.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt offers a positive assessment of The Southern Cross.]
In their various ways, all five of these poets [Charles Wright, Elizabeth Spires, Bin Ramke, Laurie Sheck, Robert Penn Warren] assume the existence of an important relationship between poetry and knowledge—they write to embody meaning, suggest truth, achieve wisdom—which sets them apart from those writers whose primary interest is in the aesthetic value of the created art object, irrespective of any message it may coincidentally carry. Beyond this basic similarity, however, differences begin to appear, the most obvious being that three of these poets are young, one of them is middle-aged, and one is old. The surface trappings of wisdom, including an obvious sense of self-confidence, appear as an inverse function of age—the young poets at first glance look to be the wisest, while the older ones seem unsure of the truth they possess. Actual wisdom, however, remains a direct function of age—the older poets convince us in ways the younger can only approach.
In terms of style, the disparity is even greater. The older poets—Charles Wright and Robert Penn Warren—have fought through to distinctive styles that seem theirs alone. On the other hand, the younger poets—Elizabeth Spires, Bin Ramke, and Laurie Sheck—sound vaguely familiar, similar both to one another and to their compatriots. Inevitably, the younger poets will suffer in a comparison such as this—if there is any value to growing older, it ought to come in the form of an increased wisdom, a greater mastery of one's trade. In basic matter—the kind of wisdom that is sought—differences also appear. Wright and Warren are concerned with the largest questions of life—how death is to be faced, the meaning of the past and of memory, the very significance of human life. The younger poets, by contrast, are concerned with the more immediate issues of life—love, parenting, the beginnings of self-definition. …
The Southern Cross is surely Charles Wright's best book, the one he has been preparing for through all his earlier volumes. Like Bin Ramke and Robert Penn Warren, Wright is a Southerner, a fact which has a profound relevance to the texture of his verse. His poems throb with stylistic richness, most palpably in a lushness of image and word; one needs a delicate touch indeed to feel the subtle modulations of theme that lie just beneath this surface. “Dog Day Vespers” presents an extreme example of Wright's style:
Sun like an orange mousse through the trees, A snowfall of trumpet bells on the oleander; mantis paws Craning out of the new wisteria; fruit smears in the west … DeStael knifes a sail on the bay; A mother's summons hangs like a towel on the dusk's hook.
Everything drips and spins In the pepper trees, the pastel glide of the evening Slowing to mother-of-pearl and the night sky. Venus breaks clear in the third heaven. Quickly the world is capped, and the seal turned.
I drag my chair to the deck's edge and the blue ferns. I'm writing you now by flashlight, The same news and the same story I've told you often before. As the stag-stars begin to shine, A wing brushes my left hand, but it's not my wing.
The imagery here is so baroque, especially in the description of evening in the first stanza, that we might at first glance be tempted to dismiss the poem as only so much verbal playfulness. More serious matters are present, however, as in the title, which expresses both the prayerfulness of the speaker (“Vespers”) and his general sense of worthlessness and ennui (“Dog Day”).
Indeed, the spiritual setting of this entire volume has much in common with the Purgatorio of Dante, from which Wright has chosen a comprehensive epigraph: the concluding seven lines of Canto XXI. Dante is also alluded to in “Dog Day Vespers” (in the reference to “the third heaven” and in the suggestive, broken last line). The clearest indication of Wright's interest in Dante comes not in this poem, however, but in these lines from “The Southern Cross”:
Thinking of Dante, I start to feel What I think are wings beginning to push out from my shoulder blades, And the firm pull of water under my feet.
Thinking of Dante is thinking about the other side, And the other side of the other side. It's thinking about the noon noise and the daily light.
Wright in this book is always aware of and searching for evidence of the spiritual within the real, always aware of the possibility of angels.
Time is the most serious and pervasive theme in The Southern Cross, and appears both in a preoccupation with death and in a preoccupation with memory and the burden of the past. The best poems here are the two long ones—“Homage to Paul Cézanne” (eight pages), which opens the volume, and “The Southern Cross” (seventeen pages), which closes it. That these are also probably the strongest poems this outstanding poet has yet written indicates that his talent is both meditative and expansive—he works best in extended forms. “Homage to Paul Cézanne” is an intimate meditation on the dead; in the first stanza, Wright attempts to establish the possibility of their ghostly presence:
At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts To stay warm, and litter the fields. We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth. Like us, they refract themselves. Like us, They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right. Like us, the water unsettles their names.
Wright does not naïvely insist upon the actual continuing presence of the dead within life—he just re-creates them imaginatively, as a subject for his poem. The “Homage” closes:
What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint, Or messages to the clouds. At evening we wait for the rain to fall and the sky to clear. Our words are words for the clay, uttered in undertones, Our gestures salve for the wind.
We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts.
These lines indicate the connection with Cézanne, who is seen as doing with paint what Charles Wright does with words, just as they show the thematic preoccupations of the poem and its stylistic wonder.
“The Southern Cross” is less concerned with death than with memory and the burdens of a personal past, just as the title refers less to the constellation than to Wright's Tennessee heritage and his preoccupation with Italy, both of which define him, establishing the “cross” he carries through life. The poem is rich in image and incident, with interspersed passages of a more abstract nature. Because of the limitations of space, I am going to direct my remarks to the more conceptual passages. The poem opens:
Things that divine us we never touch:
The black sounds of the night music, The Southern Cross, like a kite at the end of its string,
And now this sunrise, and empty sleeve of a day, The rain just starting to fall, and then not fall,
No trace of a story line.
Overlay after overlay tumbled and brought back, As meaningless as the sea would be if the sea could remember its waves …
The lines define both the nature of memory as Wright sees it (“tumbled” and apparently “meaningless”) and the nature of the narrative in this poem (“No trace of a story line”).
Among the passages devoted to Italy are several lines concerning Venice, concluding:
As always, silence will have the last word, And Venice will lie like silk at the edge of the sea and the night sky, Albescent under the moon.
Everyone's life is the same life if you live long enough.
There is a conceptual similarity between this poem and much of the work of Robert Penn Warren; here it is the quality of the remembered scene and the generalized notion of human life that remind us of Warren. A bit later the resemblance is even more striking:
Time is the villain in most tales, and here, too, Lowering its stiff body into the water. Its landscape is the resurrection of the word, No end of it, the petals of wreckage in everything.
The handling of imagery is different, though the ideas are nearly the same. Wright twice turns from abstract statement to metaphor in this passage, as is the general method of his generation of poets. Warren would either stay at the abstract level or extend his earlier narrative (which would already be carrying the abstract significance) a bit further. Charles Wright is a marvelous writer, as profoundly suggestive in content as he is entertaining in style. The Southern Cross is an important book that reaches to depths of significance and cohesion new even to an artist as serious as this one.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
SOURCE: A review of The Southern Cross, in Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1982, p. 10.
[In the following excerpt, Conarroe praises The Southern Cross as Wright's finest work to date.]
Charles Wright was born several years after James Wright (no, they are not the Wright brothers), and although he has not acquired the fame of his namesake, he is slowly gaining a body of devoted readers and earning praise from demanding critics. The Southern Cross, his fifth book, will gain him new admirers. It is his strongest work to date.
Wright uses an untranslated passage (what faith!) from Dante's Purgatorio as his epigraph. I looked up the English version only after finishing the book, by then having decided that the passage must concern shadows and substance. It does, but I deserve no credit for prescience: Wright is preoccupied with ghosts and their demands. He tells the same story over and over, trying to get it right and wanting to be assured that in time he too will be remembered, that someone will speak his name. Though relatively young, he is troubled by disintegration and by a void in the heart. And in lines that echo Lowell's poignant “My mind's not right,” he sings, in “Laguna Blues,” “Something's off-key in my mind. / Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.”
Charles Wright's poetry is more rigorous and demanding than James Wright's, richer in verbal texture, more probing in its explorations of states of mind, more versatile technically. What the poets have in common is the need to “recover” the places that formed them—Martin's Ferry, Ohio, in James Wright's case, Hardin County, Tennessee, in Charles':
—I am their music, Mothers and fathers and places we hurried through in the night: I put my mouth to the dust and sing their song.
(from “Driving Through Tennessee”)
Although Wright lives and teaches in California and spends time in Italy, his heart is still in Tennessee; the imagery of crashing surf, oleanders, and “sun like an orange mousse” is much less convincing than his memories of “Carter's Valley as dark as the inside of a bone / Below the ridge.” The book's long title poem, the finest thing he has written, reveals just how strong the pull of the past can be:
It's what we forget that defines us, and stays in the same place, And waits to be rediscovered. Somewhere in all that network of rivers and roads and silt hills, A city I'll never remember, its walls the color of pure light, Lies in the August heat of 1935, In Tennessee, the bottom land slowly becoming a lake. It lies in a landscape that keeps my imprint Forever, and stays unchanged, and waits to be filled back in, Someday I'll find it out And enter my old outline as though for the 1st time,
And lie down, and tell no one.
The jacket illustration for The Southern Cross is a painting by Pisanello, found in Verona.
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SOURCE: “Tracing Charles Wright,” in Parnassus, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1982, pp. 55-74.
[In the following positive review of The Southern Cross, Bedient offers a close analysis of Wright's evolving metaphysical themes, aesthetic perspective, and poetic style in this and previous volumes.]
Charles Wright, who longs to elude his too-local life, eludes you even when he isn't trying. He's trying on the cover of his third volume, Bloodlines, where reflected lights (irregular white patches like blotches on an abstract canvas) hide the eyes behind his sunglasses (eyes you know are looking at you). Haloed by a washtub hung on a cabin wall, he's a mock frontier-saint of purity—washed in the beyond, cleaned to blankness, bouncing back brilliance.
Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), China Trace (1977), and The Southern Cross (1981) perpetuate with a horizon-pale passion what Yeats called “the inspired condition.” Their often astonishingly beautiful lines seek to “pull that rib of pure light” that must still lie in language somewhere, it's such a solitary Adam. Not that Wright is occult: on the contrary, he would make the intangible stark. To him revelation came early and has remained unsparing: it is that the dead, who are superior to us, who know more and feel more, are always near us. He hails the superhuman, writes of death-in-life and life-in-death.
To get into touch with this mystery Wright goes by his ear, which is subtler than any conscious understanding. Disallowing mufflings, it is one of the great precisionist instruments in the contemporary arts. Reading Wright you sometimes feel like Sylvia Plath's heroine squatting in the cornucopia of a colossus' ear, out of the wind, your hours married to shadow, counting at night “the red stars and those of plum-color.”
It is all high church—reason's unease. You find yourself in somebody else's Let us pray. Liturgical rhythms, ritualistic repetitions, invocations, appeals for absolution abound. The four elements are everywhere, yet often in curious coalescences—as when “evening comes down / Its trellises one rose at a time.” Very beautiful, but not quite of our world. The technique continually relates back to the metaphysics of death-in-life and life-in-death. Oxymorons and other reversals proliferate. As in the small poem “Death”:
I take you as I take the moon rising, Darkness, black moth the light burns up in.
This surprises at once with “I take you,” again with “moon rising,” again with “Darkness,” and still again, climactically, with “black moth the light burns up in”—yet all is poised in an assured stance. Like dolphins, a Wright poem rises and re-plunges line by line, invoking a vast inhuman beauty. All is “procedure and process,” “the one / Inalterable circulation.”
Where does one stand in a circulation? It all “comes to a point,” Wright said in the sequence “Skins” in Bloodlines—to this moment, this place. “It comes and it goes.” Yeats held the “point” argumentatively, Dylan Thomas elegiacally; Wright, like a reed, bends along the river's flow, half here, half extended into the future, at right angles to himself, whispering “into a different ear.” China Trace, particularly, pleads “for a second breath, / Great Wind, where everything's necessary / And everything rises,” but always he is the poet of a deferred vitality, no swordsman, unless wishes can cut through life. “A wing brushes my left hand, ~1 but it's not my wing”—that is his piercingly deprived note. “The thing that is not left out always is what is missing,” he said in Hard Freight, thus reversing the cloth of existence, placing being unsoiled on the other side.
A Christian upbringing iced his roots, the deaths of many loved ones have chilled them further. “Some things stay cold to exist: dry ice and the maimed child, / My hands, the nighttime and deep water. My hands.” Wright is as one whose right to independent life was never ratified. Already in Kingsport, Tennessee, while sons danced “in their gold suits, / clapping their hands,” mothers and fathers filled “With dust-dolls their long boxes.” Guilt tries to coffin him up and ship him out before his time: “The crime is invisible / but it's there.” “Will Charles look on happiness in this life?” Not if he seeks a comfortable place to lie among the dust-dolls.
“I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace.” Yes; mostly by using landscape as a “Ouija board.” In an interview in Quarterly West (Spring/Summer, 1981), Wright said:
Lenny Michaels once said, “The great ones always speak from the other side.” If that can be worked backwards, then you always try to talk from the other side. … that tends to be … the audience that I write to. When I write to myself, I'm writing to the landscape, and the landscape is a personification of the people on the other side. That would be my ideal audience. One writes for approval, in a strange way. And I'm trying to tell them that I understand and that I'm doing the best I can.
“… in a way,” he added, “I feel I'm speaking for them.” But at times he knows he's just “jump-cut and Captain Dog,” a child playing at being master, a fictitious character whose name could only be reversed to the superhuman on the other side. Meanwhile to appear to jump-cut from this side to the other one, in planes awry as Cézanne's, snicking into elsewhere, is his joy.
No one more medieval, more communal in his relation to the dead. In “Homage to Paul Cézanne” he says they “are with us to stay,” says each year they “grow less dead, and nudge / Close to the surface of all things,” says “They carry their colored threads and baskets of silk / To mend our clothes, making us look right.” They need us—“Sometimes they lie in our beds with their gloves off / And touch our bodies”; “At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts / To stay warm. …” But how much greater is our need for them. Indeed, they are our soul—our sadness, and our awareness. Our creativity is of them, from them: “We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes … / Blue and a blue and a breath.”
“I'm a nominal Pantheist,” Wright said in Quarterly West. At best nominal, for God to this poet is remote. Even “God is the metaphor for metaphor” misses the gap. So figures of speech weep like willow's fall. The parents will lie dormant until lips say “what the lips in the west say/ At evening”; only a “tomorrow” will start them “preening inside their graves, / A yearn for the natural hug, the quick kiss overhead.” The father, especially, is far—the farthest nearness. The starry sky is his domain:
I look up at the black bulge of the sky and its belt of stars, And know I can answer to nothing in all that shine, Desire being ash, and not remembered or brought back by the breath, Scattered beneath the willow's fall, a figure of speech …
At the end of China Trace the yearning “I” of the book turns to an achieved “He.” Yes,
Look for him high in the flat black of the northern Pacific sky, Released in his suit of lights, lifted and laid clear.
The son will be one with the father when he is all suit, all light, laid clear of flesh and desire.
Like a great white painting the Milky Way reflects Wright's varying postures of prayer (first in The Grave of the Right Hand, his apprentice volume). In “Spider Crystal Ascension” (in China Trace) it is a father-spider of terrible industry, patience, and beauty:
The spider, juiced crystal and Milky Way, drifts on his web through the night sky And looks down, waiting for us to ascend. …
At dawn he is still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.
All morning we look for the white face to rise from the lake like a tiny star. And when it does, we lie back in our watery hair and rock.
This spider waits to devour us, to electrocute us (“juiced crystal”), and to redeem us (“crystal,” “net,” “ascend”). But we prefer the mother, the white imago that ascends from below, under-star and succorer—prefer to revert to the dreamy time of “watery hair.” Between the starry host-spider severely maintaining his system (Wright's father engineered dams for the TVA) and the cradling maternal lake, between guilt and atonement, chilling distance and intimate union, this poet's metaphysics “quarter and spin.”
“Spider Crystal Ascension” reveals his religious trust in metaphor, his flamey-icy otherness of figure and mind, and incidentally his recent skill at long lines descending like spiders on their own smoothly and rapidly played-out threads. Vitality of a kind, a “black hole” variety, there undoubtedly is. (Once compressed language “gets past a certain point,” Wright said in an interview in the Fall 1977 issue of Field, it “goes out the other side and … expands.”) The poetry stops your breath, questions it with its uncanny beauty. (How deaf it is to the tiny drum of the pulse. It races, races away.) China Trace is a loose-leaf arrangement of poems ringed on a constant refusal: “If something is due me still … I give it back.” But, flicked into the future like skip-stones of light, the poems fail to reach their goal. (“It's endless extinction,” Wright said to me in conversation. “Isn't it? But I hope I'm wrong.”)
The one-line poem “Bygones” epitomizes the book:
The rain has stopped falling asleep on its crystal stems.
Of course the stems are not genuine crystal, they collapse; and of course there was no great awakening, only nodding. The single long line is an attempt at an aesthetic crystal stem, from which, however, the wish to be “singled out” (“I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out”) explodes like a watery flower and dies.
China Trace temporarily exhausted Wright's desire “to be bruised by God.” Compression led to the need for expansion, the awesome hegemony of the “other side” to a renewal of interest (of search) in this one. Of course Wright will never be one to settle back in a wheelchair of earth, a metaphysical cripple like most other modern writers, his knees under a blanket of moths. His need for the dead is too fierce. But in The Southern Cross he discovers in his own natural affections a “loose Milky Way,” to quote from The Grave of the Right Hand, “Gathering stars as it swarms / Deeper into the west.”
“At 40, the apricot / Seems raised to a higher power, the fire ant and the weed.” Bachelard's question as to how much world one must retain in order to be accessible to transcendency can be reversed, since transcendency, like a slipcover, may make us more mindful of the world. And Wright, who schooled his ear in Pound, has never been unmindful of it. Compared to the language of other poets attuned to “aethereal rumors”—T. S. Eliot's, or W. S. Merwin's—Wright's has always been bush-fragrant, dirt-loose.
Yet The Southern Cross—the long title poem especially—evokes what for Wright is a new haunting, the myth of the garden of earthly delights. The volume taps earlier strata of the heart, the senses' memory, the primal forest of desire, before desire was ash. Although Wright unremittingly hankers for the “Away-From-Here,” at times it swings round to the past, as the hinter horizon. “How sweet the past is, no matter how wrong, or how sad”—have not Southerners been particularly quick to note this? “All things that are are lights,” Wright said in Hard Freight, addressing his infant son, Luke: “The foothills of Tennessee / The mountains of North Carolina, / … Hiwassee and Cherokee … / Brindle and sing in your blood.”
Still, the past is elusive and the title The Southern Cross (the constellation by that name cannot be seen even from the Southern United States) hints at its fabulousness. At the same time the title wittily characterizes a Southern upbringing: “The outline of 10 crosses,” Wright said in China Trace, “still dampens and stains my childhood.” Whether visible or invisible the past tugs at the long lines of the poem like a “kite at the end of its string.”
“Places swim up and sink back, and days do.” The poem observes no order, there can be no summing up in
Overlay after overlay tumbled and brought back, As meaningless as the sea would be if the sea could remember its waves …
The oceanic witlessness of random memory. The patternless observations of a lifetime. After “Gauze curtains blowing in and out of open windows all over the South” on to Garda, Venice, Laguna Beach, and other stations of the cross formed by the merciless right angle of time to space … the map gone.
“The landscape was always the best part.” For “Time is the villain in most tales, / And here, too,” and landscape is resistant to time: a bunched refusal. “Everything I can see knows just what to do, / Even the dragonfly, hanging like lapis lazuli in the sun”—whereas time is all hesitancy and regret, the slippery cement of wishing and remembering. As Bergson argued in Matter and Memory, the spirit is of time, not space, and memory is a spiritual activity. It tries to hold on but “The lime, electric green of the April sea ~ off Ischia / Is just a thumb-rub on the window glass between here and there. …”
Sick Narcissus, memory finds in memories metaphors of memory. Everywhere it lingers over its own likenesses. For instance, “The clouds over Bardolino dragging the sky for the dead / Bodies of those who refuse to rise”; Venice “sunk to her knees in her own reflection”; “the way that Pound walked ~ across San Marco / At passeggiata, as though with no one, ~ his eyes on the long ago”; “the bog lilies [extinguishing] their mellow lamps”; “a brute bumblebee working the clover tops”; “the faint notes of piano music back in the woods.”
“It's what we forget that defines us.” Again, “Things that divine us we never touch.” Deliverance thus lies in recollection. Yet
I can't remember enough.
How the hills, for instance, at dawn in Kingsport In late December in 1962 were black against a sky The color of pale fish blood and water that ran to white As I got ready to leave home for the 100th time, My mother and father asleep, my sister asleep, Carter's Valley as dark as the inside of a bone Below the ridge, the 1st knobs of the Great Smokies Beginning to stick through the sunrise, The hard pull of a semi making the grade up US 11W, The cold with its metal teeth ticking against the window, The long sigh of the screen door stop, My headlights starting to disappear in the day's new turning …
I'll never be able to.(2)
What, then, is “enough”? To live at all is to lose ground (“The lilacs begin to bleed / In their new sleep …”) and the only way to be defined, too divinely original to be subject, divined, is to push it all, every dispossession and dispersal of the soul, back to the beginning. Back to Pickwick Dam, which “was never the wind,” and which “waits to be rediscovered”:
Somewhere in all that network of rivers and roads and silt hills, A city I'll never remember, its walls the color of pure light, Lies in the August heat of 1935, In Tennessee, the bottom land slowly becoming a lake. It lies in a landscape that keeps my imprint Forever, and stays unchanged, and waits to be filled back in. Someday I'll find it out And enter my old outline as though for the 1st time,
And lie down, and tell no one.
“Lies,” “lie”—the refrain wants to give away the bravado. No matter, for the due repossession of original desire has been asserted with an irresistible passion and precision. To hold rewound in the hand, satiny and luxuriously self-bound, all that time had seized and run off with into the future would be the very apotheosis of narcissism. “And tell no one”; the life that can be told is not the eternal life.
If you focus on the content, the poem feels multiple and fragmented (“No trace of a story line”). Oceanic, it is not borne up but heavy. Only the conclusion lifts it at all, in a brilliant ploy of asseveration. Yet in another view the poem is the non-longing for which memory longs. There is no strife in it, no effort at internal logic, no suspense, no self-memory, and no self-division. “Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub,” comments Lao Tzu; “it is the center hole that makes it useful.” In what Yeats called the “deliberate self-delighting happiness” of style, its “still unexpended energy … after the immediate end has been accomplished,” in that self-completion, that prodigal self-reference, the poem itself provides (as all art does) a subtle model of joy. The form lays healing hands on the content and at length produces the small, emulative miracle of the close.
The five poems each entitled “Self Portrait” show almost a relenting toward “Charles,” that troublesome odd-end and superfluity. Not, of course, an acceptance: a dissatisfaction, an edginess as of a spinning coin, a coin of light for which no slot has ever been devised, marks all this poet's work, save for his early sequence on his son. But gone, at any rate, is the punishing note of “Eyes thumbed, lips like pieces of cut glass … the shot unmistakable. / Take it, and be glad.” Instead, we find
Charles on the Trevisan, night bridge To the crystal, infinite alphabet of his past. Charles on the San Trovaso, earmarked, Holding the pages of a thrown-away book, dinghy the color of honey Under the pine boughs, the water east-flowing.
“The wind will edit him soon enough,” he adds. “And why not?” Yet with that “crystal, infinite alphabet” the past draws him back. If he can lay his hands on it he can spell and spell in lasting blocks through which the sunlight must still be streaming. And the verbless poise of “Charles on the Trevisan, … Charles on the San Trovaso” weights the statements against the vagaries of the wind.
The trochaic tilt of these verbal photographs (enlarging on actual snapshots on his study wall) tells us that Wright is forward of those times, spilled out. While his eye marks a lastingness, his ear discovers an earliness. But back then, although already a book that life had read carefully enough to earmark, albeit essentially a throwaway, he had held on to the pages of a thrown-away book (as he has since held on to the snapshot) as if he himself wanted to last. The book was retained under enduring pines and in a dinghy the color of golden ripeness. The allusion is to Pound, who thought, then thought better, of throwing the proof sheets of A Lume Spento into the same canal. (Did Wright at that time feel like a book earmarked by Pound, whose ear his own had marked?) In homage to the master the end of the stanza catches the silken watermark of his phrasing—an homage that confirms the momentary anchoring in nostalgia.
All the same, not self-retrieval but self-purging is the project of the series: a sifting of the ashes for the indestructible, gold influences. The somewhat deceptive model is Francis Bacon's sequence of increasingly molten self-portraits. So “by the time you get to number five,” Wright said to me, “the self-portrait series that started out strictly about me—‘Someday they'll find me out, and my lavish hands,’ and so forth, which is the tip-off to how to find me by the time you get to number five—is completely altered, I trust.” But Wright's image does not so much deliquesce as become an impure transparency: he himself is nothing, “Just red in the sky before the sun rises.”
Even the first portrait, which Wright described as “fairly straightforward,” is about his sense of indefiniteness and dispersal: “My features are sketched with black ink in a slow drag through the sky, / Waiting to be filled in.” It closes with an appeal to his gift to define him: “Hand that lifted me once, lift me again, / Sort me and flesh me out, fix my eyes.” But this sorting proves a kind of defleshing: “Angel of Mercy,” he pleads by the fifth poem, “strip me down.”
In the second and third poems he checks the “postcards and photographs” on his study walls for “evidence” (the third, quoting from Dickinson's letters, begins: “The pictures in the air have few visitors”). “Evidence,” does he mean, of a crime? Have his “lavish” hands squandered too much, including others' words? Has he been wrong to pretend to be a source, he, a mere cloud-source, melting, derivative? The crisis of his existence: doubt of its separate validity.
Small wonder if in the fourth poem he first disappears into “place names in Italy.” But then, returning to the scene of his crime, he is caught out when he names poets who “become places I've been to”—Dino Campana, Rimbaud, Hart Crane, and Dickinson.3 (Combining place and art, Cézanne's The Black Chateau concludes the catalogue.) Now the jig is up and in the last poem he pleads—he proves—unable to help himself. The three stanzas “have nothing to do with each other, other than having something to do with me.” But he cannot hide in such a scatter. The first speaks of a “ghost-weight” that pinned him to a bed where two women had once been murdered—the dead proving once again more substantial than he. The second quotes from Donne, the third from Dickinson. “Donne and Dickinson are ghost-weights on your tongue?” “Yes.” “Are you afraid that when you're found out you'll turn out to be other poets?” “We're all other poets. You're what you read, to a certain extent.”
In all, a series remarkably original and subtle (and expectably elusive)—but then to begin to appreciate Wright is to expect nothing less from his oddly sorting, unfleshing hand. The originality, subtlety, and elusiveness alike lie in strategies of self-deliverance—skirling metaphorical substitutions and metonymies, dizzying jump-cuts, twists of oxymoron and parataxis.
In keeping with all this the poet goes one better and shuffles his series of self-portraits together with a counter series on death as a birth out of the self. (“After the first death, there is no other,” as Wright's Vitalist parent, Dylan Thomas, instructed.) So “Mount Caribou at Night” finds “everything flowing and folding back / And starting again”; “Holy Thursday” sees “Children begin to move, an angle of phosphorescence / Along the ridge line”; “Virginia Reel” says
… Just down the road, at Smithfield, the last of the apple blossoms Fishtails to earth through the shot twilight, A little vowel for the future, a signal from us to them …
and “Called Back” ends: “When the oak tree and the Easter grass have taken my body, / I'll start to count out my days, beginning at 1.”
The self-portraits concentrate on what weighed on Charles like evidence, the others on what Charles will one day fold back into (that day when the voices rising around him like mist and dew will no longer need to say, “it's all right, it's all right, it's all right …”). There is, then, in the intermingling of these groups an alternation (a “circulation”) between guilty individuation and the counter-fate of a glorious dispersal, albeit this antithesis is qualified by the way his pitiless, magnifying gaze reduces even his individuality to isolated, impersonal specks.
What is it that Wright wants, to deliver the self or to escape it by dying, whether literally or figuratively? To effect the first you must break with the parents. This Wright is unwilling to do. In “The Southern Cross,” to be sure, he erases them by going back to the starting point, the moment before the lungs first flapped with air. But at the cost, still, of infancy. That divine sinking in on the self—will he ever evoke it again? Distance from the self, star-distance, distance of “ashes and bits of char”; “spider love, under and rearranger of all things”—these are likely to remain his needs.
In the longest of the four divisions of the book (following “Homage to Paul Cézanne” and the section containing the self-portraits), Wright takes up a new technique for self-parting, one picked up from John Cage. At a concert Cage was asked, “What are you doing when you're up there fiddling with the score paper and twiddling your pencil?” Cage replied, “I'm giving myself instructions and carrying them out.” “I thought that was a pretty interesting answer,” Wright commented. “What I do in each one of these poems in the third section—and this should have no effect whatsoever on the reading—is give myself instructions and carry them out.”
“A complete contortion,” Wright said, explaining the title “Dog Yoga.” The instruction: no verbs. “Yet to make it look as though it's effortless. And it does smooth on down the page, I think.” It does:
A spring day in the weeds. A thread of spittle across the sky, and a thread of ash. Mournful cadences from the clouds.
Through the drives and the cypress beds, 25 years of sad news.
Mother of Thrushes, Our Lady of Crows, Brief as a handkerchief, 25 years of sad news …
And so on for 10 more lines and half-lines. And in the next poem, the reverse, “a verb in every line”:
At dawn the dove croons. The hawk hangs over the field. The liquidambar rinses its hundred hands.
And the light comes on in the pepper trees. Under its flat surfaces horns and noises are starting up. The dew drops begin to shrink …
This goes on for nine more lines, each ending in a period, an additional artifice, raising the factor of difficulty. Both poems sound right and, moreover, like Wright. His themes—“We are what we have always been,” “No sign of a story line,” and so forth—accommodate both verblessness and a poking parataxis that with a threadless needle stitches and stitches the ungatherable moments.
Handed such instructions, the muse becomes thoughtful, self-watchful—she must keep one step ahead of herself. (Of course she must always have her wits about her but the technique helps exact what Eliot called “the continual extinction of the personality.”) In “The Monastery at Vršac,” for instance, she has to break off narrating and observing and suddenly base the poem “on a statement (something you really shouldn't do),” then follow it immediately with “another statement that becomes a new foundation.” Nor can she decide in advance what the statements are going to be. She plays the game well—jump-cut and apogee are, after all, in her blood. It is only the initial narrative (“We've walked the grounds,” etc.) that manacles her. It has her stupefied with conversation and “brandy-colored light.”
Wright's turn for concentration amidst dispersal (for simultaneous being and not-being, hereness and thereness) assimilates the most difficult instructions. Take as a last example “Dead Color.” The instruction: “No bobbin on which the whole poem is wound.” This sounds anti-poem, but in a sense all Wright's poems are absences from themselves, the bobbin is always lost to the other side. (As he puts it in China Trace, “There's something I want to say, / But not here, stepped out and at large on the blurred hillside.”) Almost all his lines express a waiting, and waiting is the bobbin-by-default on which “Dead Color” is wound. “Between the grey spiders and the orange spiders, / No voice comes on the wind. …” “Meanwhile” the usual cycles (“The lawn sprinklers rise and fall”; “Aphids munch on the sweet meat of the lemon trees”); the usual entropy (“The traffic begins to thin”); the usual promises (“the heavens assemble their dark map”; “Over my head, star-pieces dip in their yellow scarves toward their black desire”). This poem with “no point of reference” is effectively about having none—an unmistakable “Charles Wright.”4
To all this esotericism of technique Wright's readers—such is the intention—remain a laity.5 It does not concern them, it is his affair, his askesis, his self-extrication, his evasion (and not only of his readers but of the fleshpots of his art). The instructions are the ghost intelligences of his text; they constitute a secret order. Substitutes for the parental dead (“I have the feeling that the dead always know more than I do”), they simulate the instructions that are always pouring in, coded, from the other side: the side at once author and arbiter, giver and receiver, the beginning and end of the circle on which the poet is invariably at a point of exile, both departing and arriving, too far from and too near the “great ones” to be more than their torturingly eloquent trace.
Yet, to repeat, this complex, philosophically splayed volume contains more spadefuls of what Patrick Kavanagh called “the earth's healthy reality” than any of Wright's earlier volumes do, and the most conspicuous sign of this is its warm naming of real people and places. I return again to the fourth self-portrait:
Marostica, Val di Ser. Bassano del Grappa. Madonna del Ortolo. San Giorgio, arc and stone. The foothills above the Piave.
Places and things that caught my eye, Walt, In Italy. On foot, Great Cataloguer, some 20-odd years ago.
San Zeno and Caffe Dante. Catullus' seat. Lake Garda. The Adige at Ponte Pietra —I still walk there, a shimmer across the bridge on hot days, The dust, for a little while, lying lightly along my sleeve …
However rapid, such naming is memory's sacrament. Charles, great cataloguer, is more passionately precise than Walt, who joyfully poured together the names of places that to him were more often signs than memories. Wright, too, chants, but at once more matter-of-factly and meticulously—memory getting it right.
At the same time the poet washes, as he said in Bloodlines, “in a water of odd names.” In the first place, the names are objectified by their music. “Cactus, the mustard plants and the corn”—always the masterful selection and disposition. Where Emerson's “Bulkely, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint” is (not undeliberately) cloddish and serial, Wright's “Woodburn and Cedar Hill, Smithfield, Auburn and North Hill” graciously drawls its geographical polyphony. Add to this the dulled romance of abstraction (the “other language” of “Wishes” in China Trace, in which the days are not “each nosed by the same dog”). Spiky “Marostica,” valiant “Val di Ser,” and so on, are freed from the capricious flux of phenomena, singled out by the strong light of the line. “Since I came to this abbey Hermit's Summons,” wrote Meng Chiao, Wright's ancient Chinese alter ego, “For a while the dust weights lightly on my cloak.” Wright's own hermitage consists of a shimmering bridge of names.
Another master example of this ritual naming is “Bar Giamaica, 1959–60”—a verbal variation on a photograph by Ugo Mulas tacked to Wright's study wall. It begins:
Grace is the focal point, the tip ends of her loosed hair Like match fire in the back light, Her hands in a “Here's the church …” She's looking at Ugo Mulas, Who's looking at us.
Ingrid is writing this all down, and glances up, and stares hard.
This still isn't clear.
I'm looking at Grace, and Goldstein and Borsuk and Dick Venezia Are looking at me. Yola keeps reading her book.
And it closes:
Summer arrives, and winter; the snow falls and no one comes back Ever again, all of them gone through the star filter of memory, With its small gravel and metal tables and passers-by …
By this point the reader himself is mourning—the brisk process of the poem having suddenly closed in a beautifully managed pathos. Already in the simile of the match fire the present surface of the photograph is virtually aflame. The sanctifying and preserving power of art is hinted at only by a “Here's the church” formed by hands with a merely social wish to entertain. The “See all the people” follows. Then it's gainsaid, but not before Wright has conceded far more plenitude than usual to the first category of nouns (to persons as against places and things).
Ugo Mulas himself is included perhaps as a kind of muse and as the nominal photographer of Wright's own real or invented group (when “Ugo finishes … everyone goes away”). In a sense Ugo makes use of the group, after the alien manner of artists, like Ingrid who “is writing this all down, and glances up and stares hard.” Yola's reading, like the poet's later study of the photograph, completes the circuit of art, closing it back into the common world from which, in part, it sprang.
But greater than this subplot is the social moment of grace (“Grace” is indeed the focal point) among confirmed and easy friends. The cat's cradle of their glances is described, the equal emphasis on the individual and the group managed, in glad allegro. The camera position shifts frequently and democratically, is freely and lightly dollying. The many-angled and any-angled technique bespeaks a friendly trust in the group, a social togetherness harmonious with individual differences (Yola reads, Ingrid writes, etc.).
But the poem has the further, elegiac purpose of rescuing the heterogeneous names—those already quoted and “the rest of them: Susan and Elena and Carl Glass, / And Thorp and Schimmel and Jim Gates, and Hobart and Schneeman”—from the still greater variance of dispersal and from the slow obliterations of time. It defies, before duly acknowledging, the snow that has fallen since that “afternoon in Milan in the late spring.” Yet, despite the face value of the photograph (the one that enables the present tense), Wright is of course unable to rescue the group from the sad fate of being outlasted by small gravel and metal tables and anonymous passers-by.
In “Bar Giamaica” the spidery movement attempts to evade time through lightness and rapidity. Increasingly Wright has avoided stanzas (“I don't like blocks in poems,” he said in the Field interview, “I like breathing space”). At his happiest he starts a flow that seems to circumvent time by escaping almost eagerly toward the freer future. He can run by a whole line of 17 or 19 syllables like a single ripple in the clear skin of a lake:
The early blooms on the honeysuckle shine like maggots after the rain …
Now the wisteria tendrils extend themselves like swan's necks under Orion …
I hope the island of reeds is as far away as I think it is …
Overcoming the dread of space, the contemplating I with a sweet energy identifies with renewing or self-extending or distant forms. Using long lines or slipped-down half lines, or variable line lengths, or polysyndeton, or enjambed stanzas, all inspired by the demand for deliverance, Wright can initiate a flow almost at will. In “Mount Caribou at Night,” a poem about the first homesteaders in the region of Montana where the Wrights have a cabin, and about a final homestead in the universe itself, even the conservative appearance of the quatrains fails to dam the progress back to the inanimate—a progress itself, of course, profoundly conservative:
Everything on the move, everything flowing and folding back And starting again, Star-slick, the flaking and crusting duff at my feet,
Smoot and Runyan and August Binder Still in the black pulse of the earth, cloud-gouache Over the tree line, Mount Caribou Massive and on the rise and taking it in. And taking it back
To the future we occupied, and will wake to again, ourselves And our children's children snug in our monk's robes, Pushing the cauly hoods back, ready to walk out Into the same night and the meadow grass, in step and on time.
I find these lines, indeed most of the book, enchanting. Sweet and strange, nearly everything in it is mesmerizingly in language. One might expect many casualties where each line is a cast into the uncanny; one might even resist their absence, which is itself uncanny. And a few lines do seem randomly afloat on the surface—“One lissome cheek a notch in the noontide's leash,” for instance. But a very few. Wright's ear, again. … It is a highly developed, if peculiarly sensual, form of intelligence.
In addition to the hypnotic naming and the lithesome movement of the line and the absence of matte moments, there are graces of varying kinds. To begin with, telling metaphor: “The reindeer still file through the bronchial trees, / Holding their heads high”; “the brief and flushed / Fleshtones of memory.” Grimacing wit: “I've made my overtures to the Black Dog, and backed off.” Exact description: “Little runnels of boat wash slipping back from the granite slabs/ In front of Toio's, undulant ripples / Flattening out in small hisses, the oily rainbows regaining their loose shapes.” Firm placings:
Angels Are counting cadence, their skeletal songs What the hymns say, the first page and the last.
August but plainly worded imaginings, as of his brother “Winter on top of the Matterhorn”:
Behind him, the summer Alps Fall down and away, like hillocks of white on the noon sky Hiding their crosses, keeping the story straight.
Dantean archaisms: “Venus breaks clear in the third heaven.” Imagist vividness: “Butterflies pump through the banked fires of late afternoon.” Calliopean bursts of vowels: “Canticles rise in spate from the bleeding heart.” And odd, compelling modulations:
And towns that we lived in once, And who we were then, the roads we went back and forth on Returning ahead of us like rime In the moonlight's fall, and Jesus returning, and Stephen Martyr And St. Paul of the Sword …
In addition, there are audacious oxymorons: “I'll rise from this tired body, a blood-knot of light, / Ready to take the darkness in”; “My poems … / Little tablets of salt rubbed smooth by the wind.” Frissons of the impossible stated, very simply, as possible: “And time to retrieve the yellow sunsuit and little shoes they took my picture in / in Knoxville, in 1938.” Vivid illustrations: “Language can do just so much … / Flash and a half-glint as the headlights pass. …” Stunning tableaus: “Death never entered [Li Po's] poems, but rowed, with its hair down, far out on the lake, / Laughing and looking up at the sky.” Unnerving interminglings: “mantis paws / Craning out of the new wisteria; fruit smears in the west …”; “This is a lip of snow and a lip of blood.” Above all the perfect pitch, the effect, always, of precision:
Thinking of Dante, I think of La Pia, and Charles Martel And Cacciaguida inside the great flower of Paradise, And the thin stem of Purgatory rooted in Hell.
In all, Wright is a spellbinder of the first order. Needless to stress, his world is not especially various (most poets' are not); his few moods brush up against little besides landscapes. Yet his lines glow with a peculiar blue fire, part dusk, part sacred enkindling. He is never less than an exquisite poet of yearning for something elsewhere, something purer; and to this ancient hope and complaint he brings a finely calculated originality, a refinement of sensual beauty, and an indomitable passion. The combination sets him high, I think, among the cold-quickened, cold-straitened artists of the age.
Here as throughout ~ indicates that the remaining portion of the line has been moved down a space in the text.
Although the verse is lovely and accomplished in its own way, there are echoes here of Theodore Roethke's “The Far Field.” The passage harks back through North American Sequence to Walt Whitman. Wright said to me, “I always thought that what I wanted to be was Walt Whitman in Emily Dickinson's house, but now what I see I really want to do is be Emily Dickinson on Walt Whitman's road—that is, to have his length of line and expansiveness of life gusto with her intelligence walking along, and her preoccupations, which are my preoccupations.”
The major influence, the Pound of the early Cantos, peeps out from behind the Italian place names.
Again, “Skins” had asserted that what “comes and … goes” nonetheless always “comes to a point.” But this positivity, this heroic “point,” is one that Wright's work, now lag-hearted, now leap-nerved, keeps missing or rejecting.
Secretiveness, writes Susan Sontag in her essay on Walter Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” appears a necessity to the melancholic: “He has complex, often veiled relations with others.” Other Saturnine traits—among them the view of time as a “medium of constraint, inadequacy, repetition,” the compulsion “to convert time into space,” indecisiveness, a “self-conscious and unforgiving relation to the self”—are conspicuous in Wright's work.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
SOURCE: A review of The Southern Cross, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 1, Winter, 1983, p. 111.
[In the following review, Axelrod offers a generally positive assessment of The Southern Cross, but concludes that “Wright is not yet a poet of quite the first rank.”]
One way to suggest the nature of Charles Wright's most recent poems [in The Southern Cross] is to indicate what they are not. They mention several names but contain no developed characters. They are devoid of the hustle and bustle of ordinary life and suggest no particularity of place. Wright's Italy and Laguna Beach remain studiously verbal; he makes no effort to bring them to life, being content to let “word” and “thing” remain apart. Except for occasional parody, the poems possess no humor. Neither do they allow a tone of excitement. Frank Bidart's poetry, studded with BLOCK LETTERS, is Wright's counterpole. Wright's subdued and inward poems resemble those of John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons and Mark Strand. Their center is missing, as if they sought to meditate and elaborate on an abstract proposition that is teasingly suppressed. Wright's skepticism about the power and uses of textuality does not prevent his linguistic creation but limits and mutes it. These are poems palpably written in an age that deeply questions poetry.
In the volume's title poem the tragic skepticism underlying Wright's enterprise becomes manifest.
The life of this world is wind. Wind-blown we come, and wind-blown we go away. All that we look on is windfall. All we remember is wind.
These monosyllabic declarations and mournful repetitions have their own kind of majesty. But in less overt passages the poem is equally effective. Limp generalizations and odd particulars hang mysteriously in space, as if written on the wind.
Wright's longer poems, “Homage to Paul Cézanne” and “The Southern Cross,” are probably best. But each reader will undoubtedly have his or her favorites among the shorter efforts. I confess to a preference for the poems set in Laguna Beach—about fifty miles from me as I write in the semi-desert summer heat. In truth, however, these poems evoke their own textuality rather than the beach: “Sun like an orange mousse through the trees, / A snowfall of trumpet bells on the oleander.” More typically, the scene recedes from sight entirely, leaving language in some indeterminate zone between anguished consciousness and randomness.
Wright's poems revolve around a limited set of themes: the pain of time's passage; the ambiguous meaning provided by memory; the value, again ambiguous, of language and esthetic creation; and finally, the omnipresence of death. The poems explore a death wish and a life wish almost equally balanced and implicated each in the other. These explorations are subtle, serious and inventive. They give pleasure, but perhaps not enough. Wright is not yet a poet of quite the first rank. The very greatest poems move the reader from point A to point B, no matter how unfamiliar (or even repugnant) point B might be. At least temporarily, they make us believers. Poets as diverse as William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath and the Eliot of Four Quartets come to mind as examples of that power. Wright introduces us to his own point B, but he never quite succeeds in moving us there ourselves. We remain outside these lugubrious poems. We are interested, even touched, but not moved, not fundamentally altered. My advice to readers of this book is to expect just that: to be interested, even touched. My presumptuous advice to the poet is to keep working and hope that the lightning will strike.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
SOURCE: “The Middle of the Journey,” in The Nation, April 7, 1984, pp. 421-24.
[In the following review, Frank offers a positive evaluation of The Other Side of the River.]
Midcareer can be a precarious time for the accomplished poet. Manifest strengths need to be consolidated without slipping into habit or manner. The dangers of obligation to one's audience and past achievement line up against the pressures of having to find fresh things to say and new ways of saying them. Charles Wright, Robert Pinsky and Jon Anderson all have considerable bodies of work behind them; none is any longer young. Of the three, Wright and Pinsky are by far the more interesting, and face the midcareer perils with triumphant results. Wright's material is mostly rural and elegiac, Pinsky's urban and contemporary, but each puts memory to the uses of transfiguration and each does it the hard way—through art.
Wright's seventh book, The Other Side of the River, has the lean bluegrass modernist music and the faintly surreal imagery that have marked his work from the beginning. It has something new as well: hard, direct statement and fearlessly drawn conclusions. Wright's earlier books (Hard Freight, Bloodlines, The Southern Cross) revealed his abiding loyalty to the South of his childhood during the Depression and World War II, and this past supplies his new work, too, with textures and idioms. He is no regionalist in the conventional sense: rather, it's his absolute refusal to trust any version of reality except that given by the senses that gives his words their unmistakable country flavor. When he says, in “Lost Souls,”
Over the green hinge of the Cumberland Plateau The eyelash dusk of July was coming down effortlessly, smooth as an oiled joint …
I am reminded of Huck Finn's description of a summer storm over the Mississippi, when the thunder is like “rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it's long stairs, and they bounce a good deal.”
Discontinuity, the theme of The Southern Cross, troubles him still: How is it that you can get back some, but not all, of the past? In “Two Stories” he laments:
It's discontinuity and all its spangled coming between That sends us apart and keeps us there in a dread. It's what's in the rear-view mirror, smaller and out of sight.
He is anxious about age, fame and the possible fading of talent: “What do you do when the words don't come to you anymore … ?”; “How strange it is to awake / Into middle age”; “The ache for fame is a thick dust and weariness in the heart.” At the same time, he appears to have become restless with elegy, even a little bored by it. Putting the habit of mourning aside, he writes:
What is it inside the imagination that keeps surprising us At odd moments when something is given back We didn't know we had had In solitude, spontaneously, and with great joy?
(“Lonesome Pine Special”)
In other poems, Wright's familiar themes—Italy and California, Chinese poetry, other poets, pictures—are enriched by these intimations of redemption and maturity. In one poem he sees his kinship with the poet Leopardi as an influence assimilated, outgrown and placed at an affectionate distance. He also confronts the sense of being unmoored which comes over him when he gets too far away from the past, as in “California Dreaming”:
Some nights, when the rock-and-roll band next door has quit playing, And the last helicopter has thwonked back to the Marine base, And the dark lets all its weight down to within a half inch of the ground, I sit outside in the gold lamé of the moon as the town sleeps and the country sleeps Like flung confetti around me, And wonder just what in the hell I'm doing out here So many thousands of miles away from what I know best.
This question is by no means easy for him to answer. It is true that when he strays too far from his spiritual center he can lose the inevitable rightness of his best work. The new poems, however, tell us that he is capable of looking the problem in the eye, and that he distrusts still points even though his work is a ceaseless quest for them. Each encounter with memory frees more of the present:
To speak of the dead is to make them live again: we invent what we need. Knot by knot I untie myself from the past And let it rise away from me like a balloon. What a small thing it becomes. What a bright tweak at the vanishing point, blue on blue.
Wright's desolations, illuminations, losses and recoveries take place in landscapes with winter hibiscus, jack pines, pepper trees, red-tailed hawks, rivers with pebbled beds and iridescent orchards, where night skies are visible and “Where chainsaws / Whittle away at the darkness, and diesel rigs / Carry our deaths all night through the endless rain.” He continues to write exquisite poetry that is full without fatness, bitter without enmity and American to its bones.
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SOURCE: A review of The Other Side of the River, in Washington Post Book World, May 20, 1984, p. 6.
[In the following review, the critic offers praise for The Other Side of the River.]
Charles Wright's stunning new book of poems [The Other Side of the River] is both a reckoning with a personal past and a meditation upon life's impermanence. Wright's poetry is always verbally electric, and his work here seems more charged and more exciting than ever.
For Wright, the currents of his past run between twin poles—the Tennessee of his childhood and the Italy of his young adulthood. It's to these places Wright returns in memory, to both reclaim and recover them, and the poems are often peopled with the characters who mattered then and, therefore, matter again now.
In a fine poem about his great-grandfather, “Arkansas Traveller,” he writes, “To speak of the dead is to make them live again; / we invent what we need.” In “Lonesome Pine Special,” a poem about lost American landscapes, he writes, “It's true, I think …, / That all beauty depends upon disappearance, / The bitten edges of things, / the gradual sliding away / Into tissue and memory, / the uncertainty / And dazzling impermanence of days we beg our meanings from, / And their frayed loveliness.”
With his painter's eye for light in landscape and his sculptor's feel for the materials of language, Wright is without question one of the handful of truly inventive and compelling poets now writing. He is a poet of great and subtle humor, as in this little song excerpted from the dazzling title poem, “The Other Side of the River”: “I want to sit by the river, / in the shade of the evergreen tree, / And look into the face of whatever, / the whatever that's waiting for me.” In another poem, “Italian Hours,” he notes, “What gifts there are are all here, in this world.” And many of those gifts are here, in this extraordinary book of poems.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1903
SOURCE: “The Circle of the Meditative Moment,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 402-14.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt discusses aspects of circular poetic structure and offers a positive evaluation of The Other Side of the River.]
When we speak of poetic form we usually mean patterns of rhyme and meter; I would prefer, however, to begin with the definition given by W. P. Ker in his book Form and Style in Poetry: “… it is the scheme or argument that is the form, and the poet's very words are the matter with which it is filled. The form is not that with which you are immediately presented, or that which fills your ears when the poem is recited—it is the abstract original scheme from which the poem began.” Form, we may say, is the pattern of thought which organizes and precedes everything else, including the words of the poem, its sound patterns, its content, and its themes.
Among the many patterns into which a poem could fall, two contrasting possibilities—linear form and what I will call circular form—are especially useful for understanding an important aspect of contemporary poetry. The basis for distinction between them is the way time is managed within the poem. All poems, as they are read, move forward within the realm of real or external time; that is, the reader discovers, perhaps with dismay, that he is a few minutes older when he finishes the poem than he was when beginning. But in terms of the internal time frame of the poem—time as it passes or does not pass with regard to action, theme, or content—some poems move forward and some do not. Those that do are generally called linear: their basis is in narrative; they begin at one point and end at another.
The circular poem is more difficult to define but seems to take place within a single, very limited period of time, what we might call the meditative moment. The speaker of this poem does not narrate a series of sequential actions; instead, he or she is observed in the act of thinking—drawing together ideas, scenes, and events which may have occurred originally at widely separated times. Such items of content are available through memory, intellect, and imagination—all faculties of the thinking, creating mind. Speaking of the work of Charles Wright in her book Part of Nature, Part of Us, Helen Vendler defined what I mean by circular form as “spatial form”: “It renounces, as forms of articulation, narrative, the succession of events, the sequence of action and reaction”; it is characterized by “this arrested motion, this taking thought.”
The circular poem as I speak of it is certainly related to what Louis L. Martz has defined as The Poetry of Meditation, but two distinctions are in order. For one thing, Martz points out a strong connection between the poems he discusses (by Donne, Herbert, Roethke, etc.) and the specifically religious practice of meditation. I do not mean to imply such a connection as I speak of the contemporary circular poem. Secondly, whereas Martz's definition of the poetry of meditation is derived from the content of the works he examines, my definition of the circular poem is derived primarily from the form of the poems I will be discussing here. …
Charles Wright's The Other Side of the River continues the formal breakthrough toward an expansiveness of circular form achieved by the poet in his earlier volume, The Southern Cross (1981). The new book makes use of four basic settings or locales. California is the setting of the present moment, the present tense, the time of actual speaking. Memory carries the speaker into the past, which has two generalized settings—Italy and the American South. Desire carries him toward the future, into imagination or vision, the possibility of an afterlife, which is set across the river. (In fact, the title Charles Wright has chosen for this book seems intentionally to echo the title to one of James Wright's books, Shall We Gather at the River, in which a poem called “Willy Lyons” envisions the speaker's uncle as having achieved peace in the afterlife by crossing the river—the River Styx masquerading as the Ohio.) In his title poem, Charles Wright's speaker expresses his wish in this way: “I want to sit by the bank of the river, / in the shade of the evergreen tree, / And look in the face of whatever, / the whatever that's waiting for me.”
The form of the long poems here is circular as I have been developing the term—this despite the fact that these poems contain units, sections, that are obviously both linear and narrative. To illustrate the ways Wright uses form to embody both theme and content (as well as the beautiful sound patterns he has always been master of), I will discuss in some detail a representative example, “Lost Bodies.” The poem is divided into seven unnumbered sections, each of which serves a specific function. The first section is introductory, much as the first sections of so many of Whitman's open-formed poems are introductory. Just as Whitman does, Wright introduces us to all the elements of his poem briefly at the start:
Last night I thought of Torri del Benaco again, Its almond trees in blossom, its cypresses clothed in their dark fire,
And the words carved on that concrete cross I passed each day of my life In Kingsport going to town GET RIGHT WITH GOD / JESUS IS COMING SOON
If I had it all to do over again I'd be a Medievalist. I'd thoroughly purge my own floor.
Something's for sure in the clouds, but it's not for me,
Though all the while that light tips the fast-moving water, East wind in a rush through the almond trees.
The first three lines introduce the Italian setting which forms the basis for one of the poem's patterns of memory; the next four lines introduce the Southern setting which is the basis for the other pattern. The concluding six lines are thematic: the desire to be a Medievalist seems like a wish for religious certainty; the something that is “for sure in the clouds” seems to suggest a spiritual possibility—the efficacy of which the speaker immediately denies, but then, just as quickly, seems to grant though in a different form: if he cannot find the spiritual in the clouds, perhaps he can find it in the light on the water, in the wind in the trees.
The following six sections establish a regular and repetitive pattern: numbers two and five develop the memory of Tennessee; three and six develop the memory of Italy; four and seven develop the theme, the meanings of these memories. Charles Wright grew up in Tennessee; after college, he lived in Italy while serving in the United States Army. The sense of spirituality which is developed in the Tennessee sections is earthy and strongly Christian, the Word emphatically made flesh: “the cross is still there, sunk deeper into the red clay / Than anyone could have set it.” Wright has provided an indirect gloss on these passages in the poem “Lonesome Pine Special,” where he asserts: “In the world of dirt, each tactile thing / repeats the untouchable / In its own way, and in its own time.”
Spirituality in the Italian sections is more evanescent, not so much inherent within material objects as dancingly associated with them; it exists in the interplay between wind, water, and vegetation:
An east wind was blowing out toward the water …
I remember the cypress nods in its warm breath. I remember the almond blossoms floating out on the waves, west to Salò. I remember the way they looked there, a small flotilla of matches.
I remember their flash in the sun's flare.
The thematic sections are rational and intellectual rather than emotional and imagistic; though a desire for belief, for faith, is expressed in them, it is overridden by the logic of doubt: “You've got to sign your name to something, it seems to me. / And so we rephrase the questions / Endlessly, / hoping the answer might somehow change.” The answer is that taught by the facts of everyday life:
When you die, you fall down, you don't rise up Like a scrap of burnt paper into the everlasting. Each morning we learn this painfully, Pulling our bodies up by the roots from their deep sleep.
No matter how hard he strives to make them suffice, the speaker of these poems ultimately cannot rest easy with the strictly religious answers he considers.
We recall the spiritual function of words, of poetry, expressed in the passage from “To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky” quoted above. It would seem that the answer Charles Wright seeks in these poems can only exist as a component of poetry itself; somehow the form of the search is its own answer. Passages from two other poems seem to validate this solution. Certainly the chief poetic devices used by Wright are those which double meaning, those which establish similitude—the metaphor and the simile. In “California Dreaming,” Wright asserts that “What I know best is a little thing. / It sits on the far side of the simile, / the like that's like the like.” The statement does not express belief in a settled truth; it establishes a path, a method, which might lead to some sense of truth—if religious certainty is to be found, that is, it will be discovered through the operations of something like metaphor or simile.
Most obviously to the point is another passage from the title poem in the book, where Wright comments directly upon the meditative, metaphorical, circular method of his long poems:
It's linkage I'm talking about, and harmonies and structures And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.
Something infinite behind everything appears, and then disappears.
It's all a matter of how you narrow the surfaces. It's all a matter of how you fit in the sky.
Wright is talking neither about reality nor about settled truth here; his subject is the method of his poetry, the process whereby truth might someday be cajoled to reveal itself out of the confusing, the camouflaging, the byzantine fabric of the reality which conceals it. The Other Side of the River is a wonderful book, another compelling stride forward taken by one of America's most important poets. …
“Elegies for the Ochre Deer on the Walls at Lascaux” [by Norman Dubie] is surely the most complicated of the circular, meditative poems discussed in this essay. It demonstrates, I think, not just the great freedom and subtlety of the form but also the wide range of possibilities which are open to the poet. We have come a good distance from Rita Dove's excellent but far simpler poem, “The Copper Beech”—but I think we have traveled in a straight line. Obviously my discussion has emphasized the circular rather than the linear poem, but I do not mean to suggest by this the superiority of one form over the other. I have dwelled at length upon the circular form because it is the less well understood, the less often discussed of the two forms—and because it is a crucial element in the way these poets [Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Alan Dugan, Rachel Hadas, Derek Walcott, and Norman Dubie], like so many of their contemporaries, are writing.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
SOURCE: “Life as a Poetic Puzzlement,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 19, 1984, p. 7.
[In the following review, Eshleman offers an unfavorable assessment of The Other Side of the River.]
For the most part, the writing in Charles Wright's new book [The Other Side of the River] is languorous, nostalgic and flecked with puzzlements about the meaning of life. At best, he has a Whitmanian eye for landscape and botanical detail, and renders the names of the places and things that have touched him in the past.
However, the modest talent for “naming” is permeated with generalized commentary that rises like bubbles and disappears:
What is it about a known landscape that tends to undo us, That shuffles and picks us out For terminal demarcation, the way a field of lupine Seen in profusion deep in the timber Suddenly seems to rise like a lavender ground fog At noon? What is it inside the imagination that keeps surprising us At odd moments when something is given back We didn't know we had had In solitude, spontaneously, and with great joy?
This is seductive writing, and the seduction lies in the way the observed lupine and its simile appear to register something about the speaker's experience. But the commentary surrounding the observation is arbitrary and a “poetic game” (especially in the last quoted line) makes the reader feel a sense of experiencing something when the speaker himself is unwilling or unable to make any real connections.
When the botany or rote place naming is absent, Wright's poetry is the following:
It's the linkage I'm talking about, and harmonies and structures And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past. Something infinite behind everything appears, and then disappears. It's all a matter of how you narrow the surfaces. It's all a matter of how you fit in the sky.
I want to sit by the bank of the river, in the shade of the evergreen tree, And look in the face of whatever, the whatever that's waiting for me.
That “fit in the sky” or “the whatever that's waiting for me” is on the same level as the lyrics for “Blue Moon.” Dead language; this is language that has become so dislocated from an experiential context that there is only a faint, winning, sentiment left. It is language calculated to keep the reader blind to what is actually impinging upon him, language as sedation or “high,” in which vague sensations are titillated and immediately dismissed.
Charles Wright is one of a couple hundred creative writing program, teaching poets who, like successful businessmen, have identified a promotable product and its clientele. The product might be described as: “I did this, did that, and I'm very sensitive for having said so. You are sensitive too if you agree that I am sensitive; if you can imitate such sensitivity with a few twists of your own, others will feel the same about you.”
I am not criticizing poets for teaching, or would-be poets for being students. I am criticizing a generalized, materialistic, descriptive attitude. With the proliferation of university creative writing programs, and their need to graduate “poets” and provide them teaching jobs, such an attitude has become the standard by which most North American poetry is read and evaluated. The phrases are there, and they still carry the words that are counters for the human spirit. But such words are more part of the noise than a coordinate of intellect, sensation and intuition that can occasionally inform and challenge a reader with a vision of where and how we are.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764
SOURCE: “Writers & Writing: Through Memory and Miniatures,” in New Leader, August 20, 1984, pp. 17-18.
[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of The Other Side of the River.]
The title poem of Charles Wright's latest collection, The Other Side of the River, flows easily from memories of hunting along the banks of the Savannah where it divides South Carolina and Georgia to other Southern boyhood recollections:
It's linkage I'm talking about, and harmonies and structures And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.
But these reminiscences are similes for the present as well. Wright mentions, for instance, that at 15 he climbed a mountain, with five days' supplies on a pack horse, to repair a fire tower. After dark, from his camp, he could see the lights of a town by a lake, 3,000 feet below. Now he muses,
These nights are like that, The silvery alphabet of the sea increasingly difficult to transcribe, And larger each year, everything farther away, and less clear, Than I want it to be, not enough time to do the job, And faint thunks in the earth, As though somewhere nearby a horse was nervously pawing the ground.
By the time the poem winds to its end, as if following a stream bed, we realize that the Savannah is another name for the River Jordan of spirituals or even for Lethe or Styx—waters to pass over after “a short life of trouble.”
Wright has produced an admirable translation of Italian Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale's The Storm and Other Things, and, indeed, Montale's voice is evident in the poems here set in Italy. The author clearly has been influenced by the European tradition of choosing one's themes from mythology or history, then interweaving them with personal associations. His deepest taproots draw from Southern poets, however, especially John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. With them he shares an interest in speculations about eternal metaphysical verities, in his case remaining firmly planted in Christian theology. “Lost Bodies” meditates on human mutability and the doctrine of resurrection.
All things that come to him come under his feet In a glorious body, they say, And why not? It beats the alternative, the mighty working Set to subdue the celestial flesh. And does so, letting the grass go stiff, and the needles brown, Letting the dirt take over. This is as far as it goes, Where the deer browse the understory and jays leap through the trees, Where chain saws Whittle away at the darkness, and diesel rigs Carry our deaths all night through the endless rain.
The juxtaposition of Christ's promise with our own awareness of the decay around us and of mortality is characteristic of Wright's poetry. Although he does not plunk himself down squarely on either side of the debate, one senses that in his heart he believes in transfiguration.
Wright's work has often been regarded as difficult to interpret. Since this book, his sixth, clarifies his methods and Southern heritage, readers may now find his meaning more accessible. Surely they will see that despite his contemporary diction, his use of sustained metaphor is wryly, deliberately old-fashioned. Nor is he afraid to adopt a conventional trope to serve a folksy purpose—he writes of “the gold lamé of the moon” in a poem called “California Dreaming.” And in “Arkansas Traveller,”
in the half-light the frogs begin from their sleep To ascend into darkness, Vespers recalibrate through the underbrush, the insect choir Offering its clear soprano Out of the vaulted gum trees into the stained glass of the sky.
Few modern poets could invoke the cliché of nature as a cathedral without blushing, even if arching boughs and the twilight songs of animals bring it to mind.
These poems assemble facts, memories and visual images, juggling their arrangement until a pattern emerges. “Looking at Pictures” describes the photos, postcards and art reproductions the poet has collected over the years “of all I've thought most beautiful in the natural world.” (For the reader curious to see them the volume contains a snapshot of his bulletin board.) Wright is attempting to depict our struggle to overcome the trivialities and confusions of random existence, our effort to make sense of what happens to us and to believe our lives have some significance. It is proof of his strength that The Other Side of the River convinces us we can succeed.
When the wind is loosened and borne up, The body is lightened and feels it too could float in the wind, A bell-sound between here and sleep.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3051
SOURCE: “Charles Wright,” in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 388-97.
[In the following essay, Vendler examines Wright's meditative approach to history, time, art, and the physical world in Zone Journals.]
Lashed to the syllable and noun, the strict Armageddon of the verb, I lolled for 17 years Above this bay with its antimacassars of foam On the rocks, the white, triangular tears sailboats poke through the sea's spun sheet, Houses like wads of paper dropped in the moss-clumps of the trees, Fog in its dress whites at ease along the horizon, Trying to get the description right. If nothing else, I showed me that what you see both is and is not there, The unseen bulking in from the edges of all things, Changing the frame with its nothingness.
(“A Journal of True Confessions”)
Restless and observant senses provide the words for the unseen in Charles Wright, as they did for the religious poets Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne, both (given that their subject was the unseen) unnervingly visual writers. All ways of formulating the paradox of the unseen felt in the seen falsify the experience of that paradox, in which the reports of the senses are accompanied by some aura (not felt by most of us, perhaps) of what is not there but makes its presence felt—eternity, death, transcendence, extension, rhythm: the unseen can go by many names. Visual reports in poetry rarely go unattended by such an aura; but the creation of the aura in words puts a bizarre stress on the writer. Fog along the horizon could be described by any number of analogies; here, the aura lies in the complex personification, “Fog in its dress whites at ease,” but the relaxed formality of that comparison does not exhaust the aura, since the disturbing note of a sheet of water “torn” by sails participates in it, as does the reassuring and slightly absurd metaphor of foam antimacassars on the rocks, and the disorderliness of the littering houses. If the aura of this landscape is the aura of a long habitation (“17 years”), then a sense of arbitrary military posting, relaxation in a parlor, seamless experience punctuated by painful rips, and a fate careless of its scatterings of habitation all combine in the “seen unseen” of the bay. Valéry draws a similar harbor with an aura of its own in “Le Cimetière Marin,” but he takes care to give a logical air to his images, and would not combine antimacassars and dress whites in the same stanza. The freedom to follow the aura without respect to thematic consistency of imagery is a mark of modernist verse (Eliot's ragged claws cohabiting with bats with baby faces and so on). But this freedom is also peculiarly and necessarily the mark of poets whose concerns turn inward to the screen of contemplation, away from the sociopolitical world and the world of narrative. For such poets neither narrative (which confers a clue through the labyrinth of consciousness) nor sociopolitical reality (which confers contemporary “urgency”) is an available option. They turn inward, and skyward: “There is no sickness of spirit like home-sickness / When what you are sick for / has never been seen or heard” (“A Journal of English Days”).
The title of Wright's recent book, Zone Journals, suggests time modified by space. The time is the region around his fiftieth year; the zones traversed in the volume include California, Virginia, England, and Italy. There are other notable modern journal-volumes of the fiftieth year: Lowell's Notebook, Ammons's Snow Poems, Merrill's Divine Comedies. These books, far more quotidian (in the best sense) than Wright's bring into sharp relief the very different nature of Wright's journals—brooding, lyrical, painterly, contemplative. No marches on the Pentagon here, no historical emperors and tyrants, such as figure in Lowell; none of the sanguine dailiness or scientific curiosity of Ammons; none of the domestic comedy of Merrill (Wright mentions his wife and son only glancingly in his verse). Wright's poetry reproduces the circling and deepening concentration that aims at either obliteration or transcendence, blankness or mysticism. But Wright stops short of either polarity because he remains bound to the materiality and the temporal rhythm of language, whereas both Eastern nothingness and Western transcendence, at their utmost point, renounce as meaningless both materiality and time.
The very nature of poetry—a temporal art forever reformulated—suggests that no object or scene of present contemplation can last any longer than the moment of attention (a Keatsian point dwelt on by contemporary poets other than Wright, such as Ashbery in “Self-Portrait”). Seeking recourse against the evanescence of contemplation, Wright turns to the abiding memory of his predecessors in contemplation, who compose an aesthetic pantheon including Li Po, Dante, Petrarch, Leonardo, and Sidney; Keats, Poe, and Dickinson; Picasso, Rothko, and Pound. The exemplary quality of the life of the artist, and the question of the function and survival of art, preoccupy Wright in these journals.
At some moments, nothing seems more alive to Wright (as to anyone responsive to the headiness of aesthetically formulated language) than the voice of the great formulators, no matter how long dead. Dante appears here and speaks live words to the poet (as he had appeared to Eliot in the Quartets, as Joyce appears and speaks to Heaney in Station Island). “The voice that cannot be stilled by death or the passage of time”: this is one definition, the most assuaging one for the poet, of poetry. There are lesser definitions, though still powerful. “The presence that haunts the place it dwelt” might be the definition that for Wright fits Dickinson and Poe, whose houses in Amherst and Baltimore the poet is seen visiting, hearing no voices but finding a place where “the spirits come and my skin sings” (“Journal of the Year of the Ox,” 23 May; henceforth quotations from this long poem will be identified by date alone). But presences themselves fade: Petrarch's full life (“the tapestries and winter fires, / The long walks and solitude”) comes down after a half-millenium to “the one name and a rhyme scheme” (3 August). What are artists, in fact, but dust? “Fulke Greville lies in his stone boat in the church of St. Mary … / Hermetically sealed in stone” (“A Journal of English Days”). As if to emphasize equally both the importance of the artist's birth and his eventual remoteness in time, Wright keeps note of birthdays in his English journal:
“October 17th, Sir Philip dead / 397 years today.”
“Cézanne … died there today / 77 years ago.”
“Sunday, October 30th, Pound's birthday 98 years ago.”
And he includes a “Short Riff for John Keats on his 188th Birthday.” Our ahistoric “eternal voices” are thereby placed firmly in lost time, where Wright also places, as a past but unobliterable piece of American history, the defeated Cherokees of Virginia, who in 1806 ceded their sacred burial lands to the invaders. Wright knows that as the earlier inhabitants of his territory are, so will he be.
At the same time, history itself preserves not only the shame of massacres and exploitation but also the exemplary lives of saints and artists who confirm the poets' faith in the extension of imaginative possibility, not only in themselves but in us. Cézanne “made us see differently, where the hooks fit, and the eyes go,” says Wright's English journal; and the “Journal of True Confessions” carries even further the example of what being imaginative means, by way of a story about Leonardo told by Vasari. Presented with an unusual lizard, Leonardo, dissatisfied even with the uncommon, proceeded to embellish it:
[He] made wings for it out of the skins Of other lizards, and filled the wings with mercury Which caused them to wave and quiver Whenever the lizard moved. He made eyes, a beard and two horns In the same way, tamed it, and kept it in a large box To terrify his friends. His games were the pure games of children, Asking for nothing but artifice, beauty and fear.
Leonardo's coalescing of the biologically real lizard (“The real is only the base. But it is the base,” said Stevens), the scientifically invented mercury-wings, the anthropomorphic beard, and the mythological horns becomes a parable of aesthetic energy, delight, and imaginative intimidation.
Artifice, beauty, and fear, all in the elaborate game of metered language, are the materials of Wright's art as well. Leonardo's humor and wit (the lizard, once unmasked as artifice, must have amused) are not present in Wright, whose liturgical solemnity is corrected only by the ironies of death and futility. But at least these powerful ironies are always present: the ultimate evanescence of everything, the round of the seasons making and breaking natural forms, the inevitable self-replaceability of language.
It is in his evocations of the seasons that Wright displays both the gorgeousness of his descriptive equipment and his gift for the pathetic fallacy. At the same time, these recurrent seasonal tableaux, by their ostentatious substitutiveness, call their own reliability into question. If on one day the clouds are “cloud banks enfrescoed,” on another they are “Mannerist clouds,” on another “cloud-tufts that print a black alphabet / along the hillsides.” An infinite number of adjectival substitutions, one feels, are possible for the clouds; and although in another poet visual accuracy would be uppermost, in Wright the symbolic arbitrariness of the mind's play is at least as visible in such passages as any putative appearance of the clouds. For all Wright's debt to Hopkins and Pound and Stevens, he is less hard-edged in description than any of them, more dreamy. His beautiful landscapes are a symbolic means, rather than a visually specific end.
The landscapes consequently abound in the pathetic fallacy, which aims in Wright not at its classical unobtrusiveness but rather at an overt and unashamed pathos:
The rain lying like loose bandages over the ground;
The rain, in its white disguise, has nothing to say to the wind That carries it, whose shoulders It slips from giving no signal, aimlessly, one drop At a time, no word Or gesture to what has carried it all this way for nothing.
(“Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
These passages may be arbitrary when considered as visual descriptions of rain, but no longer seem purely contingent when considered emotionally as resonances of a suffusing inner life.
The realm of meditation which Wright has made his own has been often described in the vocabularies of theological, philosophical, and psychological speculation. Nonetheless, it does not feel, as we inhabit it, like a place called “mortal sin,” or “proprioception,” or “the superego.” It feels by turns soft, or hard, or brilliant, or drifting, or pallid, or violent. In his discipleship to the Italian futurist poet Dino Campana, whose Orphic Songs he has translated, Wright learned a sensuous, rich, and seductive vocabulary for inner sensation. Here, for comparison, are some images from Campana, in Wright's translation: “The moon … rose up in a new red dress of coppery smoke … in solitary and smoky vapor over the barbaric clefts and slices.” “The Telluric melody of the Falterona [mountain range]. Telluric waves. The last asterisk of the Falterona's song gets lost in the clouds.” “A long veranda … has scribbled a many-colored comment with its arches.” Like Wright, Campana was a pilgrim homesick for the eternal (“O pilgrim, O pilgrims who go out searching so seriously”), but his violence of color and utterance have been modulated in Wright into something which, while still sensual and ecstatic at once, is more mournful and less hallucinatory.
Journal-poems are for Wright a departure from his earlier crystalline short lyrics and exquisitely finished sequences aiming for inevitability of effect. A journal-poem allows for the chanciness of travel, and the form serves Wright especially well in the long poem “Journal of the Year of the Ox,” the centerpiece of Zone Journals. The year 1985, covered by the journal, is crowned by some summer months spent in Italy (where Wright did his military service and studied as a Fulbright scholar). The glowing set piece in the center of the sequence describes the opulent Renaissance frescoes in the Schifanoia Palace of the dukes of Este in Ferrara. These frescoes are important to Wright because they so ideally represent the world as he conceives it—an ampler, more beautiful, and more ordered cosmos than that perceived by the senses alone (though including the testimony of the senses, and expressible only in sensuous forms).
The frescoes, covering the upper portion of the large palace hall, are divided into three levels: the highest level displays the triumphs of gods invoked as patrons of Ferrara (Ceres, Apollo, Venus, and so on); the middle level displays the signs of the zodiac and their graceful attendant wardens or “deans” (so called because each figure is responsible for ten days of the month); and the lowest level displays various civic and social activities of the duke of Este. All three levels are of a striking beauty, but in each case the beauty is of a decorum to match the subject: the gods move in a radiant anagogical atmosphere of light, glory, and throngs of divine attributes; the zodiacal signs and their deans, by contrast, exist in a fixed and allegorical emblematic simplicity of outline against a solid-colored background; while the duke acts in a busy social sphere of Italian civic and geographical detail. Here is Wright responding to the art that so perfectly complies with his sense of life, allowing as it does not only for ideational panoplies and seasonal symbols but also for the realities of courtiers, horses, peasants, and grapevines:
Through scenes of everyday life, Through the dark allegory of the soul into the white light of eternity, The goddess burns in her golden car From month to month, season to season high on the walls At the south edge of Ferrara: … Reality, symbol and ideal tripartite and everlasting Under the bricked, Emilian sun. .....Borso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and Modena, on a spring day On horseback off to the hunt: a dog noses a duck up from a pond, Peasants are pruning the vines back, and grafting new ones. .....Such a narrow, meaningful strip of arrows and snakes. Circles and purple robes, griffins and questing pilgrims: At the tip of the lion's tail, a courtier rips A haunch of venison with his teeth; At the lion's head, someone sits in a brushed, celestial tree. .....Up there, in the third realm, light as though under water Washes and folds and breaks in small waves Over each month like sunrise: triumph after triumph Of pure Abstraction and pure Word, a paradise of white cloth And white reflections of cloth cross-currented over the cars With golden wheels and gold leads, all Concept and finery: Love with her long hair and swans in trace, Cybele among the Corybants, Apollo, Medusa's blood and Attis in expiation: All caught in the tide of light, all burned in the same air.
A hymn of such passion and distinction justifies both itself and the fresco it celebrates. The lavish iconography of the Renaissance, with its fertile mixture of classical, neo-Platonic, alchemical, astrological, and Christian elements, was after all a human invention:
Is this the progression of our lives or merely a comment on them?
Wright's question suggests that the extent to which such a fresco represents our lives, or is an analogy to them, is an earnest of what the fully rich life of consciousness can be, how it can place the “real” (the duke's daily round) in the light of cosmic orderly change (the zodiac) and suffuse it with the light of human motives idealized (Love, Wisdom, Art, Commerce). Here, it is not a political superstructure that gives significance to personal and civic activity; it is rather the superstructure of the sensuous, the affective, and the intellectual that gives meaning to the political.
Summer in Italy releases in Wright a flood of responsive exaltation. At home, in the winter, he is more likely to feel the downward pull of mortality; this is made gentle, in the following quotation, by the song-like mode that Wright allows his meditations to assume from time to time:
One, one and by one we all sift to a difference And cry out if one of our branches snaps or our bark is cut. The winter sunlight scours us, The winter wind is our comfort and consolation. We settle into our ruin
One, one and by one as we slip from clear rags into feathery skin Or juice-in-the-ground, pooled And biding its time backwashed under the slick peach tree. One, one and by one thrust up by the creek bank, Huddled in spongy colonies, longing to be listened to.
Here I am, here I am, we all say, I'm back, Rustle and wave, chatter and spring Up to the air, the sweet air. Hardened around the woodpecker's hole, under his down, We all slip into the landscape, one, one and by one.
Folk song and the blues hover here, as elsewhere, behind Wright's poetry, and distinguish him from his most potent mentor, Pound. He is the only one of the tribe of Pound not to feel Pound's aversion to syntax, and Wright's poetry, in its play of syntactic subordination and dominance, reclaims an elaborate intellectuality for the Poundian image. In spite of their intellectuality, the poems remain finally sensuous objects in a pilgrim shrine. “Our lines,” says Wright in “A Journal of True Confessions,” “seem such sad notes for the most part, / Pinned like reliquaries and stop-gaps / to the cloth effigy of some saint.” Wright's Christian upbringing remains imaginatively present to him, secreting a nacreous nostalgia for the vocabulary that, had it only suited his century, would have best suited his sense of things. Without the ability to assert, at least in any conventional dogma, the intuitions of faith, he is left with the biological conservation of matter as the only resurrection he can count on, “juice-in-the-ground, pooled / And biding its time.” In his zones of dislocation—between the Christian and the biological, between Europe and America, and between the allegorical and the visible—Wright finds a scene of writing unique to himself and to his historical moment, and phrases it over and over in his musical and grieving half-lines, themselves the very rhythm of contemplative musing.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12571
SOURCE: “The Art of Poetry XLI: Charles Wright,” in Paris Review, Vol. 31, No. 113, Winter, 1989, pp. 185-221.
[In the following interview, Wright discusses his introduction to poetry and formative years, his artistic development and aesthetic concerns, and his approach to composing poetry.]
From his dust-jacket photographs, you might expect Charles Wright to be a dour man. In person, though, he gives a quite different impression—trim, elegant even in blue jeans, generous, with a Southerner's soft-spoken courtliness. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, he grew up in the South and went to college there. And a few years ago, after a long spell of teaching at the University of California at Irvine, he returned to the South, as poet-in-residence at the University of Virginia.
Wright's work stands out among his generation of poets for the austere luxuriance of its textures, its mingling of domestic subjects and foreign methods, and its bold and unpretentious ambition. During the past two decades he has written eight books of poems: The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), China Trace (1977), The Southern Cross (1981), Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1983; winner of that year's American Book Award in Poetry), The Other Side of the River (1984), and Zone Journals (1988). He has also translated two volumes of poetry, by Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana, and when I visited him he was putting together a collection of prose writings.
I had been invited to dinner with the Wrights—Charles, his wife, the photographer Holly Wright, and their son Luke, who had just been accepted at Sewanee and could tell us anything we wanted to know about computers. They live in a handsome Victorian house in Charlottesville. Their dining room has been converted from a parlor, and is large enough for a fireplace and grand piano. We sat at an 18th-century Sheraton walnut table. But the formality was offset by odd details—a witch ball, the bit from the horse of the infamous bandit Joaquin Murieta. Opposite my chair was an imposing oil portrait of Wright's great-grandfather, Charles Penzel, for whom the poet was named. Penzel, from minor Bohemian nobility, had emigrated to America at sixteen. No sooner had he settled down than the Civil War erupted. At twenty-three he took a bullet in the mouth as he yelled “Charge!” during the Battle of Chickamauga. After that tumultuous start, Penzel eventually became a banker in Little Rock, Arkansas, and even wrote poems. One, addressed to a war widow and printed up in a newspaper of the time, begins: “Beyond the flight of Time, / Beyond the reign of Death, / There surely is some better clime, / Where life is not a breath …”
After dinner we went up to Wright's huge attic study. It's kept obsessively neat—a trait, he says, he gets from his father, a civil engineer whose desk was scrupulously organized. Here is a poet for whom—as one looks around the room—arrangements matter. On one wall of shelves his books are arranged by their size, not by author or subject. In fact, there are fewer books than one might imagine, but more images: stacks of postcards, a zebra rug, gadgets, bird skulls, an heirloom sword—totems all. We pull up chairs next to what he calls his shelf of sacred texts, his lifelong masters, the voices that enabled him to find his own. There beside us are Dante, Pound, the Bible, Plath, Hemingway, Babel, Stevens, Williams, Crane, Roethke, Whitman, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Hopkins, Montale, an anthology of Chinese verse.
Across the room from us, in a narrow dormer alcove, is his desk with its Hermes portable typewriter. Above it are photographs of his wife and of Verona, taken during his first visit there in 1959. Beside these, a drawing of Campana, and a page from an old edition of Inferno, Canto XXIV. “What I look at has everything to do with what I think,” he quickly explains.
Near the desk, at the end of a daybed, is what looks like an old tin footlocker. Stencilled on the front of it is the name H. W. Wilkinson. It rings a bell.
[McClatchy:] May I ask what you keep in the box?
[Wright:] Of course. Family things, mostly. Old letters, land grant deeds in Arkansas, a couple of family trees. That sort of stuff. Actually, the land grant deeds are interesting, one signed by James K. Polk, one by John Quincy Adams, and one by Andrew Jackson. Simpler presidencies in those days, when you could spend time signing grants for the territory. The whole lot was in a bottom drawer of my father's desk when he died and I've just rather unceremoniously stuck it in this tin box I bought in an antique shop in California. Family letters in almost indecipherable hands from the mid-1800s in Arkansas, a couple of documents from a great-aunt of mine tracing the family lines on my father's side, from Maryland through Virginia to Tennessee and finally to Arkansas. A lock of Robert E. Lee's hair, if you can believe that! There are bunches of snapshots from my childhood as well. And my old arrowhead collection I had as a boy. And a skeleton or two—all the poems I wrote in Italy when I was in the Army, which I have vowed to throw away every year since 1961, but haven't succeeded in doing yet. And a diary of sorts I kept the first year I was in the Army, in California and Italy, before I began trying to write those poems. Wretched stuff. Execrable stuff. I can't bring myself to read it or throw it away. I'm going to do both soon. I guess I keep thinking there might be something I can use one day. But after all these years of ransacking that box for material, I should know better. A kind of poetic memento mori, I suppose.
And one of your great-grandfathers was a senator from Arkansas, wasn't he?
Oh, farther back than that. In the late 1830s—I don't know how many “greats” that makes him. 1837 is the date of the picture we have of the Senate chamber down in the dining room. He's in it, along with Ambrose Sevier, the other senator from Arkansas, and a distant relative. It's an interesting engraving—Longfellow is up in the balcony, as well as Audubon and the original Cassius Clay. His name was William Savin Fulton. I got the picture because no one else in the family wanted it. I suppose it is rather ugly, but I'm fond of it. He was the family's “illustrious ancestor.” Most families have one back down the line, I guess. He's still known as Governor Fulton in the family, for some reason. I just used his recipe for egg nog at Christmas, it's a real killer. I don't know that much about him, really. I suppose there might be more in the box, in some of the letters, but the handwriting is difficult to read, and I'm not sure what else I need to know. Nothing, probably. He just shines back there, our distant star, whose name we all know, but not much else.
Now I remember. You dedicated The Southern Cross to the same mysterious H. W. Wilkinson whose name is stencilled on that tin locker. It's meant, then—that dedication—as a gesture to your past? This trunk is really a sort of voice-box, a memory and a throat for the past. The poems in The Southern Cross have that character too.
Mr. Wilkinson is as mysterious to me as he is to you. His name was on the box when I bought it, and that's all I know about him. The Southern Cross was dedicated to the box, actually, as you surmise, and not to Mr. Wilkinson per se: he's just a stand-in for a catch-all, if such a thing is possible. A voice-box is a nice way to put it, although it's been more so in the past than it is now. Especially around the time of Bloodlines and, as you say, The Southern Cross. I used some of its material also in “Arkansas Traveller,” from The Other Side of the River. My great-grandfather's obituary from the Little Rock paper in 1906, some fragments from the letters about the move from Tennessee to Arkansas in the early 1800s. Stuff like that. I guess I thought it was cute, as well, to dedicate a book ostensibly to someone I didn't know. But, as you say, the real gesture was to my past, a way of letting those speak whose voices are too faint to hear. So it's a voice-box in that sense, too; it amplifies the deep and desperate whispers of those who have disappeared into a kind of request for recognition. Sort of like La Pia in Canto V of the Purgatorio, though in no way so poignant or affecting: “Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondol e riposato de la lunga vial … recorditi di me, che son La Pia …” “Remember me, remember me …” Well, I hope that some of the poems in which I use their leftovers do remember them. And the first poem in The Southern Cross, “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” takes up that charge somewhat—though the dead are not named, I did have my own family, from the box, in mind. “A throat for the past.” That's a nice way of putting it.
You've mentioned your early poems. Is it nostalgia that makes you keep them? What are they like? Or better, what did they know and not know how to do?
They didn't know how to do anything. Mostly, I guess, because they didn't know what they were supposed to do. And I myself had no clue. I had read The Pisan Cantos and The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. So I started at the end instead of the beginning, trying to write about what I was seeing—Italy—in terms of what I had been reading—Pisan Cantos. Wrong from the start—an Attic disgrace. If one has to write poorly before one can write well—which I think is true—and if that can be extended to read that One has to write deplorably before one can write extraordinarily well, then I definitely started in the right place for the latter. I suppose it's nostalgia that makes me keep them. That and the sense of duty that one shouldn't destroy one's stunted darlings. Keep them out of sight, yes, but don't abuse them. Rather like the retarded great-aunt in the attic, that mainstay of Southern gothic. Soon, I know, I must harden my heart and dispose of them. Euthanasia, so to speak. But for the moment, to continue your figure from the last question, they lie there like a bone in the dark throat of my past. It's not their fault. They just never had a chance.
Even with those early poems, it seems a bit of a late start. You were already in the army, weren't you? Why then—or rather, why not before then?
Why I didn't before then is unanswerable, probably. Who knows why we don't do things? I would imagine it was because poetry was never presented to me in a way that generated any excitement. I certainly remember nothing of it either in boarding school or in college. In college, in fact, there was one creative writing course taught every other year by the Shakespeare professor—not exactly a commitment on the school's part. And all the straight English courses I took seemed to revolve around prose, not poetry. An ongoing debility, I might add, almost everywhere. It didn't help, I suppose, that I was a history major as well. I did try to write stories in college, or what I thought were stories—mood pieces, really, purple prose on the model of Thomas Wolfe. I had no idea how to do anything, and no one told me or showed me. If I had been a photograph, I would have been under-exposed and under-developed. As it was, I was merely under-educated. But then, my college never claimed it was in the business of turning out writers—William Styron, for instance, left after his freshman year. It turned out lawyers, doctors and Presbyterian ministers. At least back in those days it did. It wasn't until I stumbled onto The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound that I discovered a form that seemed suited to my mental and emotional inclinations—the lyric poem, a form, or sub-genre, I guess, that didn't depend on a narrative structure, but on an imagistic one, an associational one. “Gists and piths,” as they say, instead of intricacy of narrative line.
Okay, but why then? What took?
That's a bit easier. Mostly it's because I read a poem that just overwhelmed me, blew me away, as the saying goes. It was “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” by Pound, from the Selected Poems. I loved the sound of it—it was in iambic pentameter, although I didn't know it at the time, and even if I had, I wouldn't have know what that was. That it was describing the very location I was reading it in—Sirmione peninsula, in the ruins of the villa of the Roman poet, Catullus—didn't hurt either. In any case, it was enough of a thunderclap to move me swiftly through the Selected Poems, and farther down the road as well. I bought a Guanda paperback edition of The Pisan Cantos, recently translated into Italian with the original English on the facing page, and read that. Understanding almost nothing, I might add, except some place names. Pound had, a year before—this was in 1959—returned to Italy and was living above Merano, in Brunnenberg, so his books were available at the local bookstores. At least they were available in Verona, where I lived. Later I got a Faber & Faber Cantos, and bought Rock Drill and Thrones, too. But it was The Pisan Cantos that struck me, along with Cathay in the Selected Poems. It was the first poetry I ever bought. I was twenty-three. Anyway, that's why then, finally, I began to try to write poems.
You say you began writing in Italy. You could as easily say you began writing in the army—but you don't.
Well, being in the army is physical, being in Italy is metaphysical. Or so it seemed at the time. So you could say, and I often do, that I began writing poems in the army in Italy. The metaphysics of the quotidian. The army, actually, was very good to me, much better to me than I was to it. I gave them four years of my time and they gave me back, it turned out, a life. The army was only the base, as Stevens says, but it was the base. And from it I drifted into the Italian landscape and was never the same again. I never looked at anything the same way again. I never listened to anything in the same way. My eight-to-five in the army was the old way, the rest of the time was the new way. And since I never wrote poems, or what I thought of as poems, during army hours, I suppose I tend to think of my writing as being in Italy, off-duty, as opposed to the army workaday world. The army was still the United States—off-duty was a foreign country. The army was fact, Italy was fiction. Again, the metaphysics of the quotidian. Or, poetry is the fiction we use to prove the fact. Something like that.
What did Pound contribute, and what did Italy prompt—or can you separate them now?
Pound contributed Cathay to listen to and The Pisan Cantos to look at. Conversational tone in a high mode in the former, emotional road maps in the latter. Italy prompted a realignment with the world and its attendant possibilities. Actually, I suppose it goes a bit further than that. Which is to say, if form imposes and structure allows, then Pound imposed and Italy allowed. Reading Pound showed me there was a way to do what I had always wanted to do—to write—and Italy somehow allowed me to do it. I don't quite know how. Aiding and abetting, I guess. The same continuous sense of discovery everywhere I turned in the country that lay everywhere I turned in the books. I can separate them, of course, but the way you separate a glove from a hand. Or a skin from a snake. Still, Pound was a temporary obsession, a jump-start, as it were. Italy has continued in me to this day. A major battery, as it were. It has given me more than landscape, however. Montale and Campana, for instance, not to mention our main man, Dott. Alighieri. Morandi and all the painters. The fact is that I discovered, in a way, each through the other, and during the early days it was difficult to separate them. Now, though, to finish the image off, the glove is in the dresser but the hand goes on about its business. As for the snake, the less said about that the better.
By the way, did you ever meet Pound while you were there?
Actually, I never did. I came close once, in 1969, when I was living in Venice and teaching at the University of Padua. Jim Tate was visiting me and we arranged, through a mutual friend of mine and Olga Rudge's, Vittoria Cozzi, for the three of us—Vittoria, Jim and me—to call on Pound on a particular Monday. This was on a Wednesday, I think. Well, between Wednesday and Monday, Pound got a call about his honorary degree from Hamilton College and was already in the States by the time our appointment came around. It was his last trip to America, it turned out. Otherwise, I used to see him taking his walks along the Zattere off and on. I used to see him and Olga in Piazza San Marco before they left for San Ambrogio for the winter. He, as I recall, always wore (at least when I saw him) a beautiful camel's hair topcoat and a muffler. And a hat. He always wore a hat. I would see him occasionally, always with Miss Rudge, through the window at the odd restaurant. I remember wanting, early on, back when I was in the army, to go up to Brunnenberg to see him. We used to have maneuvers outside Merano, and Brunnenberg was close by—or relatively so. All this, of course, was just so much fantasy. You must remember that I hadn't even published a book and that Pound didn't speak. The closest I ever came was when I stood anonymously next to him under the porticoes of San Marco, looking at the church and the piazza one evening. But what was there to say? “I like your poems.” “Is this the city of Dioce?” Besides, it was, in the end, the best thing, wasn't it? Standing side by side with him, looking at the most beautiful square in the world, in the city he taught me to look at in ways that would change my life. Water and silence. Some words, I guess, are better left unuttered. Or so they say.
Let's stay in Italy a moment longer, but jump ahead across the years. It seems to me that in your most recent book, as in your earliest, Italy is a kind of sacred place for you—almost a motherland, while America is your fatherland. And of course you've translated Montale and Campana. Can you tell me—can you even tell yourself—what that landscape and culture have meant to you?
Well, Zone Journals is about sacred places. Sacred places, language and landscape, and how they co-exist in each other, and speak for, and to, each other. The two primary sacred places in the book are the Long Island of the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee, where I grew up, sacred ceremonial ground of the Cherokee nation, and northern Italy, especially the Veneto region, where I first began writing poems. The center, the exact center of the Journals, takes place during a two-month period spent in a farmhouse outside Padua in the summer of 1985, with my family and Mark Strand and his family. The center of the center, as it were, is a description of a room of Renaissance frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. They depict the tripartite levels of existence—everyday life, allegorical life, and ideal life. It's a concept that appeals to me. Anyway, yes, that part of Italy does have “sacred place” status for me. As does language itself, the most sacred place of all. And since my own sense of language was stumbled upon in Italy, I suppose that does make it a kind of motherland, place of rebirth and nurture, let's say, for pomposity's sake.
As for what that landscape and culture have meant to me, it's obvious I can't say. For over twenty-five years I've been trying to do so, but I keep coming up short and having to try again. I'll probably keep at it until the end, and come acropper all the way. But the very least I can say is that it completely restructured my way of looking at the world, it reordered dramatically the list of what is important to me in life, and it reshuffled forever my ambitions. Not an unnoticeable change. Its landscape has become the inner landscape I walk through, its paintings and literature—especially Montale and Campana, as you mention, and Dante as well—have become intellectual touchstones for me. It did, in the end, what any conversion does for you—it makes the scales drop from your eyes, and it changes your name.
Then you returned to the States in 1961, and enrolled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What was it like in those days?
It was much smaller then, about half the size it is now, and it hadn't reached the apotheosizic state it seems to dwell in these days. It had run through only one group of poets, basically, who were to become well-known—the Justice-Levine-Snodgrass bunch. It was probably better-known for its past teachers—Lowell, Berryman, Paul Engle—than for its students. It had had Flannery O'Connor in fiction, of course. It had just finished its first twenty-five years. Also, it was its own entity, funded out of Paul Engle's pocket and what he could wheedle out of Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids and Iowa Power and Light. Now it's part of the English Department proper, with a huge budget and giant money from the James Michener Foundation. The jewel in the crown, as it were. And they've run a lot more people through it in the twenty-five years just past than they did in the first twenty-five. But it was a wonderful place for me. As I say, I'd never studied poetry as such, knew nothing about the writing of it, didn't even know what an iambic pentameter line was, had read nothing but Pound and Eliot and some Montale and Campana in Italian. Every page in my book was blank. I was twenty-six in 1961 when I arrived, and had never written a proper poem in my life. The workshop itself was housed in a group of Quonset huts left over from the time of World War II—there is a parking lot, without plaque, I might add, where they used to be. I was very lucky in having some wonderful classmates who taught me what and how to read, and what and how to write. Mark Strand, primarily, and Al Lee and William Brown. Neither Brown nor Lee write any more, but they were extremely talented and helped me enormously in the early days. Strand still does. Donald Justice was our teacher and controlled the entire technical and moral fiber of the workshop. He was exemplary in all ways. I probably learned more from him than anyone else who ever went through his classes. I was absorbent and soaked up whatever spilled out in the classrooms, in the bars after classes, in the offices, everywhere. Oh, I had so much to learn. And by the time I left, I did know what an iambic pentameter line was.
An amazing winter—at least by my standards—also led to the hot-house effect that the workshop had back then. We had twenty-five inches of snow on the ground by December first and didn't see the ground again until March. During one stretch of several weeks, the temperature never got above zero. God, it was cold. Nothing to do but read and write. Nowhere to go but indoors. As I say, I probably got more out of my two years there than anyone else who ever went. Even my Montale translations started there. I loved it.
What about writing workshops? You have studied in them, taught in them—and over the years, no doubt, have seen them change.
Actually, they haven't changed much, I think. At least not the ones I've had any connection with. Perhaps the students have changed—and I think they have, a great deal—but the workshops themselves are still the same process of give and take. More take than give, usually. I'm talking about from the writer's side. From the teacher's side, it's trying to give what the poem wants. More often than not, you tend to give more than the poem can take, both positively and negatively. Or more than the poem deserves. It can, of course, be very beneficial. I know of very few cases where it is destructive—and then only because of other, outside factors. I think it can be neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. But on the whole, I have found them to do what they should do—encourage the talented and discourage the not-so-talented.
I am, as I think I have intimated, almost a 100٪ product of the writing workshop system. And it was not only good for me, but necessary as well. I'm talking about graduate workshops now. The one I attended stood in for all the early writing guidance I never had, and saved me years of floundering and fooling myself that I knew what I was about when, in fact, I hadn't a clue. But not everyone was, or is, in my predicament. In fact, nowadays, almost no one is. In a sense, the original battle the workshop system had to fight, the lack of undergraduate writing instruction, has been won, and students come to the graduate programs already in possession of what we had only after a two-year graduate stint. The undergraduate departments have been almost totally infiltrated. Every campus has its poet and its fiction writer. The graduate programs now tend to be rather like feedlots or holding pens. Productive, perhaps, but maybe not wholly necessary. Still, there seems to be a market for them.
Could we say that workshops help the apprentice poet make the inevitable mistakes—and realize them—more quickly?
Certainly undergraduate workshops do. I think they are marvelous courses, as I tried to say just now—they seem to me to be pertinent components of any undergraduate English department curriculum. It's only the graduate workshops that I am of two minds about. Any undergraduate student who takes a workshop, whether he can write a lick or not, is a better student for the time he has spent there. A better reader and, one can hope, a better writer. You can't beat that. Now if he is one of the two or three every five years who may actually turn out to be a writer, so much the better for everyone all around. The same probably holds true for the graduate workshops as well, though the students seem less willing to make the mistakes. There is still much for them to learn, but too often they don't seem to want to learn it. They are still conserving what they learned as undergraduates and all too often seem willing to hole up in that accomplishment without trying to break through into another zone of contemplation, say, or further center of attention. Graduate workshops should be just as adventurous and abyss-jumping as undergraduate ones. Too often, lately, it seems to me that the students don't want to make the mistakes they need to make. It's as though the workshop were the end of something and not a pre-beginning. Hemingway said, “What you win in Boston you lose in Chicago.” Too many students don't want to play in Chicago, win or lose. But if you don't lose in Chicago, you can't win in Boston. So you gotta play.
When you pick up a new book of poems—a book by someone else, I mean—what do you look for first?
Hmmm … Music and substance, I guess, as most anyone would. One man's music, naturally, is another man's Muzak. One's ear is one's Virgil, however, leading you on. It's difficult, though, the older you get. You're harder and harder to satisfy. Meters become monotonous, measures become minimal, or non-existent. You keep harking back to the great dead, as Dylan Thomas called them, and asking where their like are. And, of course, their like are in the tomb. “Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?” Not a good question to ask. One looks for a reach, an ambition. One looks for language, an exuberance. Well, one looks for Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson, for Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman. There seem to me to be certain absolutes in whatever field of endeavor one is in. In business and banking they may be availability and convertibility, security and safekeeping, minimal loss and steady, incremental accession. I don't think it's that way in poetry, though such values will get you to temporary high places. Brilliance is what you reach for, language that has a life of its own, seriousness of subject matter beyond the momentary gasp and glitter, a willingness to take on what's difficult and beautiful, a willingness to be different and abstract, a willingness to put on the hair shirt and go into the desert and sit still, and listen hard, and write it down, and tell no one … Is that asking too much? Probably. Is there going to be someone to come along who fits this description? Probably. Will we recognize him when he comes? Probably not.
In fact, how often do you find these qualities? Or any of them separately?
Not often, obviously. Very seldom, in fact. But there are other, more minor virtues and felicities to comfort one. And in my own generation there are poets who I think incorporate some if not all of the major qualities I look for. Writers like Mark Strand and Charles Simic, C. K. Williams and Louise Glück and James Tate. I think Michael Palmer is onto something as well. There are many talented younger writers now, probably more than ever before, but I do find a caution among them that is more pervasive than one would like, a timidity about taking on something outside themselves, outside their reach. Jorie Graham tries a real reach, and I admire her for that. And there are some others. The problem with all of us as we get older is that we begin writing as though we were somebody. One should always write as if one were nobody, for that's what we are. In the giant shadow of Dante's wing, for instance, we are nobody and should never forget it. So we should always write out of our ignorance and desire and ambition, never out of some sense of false well-being, some tinge of success. There is no success in poetry, there is only the next inch, the next hand-hold out of the pit.
The subtitle of your Country Music is Selected Early Poems. At the time, you had four books to select from. How did you go about it? By 1982, when Country Music appeared, your sense of a poem—and of your own poems especially—must have changed a great deal from what it had been twenty years before, when your first poems were published. Which of them still seemed valuable?
To start with, I eliminated everything from my first book, The Grave of the Right Hand, except for the five prose poems which I used as a kind of “proem” to the larger structure I had been working on for about seven years, a trilogy of books—Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace—that was sort of a past, present and future, an autobiography by fragmental accretion, as it were. Books—and poems—about family, childhood, landscape and place. And one, China Trace, about the future, a spiritual future. The trilogy also had a structural progression, from a book of disparate, individual lyrics, through one of sequences and ending with a book-length poem—granted, an odd one, but one that has a character who goes from the first poem, where he shrugs off childhood, to the last, where he ends up a constellation in the heaven of the fixed stars—not enough belief to be able to get beyond what he can see, into the empyrean. Each poem is a chapter in the book, the book a little “pilgrim's progress”—with a small “p.” What interested me then—and what still interests me when I have to think about it—was the accumulation of the three books, and not individual poems. Although I still have a fondness for “Skins” and “Tattoos” as poems, as well as for China Trace. Nothing actually seems “valuable,” although some things, including those, seem retrievable. And even though each book one writes is in essence an apprentice volume, The Grave of the Right Hand was my major apprentice volume, so I was glad to be able to rescue anything from it. Thom Gunn once said to me that you'll like your first book much better as you get older. I've found that not to be the case for me. Which is, I suppose, the answer to part of your question—when I first started writing, I was interested in the tight weave of the surface only—technique as a statement in itself, so to speak. I no longer, in 1982, or now in 1988, believed this. Technique is half a statement in itself. It's a subject without a verb or object. As I went along, my books, I hope, started to reflect this. My interest in technical matters, the “how,” has not lessened, but my interest in what I am trying to say, the “what,” has become more than equal to it. Like a spider's web that is tight in its individual parts, but expandable in its larger structure, the entire poem trembles when any area is touched. Its meaning is almost invisible, but can be mortal to the right being. Or the wrong one.
When you read through your early books today, do you have the sense of encountering a distinctive “Charles Wright” style in them?
It depends on how far back you go. Before a poem called “Dog Creek Mainline” in Hard Freight, no; after it, yes. Which is to say, for the first ten years of my serious writing, no. It's odd, though, that I recognize more of what I'm trying to do now in stuff I wrote before I went to Iowa, when I knew nothing, than in the stuff I wrote between 1961 and 1971. The early stuff, as I've explained, wasn't any good—in fact, it was bloody awful—but the impulse was there, the reach and horizon were there.
Style is very important to me, actually. As far as I can see, there is no great art without great style, however sophisticated or unsophisticated it might be. All major writers are great stylists. Even Faulkner, in his way. It's too bad the term has come to be pejorative—all style, no substance. On the contrary. Major style usually, if not always, signals real substance. It's hard to think of anyone, from Hemingway to Yeats to Pound to Crane, of the major Moderns who wasn't a great stylist. And it isn't, of course, restricted to this century. I yearn to have a significant style. I want people to be able to look at a poem of mine on the page, read it, and to say, as though they had seen a painting on a wall, “This is Charles Wright.”
I sometimes think I can recognize one. And that's as much for what's been left out—a lot of discursive stuffing and expressionistic upholstery that clutters so much contemporary poetry—as for what's been included. There's a sound, a sweet-and-sour melody. There's a look, a jagged elegance. There's a pace, the jump-cuts and loping back. And above all, an ambition. Isn't that a part of style too?
Well, yes, of course. But most of those, taken in the abstract, are surface. Except for the last one, the one that sends roots down and makes the thing take hold. And transforms the other three into more than meets the eye. Or ear. I mean, there is style, and there is Style. When everything clicks, style is Style, everything inextricably bound up in language and its ambitions, everything palpable in the isness, the radiance that language offers. It's a concentration of the particular, I suppose, despite the gravity of the general. Transcendence inside its own skin. In other words, it tends to be not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it. I feel about style the way Heidegger felt about being. It's inside, not outside. All those things you mention—sound and look and, what was it, pacing? and ambition, all have to come from an inner necessity, a “thereness,” a haeccitas, that makes you write as you do. Jazz, for example, may be all style, but it's all soul as well. Everything that we see comes from something that we don't see. Duende or dharma or dasein, it all comes down to the same thing, you are what you are, and what you are in that secret place is what you write. Well, it's complicated, isn't it, and I haven't expressed myself very well. Clarity. Faith, hope and clarity. Some things are more difficult to clarify than others, aren't they? Great clarity is great style, however hard it may be.
In Bloodlines you began to write sequences of poems, and that impulse toward length, juxtaposition, complexity, a layering of voices and memories, has marked each of your books since. What is it in that kind of poem that attracts you?
All the things you mention, I guess—length, juxtaposition; complexity and layering. Especially juxtaposition and layering. Voices and memory. Actually, in Bloodlines and China Trace, though there is an extension of the under-structure—sequences in one, and the other being a long poem, now in forty-six parts—the surface weave is a continual tightening, winding it down as tight as I can make it. Again, the spider's web—the web gets bigger, but the pattern gets tighter and smaller. Beginning with The Southern Cross, I set about unwinding the whole apparatus, and it gets increasingly looser through The Other Side of the River and into Zone Journals.
Montale said that all poetry rises out of prose and yearns to return to it. That sounds right to me. And the interesting place to work in is that yearning, between the two power points. Perhaps all poetry aspires toward the condition not of music, but of the prose poem. Another reason I got into lengthier gestures and juxtapositional organization was that I thought I had taken the lyric as far as I could in tightening it in China Trace. Relaxation seemed a good idea at the time. And that was about the time I began to look closely at Cézanne and Morandi, two painters who used space and structure in ways that appealed to me. I've tried to carry some of those ideas over into my poems. So, structural considerations, architecture in the poem, the use of space, design. The temporal surface, or the attempt to make a temporal surface that was extra-temporal, continued, of course, as it had always been—the first obsession. Not necessarily the greater but still the first. What attracted me? Amplitude, desire, the ventriloquism of the past.
Is that true for Zone Journals as well? They seem more relaxed, more expansive than the earlier sequences.
I think so. They are verse journals, remember, and are greatly concerned with line as well as story line. They are, I suppose, in as loose a form as I can work with and still work in lines. As opposed to sentences, I mean. One of the purposes of the journals was to work with a line that was pushed as hard as I could push it toward prose, conversational in tone but with the rhythmic concentration of what we call poetry. The journals' very nature, by definition, makes them more explicit. They are more didactic than other poems, perhaps, and more emotionally open. One tends to speak one's mind more nakedly in journals. One tends to say what is really troubling one's sleep. At the same time, of course, they are poems, with all a poem's avoidances and exclusions. Still, the word “journal” is operative, and allows more quotidiana in, and the speculations such dailiness leads to.
One more thing. Some years ago Octavio Paz called for what I seem to remember as a “Baroque-abstract” in painting. A kind of Mannerism. A non-pejorative Mannerism. I think that has happened in the work, say, of Frank Stella. I think it is also happening, here and there, in poetry. One could name names—Ashbery, for instance. It is a position that interests me as well.
Let me go back to The Southern Cross. The splendid title poem of that book sets out, in a crucial sense, to be a very personal poem, but isn't by any means a conventionally autobiographical one. Autobiography seems central but intermittent in your poems. Is that a fair estimate?
I think so. In fact, that's a splendid way of putting it. Central because it's always there, intermittent because it doesn't always show. Rather like the progression of the storylines in the poems themselves—central but intermittently in evidence. A submerged narrative, as it were. A kind of minus tide that runs just under everything and adds by subtraction. Anyone's autobiography, at least in his own eyes, is made up of a string of luminous moments, numinous moments. It's a necklace we spend our lives assembling. That's what “The Southern Cross” is about, saying some of those beads. But that “I” isn't I anymore. It's someone else, the character who plays me, someone who's a better actor than I could ever be. I'm just the writer. Someone else is starring in my part. I remember him just well enough to try to write about him. A case of the negative sublime. I guess art's always after the fact. The real is imaginary, or imagined. Reconstitution, reconstruction, representation is all we're left with. Autobiography becomes biography in the end.
As a Southern poet, you might be expected to favor a broadly narrative poetry. Though you've called some poems “Stories” or “Journals,” in general you shy from straight narrative. Why is that?
It's simple, really. I can't tell a story. Only Southerner I know who can't. And, in truth, I have no real interest in telling one. The point of telling a story is the telling; the story itself is not the point. I always wanted to get to the end and find out what the point was. Still do.
Let's talk for a minute about how you put a poem together. It seems to me that an apt metaphor for one of your completed poems is the X-ray rather than the statue. I mean, a reader can see through its verbal “finish,” back to those memories that float as they do first in the mind, as images. Is that what starts a poem going for you—a cluster of images?
It does, actually. Perhaps not a cluster. One would do. Something I see, usually; something observed. The “little dropped hearts” of the camellia blooms scattered under the huge camellia bush in my backyard in Laguna Beach fifteen years ago started the poem “Tattoos.” And since “Tattoos” begat “Skins,” you could say that those fallen blossoms were the beginning of the entire book, Bloodlines, as the other eight poems went in to accentuate or ameliorate the two long central ones. Of course, each one had its own separate trigger, but the initial pull was off the dropped blossoms. For example, “Skins” began not with an image but with a phrase, “there comes a time when what you are is what you will be.” Then it went on from there. In the old days, when I was starting out—say 1959 to 1969—my poems almost always began with a rhythm, a little wordless riff I'd hear in my head. Then I'd try to fill in the blanks, even with nonsense words, if I had to, to get it down. I suppose it was because I was learning, or trying to learn, the meters—syllabics, accentuals, accentual-syllabics, and so forth. I always had these things going around in my head. There was a period when I almost thought in pentameter, and a period when every time I concentrated on something it developed into a seven-syllable line. After a while, after I came to be easier with these meters, if not at ease with them, my attention became more visual, and what I would see would begin to cluster, to use your word, around a sound pattern. When I began to work exclusively in free verse, around 1970, the images began to develop their own rhythms, I suppose, as they aggregated. Still, it's always been rhythm and image for me, as opposed to, say, ideas, that get a poem going. Mark Strand, for example, works from ideas, I'd imagine. I think very few of his poems begin with something observed. Observed physically, I mean. I often wish I were more like that myself, as I feel somewhat restricted. But I'm not. Which isn't to say an idea or two doesn't work its way in, but my poems don't start with one.
How does memory fit into that kind of scheme?
Well, memories … Hmmm. I suppose memory would be the invisible end of a vanishing rope, and the thing observed would be the visible end. Memory is the subjective correlative, to adopt, or adapt, the Reverend Mr. Eliot's vocabulary, of the seen object, and your job is to turn the equation around, to make the unseen seen. Instead of emotional equivalents, they become visual responses. The focus is on the unseen, and how these things are brought up into view through the unemotional lens of the tactile present. I don't know. I do like your metaphor of my poems being more like X-rays than statues, though. Revealing that which is hidden, unseen but not forgotten. Showing its relationship and necessity to the working organism of the present. The memories may float in the mind, but they are fixed in their functioning places in the body of the poem. This is beginning to sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo to me. Theories always come after the poems. Theories are always secondary, no matter how intriguing we make them, or how compelling. Theories are easy. It's the poems that are difficult.
And how do you know when a poem is, in fact, done?
When I feel a theory about it coming on.
Seriously, how do you know, if you do know?
It used to be easy, as a matter of fact. In the old days—the old days are pre-The Southern Cross, all the early poems collected in Country Music—when I was more interested in the traditional, self-contained lyric, I'd know it when I got to the end, as I knew where, and what, the end was. And, in fact, I'd often start with the end, a last line or a last image, and work down to it. More recently, in the past ten to eleven years, it hasn't been that easy. If the poems nowadays are at all self-contained and box-like, they are like Chinese boxes, boxes within boxes. But more often they are too encompassing to be analogous even to that. Something like, for instance, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” would be more like an aircraft carrier—many small lyrics riding on its superstructure. How's that for an outrageous linkage? Of course the “Ox” poem had to finish at the end of December, 1985, as one of its structures was the length of the year. But what went in, and what ended it, was very open. When I thought, or felt, the circle had almost been completed, I stopped. The same with the earlier poem, “The Southern Cross,” which relied so much on memory, or on my inability to remember. When I thought I had not remembered enough, and that some neo-Platonic, neo-circle was almost complete, I stopped. Of course, I then went back and cut out over one-hundred and forty lines which seemed to me mere incidents and not true detail. If God lives in the detail, as Flaubert tells us, then only the incidental lives in the incident. You've got to be careful to distinguish between them. I guess there is more feel than formula as to where a poem ends now for me. It's probably never finished in the old sense, but just over. And given their more elaborate, incremental structures, that's probably a good thing. Or at least not a bad thing.
Because you've published excerpts from it, I know you keep a notebook. Do you mine it regularly for poems, or does it have a distinct life, a different purpose?
It's not exactly a notebook, not in the usual sense. It's a cross-breed, really, a combination commonplace book and jotting book. It has no narrative structure or ultimate purpose. Most of what goes into it has to do with poetics or ideas on art in general. The last thing I put in it was a couple of days ago, something about narrative and the image. Wait a minute, it's right over there, I'll get it. Here it is: “Narrative does not dictate the image; the image dictates the narrative.” That sort of thing. Here's another: “One of the differences between poetry and prose is that—good or bad—lines are final. Sentences are never final, but are ceaselessly rearrangeable.” Well, one could go on. I don't, as a matter of fact, mine it for poems, as you can imagine from those two examples. I used to write in it a lot more before I embarked on the Journals. Since part of the scaffolding of the Journals is process itself, and ideas about that process, I've been able, from time to time, to work those ideas into the texts themselves. It's especially apparent in “March Journal,” for instance. Anyway, to answer your question, I suppose it does have a distinct life, or half-life, such as it is. It certainly has a different purpose. It's an escape valve for pronouncements to myself. You can hear it hissing over there if you listen hard enough.
Your poems have struck some readers as spacey, the work of a free-floating, delicately dissociated sensibility. And some of your effects, I'll confess, are eerily like pipe dreams. Have drugs played a role?
That's what Hopkins said about Keats, sort of. Wait a minute. I put it in my “London Journal”—I mean my “English Journal.” Let's see. Here, it's the first stanza of Keats's birthday entry: “Hopkins thought your verse abandoned itself / To an enervating luxury, a life of impressions / In Fairyland, life of a dreamer / And lacking the manly virtues of active thought.” No pun intended, I suppose. And that from someone who practically hyperventilated on the Lord! Was Keats a laudanum-head? Not that I've heard. Maybe a drop here and there, but no De Quincey he. It's funny. I just reread The Confessions of an English Opium Eater last summer. Pretty good stuff for a junkie. Not to mention The English Mail Coach, which is even better. Well, I never thought of the effects, some of the effects, in my poems as, what did you say, “spacey”? Or like pipe dreams, a word whose origin I've just seen for the first time. Opium pipe, right? Hmmm … your question. Drugs have played almost no role whatsoever in my work. Certainly not at all when compared to someone like Rimbaud or Nerval, poets I admire greatly. Or even poets whose work I admire somewhat, like Allen Ginsberg, for instance. No role at all. Still, I have smoked some dope in my day. And I've drunk a little whiskey. And I've done some coke, as the saying goes. And only in one case has it had any physical effect on a given poem. I learned early on that I, in any case, had to separate the drug and the word. It was especially depressing when I was in my Rimbaud phase. I felt a total failure. The problem was I couldn't drink and concentrate—unlike, I understand, Faulkner could and Hart Crane could—and I couldn't smoke pot and concentrate. At least not on writing. I could certainly concentrate on nothing or nothing's trappings with a fierce intensity. The main problem always seemed to be that I wanted to have fun, and writing wasn't fun. It was work. So I smoked dope and giggled. I drank whiskey and wine and brooded, which was fun. When I was writing China Trace, back in the mid-70s, I tooted some cocaine after supper one night, went into the back yard on Oak Street back in Laguna, stared at the sky and then went into the little shack out there I used as a study and wrote a poem in ten or fifteen minutes. I was amazed. Total concentration, total focus and magnification. I was even more stunned the next day when I realized I didn't have to change a thing. I published it just the way I wrote it that night. It scared the hell out of me and I never tried it again. Ever. I realized that if I did it a second time, or so I thought at the time, I'd have to use coke every time I tried to write. So much for the rational disordering of the senses. I couldn't have afforded to write poems if cocaine was to be one of their ingredients. In fact, it was soon after that I stopped doing it altogether because it just got too expensive. Fortunately for me. I kept on smoking marijuana for some years, late at night, mostly, to go to sleep, but I've given that up too now. All I've got left is a dollop of Scotch at night and a little white wine. I never did LSD or mescaline, but did some peyote in the old days. Maybe it's that my senses are disordered most of the time anyhow, and my job is to rationalize them as much as possible. And when I slip, or don't do the job properly, the poems seem “spacey” and “free-floating.” I've tried to anchor them as much as I could. I see no inherent virtue in ether.
There's a story to be told about pot and your whole generation of poets, no?
I suppose there is, though probably not by me. If, as Stevens said, “The book of moonlight has not been written yet,” or something like that, surely the book of marijuana has not been written yet either. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there was more to the evolution of American surrealism in the late sixties and early seventies than just an injection of Spanish poetry from the thirties and Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo. They were, let's get this straight, the foundation and the “ark of the covenant,” so to speak. But they also gave an artistic license or, better, an artistic alibi for the age. Nothing out of Breton was more surreal than watching tanks carrying dead and bleeding bodies, easing through the supper hour as millions swallowed the image along with their Hamburger Helper. The young poets were mirrors of the times, not the precursors. I think it's interesting that American surrealism's high-water mark was about a ten-year period, say 1965 to 1975, whose other high-water marks were found in marijuana smoking and the Vietnam War. And although, in many ways, all three are with us still, they have either been absorbed into the culture—surrealism into the mainstream of American poetry, marijuana into the mainstream of American drug abuse—or else the culture has grown around it, like a tree grows around an axe-head left in its trunk. Vietnam and the American body politic. Drugs and poetry have always gone together, from earliest shamanism up to the Yage Letters and on. It's not often that an entire generation gets involved in the practice, though, and I think that's what did happen, in varying degrees with various poets, in the time we're talking about. Was it a good thing? Remains to be seen. It certainly loosened up a lot of so-called academic writers, and that's not bad. Unlike Dada, which never got absorbed, or the current Language poetries, which I also think won't be absorbed—I imagine they both will remain as “examples,” “exhibits,” apart and behind glass—surrealism seems to have found its own current in the pluralistic American stream of poetic consciousness. If pot helped that along, far out!
I guess what I really wanted to ask is a question about your daily routine—if there is one. Do you schedule your writing, or does it come in desultory bursts?
I used to have a routine—for years I wrote in the afternoon, unlike anyone else I've ever heard of. When I was in Italy I translated Montale in the morning, and twenty years later, in 1983, I did it again when I was working on the Campana. But that makes it sound as though I had a fixed routine, certain hours when I did certain things. And I don't have any such thing. And never did except for the hour-and-a-half it takes me to read the newspaper each morning. Of course there's B.C. and A.D.—Before Child and After Delivery. The past eighteen years have been much different from the nine before that. And certainly better, I might add. The beginnings of my little experiments with dislocation and discontinuity, the abstracting of the storyline, all took place out of necessity in my case. Time was grabbed when grabbable, what with teaching, family and all the other emanations bidding for its services. Innovation was the child of necessity for me. My poems became, or started to become, disconsecutive, going from stanza to stanza as units rather than from beginning to end as a seamless piece. Later, in The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, I tended to make an aesthetic of such impulses, and to widen them. All of which really doesn't answer your question, does it?
No, but it answers another question, and I'll ask it in just a minute. But first, let's get back to the business of your schedule, and if you have one.
No, I never did have a schedule, though I was chipping away at things rather consistently. When I was working on something, I worked on it every chance I got, morning, afternoon or evening. So work would come in bursts, but not desultory ones. For instance, on “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” I seemed to be working every day that year. Obsessively. Of course, I tend to think about writing obsessively even when I don't have a project. I'd like to be writing all the time. I seldom read novels any more because I don't want to get caught up in something that might take me three to four days, or longer, away from thinking about poems. This hardly becomes justifiable when I go, as I have done, three months or longer between poems. But one must protect one's standards, mustn't one? For a highly organized person, as I am, my writing schedule is wholly erratic.
Now let's circle back to the answer you were giving just before. You were talking about a new kind of poem you started writing—a poem of impulses, of disconnected stanzas linked by association. That gravitates toward the short poem, and our literary culture has always had an appetite for long, sprawling poems. We spoke earlier about sequences, but what about the long, through-composed poem? I remember some of your critics used to call on you for one. Has it ever been one of your own desires?
Well, sure, of course. What red-blooded American boy, et cetera. The disconnection of stanzas started in Hard Freight segued rather nicely into the sequences in Bloodlines. Then I wanted to do a book-length poem, a—as you just described it—“through-composed” poem. And I did, though one that was so camouflaged that almost no one noticed it as such. Helen Vendler did, and said so, and I'll always be grateful to her for that. The book was China Trace, and you and I talked about it somewhat just a little while ago, how each individual poem was a chapter in an ongoing story about a character who went from childhood to his demise and inscription in the heaven of the fixed stars. As I say, it was a series of short poems linked by an unspoken common narrative, a journey, even if it was more spiritual than actual. And that book, that poem, is where the idea of the subnarrative, the submerged narrative, started taking shape for me.
Now here's something that's kind of interesting, at least to me. Disconnection and association, as you so cleverly pointed out in your question, seem to be linked with the short poem—with the obvious exception of The Cantos, of course—and one thinks of Dr. Williams and Company. It was interesting to me to try it in longer reaches—not interminably, like The Cantos—and I've made several attempts at that since I saw it emerge in China Trace. The first time was in “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” and it was fairly short and crude. Eight overlays, each different, hoping to form one consistent picture. In “The Southern Cross” it got a bit more sophisticated, but it was in “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” that it became what I had hoped it might. The structural elements—the four entries about the Cherokees and the Long Island of the Holston, and the long sojourn in northern Italy—of “sacred places,” as well as the natural one of the four seasons, plus the visits to the two great American medieval writers, Poe and Dickinson, and the two great Italian ones, Petrarch and Dante, et cetera, all combine to both hide and expose the story line, which is, like most story lines, circular. It deals with circumference, as Emily said her business was. It's mine, too, the outer boundary. In its way, “Ox” is a longer poem than the whole book China Trace, though probably not as vertical. Well, they are my two favorite things. Of my own, I mean. Which still, I guess, doesn't answer your question.
One of my problems has always been that I can't remember things that require sequence. I seem to remember only consequence. Which is to say I can't seem to remember ideas or principles or how to do things. I remember incidents, I remember details. Which is why, and here I'm trying to circle back to your original concern about long poems being done with the devices usually associated with short ones, all my long poems seem to me like short poems in disguise. But I suppose any non-surface narrative poem will seem that way. Still, it's a way, isn't it, of keeping the pithy elements of the shorter lyric and holding onto the illusion of the long, effusive gesture. A kind of an American sprawl of a poem with a succession of succinct checks and balances. Epiphanic and oceanic at once. Intensive and extensive. The long and the short of it. Now that's American.
And let me ask you about getting older—that is to say, about the effect of writing experience on your work itself. I mean, you now know your way around a poem better than you did twenty years ago. Does that make it easier to write or not? And at the same time, do your higher standards make it more difficult now?
I suppose I'd have to answer “yes,” and “yes.” But it's not really that easy because I don't write the same kind of poems I did twenty years ago. So, in a way, I'm where I was twenty years ago, and the answer could be “no,” and “no.” Actually, it gets more difficult all the time. In the mid-seventies I began experimenting, in China Trace, with what I called, for lack of a better word, subnarrative—which, if I were Italian, would be sottonarrativa, “undernarrative,” surely a more felicitous phrase. A story line, but one not always in evidence. But always a story line. In the poem “The Southern Cross” I started to get the hang of it, and I've been bending it and stretching it ever since. So it's always a poem, or a formal proposition, I don't quite know how to handle when I write it. Add to that the fact that one's ambitions, one's aspirations for the poem and what it can convey, are higher and harder to come to terms with the older one gets, so it's always a heavier load the farther down the road you get. I suppose if I were still writing the poems I wrote in Hard Freight, or the same kind of poems, the entire enterprise would be lighter and more acceptable, though not to me.
Since 1980, when I wrote “The Southern Cross,” I have also actually written differently. Which is to say, I guess, rewritten differently. I've tended to do it more in situ, as it were. I get every section the way I think I want it instead of going back over a full draft of a poem. Perhaps it has something to do with the length, but also it has something to do with the concept of the poem and its ultimate reach. It's always difficult. Now and then. Beauty is difficult, Pound said, quoting Yeats. Beauty is difficult. So is articulation.
As for getting older, I don't see much to recommend it, except that it makes you despair more of ever saying what you think you want to say. So you work harder when you work. Otherwise, as I say, I see little to recommend it. Although despair is a kind of joy, isn't it?
I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean by “subnarrative.” Could you explain it a bit more?
I'm not sure I can, actually. Undernarrative, sottonarrativa, is about as close as I can get. The smaller current in a larger river. The story line that runs just under the surface. It's broken, interrupted, circuitous, even invisible at times, but always there. Which is to say, it's not a “logic of image,” or a balancing of blocks or a “logic of the irrational” or whatever. It's a continuous story line by someone who can't tell a story. Subnarrative. Its logic is narrative but its effects are imagistic. It's like what Augustine says about Time, more or less: “I know what it is if I don't have to explain it. If I have to explain it, I don't know what it is.” I don't know, it's just what I've come to do.
Can a reader be expected to know what is “in” or “behind” a poem? And if he can't, then can it really be said to be in the poem at all?
Well, I think so. I mean we're not talking about the Holy Ghost here, our Main Mover. We are talking about something that is, in a sense, tactile. It is there as surely as the story line is there in “The Pauper Witch of Grafton” and “The Witch of Coos.” It's just not as continuously evident to the eye. I'll give you an example. When I was in China, we went by train from Xi'an to Chengdu, a sixteen-hour trip. One part of the ride was along the Jaling River, where the roadbed ran along side the mountains. Many tunnels. Many, many tunnels. The landscape was particularly gorgeous because of the river and the crop patterns along it, as well as the flowering fruit trees. But we were in the tunnels so much of the time that the landscape became flashes of intense color and concentration as it emerged, hung there for a while, then disappeared as we entered another tunnel. And while it was in evidence, the color and patterns and design were twice as luminous as they would have been had they remained constant and usual. Each time the landscape appeared, it was unusual, but it was basically the same landscape all the way down the river, a constant thread that you sometimes saw and sometimes didn't, but was always there. I would hope that subnarrative, sottonarrativa, would work somewhat in this fashion. It is always “in” or “behind” the poem. What was the second part of that question? Weren't there two parts?
Yes. If the reader can't “see” the hidden narrative, can it really be said to be in the poem at all?
As I say, it is in there. If he can't follow it, or know it, I guess I feel he isn't concentrating. There are always signs, there are always the openings between tunnels. And even if there weren't, if the story line were submerged totally, like a mole, say, and all you could see was the broken path under the ground and no mole at all, would you really be able to say there was no mole there, or that there had never been a mole there? We're not talking about faith here, we're not talking about the Great Incarnator. We are talking about something visible, something you can see if you look for it. Even when it's least visible to the eye, it's there all right. In the poem—a place the reader must be as well.
You've just been using—I don't know how self-consciously—some religious metaphors, and they remind me of that strain in your poetry. Not just the metaphors and rhythms and diction, but the argument itself. The poems seem suffused with the stuff of religion, but without any apparent belief—and it's the absence I mean when referring to your argument.
They do, don't they? I mean seem suffused with the stuff. I guess because I was so suffused with the stuff, at such a high pitch, at such an impressionable age, and for such a long period of time—without ever believing it, really—it keeps coming back up on me. As though I had over-indulged. The taste stays in my mouth, a taste that is not displeasing to me, but it is not exactly something I anticipate with pleasure. I think I probably would like to believe. I believe in belief, for instance. And it is the greatest myth going, isn't it? All those fabulous aspirations and assumptions! I mean, if it were true, what could be better? Everlasting life! I'll take a hit off that, thank you very much. Just because you don't believe it doesn't mean you don't like to talk about it, or think about it. Besides, I do believe in the efficacy of things unseen. It's just that I don't believe in this particular one. And there's no point in just believing in the trappings, in the manifestations. Flannery O'Connor was right about that, I think—if it's just a metaphor, the hell with it. Or words to that effect. I mean, what could be better than being raised incorruptible in the body like St. John?
Hmmm … Even though I don't have anything more to say, I feel as though I should say something else. I mean I'm sort of surprised myself it should seem so suffused with this stuff. After all these years of running away from it so hard, it's rather perplexing to find that it's invaded my subconscious like the invisible worm that flies in the night. Well, so be it. I guess if one considers, as I do, the true purpose of poetry to be a contemplation of the divine—however you find it, or don't find it—then it isn't so strange that my work is so suffused with the stuff of religion. We take the vocabulary we are given—in my case, Christian—and use it to our own ends. We try to develop and expand what we are given.
A contemplation of the divine. I guess that should include the textures of the world as well as an outline of the infinite.
I would hope so. Certainly that's what I've been saying for the last five years, explicitly, in the Journals I've been writing. And, for the twenty years previous, implicitly in just about everything I ever wrote. The textures of the world are an outline of the infinite. Stevens said, or at least I seem to remember that he said, the thing seen becomes the thing unseen. He also said that the reverse way was impossible. Roethke wrote that all finite things reveal infinitude. What we have, and all we will have, is here in the earthly paradise. How to wring music from it, how to squeeze the light out of it, is, as it has always been, the only true question. I'd say that to love the visible things in the visible world is to love their apokatastatic outline in the invisible next. I think all this, you understand, in my better moments. In my darker ones I'm afraid I rather think the way Philip Larkin did—not anxious for an “endless extinction.” But we are defined by our better moments, aren't we? Surely we are. Otherwise, God help us.
And language, finally, is both texture and outline?
Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there's just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts a music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation. And what we contemplate, what we sing our hymns to and offer our prayers to, is what will reincarnate us in the natural world, and what will be our one hope for salvation in the What's-To-Come.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
SOURCE: “Short Reviews,” in Poetry, Vol. CLV, No. 3, December, 1989, pp. 229-31.
[In the following review, Gregerson comments on Wright's themes and artistic aims in Zone Journals.]
The ten “journals” that constitute the body of this book [Zone Journals] make a single formal and epistemological case, a case that has long been emerging in the larger body of Wright's work. Their case is for immanence, the deferred material presence of truth; for permeability and open-endedness; for the liminal, where eschatology incorporates the risen body of the past; for rehearsal, which is the only performative mode of consequence; for the invocatory, which is the antithesis of the iconic. The rejection of closed form in these poems is by no means the rejection of the artifactual: in Wright's theatre of imagination the lineaments of human manufacture or poesis chronically bleed through the scrim of nature. The blue jay moves “in a brushstroke.” Cloudbanks are “enfrescoed still / just under the sky's cornice.” The poetic project is always and already implicit in the observable world: “lightning bugs / alphabetize on the east wall.”
Constituting nature as the threshold of speech, the poet locates a prior authority for his own ruminations, making nature the underwriter for poetry's speculative line. In weaker gestures, the circle of self-reference may smack a bit of self-endorsement (“Somewhere out there an image is biding its time”), the scene perpetually short-circuiting to the literal scene of writing. But the double inscription Wright aims for is a project of considerable stature and high seriousness, nothing less than a one-man reparation scheme for the old breach between nature and culture. Endowed with memory and aura and the fracture lines that betray what escapes us, the found world and the made world coalesce around a single longing for transcendence (“The not no image can cut”). Wright's tutelary spirits are manifold and indifferently, studiously drawn from the double realm: a turkey buzzard, a Renaissance courtier, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the wheel that broke upon the faith of St. Catherine, the squirrel on a power line, the ghost of Glenn Gould, the philosophic principle and the geomorphic contour known as Occam's razor. In its reciprocal, recuperative production of the past, Zone Journals is near kin to “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but in Wright's version of Eliot's imperial hopefulness, even landscape is part of the mutable, vested inheritance that is reformulated by every major act of imagination. Thus of Provence, seventy-seven years after the death of Cézanne, the present poet writes: “Still these colors and pure arrangements / Oozing out of the earth, dropping out of the sky / in memory of him each year.”
Wright's journal poems cultivate a number of interrelated semantic and syntactical predilections. Language vamps in these pages, preferring to move sidelong into assertion, preferring the dilations and solicitations of the noun phrase and the musical phrase over the franker lineups of subject and verb. Language spins a line that lengthens from margin to margin and frequently breaks. It is a line that Wright has favored and refined for several years, a line of great suppleness and lyric beauty, a line that pays due deference to the white surround. It is a line obsessively thematized and theorized in the present poems, a line that trains itself to analogues, to fishing lines trolled through the waters of the Pacific Northwest, to the virtual lines of Morandi, Picasso, Cézanne and the no-line of Rothko, to the “sure line the mockingbird takes / down from the privet hedge,” to the generic “line” or ironized narrative lure of the “true confessions” that lend one of these journals a title. The line is the line that first divided one element from another, the line Creation spoke, the “line between sleep and sleep.” The line is the trace of its own extinction, “nobody here but me / Unspooling to nothingness, / line after line after latched, untraceable line. …” Finally, the line is mortality's knife-edge, dissecting the impermanent coils of flesh, that we may, as a character in Webster says, be put back into the ground to be made sweet:
—November pares us like green apples, circling under our skins In long, unbroken spirals until We are sweet flesh for the elements surprised by the wind's shear Curling down from the north of Wales Like Occam's edge to Steeple Aston and Oxfordshire.
The economy of hypothesis that modern science derives from William of Occam equates truth with elegance: maximal explanatory power and minimal fuss. In a landscape Occam's edge is the mild outcropping of prehistory. In either instance, beauty accommodates the ineffable to human sense.
In America, in the shadow of the year 2000, we are not much trained to expect of poems bright shootes of everlastingnesse. Charles Wright might yet reform us. It is the business of his poems to conceive transcendence by means that forestall it. He writes mortality's alibi:
From my balcony, the intense blue of the under-heaven, Sapphiric and anodyne, backdrops Madonna's crown. Later, an arched stretch of cloud, Like a jet trail or a comet's trail, vaults over it, A medieval ring of Paradise. Today, it's that same blue again, blue of redemption Against which, in the vine rows, the green hugs the ground hard. Not yet, it seems to say, O not yet.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1463
SOURCE: “Charles Wright and the Landscape of the Lyric,” in New England Review, Vol. XII, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 308-12.
[In the following review, Winckel offers a positive evaluation of Zone Journals.]
Part of the pleasure of a good lyric poem is the way it allows us to exist simultaneously in all time, not simply to transcend the present, but to pull fragments of past and present together into one charged moment. From the poems in his early collections (Hard Freight, Bloodlines) to the more recent (China Trace, The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals), Charles Wright's poems have moved toward a lyric presence able to enfold increasingly more and more layers of time, space, emotion. It's as if to accommodate the poet's past as it widens and lengthens behind him, the poetic voice has increasingly opened out to contain it more fully.
In Zone Journals, Wright's more recent collection, memories flow in and out with a fluid force and wave-like motion. The persona stands at an intersection of many deeply felt moments. We drift through lovingly recalled memory-scapes that sweep in and over us until the literalness of the past begins to blur. Delineating walls between events, places, even loved ones, wash away, and we are left to examine the rubble.
… A bumblebee the size of my thumb rises like Geryon From that hard Dantescan gloom Under my window sash to lip the rain gutter's tin bolgia, Then backs out like a hummingbird spiraling languidly out of sight, Shoulders I've wanted to sit on, a ride I've wanted to take, Deposited into the underlight of cities thronged in the grass, Fitful illuminations, iron-colored plain that lies Littered with music and low fires, stone edge of the pit At the end of every road, First faces starting to swim up: Bico, my man, are you here?
Wright's poems do not lend themselves to brief explications. They work instead rather like a modern painting, for instance, one by Cézanne (to whom Wright has written a long and graceful homage; see Charles Wright, A Profile, Grilled Flowers Press). The poem builds a sensory involvement through a layering of images, an accumulation of so much on the poem's canvas that the poem simply will not be broken down into separate component parts. Though we may try to single out an image, say a face like Bico's, the poem asserts the beauty of the inexact. In his previous collection, The Other Side of the River, Wright paraphrases Kenko: “That all beauty depends upon disappearance, / the bitten edges of things, / the gradual sliding away / Into tissues and memory …” For it's the residue, the blurry disarray in its “frayed loveliness” that insists on a constant re-realization, and from which we must “beg our meanings.”
Through their enfoldings of the past, their quick takes, Wright's poems look in on the self as it yearns for some unequivocating wholeness. “There is a word, one word, one word, / For each of us, circling and holding fast / In all that cascade and light.” But even as the poems reveal this intense desire to collect the pieces—“the true work: concentrate, listen hard”—they also reveal our other impulse: to flee from definition. This tension resides at the heart of so many Wright poems: just as we seem to approach a thought, a word, an emotion that will define us, just as we see it looming, seeming almost tractable in the distance, we run from it.
And part of the reason for our flight, Wright implies in Zone Journals, is our suspicion about the unseen world. For how can we recognize and embrace that world as our other place of residence if we allow ourselves to inhabit the named world too completely? If we trust in the names' exactitude?
I lolled for seventeen years. … Trying to get the description right. If nothing else, It showed me that what you see both is and is not there, The unseen bulking in from the edges of all things, Changing the frame with its nothingness.
Its blue immensity taught me about subtraction, Those luminous fingerprints left by the dark, their whorls Locked in the stations of the pilgrim sun. It taught me to underlook.
(“A Journal of True Confessions”)
To underlook. Were we to assemble ourselves into some manner of wholeness, we would be caught by, framed by, a “somethingness.”
Many of the pleasures of these poems then are the glimpses we see of the self in the process of escaping its own limitations.
There is no sickness of spirit like homesickness When what you are sick for has never been seen or heard In this world, or even remembered except as a smear of bleached light Opening, closing beyond any alphabet's Recall to witness and isolate …
(“A Journal of English Days”)
To witness and isolate. As the lyric voice moves outward to embrace the immensity of the lush world, it also moves inward. For the lyric's primary task is to propel us inward, and this may well be its ultimate message too. Stevens put it this way: “A poem is the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” Certainly this must be the poem's main drama, its energy: the speaker's struggle, which we are allowed to “witness and isolate.” We see the path toward the self taken; to move along that path is to move with the fluid motion of the lyric, which begins to turn us inward as well.
One, one and by one we all slip into the landscape, Under the muddy patches, locked in the frozen bud Of the down-leafed rhododendron, Or blurred in the echoing white of a rabbit's tail Chalked on the winter's dark in the back yard or the driveway.
One, and by one we all sift to a difference And cry out if one of our branches snaps or our bark is cut.
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
Perhaps as such beauty disarms us, throws us back on ourselves, we begin to hear something …
Like souls looking for bodies after some Last Judgment, Forgotten incidents rise from under the stone slabs Into its waxed air; Grief sits like a toad with its cheeks puffed, Immovable, motionless, its tongue like a trick whip Picking our sorrows off, our days and our happiness …
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
Wright's poems depend on so many polarities of motion and language: a language of accident and one of deliberating cautiousness, a particular language of particularly recalled moments and the reflective language of abstractions, and a language of wry asides and one of hard, steady, straight-forward speech, and a language tinged by Eastern mysticism and dreamy reverie and the tough language of an explorer moving across rugged Tennessee hills and rivers.
The tensions between these languages heighten the poems' emotional charge and contribute to the felt effect of moving in that sphere of all-time. Moreover, language itself has long been a theme in Wright's poems. It is the tool with which we can comb through time, searching for our connections to what has gone before, to what we are now, and will become.
In the rings and after-chains, In the great river of language that circles the universe, Everything comes together, No word is ever lost, no utterance ever abandoned. They're all borne on the bodiless, glittering currents that wash us and seek us out. …”
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
In this poem, the collection's 47-page centerpiece, a gentle wind, one of the poem's many emblems—the wind, “our comfort and consolation”—blows us across disparate landscapes and memory-scapes. And blown about in this way, we feel the boundaries of the landscape stretch out—from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Verona, from the Smoky Mountains to Dickinson's house in Amherst, from Charlottesville to Ca Paruta, and on. The journal-like feel and the authoritative Whitmanesque voice lend the poems even more force, as if we've been allowed entrance to the privacy of the mind as it questions where it is, where it's been, where it's going. But the where is never so important as the who, as the what:
I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both. I come and go in myself as though from room to room, As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit Escaping my own mouth and reswallowed at leisure, Dissembling and at my ease.
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
When we feel the poles of sky and ground in these far-reaching landscapes open out, we realize we're caught between, though what an abyss that in-between is. Wright's great gift, then, is to make us feel not swallowed not shrunken by such a space, but enlarged by it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5717
SOURCE: “Slide-Wheeling around the Curves,” in Southern Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 221-34.
[In the following review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, Bedient analyzes perceived weaknesses in Wright's poetry from the 1980s. While praising Wright's uncommon ability to “pierce the skin of familiarity with rays of darkness,” Bedient contends that Wright's “journal” poems and subsequent writings lack the authority, focus, and provocative surrealism of his earlier work.]
After T. S. Eliot, Charles Wright has been the modern poet in English most afflicted and gifted by a sense of his own insufficiency before the absolute—that “black moth the light burns up in,” as he put it in “Death” in China Trace (1977). His sensibility itself has seemed like a gorgeous insect crippled on the windshield of the speeding galaxy. Through his startling figures and, if less so, his eloquent rhythms, he has intimated an unthinkable glory of which life is otherwise bereft.
Wright's work was, and more or less still is, melancholy. It closes the traditional accordion of poetic moods with a breath-gutting thwump. (For this reason, I think Wright deludes himself in Halflife: Improvisation and Interviews, 1977–87 in holding that his “poems are put together in tonal blocks, in tonal units that work off one another.” Even Sylvia Plath had a bigger tonal range than Wright.) More than most, this poet lacks immunity against the sadness of a separate, loose-ended existence. He even likes it: “November pares us like green apples circling under our skins”; “November's my favorite month” (“A Journal of English Days”).
Wright is unusually aware of the void over which the imagination performs like a hang-glider, riding the thermals of a buoying sadness. “Buoying” because sadness, after all, is not nothing: it is narcissism's minimal flying gear, its anorectic “I am.” Inconsolable but consoling, sadness is the shhh in the “eschatology of desire” (“Italian Days”). Still, Wright notes its sorry relativity vis-à-vis an inhuman grief:
Grief sits like a toad with its cheeks puffed, Immovable, motionless, its tongue like a trick whip Picking our sorrows off, our days and our happiness …
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
This grief sits in the “emptiness” that “is the beginning of all things” (“Roma II”). Sadness betrays it, but looks back lovingly while doing so.
There may be a big bolt of black cloth rolled up in everyone. Wright's singularity is to spread it out like a splendid fabric, make it flash what Denys l'Areopagite called God-by-negation, “rays of darkness.” A jubilant melancholiac, this poet—like every poet—leads a second life (it may feel like the only one) of figures, rhythms, and meanings, exalted and artificial, eloquent and to-be-continued. His imagination is the rufous spot on the throat of his hovering, stalled omnipotence, this last a residue of a not-quite-forgotten something that once seemed to guarantee a postponed triumph, a Charles “bruised by God, strung up in a strong light and singled out” (“Clear Night,” China Trace) or, less masochistically, “Refusing investiture in our pink rags” (“To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky”). “Write” is the imperative concealed in “Wright,” for whom existence is wrong and writing the only way to right it. No matter how drag-heel in tone, his imagination, with its inventive verve, its athlete's skill in handling the ball of language, sets sadness aside, for the moment.
His arrogant warrant from Omnipotence—omnipotence being the flip side of melancholy—helps make Wright the American king of simile and its mugging accomplices, metaphor and personification. Simile is what he has instead of drama and narrative (though of late he has had sporadic anecdote. To perch on the dangerous rim where identities blur and collapse is his wicked delight. His figures are so many quasi-omnipotent toyings with difference and division. He joys in the “snick” (a most Wrightean word) of one thing winging like a knife to impale another. Struck home!
For instance, “Crows, like strings of black Christmas tree lights, burn in the bare trees” (“A Journal of English Days”) is a black-magic reversal, hinting that the white side of things is not the holier one. And “night comes walking across the lake on its hands” (“Italian Days”) gives us an upside-down acrobat Jesus of a night that is more than a trick yet piquantly unlike. Again: “His black shoes puddle beneath him / Like backs of mirrors he'll walk on tenderly” (“A Journal of English Days”). The brilliance of Wright's figuration is proportional to the blackness of the void that awaits him, that he at once fears and courts, reacts from and signals. He strikes two things together (e.g., crows and Christmas tree lights) to make an unexpected spark that would die immediately into an indistinction in which even God melts like a gaudy show, if only language behaved metaphysically, and not materially. The 10,000 things (a famous phrase from the I Ching) are a big stall; but by cross wiring two of them in the haughty night of the imagination, Wright would start himself on a journey to what is too sublime ever to be here.
Many of his figures raid the articulate. They are raptorial. A sizzling ephemeral fusional bliss (tiny imagistic imitation of the shrouded embrace of the hyperbolic past absolutized in the melancholy imagination) seems to be available to him at the least snap of his creative fingers. The unknown sits with its back turned, the simile is its switching tail. “What I know best is a little thing,” the poet says. “It sits on the far side of the simile, / The like that's like the like” (“California Dreaming”). Only through wrenchings, that is, figures, can the poet “imagine a mouth / Starting to open its blue lips / Inside me” (“The Southern Cross”).
But Wright's work of the 1980s has become increasingly ambivalent with respect to what in Halflife he calls “reminiscing about the future” at the expense of the past. More and more Wright shakes out sea-blue and forest-green and Italian gold and southern cotton materials together with the black satin of the unknown, in a rich confusion. In The World of the Ten Thousand Things—which collects The Southern Cross (1981), The Other Side of the River (1984), Zone Journals (1988), and the “apocrypha” of this last, Xionia, fifteen poems previously published only in a fine press edition—he multiplies himself in a most worldly way: into little Charles of Knoxville, Tennessee; Charles in military service (and during later sojourns) in Italy; blue-jeaned Charles in a cabin in northwestern Montana; Charles in a canyon-top home in Laguna Beach, California, with a liquid amber tree for an upraised finger and crows angling over the Pacific for edgy thoughts; Charles in Charlottesville, Virginia, awaiting the attack barrage of the thunder from the Blue Ridge (the Charles who dubbed his house Xionia because of its fake Ionian columns); and still others.
An atlased and scattered Charles, in sum, a Charles of reminiscence and nostalgia. A Charles, all the same, who has continued to be otherworldly, in spurts and in smolders. He has justified this two-timing in conundrums that will ruin your gray matter if you try to have at them: e.g., “I write an eschatological naturalism” (Halflife); “the textures of the world are an outline of the infinite” (“The Art of Poetry,” the Paris Review, Winter '89). He is now a hermit with the real sun nonetheless smeared on his face like egg yolk and now a nature poet for whom the Presence wears a robe of stained glass (“I'd be a Medievalist … purge my own floor”—“Lost Bodies”). In streaks or polka dots (white prayer on a blue field), this man of the cloths has chosen to have time and to eat it, too.
If he's now divided between the past and the (always metaphysical) future, at least these extremes lie on the same continuum of narcissism, by which I mean the necessary stickum of the sense of an identity. Like a short winter's day, time for Wright is dipped at both ends in the rich darkness of what cannot be possessed or exhausted. (It's the part in between, the naked look of now, that makes him grim.) The future is Charles “Released in his suit of lights, / lifted and laid clear” (as he put it magnificently in “Him” in China Trace). And the past? Charles no longer ticked off by the clock, nick by nick—at least that; Charles projected into the flashlights of memory. Both the past and the future, after all, exceed us, like poetry.
The trouble with reminiscence is that it drifts or stalls; it's spotty, fragmented, static, does not know how to be peremptory. A passive position; a depressive rut. The future is a goal, the past the night surrounding the flashlight beam of nostalgia. The past doesn't brace Wright's imagination the way the future does. For me, his turn to the past has meant some losses of structural intelligence and pressure, some drops in intensity.
Lately, Wright has become a rather polite author who tacks his work down correctly at all the corners. “Artifice, beauty and fear” (“A Journal of True Confessions”), these are still more or less his field, his forte, but he brings to them less authority than before (and what authority he can command!) and less concentration (ditto). The violent boldness of imagination in China Trace and still earlier work (Hard Freight, Bloodlines)—work that can be placed in the asteroid path of Trakl and Celan—has given way to an ironing style, smooth and again smooth, the half lines dropped to the right like the tip of the iron pressing down on the outer edge of an altar cloth, making it lie flat forever, in a warmed perfection. (Wright's own rationale for these “low riders” is that they allow him to use both sides of the page in a visual “structuring” of the poem in “space.” But the attention he lavishes on the line, together with his lack of any particular interest in “a whole,” has led to a problematical attenuation of form in his work, about which more later.) The aggressive similes (and those I quoted were from the “journal” poems) still snap like grasshoppers, but in a hotter and more ordinary atmosphere than before, the tone scuffing along in the comfortable dirt of what was.
The journal poems (battening on the quotidian in a way that would make any passing angels of otherness blush) combine description, speculation, anecdote, abstract questions, and melancholy complaints. It sometimes seems pretty aimless. Wright composes in “blocks,” such as the following:
—All morning the long-bellied, two-hitched drag trucks Have ground down the mountainside loaded with huge, cut stone From two quarries being worked Some miles up the slope. Rock-drilled and squared-off, They make the brakes sing and the tires moan, A music of sure contrition that troubles our ears And shudders the farmhouse walls. No one around here seems to know Where the great loads go or what they are being used for. But everyone suffers the music, We all sway to the same tune when the great stones pass by, A weight that keeps us pressed to our chairs And pushes our heads down, and slows our feet.
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
This is at once everyday and elegant, especially the surefire lineation, characteristically latticed, easy on the breath, the eye, and the ear. Indeed, these intimations of the ignorant heaviness of being are such a “sure” music that they fail to hurt: they're studied, and the conversational tone takes off their edge. (But, since “And pushes our heads down” seems consistent with being pressed to “chairs,” the phrase “and slows our feet,” which does not, follows awkwardly, perhaps not studied enough.) The passage isn't going anywhere in a poem that isn't going anywhere; you can't build with such blocks because they fail to conceal their indifference to anything but the moment. The memory poems and the journal poems, even when a distinction can be made, alike step into the sands of time.
In loosening the laconic cords binding his speech in his earlier work, in simultaneously pulling away, bit by bit, from his feisty surreal avant-gardism, in seeking a discursive normalization of Charles Wright, in strolling here and there on the loose-leaf autumn paths of the past, and in creating a spun-out linear style that's like a macramé of observation or remembrance, the poet may have retained some of his trapped and morose eloquence, so lambent and flame-away, but he has lost the drama of work that is broken as against the singleness that can be broken. “Better to choose for your love what you can't think,” he says toward the end of his longest poem, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox.” “The shorter the word, the more it serves the work of the spirit. / Tread it down fast, / have it all whole, not broken and not undone.” Of course, anything less than absolute will be broken—is already so; to sing to and of the unknown is to sing “in vain, / Like a face breaking up in the font of holy water” (“Three Poems for the New Year”). But in multiplying words, in elaborating sadness as Wright has done since the closing, title poem of The Southern Cross, he pulls a blind over the “window into Away-From-Here” (“Childhood,” China Trace). The motto “Speak the prime word and vanish”—a depressive / mystic's motto—sits oddly in a forty-seven page “journal.”
The disjointedness of the journal and memory poems is not the problem. Short as they are, the poems of China Trace are internally disjointed, at their wildest, without failing to be wholes. They skip like side-tossed stones until they disappear, but each flies and falls in a single direction, carving a fate-laden path. By contrast, the memory and journal poems are all over the place, and the mumped, centered dash that divides their sections might as well be a caution against their mutual contagion. The individual segments are not even contradictorily whole, like the China Trace poems, those hornets' nests hung high up in the isolating white of the page.
In his brilliant interview in the Paris Review, Wright tells of having made “an aesthetic” of disconsecutiveness and of wanting “An American sprawl of a poem,” “Epiphanic and oceanic at once. Intensive and extensive. The long and the short of it.” Unfortunately (good as it may sound in the abstract), this is indeed what he has made. What his accurate statement leaves out, quite rightly, is any rhetoric of wholeness aside from that couched in the term “poem.” When (as in Halflife) he does give himself to such rhetoric, the results are strained and give away (as I see it) his doubt that he's entitled to it. For instance,
Since the poem, “The Southern Cross,” I've been doing a kind of ghost graft: splicing real situations and incidents (language, even) onto an imaginary “tree” until the “tree,” by virtue of its appendages, has materialized into a whole, a recognizable thing.
Like Mallarmé (more or less) I want to hang in the center of myself like a sacred spider, radiating out, axle by silken axle, and then encircling it with a glittering wheel.
But trees built like Wright's ghost-grafted tree don't come into a single life, and spiders do not work by “radiating out”: they leap and leap until they have made a whole framework, then go over it all again, spewing glue. Unlike Wright, they do not give themselves over to the faith that a spoked wheel (much less one made of axles) need not be crafted with a Daedalean cunning.
With Cézanne in mind, Wright speaks (in Halflife) of
using stanzas in the way a painter will build up blocks of color, each disparate and often discrete, to make an overall representation that, taken in its pieces and slashes and dabs seems to have no coherence, but seen in its totality, when it's finished, turns out to be a very recognizable landscape, or whatever.
This is indeed the operation and novel success of the poems in The Southern Cross that precede the title poem, where Wright for the first time abandoned stanzas for larger or looser “blocks.” But how curious that the poet sees such poems as “The Southern Cross” and “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” in fact each of his volumes and the volumes taken all together, as a “continuous story line by someone who can't tell a story”! For instance, in the Paris Review, he calls China Trace “a book-length poem,” “one that has a character who goes from the first poem, where he shrugs off childhood (a disputable reading), to the last, where he ends up a constellation. … Each poem is a chapter in a book.” But the poems in between the first and the last are like a series of playing cards in a game of infinitely rearrangeable good-byes. Which is, precisely, not narrative, “sotto” or otherwise, but, instead, a valediction spinning its silver wings from a stationary position, like a windmill.
Wright says that if a reader can't follow “the hidden narrative … I feel he isn't concentrating” (Paris Review). But how many will agree with him (Halflife) that “the best narrative is that which is least in evidence to the eye”? What good is a narrative that doesn't put you on its knee and say “Once upon a time”? In any case, I think that the poet may be confusing the plight of looking-at-nature-and-reminiscing-while-waiting-to-vanish-into-oneself (“Inside the self is another self like a black hole”—“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”) with a plot, or a congeries of preoccupations, appearing in staggered order, with a story.
But this characterization of his recent work is itself too absolute. Not only are many of the poems in The Southern Cross among his best (for instance, “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” “Portrait of the Artist with Li Po,” “Hawaii Dantesca,” and “Bar Giamaica, 1959–60”)—fluttery, breathtaking, flame-blue spurts of imagination; several of the later, longer poems are sufficiently unified or satisfactorily dispersed, especially “Lost Bodies,” “Lost Souls,” “The Other Side of the River,” “Three Poems of Departure,” “Three Poems for the New Year,” and “To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky” in The Other Side of the River; “Yard Journal,” “Night Journal,” and “Night Journal II” in Zone Journals; and “A Journal of Southern Rivers” and “A Journal of Three Questions” in Xionia.
“To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky,” for instance, is a floating illuminated manuscript of a poem, four pages of infectious metaphysical salute. The poet Leopardi (1798–1837) serves as Wright's alter ego in the elsewhere. He's a male muse, immense with otherworldly indolence, with contemplative largesse and enviable abstraction. This lord of the unknown leads Wright to see how “sweet” it would be to drown “in such sure water” as the infinite (an allusion to “E il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare” in Leopardi's “L'infinito”). With the imaginative bravado of his earlier work, Wright claims to see him “On your left side through the clouds / Looking down on us, / our tongues tied.” What is “bitter,” he adds, is being “so much like you,” canceled out of life without being similarly raised up.
Having taken “three steps to the stars,” the Italian poet focuses for Wright the displaced condition of our existence: “Never to see the light is best, you say” (a paraphrase of “mai non veder la luce / Era, credo, il miglior” from Leopardi's “Sopra un basso rilievo antico sepolcrale”). Yet—and some of Wright's long poems could use concentrated acid spits of such self-opposition—the poet suddenly relents, and says
You'd like it on this side, I think. Summer is everywhere, your favorite, And dirt still crumbles and falls like small rain from the hand. The wind blows in from the sea …
Wright then gives us a Leopardi more amorously sad than himself: “The days not long enough, and the nights not long enough / For you to suffer it all”: suffering filling a void yet resting in it erotically, tantamount to a fetish that recalls an impossible love.
What links the here and the there is not language (which is reduced in the upper reaches to “The same letter over and over / big o and little o,” in keeping with the depressive person's hyperlucidity with regard to its arbitrariness, to words essentially “empty,” even of pain), but thought: “Think of me now and then … I'll think of you.” So the poem ends, but not before the knockout image “When the moon's like a golden tick on the summer sky, / Gorged with light,” a figure of Wright's own wish to be outside the absolute yet nourished and enlarged by it. A poet so atomistic as Wright is can use pow bam bits like this (this one so powerfully evocative and felicitous in its happy discovery that “tick” is just as large as “moon,” in its fattening chiasmus of “like … golden … Gorged … light,” and in the engorged sound of “or” in “Gorged,” coming in so hoggishly at the beginning of a line). In fact Wright tries, at times, for nothing less. There is no logic of progression, no purling continuity, to disrupt.
Here Wright's meditative practice of description—and this poet is the St. Ignatius of dark puddles and “pearl-dusked” trees—benefits from the taut string of dialogue, a sweet-pea-vine verticality of address. That Leopardi hides “behind the noon light” steeps “the spider drawn up in flame,” the one hovering near Wright, at once in worldly glare and spooky-ethereal eye-beams. Moreover, in contrast to the memory and journal poems that lack so single a focus, the poem knits and purls through holes of its own making and near containment. It has both esoteric brotherhood and chill, a foothold on the earth and metaphysical mad-farer's eyes. It's exhilarating to read, strangely refining.
The poem also avoids a frequent habit in the journal poems, that of setting philosophical generalities or questions side by side with blocks of description:
—Truth is the absence of falsehood, beauty the absence of ugliness, Jay like a stuffed toy in the pear tree, Afternoon light-slant deep weight diluting to aftermath on the lawn, Jay immobile and fluffed up, Cloud like a bass note, held and slow …
(“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
Plunked down, the abstraction “Truth is the absence of falsehood, / beauty the absence of ugliness” does not ride any wave of mood or argument. It just jerks by like a shooting duck for skepticism. I would quarrel with both parts of the statement. It's unregenerately “binary,” defiantly un-Derrida'd. What a poet does not want from readers is niggling disagreement. In any case, you can pull such statements out of their context without tearing any delicate fibers of connection. They are one more manifestation of Wright's tendency toward disintegration, one that lacks seduction.
Another recurring weakness in the work of the eighties—since the tune has once more swerved that way—is an occasional image-for-its-own sake, though this is really a symptom of a larger problem, that of beautiful writing as an end in itself. Such images remain unilluminated by a contextual flare-light or, conversely, fail to be a flare-light for their context:
Twilight, old friend, has come back to the lower orchard. Two grackles waddle across the grass. Doves moan, petals fall like tiny skirts From the dogwood tree next door, last things in the last light.
Charming as they may be, those “tiny skirts” need to be shipped back to the warehouse; they're frivolous in the neighborhood of “last things.” Or, equally, “last things in the last light” may be thought of as sentimentally appended, rote-Wright.
Again, does it signify, in “Language Journal,” that the light is “cantaloupe-colored”? Is this more than a “pretty” detail? To call such luscious light “Light of martyrs and solitaries” only makes matters worse, as does imagining it “ladled” like “a liquid” on the trees. Here, as occasionally elsewhere, Wright's artistic severity, once electrifyingly sharp, masochistic, has gone soft.
Then, too, Wright's new manner began to settle in on itself almost as soon as it was formed in “The Southern Cross.” It is really too bad that once a poet has become a style, he might do well to break it up and start over. Few ask it of painters, and indeed Wright has said (in the Paris Review), “I want people to be able to look at a poem of mine on the page, read it, and to say, as though they had seen a painting on a wall, ‘This is Charles Wright.’” In fact, lack a distinctive style and, painter or poet, you're ignored by a critical establishment governed by a sort of consumerist mentality that depends on being able to recognize brands. But whereas Cézannes are scattered all over the world, The World of the Ten Thousand Things comes into your home as a metacollection, Wright extensive and in concentration. It may be ungenerous to complain that there's too much of one good thing. After all, no one's required to read all the poems in a matter of hours or days.
In any case, to those given to hanging on Wright's every word, it begins to matter that the “slip of phrase against phrase” seems more and more to have its way smoothed by his own precedents; that there are still further references to madonnas, saints, penitents, and reliquaries; that the wind is often doing this or saying that; that “vowels” and “consonants” yet again appear as tropes; that verbs and adverbs sometimes come in pairs that sound too nifty (e.g., “whiffle and spin”); that phrases are occasionally repeated in succession, a device once mesmerizing, now stock. Precisely because Wright may be more capable than anyone else of innoculating readers with a bewitching novelty, one may become impatient with repeated formulas (say, abstraction and concreteness turned at blind angles to one another). The problem is compounded by what Wright does to the conventional, if loose and malleable, concept of the “poem,” making it all but synonymous with that additive genre, the diary. As the poems become less and less distinct from one another in topic and structure, and the style continues the same, “style,” and a single style, is in danger of replacing “poem.”
Thus the Charles Wright of Xionia is mostly familiar, though, even so, more than usually slippery. Some of the old CW's—the pilgrim of pear trees and ashes, foster child of slow rivers (if not of Italy), hunkering cabin-porch and backyard contemplative; the half-true, half-turned-away painter of nature (perhaps no better verbal painter this half-century), the word scorner (“The tongue cannot live up to the heart”: “December Journal”)—these are joined by (1) a poet stung by deconstruction into a defense of nature's gleaming realness,
The water beads necklaced across the bare branch of this oak tree Have something to say now but not about syllables, For water they are, and to water they shall return …
and (2) a Charles kicked back from the absolute, one who says “Everything's beautiful that stays in its due order, / Every existing thing can be praised when compared with nothingness” (“December Journal”). In a trial appearance, this same Wright had said in “Italian Days” in The Other Side of the River, “What gifts there are are all here, in this world.”
This wish to accommodate the universe, the thing poor Margaret Fuller was laughed at for announcing, has been implicit in Wright's recent taste for memory's dark honey. But little had prepared one for this new champion of “immanence of infinitude,” this trout that snaps at real flies in a halo of sunlight, this latter-day ambiguous Wordsworth who hails the world “just under our fingertips” and wants to touch “the undersides” of all he ever touched in the natural world (“December Journal”), or “be loose fire / Licking the edges of all things but the absolute” (“Bicoastal Journal”). Like most recent converts, he tends to be preachy: “If faith believes, and hope and love pray, then we should pray—/ For true affection in the natural world. / No wisdom can bring this grace, no charity touch it” (“Primitive Journal”).
To me, the best poem in Xionia is the short “A Journal of Three Questions.” Here the old Wright, the one blinded by the “blank, / the far side of the last equation” (“December Journal”) fuses with the emergent one, the Hopkinsian or de Chardinian adherent to “the physical world, / a liquid glory, / Instead of a struck eternity / Painted and paralyzed / at this end and the other” (i.e., in art and theology and in the other world). The result is formidably ambivalent:
Bees at the six-pointed junkweed blooms, Ants on the move on the undersides and down the stems Into a vast, prehensile darkness Around the roots of the wheat grass and the violets.
Who was it first recognized the beginning of the end? How many miles exist between the light and the dark When light and dark are obscured? Who can distinguish them?
Bees and ants are mean creatures, their powers pervasive.
The tension between the “prehensile darkness” and the insects “on the move” or “at” something is mysterious, convincing, scary, as is that between “mean creatures” and “powers pervasive.” Finding the end in the beginning, primal darkness in sunny surface activity, the poem is undecided between horror and amazement at the world, and not, as Wright can sometimes seem, comfortable in the worn shoes of the half-life of an old grinding despair. The three questions share with much of his philosophical musings a certain awkwardness, but combined with their aggression that quality seems appropriate here, the questions being deliberately boggling, like an I.Q. test in a dream. None of the poet's earlier turns shows up in the poem; it's a new-sprung child of the light obscured, the dark illuminated. (Not to dwell on the minute felicities, how well the introduction of a new vowel at the end, in “pervasive,” suits a word almost throwaway in its trailing placement, a word like an injection disappearing into a vein: a nothing-is-safe-or-concluded effect.)
Whatever regrets one may have about Wright's recent work, The World of the Ten Thousand Things holds its own with the best poetry in English in the eighties. It contains, especially in its first half, poems so remarkable, so deliciously strange, that they must tempt the metaphysical to swallow language. Even the baggy-sweater poems are full of beautiful passages that no one could wish taken back. “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” for instance, has
The ghost of Dragging Canoe settles like snowflakes on the limbs Of the river bushes, a cold, white skin That bleeds when it breaks. Everyone wants to touch its hem Now that it's fallen, everyone wants to see its face …
—as sensitive a socio-historical and moral moment as the imagination can reveal. “Nobody slides like an acrobat / out of the endless atmosphere,” with its witty detection of a kinship in the sounds of “acrobat” and “atmosphere,” is a winning instance of the hunger for otherness, comic and dew-inspired. Often, as here, Wright's wit has a faraway look in its nonetheless sparkling eyes. We find it again in his description of bats that “plunged and swooped like wrong angels / Hooking their slipped souls in the twilight.” And wit subdued but brilliant in “Time like a one-eyed Jack / whose other face I can't see,” which slips an intimidating card of chance into the clear plastic holder of abstract time, bringing the latter to sudden vividness, the personification nicely left stiff, not friendly.
And so on (it is very much a case of so on, even with respect to “A Journal of the Year of the Ox”). Wright's sure and forceful use of the vernacular, which laces his elegance like gin in soda, obtrusive in just the right way, as a welcome bite; his unique “striding” (“you have to hit the right notes hard, and you have to be underway when you do it”—Halflife); the singing garrote of some of his statements, for instance “No one can separate the light from the light” (“A Journal of True Confessions”) or questions, such as “How shall we hold on, when everything bright falls away?” (“A Journal of the Year of the Ox”), and the clutch-moves of otherness in so many of his images (e.g., “Guttural words that hang like bats in the throat, / their wings closed, their eyes shut” in “A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)—these are a frequent part of his rich weave. But best of all is the spell cast by entire poems through eerie surprise after surprise, as in the shorter poems of The Southern Cross, where Wright, who may well be responsible for the choice of a Cézanne illustration on the dust jacket of The World of the Ten Thousand Things, is as meditative-and-lyrical as the painter, as sensual-and-severe. How he shifts, like a licking flame, from one thing to another:
Everything on the move, everything flowing and folding back And starting again, Star-slick, the flaking and crusting duff at my feet,
Smoot and Runyan and August Binder Still in the black pulse of the earth, cloud-gouache Over the tree line, Mount Caribou Massive and on the rise and taking it in.
(“Mount Caribou at Night”)
Far more than Cézanne, however, Wright spreads his imagination's fingers so as to let the wind of the faraway, of what's to come, blow through. His flame burns cold just beyond the erotic warmth, the heartflame like praying hands or a gothic arch. This explains his attraction to Mark Rothko's abstract-mystical paintings. Cézanne and Rothko bracket him, like color's cheer and color's gloom. His peculiarity lies in his contradictions, as through some alchemy he superimposes the finished photograph of the here and now, with all its burning colors, on the black negative from which it sprang by a wrong reversal.
Wright's best lines pierce the skin of familiarity with rays of darkness. He is one of those from whom language magnificently glooms. He has long since earned the right to ask,
Remember me as you will, but remember me once Slide-wheeling around the curves, letting it out on the other side of the line.
(“Gate City Breakdown”)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1133
SOURCE: “Amid the Groves, Under the Shadowy Hill, the Generations are Prepared,” in Poetry, Vol. CLVIII, No. 5, August, 1991, pp. 280-95.
[In the following excerpt, McClatchy offers a positive assessment of The World of Ten Thousand Things.]
Does it make any sense to discuss these seven poets [Charles Wright, Charles Causley, Reynolds Price, Marvin Bell, Brad Leithauser, Debora Greger, and Peter Sacks] in generational clusters? They fall conveniently into three groups, but the approach is as likely to discover differences between the poets in any one group as differences among the groups themselves. Nor is convenience any sure guide toward generalization. …
What I have long admired in Marvin Bell's work is his willingness to think aloud, to speechify and speculate, to entertain ideas. Charles Wright shies from those impulses, preferring always to slip behind the detail, the image, the slow anonymous music of language itself. He may well be the best poet of his generation; certainly he is the most luxuriant. “Some people think that luxury is the opposite of poverty,” Coco Chanel once remarked. “Not so. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” Wright's work has changed over the years, grown more ample and ambitious, but from the beginning his voice was refined, even fastidious. Its music is virtuosic but never flashy, plush but never dragging. The World of the Ten Thousand Things makes a pair with Country Music: Selected Early Poems, which appeared in 1982. This new collection gathers between its attractive covers The Southern Cross (1981), The Other Side of the River (1984), and Zone Journals (1988), along with a group of fifteen more recent poems. Here is the poet in his maturity, full-throated, searching for and everywhere finding ways to extend his subjects and develop his themes. In an essay about Hardy, R. P. Blackmur wrote that “the final skill of a poet lies in his so conducting the work he does deliberately do, that the other work—the hidden work, the inspiration, the genius—becomes increasingly available not only in new poems but in old poems re-read.” That is the effect of this new collection: we can see the hidden work more clearly, trace it backwards and ahead through a quarter-century's effort to translate language into experience. The overall title of the book refers to the Chinese concept of the material world. T'sen Shen gave the mystic's version of it: “When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.” Wright's poems have a double purpose: to describe those things not of which this world is made but by which it is seen, and then to use them to return to his beginnings. Defining that sense of beginning—whether childhood memories, or crucial aesthetic experiences, whether mystical or instinctual—has evoked his strongest poems, and most of them are to be found in this collection.
The newest poems are given the general title Xionia. The term is a private name Wright and his wife gave the house they bought some years ago in Charlottesville. The former owners had named the house—because of its architectural detail—“Ionia.” Wright wittily unnamed it by x-ing the old term, while at the same time savoring the echo of Zion. Like Zone Journals—these new poems are both an extension of and a commentary on the earlier book—Xionia is domestic in focus, ruminative in tone. Extension, because they continue the journal mode. They search amid the pre-poetic for their poetry; they sort through the notebook, turn over the quick impressions, nudges from nature, scraps of reading, house-holder's duties, daydreams and nightmares, the might-be and wonder-if. These journal-poems are not preoccupied with the self, but with otherness within and beyond the self:
I'd rather be elsewhere, like water hugging the undergrowth, Uncovering rocks and small windfall Under the laurel and maple wood. I'd rather be loose fire Licking the edges of all things but the absolute Whose murmur retoggles me. I'd rather be memory, touching the undersides Of all I ever touched once in the natural world.
Caught between the natural world and the absolute, between rather-be and his sole self, the poet shuttles in hemistiches among his desires. The new poems here are also commentaries on this process, on the whole project of Zone Journals, as they take up the matter of language and landscape, of the limits of poetry. Wright's final word, the splendid “Language Journal,” has a Stevensian surrender:
Late March, spring's loop in a deep regress, Sunlight like polyurethane on the concrete blocks And the driveway's asphalt curve … I step through the alphabet The tree limbs shadow across the grass, a dark language Of strokes and ideograms That spells out a different story than we are used to, A story with no beginning and no end, a little one. I leave it and cross the street. I think it's a happy story, and not about us.
Each of the earlier books here re-assembled has a distinct character: the memory-work of The Southern Cross, the narrative experiments of The Other Side of the River, and delicate notations of Zone Journals. However much Wright has settled into a longer line's plainsong, the linked images, and ebb and flow of his leisurely rhythms, he has also sought—sometimes with great success, sometimes with less—to magnify his range, to approach the sublime, to write a spiritual autobiography. If I persist in thinking “The Southern Cross” is his best work, that is because no other poem of his so perfectly balances his memories and his questions, his ecstatic and elegiac voices; and because, ten years after its publication, I am even more confident that it is one of the best contemporary poems, and one of the most likely to endure. As with any enduring work of art, its meanings will shift and shimmer for later readers. Earlier Wright poems already look different to me when I hold them up to the light cast by his later poems. They seem like Keats's warm gules thrown by the wintry moon. Each re-reading draws me further in, keeps me further off. There is no poet of his generation whose career has unfolded with such genuine authority as Charles Wright's, or whom I read with more astonishment and gratitude. There is no book published this year I could recommend more highly.
Though it often seems so, it cannot be true that each generation of poets is less ambitious and skillful than the one before. But it is true that the exponential increase in the number of published poets, if we compare the pages of today's journals with those of, say, fifty years ago, has not occasioned any increase in the number of truly distinguished artists. As ever, it is a matter of individual achievement and not of sociological factoring.
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SOURCE: A review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, in America, April 25, 1992, pp. 361-62.
[In the following review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, Unsino concludes that Wright's poetry lacks analysis and a guiding artistic aim.]
These are the journals [The World of Ten Thousand Things] of a poet who believes he is in paradise, and landscapes are his rambling theme. The volume includes three books previously published, The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, reals, and one published only in a limited edition, Xionia. Charles Wright at his best is like his own hermit crabs of “New Year's Eve, 1979,” spinning across the floors of their tidal pools: “Their sky is a glaze and a day. … / What matters to them is what comes up from below, and from out there / In the deep water, / and where the deep water comes from.” Here Wright probes reality and creates a cosmic view of the world.
Wright's strengths are a natural, social approach to experience, a flat-bellied masculinity, understated hardness and stamina. He is impressive with the breadth of his narration in “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” about a famous 18th-century military expedition: John Donelson's river voyage from the Long Island of the Holston River in Virginia to his destination at Nashville. The narration builds by cloud-shifts to a strange crisis: the poet lying in yet another landscape, a cruel April scene of maples and butterflies, visiting Emily Dickinson's homestead in Amherst, Mass., savoring Emily's non-appearance in her white dress with white flowers and concluding with a philosophic hymn to the Absolute. Not coming to any real climax, Wright just moves on.
“Cryopexy” is the finest work in this volume. Retinal defect, eye operation, repair and the normal course of fluids through the eye are filmed and projected with consummate skill: “Under the lid, / currents of fox-fire between the layers, / And black dots like the blood bees of Paradise. …” Here are inner landscapes and inner light, an ocean of vision containing “clear eels and anemonies.” The poem is a gorgeous set-piece.
Sometimes the poet delights in confusion that he must have planned, almost graphed. In “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” he remembers Edgar Allan Poe's house in Virginia. Then, hearing horn music somewhere in the United States he reminisces about the scales and practice of an Italian hornist, perhaps at Verona. Various Italian rural scenes are smashed together, producing transcending vistas as an impressionistic painter creates new light by juxtaposing unrelated tones. Wright's benign mischief-making entertains.
It is strange that the art of such a learned poet should suffer so much from lack of analysis. What landscape can say to him, what can be referred to his artistic, philosophical or religious musings, comes strongly into his poetry. What cannot flow to him in this way does not sound as finished art. The poet, at times, persists in banal metaphors and ineptitude of expression. “In my fiftieth year, with a bad back and a worried mind, / Going down the Lee Highway, / the farms and villages / Rising like fog behind me,” is a gem from “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” but there is not enough metrical or rhythmic innovation to sustain a book this long. At worst, Wright populates his poems with stock artistic figures. Literary men, especially Italians, dominate the poem, “The Southern Cross.” Pound's “Cantos” are echoed and, sure enough, Pound himself soon treads onto the boards with the rest.
Charles Wright satirizes himself best in “Lonesome Pine Special” where he acknowledges, “There is so little to say, and so much time to say it in.” Toward the end of the book he starts closing in on what has really been preoccupying him, paradise, which, for him, “is what we live in / And not a goal to yearn for.” This is too little achievement, however, and it comes too late. Process is not all. There are goals to be attained in art, although neither Wright nor anyone else can afford to be too certain about Wright's goals; but wherever he may be going, he is not getting there fast enough.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926
SOURCE: “A Tenth and Four Fifths,” in Poetry, Vol. CXLI, No. 6, March, 1993, pp. 349-58.
[In the following review of The Southern Cross, Kennedy commends Wright's poetic ear and controlled lines, but finds shortcomings in the lack of theme in his poetry.]
Charles Wright continues on his serious quest for ineffable beauty and serenity [in The Southern Cross]. Like other Romantic aspirants whom he admires (Keats, Hart Crane), Wright is subject to fits of gloom—see, for instance, the song lyric “Laguna Blues.” At times, the hardships of his quest make him yearn for irresponsibility, insensibility, even freedom from words. No living person other than the poet is sharply seen, although a lot of names are dropped. Several poems are entitled “Self-Portrait,” while yet another paints the poet in Hart Crane's company. The world of Wright's poems contains few actions, being filled with perceptions, feelings, and twinges of memory. Not always sure that his quest, after all, is worth fulfilling, Wright sees his own role as artist with a skeptical, appealing modesty: “Mercy upon us, / we who have learned to preach but not to pray.”
In this new collection, Wright opens up his lines and lets them run for as long as they like; at times he breaks them in half and lets one half drop:
The lime, electric green of the April sea off Ischia Is just a thumb-rub on the window glass between here and there: And the cloud cap above the volcano That didn't move when the sea wind moved; And the morning the doves came, low from the mountain's shadow, under the sunlight, Over the damp tops of the vine rows, Eye-high in a scythe slip that dipped and rose and cut down toward the sea;
and so on. His ear is superb. Those who would understand how to get lines to behave within a formally open poem would do well to study him day and night. As always, Wright has a rare way with a metaphor: “Spring picks the locks of the wind,” “The reindeer still file through the bronchial trees.” Still, he is not always discriminate, as in lines about bears (the constellations) “serene as black coffee,” and about “Sun like an orange mousse”—to which the natural reaction is: “Yummy!”
Wright is well aware that his title poem contains “No trace of a story line.” In writing such discursive, nonlinear, non-narrative ruminations, the poet faces a problem, and the longer the poem, the keener it gets. It is to keep the reader reading to the end. In China Trace, his previous book, Wright held every poem to a dozen lines; the discourageable, human reader hardly had time to flag. But in The Southern Cross, though many of the poems are one-pagers, Wright expands into more space: “The Southern Cross,” “Homage to Paul Cézanne.” Reading them, as they go on and on, one feels like some penciler of a nonrepresentational dot-to-dot puzzle, connecting thing to thing, impelled not by any emerging shape or sense, but only by the hope of an occasional satisfaction.
No one can tell Wright where to go from here, and I won't try; I will only suggest to him the wisdom of W. S. Merwin, who, every time his work seems in danger of becoming so hypersensitive and ineffable that it threatens to soar into space, contemplates his native Scranton. I'm struck by Wright's “Gate City Breakdown,” not the best in the book, and yet a poem with humor, action, and grossness in it. The poet recalls his days as a runner of moonshine across the Tennessee border;
Remember me as you will, but remember me once Slide-wheeling around the curves, letting it out on the other side of the line.
In a way, The Southern Cross may prove Wright's Life Studies: the book that moves from one careful shore to a wilder one, where a greater range is possible. Few poets in the country at the moment run more knowing hands across the keys—but how shall Wright compose his true concerto? Let us look to a hint from a patriarch:
Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper. Theme alone can steady us down.
But I quote, to be sure, from “The Figure a Poem Makes”: Frost's preface to his 1949 Complete Poems. Sometimes, as at the end of his title poem, Wright seems almost on the verge of embracing a theme, that of his search for his lost boyhood in Pickwick, Tennessee:
Somewhere in all that network of rivers and roads and silt hills, A city I'll never remember, its walls the color of pure light, Lies in the August heat of 1935, In Tennessee, the bottom land slowly becoming a lake. It lies in a landscape that keeps my imprint Forever, and stays unchanged, and waits to be filled back in. Someday I'll find it out And enter my old outline as though for the 1st time,
And lie down, and tell no one.
Who would quibble over so lovely a deathwish? But I hope Wright may someday discover the outline into which he fits, and tell us of it—at the top of his voice. He is serious, unafraid, and a master of intelligent music. Perhaps theme, and Tennessee, will yet weight him and steady him down.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2993
SOURCE: “The Nothing That Is,” in New Republic, August 7, 1995, pp. 42-5.
[In the following review, Vendler offers a positive evaluation of Chickamauga. Vendler contends that Wright's “eschatological” poems are rich with striking imagery and lyric meditations on life, death, and poetic representation.]
The title poem of Charles Wright's new book [Chickamauga] doesn't mention the Civil War battle of Chickamauga or the soldiers who died in it, and in this it is typical of Wright's practice. The poem climbs to a vantage point where the anonymity of history has blanked out the details. What is left is the distillate: that something happened at this place, that its legacy of uneasiness inhabits the collective psyche (Wright was born in Tennessee), that it will not let us go and demands a response. A confessional poet might write about his own family's legacy from the war. A socially minded poet might recount the havoc of battle. A moral poet might debate what Melville called “the conflict of convictions.” A landscape poet might describe the vacant battlefield as it is now. Wright is none of these, does none of these things.
What can a lyric poetry be that sidelines the confessional, the social, the moral, the panoramic? It can be—and in Wright's case, it is—eschatological. Eschatology sees the world under the sign of the last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. Wright redefines these in his own way: Annihilation, History, Light, Disappearance. If we face annihilation as persons, and we do; if history judges us and disposes of us, and it does; if mass is clarified into energy, and it is; if every object vanishes, and it will—then what kind of language can we use of life that will be true of these processes and true of us?
Wright's earliest manifesto of the lyric that he wanted to write was phrased in negation, in 1971:
“THE NEW POEM”
It will not resemble the sea. It will not have dirt on its thick hands. It will not be part of the weather.
It will not reveal its name. It will not have dreams you can count on. It will not be photogenic.
It will not attend our sorrow. It will not console our children. It will not be able to help us.
How was Wright to find a set of positives to accompany these negatives? The three stanzas of “The New Poem” refuse mimesis of the external world (sea, dirt, weather); mimesis of the psychological world (name, dreams, face); and mimesis of the religious world (attendance, consolation, help). No objects, then; and no self; and no God. Has there ever been a more stringent set of requirements for poetry?
If the object of art is not mimesis and not self-identification and not consolation, many of the tones that we associate with poetry must also be forgone. The strict discipline that Wright imposes on himself is visible in all he writes. If an item from the world is mentioned, it must always be remembered that it has been selected and is not simply “there.” The word used to mention it, once it has been settled on, has its own history, its own weight and color. If the self is mentioned, it must always be remembered that what has been invoked is merely one aspect of the self, one that fits the purposes of this particular poem and is constructed by the instruments available to this poem—its images, its location, its syntax. If sorrows or needs or desires appear, nobody grander than ourselves can be there to attend to them, help us with them or console our afflictions.
Thus, when we come to the poem “Chickamauga,” none of the “warmer” tones of lyric are permitted to attend on the scene. No Civil War color and drama, no embattled Southern polemics, no grief even. There are five stanzas, arranged in Chinese-box fashion. In the middle is the peregrine face of the poet, to whom Chickamauga is a place of haunting significance. Readers cannot know the poet's human face; it lies under the mask of the poem. The masked face is bracketed, fore and aft, by history—first, by history in its cold indifference (discarding all of us “like spoiled fruit”); and second, by history as the trawling force that will haul us up, like fish, into its clarifying light and air where we cannot but suffocate. But this apparently omnipotent history, too, is bracketed fore and aft: by landscape, which banally outlives the history of the battle, and by language, the other enduring, transhistorical force.
Wright's structure—face enclosed by poem, face and poem enclosed by history, history enclosed by landscape and language—is in itself a powerful truth-telling geometry of destiny:
Dove-twirl in the tall grass. End-of-summer glaze next door On the gloves and split ends of the conked magnolia tree. Work sounds: truck back-up-beep, wood tin-hammer, cicada, fire horn.
History handles our past like spoiled fruit. Mid-morning, late-century light calicoed under the peach trees. Fingers us here. Fingers us here and here.
The poem is a code with no message: The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath, Absolute, incommunicado, unhoused and peregrine.
The gill net of history will pluck us soon enough From the cold waters of self-contentment we drift in One by one into its suffocating light and air.
Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax And grammar a catechist, Their words what the beads say, words thumbed to our discontent.
Such a poem will not be your choice if you are set on lyric that maintains the illusion of a direct mimetic personal speech by “suppressing” its status as composed and measured language. It will also not be your choice if you prefer “language poetry,” which dispenses with structure, syntax and grammar as authoritarian hegemonic structures that limit what can be said within them.
Wright offers the interesting example of a poet who wants to acknowledge in each of his poems that a poem is a coded piece of language and yet wants also to express, by that very code, the certainty that a piece of language exhibiting structure, grammar and syntax is not “found art,” but has been arranged by a questing human consciousness forever incommunicado beneath its achieved mask. He is not alone in his double desire. The foregrounding of the artifactual status of the lyric is common coin these days. What makes Wright unusual is his ascetic practice, his insistence on holding the rest of the poem to account under this double truth of incommunicado humanity and admitted inhumanness: nothing in the poem is allowed to ignore the strict metaphysics of its conception.
The “warm” tones of polemic, confession, startle and fear—all those “immediacies” of direct expression—are forbidden him by his distanced and meditated stance. His poems, looked at from one perspective, lie about us like the life-masks they are: immobile, “placed,” shaped, blanched. And yet, from another perspective, his poems are alive, as they struggle toward the transfiguration of still-life that they will, at their end, achieve. There are two signs of livingness in Wright, one proper to individual poems, the other proper to his total oeuvre: there is temporality, as the present-tense of any given poem slowly modulates into its dead future, and there is the change that takes place in the “objective” world, as different poems call into being varying perceptions, often stimulated by seasonal change.
After writing for a long time about the landscape of California, Wright moved several years ago to Virginia, and Charlottesville replaced Laguna Beach as the source of his images. Wright's usual “rule” of composition is that one or more images drawn from the landscape must set the musical tone of the poem. In “Lines After Rereading T. S. Eliot,” the tone is set by Wright's own “wasteland between the brown / Apricot leaf and the hedge”:
The orchard is fading out. All nine of the fruit trees Diminish and dull back in the late Sunday sunlight. The dead script of vines scrawls unintelligibly Over the arbor vitae.
As the season changes, we see the same orchard transformed, no longer a “wasteland,” in “Still Life with Spring and Time to Burn,” which begins:
Warm day, early March. The buds preen, busting their shirtwaists All over the plum trees. Blue moan of the mourning dove. It's that time again, time of relief, time of sorrow The earth is afflicted by. We feel it ourselves, a bright uncertainty of what's to come Swelling our own skins with sweet renewal, a kind of disease That holds our affections dear and asks us to love it. And so we do, supposing That time and affection is all we need answer to.
For some, Wright says, time and affection may be the sole standards. But like Hopkins, who, after crying out “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” had to answer to his own awareness of the eschatological (“Have, get, before it cloy, / Before it cloud, Christ, Lord, and sour with sinning”), Wright cannot rest in the sensuous moment. He “spoils” every such moment with his Eliot-like vision of “the skull beneath the skin.” I pick up the spring poem where I cut it off:
And so we do, supposing That time and affection is all we need answer to. But we guess wrong:
Time will append us like suit coats left out overnight On a deck chair, loose change dead weight in the right pocket, Silk handkerchief limp with dew, sleeves in a slow dance with the wind. And love will kill us— Love, and the winds from under the earth that grind us to grain-out.
“But we guess wrong.” The guess that hazards everything on time and affection omits too much for Wright, whose mind is saturated with death and the chilling Midas-petrifaction of words. His “But we guess wrong” is a close cousin of Milton's remark on pagan mythographers: “So they relate, erring.” Milton could not lightly employ Greek mythology, because he considered it an imaginative fiction that belied the Christian truth to which he was obliged to adhere. Wright, bound no less straitly by the truths of death and arranged language, sees the immediate sensuous life (when offered in language) as no less a mythological fiction than the gods on Parnassus.
During his thirty-year span of writing, Wright has investigated many ways of folding death into life, absence into presence, deconstruction into construction. He has tried abstract titles; poems with notes attached so that details could be left out; titles specifying the occasion so that the following poem could be general; white space; desiccation of means; remoteness of stance; atemporality of narration. He has invoked a cluster of authenticating poets, artists and musicians for his aesthetic practice: Dante, Hopkins, Dickinson, Hart Crane, Pound, Eliot, Tu Fu, Trakl, Montale; Piero della Francesca, Cézanne, Morandi; and here in Chickamauga there appear, among others, Elizabeth Bishop, Lao Tzu, Wang Wei, Paul Celan, Miles Davis and Mondrian. More than most poets, Wright has owned up to being a site traversed by the languages, images and tones of others, from Christian mystics to composers of country music. The religious yearning that used to find a home in doctrine is now, in that sense, homeless; but in Wright it persists in an urgent form, demanding to be housed somewhere, anywhere—in image, in landscape, in allusion, in geometry, in structure.
Piero's monumental figures with their glance fixed on something beyond the canvas; Cézanne's patches of color on white canvas; Morandi's ghostly bottles; Mondrian's repetitive figuration: all are symbols, to Wright, of the austerity of construction that satisfies his sense of rightness. These painters reprove the voluptuousness of the flesh, the heedlessness of the passing moment, the domesticities of contentment. The Chinese poets stand, in Wright, for the observer lost in the observation, for Buddhist emptiness, and for the stringencies of classic form. And the religious poets authenticate, for Wright, what used to be called the analogical level of experience—that which is not literal, nor figurative, nor emblematic, but which escapes direct representation by fact, or image, or emblem, and which drives poets to hints, intimations and expressions of the ineffable. Country music and jazz are symbols of indigenous rhythms known to Wright since his youth.
This, more or less, is the map of Wright's poetics. Since his readers do not share all of Wright's talismanic obsessions, it has been his task to take us under the tent of his poems and make us care, not so much for his fetishes as for the harmonies that they create when they are assembled together. “This is a lip of snow and a lip of blood,” says a 1981 poem called “Childhood's Body”: those who want lips of blood will be put off by the chill of snow, those who want lips of snow will be put off by the stain of blood. Readers of modern poetry are well aware of the voice of the body (“Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth”) and the voice of the mind (“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”), but it is rarer to find the voice of the soul, especially the soul in its still-embodied state, conscious of its lip of snow meeting the body's lip of blood.
None of these voices is interesting to poetry, of course, unless the heart is present, too. It is in the junction of feeling heart and embodied soul that Wright locates his poetry. “This is too hard,” protests the unwilling reader: “let me subside into blood or snow, one or the other.” The Wright poem creates an anxiety that is very difficult to live within, since its constantly ticking clock adds certain loss to each daily gain:
The subject of all poems is the clock, I think, those tiny, untouchable hands that fold across our chests Each night and unfold each morning, finger by finger, Under the new weight of the sun. One day more is one day less.
What, then, are the rewards for subjecting oneself to the severity of Wright's pages, for living on his dissolving interface of feeling, between life and death? For a start, the brilliance of his images. His images, changing with the seasons, set the musical tone for each poem, and they are conceived in a manner that never ceases to astonish. One can never guess what word will come next on the page in a poem by Wright. Here is Venice, brilliant at night, dwindled at dawn, from Chickamauga's “Venexia I”:
Too much at first, too lavish—full moon Jackhammering light-splints along the canal, gondola beaks Blading the half-dark; Moon-spar; backwash backlit with moon-spark …
Next morning, all's otherwise With a slow, chill rainfall like ragweed electric against the launch lights, Then grim-grained, then grey. This is the water-watch landscape, the auto-da-fé.
In this sequence of images, sexual and visual energy shrivels, as a torture of exhausted observation succeeds the Hopkinsian intoxication. That is one reason to live in the poem with Wright: that emotional accuracy and verbal plenitude. Another is the floating tide of his musical line, which lifts the reader along its irregular cadence, as in “Easter 1989”:
Instinct will end us. The force that measles the peach tree will divest and undo us.
The power that kicks on the cells in the lilac bush Will tumble us down and down. Under the quince tree, purple cross points, and that's all right
For the time being, the willow across the back fence Menacing in its green caul.
Anyone can hear, in this music, the perceptible turn between the first three sentences (variants on a single tune) and the fourth sentence, with its reticent irony at “For the time being.” Just when Wright is being most biblical, the colloquial thrusts itself into the lines (“kicks on,” “tumble us down,” “and that's all right,” “for the time being”) and then something altogether unforeseeable—the “green caul” of the new—casts a ghastly light on the whole landscape.
If a reader wants more than the emotionally freighted image, more than the lift of a line, more than the heart's predicament between the snowy soul and the blooded body, then the poems by Wright that will linger most may be those that repeat religious promise in undoctrinal form. Here is the conclusion of Wright's Easter poem, at once biological and incandescent, borrowing its language from his earliest vocabulary for marvel, the Gospel resurrection:
Nubbly with enzymes, The hardwoods gurgle and boil in their leathery sheaths. Flame flicks the peony's fuse. Out of the caves of their locked beings, fluorescent shapes Roll the darkness aside as they rise to enter the real world.
“We get no closer than next-to-it,” Wright concedes, but he won't abandon the hope of propinquity to the invisible, the “definer of all things”:
Something surrounds us we can't exemplify, something Mindless and motherless, dark as diction and twice told. We hear it at night. Flake by flake, we taste it like tinfoil between our teeth.
Such an intuition is unprovable. Do we really hear it softly burying us, and taste it setting our teeth on edge, that unintelligible and aboriginal darkness? For those who do—who sense an enveloping and ethically burdening perplexity that is quite independent of personal tragedy, political evil or scientific ignorance—Wright's poems will appear as attempts to lift a curtain, to enlighten memory, to name the abandoned, to pierce into “the horned heart of the labyrinth,” where “the unsayable has its say.” Wright's Minotaur—more sinister than the original, because it is shapeless—awaits the reader.
In his generation, the generation of Ashbery, Rich, Ammons, Ginsberg, Plath and Merrill, Wright is perhaps closest to Plath in his intensity of the image, closest to Ammons in his sense of the sidereal. But he sounds like nobody else, and he has remained faithful to insights and intuitions—of darkness as of light—less than common in contemporary America.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1653
SOURCE: “Poetry in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 144-57.
[In the following excerpt, Longenbach offers praise for Chickamauga, although he notes that Wright's narrow focus and “world-weary” tone suggest the poet's limitations.]
“In living as in poetry,” said James Merrill in “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia,” “your art / Refused to tip the scale of being human / By adding unearned weight.” Even at a time when Elizabeth Bishop's light touch is fashionable, these lines remind us of how rarely a poet honors the circumscribed role that poetry plays in American culture. Poets have surely been on the defensive at least since the time of Plato. But more often than not, they have responded to an indifferent public by adding weight to what they do; Ezra Pound said that poets should be acknowledged legislators. Less common is a poet like Thomas Hardy, who turned from novels to poems (at least in part) because nobody paid any attention to poetry. “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved,” wrote the novelist weathering the publication of Jude the Obscure, “the Inquisition might have let him alone.” Rather than exaggerating poetry's claim on our attentions, Hardy diminished it: by seeming to ask so little of themselves, his poems offer more than we could have imagined receiving. It's difficult to think of Hardy or Bishop or Merrill having any interest in the question does poetry matter? The danger of what Merrill called “unearned weight” looms in the language of any response.
I want to say much more about A Scattering of Salts, James Merrill's thirteenth and, following his death on February 6, final book of poems. But first I want to dwell on two other recent books, one by a poet reaching the midpoint of his career, the other by a poet who has nearly achieved the eminence that Merrill just left behind. Michael Collier and Charles Wright seem hardly to resemble Merrill (or each other); but like Merrill, they are extremely wary of unearned weight, especially when they find their own poems tipping the scale. …
Charles Wright took on those challenges when he began writing the long-lined, meditative poems of The Southern Cross, published in 1981. As accomplished as Wright's earlier poems were, their precisions came to seem predictable. (It was Wright's diction that Robert Pinsky parodied in The Situation of Poetry: “The silence of my / blood eats light like the / breath of future water.”) Wright has never given up the image-freighted line, but throughout his past four books (collected in 1990 as The World of the Ten Thousand Things), he has written a much more ambitious kind of poetry—a poetry that no longer builds its precisions into artificially static structures. Paradoxically, these longer poems seem to honor “the world of the ten thousand things” more successfully than Wright's earlier, more modest productions: because they document not only the conclusions but the movements of thought, the poems earn their leaps from earthly things to metaphysical auras, and the words don't seem to strain against their own materiality. Taken in its entirety, The World of the Ten Thousand Things seems to me one of the great American long poems.
Chickamauga marks a new turning point in Wright's career. After Wallace Stevens completed the long poems of The Auroras of Autumn, he recognized that these sequences had become too tempting for him. He had lost the discipline of the short poem, and he set out in the last years of his life to curtail his hard-won extravagance. Over the past decade, Wright's poems have only become looser and longer (ultimately taking the form of poetic journals), and like Stevens's The Rock, Chickamauga is the result of a self-consciously imposed limitation. “Shorten your poems,” Wright says to himself in “Sprung Narratives”; “I gaze at the sky and cut lines from my long poem,” he says in “Broken English.” Most of Wright's new poems fit neatly on one page, and, if anything, each poem seems more gorgeous than the one preceding it.
“East of the Blue Ridge, Our Tombs Are in the Dove's Throat” begins, as so many of Wright's poems do, with a figure in a landscape, waiting for “a sign of salvation.” Rather than a world beyond, however, all Wright can see is the world of things:
Five crows roust a yellow-tailed hawk from the hemlock tree next door, Black blood spots dipping and blown Across the relentless leeching the sun pales out of the blue. We'd like to fly away ourselves, pushed Or pulled, into or out of our own bodies, into or out of the sky's mouth. We'd like to disappear into a windfall of light.
But the numbers don't add up. Besides, a piece of jar glass burns like a star at the street's edge, The elbows and knuckled limp joints of winter trees, Shellacked by the sunset, flash and fuse, Windows blaze and earthly splendor roots our names to the ground.
One could almost think of this poem as “Anecdote of the Jar: Seventy-five Years Later.” Like Stevens, Wright investigates the way in which a small, human-made thing portions out the landscape; but Wright's jar is broken, and however mundane, its power extends more plainly to an ethereal world.
Wright's turn toward smaller poems is the result of a metaphysical as well as formal dilemma. My use of the word metaphysical, which inevitably seems too weighty, is indicative of the dilemma: throughout the poems of Chickamauga, the word small is probably repeated more often than any other. “Better to concentrate on something close, something small,” says Wright. The book opens with a meditation on a snail shell, and it closes with an inchworm. And in “Tennessee Line,” Wright recalls a long journal he kept in 1958: his dissatisfaction with it sounds like a comment on his more recent journal-poems. “There's only the rearrangement, the redescription / Of little and mortal things,” he concludes. As much as Wright wants desperately to fly beyond the body, he distrusts his flights. And as a whole, Chickamauga seems to have been written out of a fear of unearned weight. “Ambition,” Wright says in “Lines After Rereading T. S. Eliot,” “is such a small thing.”
Wright also registers dissatisfaction with his miniature world. Either explicitly or implicitly, many of the poems depend on a distinction between a static sense of the past (the mere recounting of events) and an animating sense of history (the mind's active re-creation of events). Wright wants to live “in history without living in the past”—to record not simply the life of things but the mind's constant reinvention of things. The signature quality of Wright's best poems is consequently their movement, embodying the process of thought: individual lines may seem hieratically still, but as one metaphor slides to another (each one more artfully improbable than the one before), the poems don't just record movement but make us feel it. “Sprung Narratives,” perhaps the most stunning poem in the book, returns to several of Wright's familiar landscapes (Tennessee, Italy, Laguna Beach), interweaving stories about the past with meditations on the process of memory. At its center, Wright recalls an astonishing scene: a student priest, once a dancer, erupts into movement on the beach at Ostia.
Spot, pivot and spin … Spot, pivot and spin … Esposito breaks From the black-robed, black-cordovaned Body of student priests and feints down the wave-tongued sand Like a fabulous bird where the tide sifts out and in.
His cassock billows and sighs As he sings a show tune this morning at Ostia, Rehearsing the steps and pirouettes he had known by heart once Last year in another life.
Remembering and reinventing the romantic topos of the dancer (Yeats is invoked here and elsewhere in Chickamauga), this scene is an emblem for Wright's own ambition: to be earthly and yet credibly transcendent, delightful and yet utterly serious, mindful of the past and yet constantly in motion.
I like Wright's poems best when he allows them to become a little anecdotal—when he dirties the gorgeous surface with more homespun diction: not “Full moon, the eighth of March; clouds / Cull and disperse” but “I've always liked the view from my mother-in-law's house at night.” One danger of Wright's style—one he recognizes—is that everything in the world becomes an emblem. In sharp contrast to Michael Collier's poems, Wright's are full of names but lacking in people, focused on landscapes but lacking a sense of place. How welcome, how necessary, are the lines that end the book:
Meanwhile, let's stick to business. Everything else does, the landscape, the absolute, the invisible. My job is yard work— I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.
This self-deprecating humor is completely at home within the strategically circumscribed ambitions of Chickamauga, but the tone of the book is far more often autumnal. Wright's head is full of the rhythms of the ode “To Autumn”: “City of masks and minor frightfulness.” And if small is the most commonly repeated word in the book, again must appear nearly as often. “Looking Again at What I Looked At for Seventeen Years” is a typical title: Wright seems to feel that all he can do is spin new variations on a limited number of subjects and scenes. This is without question the source of his strength (as it was Stevens's), but I sometimes found myself wishing that Chickamauga didn't seem quite so world-weary quite so often. “How imperceptibly we become ourselves,” says Wright, and he seems aware, writing in the wake of The World of the Ten Thousand Things, that he may have become too utterly, too completely himself. Chickamauga is a beautiful book, bearably human yet in touch with the sublime; I would not want to be deprived of any of its poems. But I can't help wondering what Charles Wright—who must be thought of as one of our living masters—could possibly do next.
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SOURCE: “Poetry Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 166-75.
[In the following excerpt, Mason offers an unfavorable assessment of Chickamauga and contends that Wright enjoys undeserved praise and prominence within the literary establishment.]
Why is most contemporary poetry so dull?
Consider three thoughts that occurred to me while reading the work of Charles Wright: his ideas are uninteresting, his poems undramatic; his language is only intermittently charged or lyrical; he is among the best-known poets of his generation. If you believe, as I do, that these three statements do not add up, you will also catch the drift of my rhetorical opening. We live in a world in which reputation has little to do with accomplishment. Given the broad context of contemporary American poetry, often so prosaic and self-regarding that it turns away anyone who is not a “professional reader,” Charles Wright is a relatively honorable practitioner. Yet, going over most of his work in preparation to review Chickamauga, his new collection, I found very little that would justify paying hard-earned money to acquire it. Most of his poems are so flat and passive that they should have been left in a drawer; instead, they have been published in prominent magazines like The New Yorker.
Wright's defenders will remind you of his Italian and Oriental influences, his long apprenticeship to Pound's Cantos, etc. They will also tell you that Wright's project is now to thwart the reader's expectations, as if the reader were merely an inconvenience. Reviewing Chickamauga in The New Republic (August 7, 1995), Helen Vendler performed extraordinary verbal gymnastics (and ultimately made a fool of herself), trying to prove Wright a major poet. Of his title poem, she writes, “[It] climbs to a vantage point where the anonymity of history has blanked out the details.” History without details? What a brilliant idea! While we're at it, how about poetry without words? How about humming a few bars on a kazoo and calling it an epic? Vendler has often been a very good critic, and she should know better; she even extols Wright as a poet without qualities: “No objects, then; and no self; and no God. Has there ever been a more stringent set of requirements for poetry?” Never a duller one, I'll wager.
Slightly later, Professor Vendler anticipates my objections: “Such a poem will not be your choice if you are set on lyric that maintains the illusion of a direct mimetic personal speech by ‘suppressing’ its status as composed and measured language.” But I still don't follow her; is she really suggesting that direct and personal lyrics suppress their status as measured language? Doesn't she remember her own work on Keats and Yeats? Weren't those poets both personal and measured? She calls Wright “interesting” because he is “a poet who wants to acknowledge in each of his poems that a poem is a coded piece of language and yet wants also to express, by that very code, the certainty that a piece of language exhibiting structure, grammar and syntax is not ‘found art,’ but has been arranged by a questing human consciousness forever incommunicado beneath its achieved mask.” Read that passage again, then claw the wool from your eyes and you will see that Professor Vendler is committing fraud. She uses words like “measured language” and “structure,” but never satisfactorily explains how they pertain to the poetry at hand. The insufficiency of art has been a subject of lyric poetry for a very long time, but never before the twentieth century has that subject been used to justify such complacency.
Meanwhile, what about poor Charles Wright? Wade through his watery oeuvre, and you will find moments of real precision. In one early poem, he remarks, “The evening, like / An old dog, circles the hills, / Anxious to settle.” It's a fine, lovingly Southern image. But in the same book, The Grave of the Right Hand, one finds Wright at his weakest: “I would say, off-hand, that things / Are beginning to happen. …” His well-known poem “Two Stories,” from The Other Side of the River, concludes, “I'm starting to think about the psychotransference of all things.” These quotations are wrenched out of contexts that are not much more poetic. Wright's poems require a too-generous, theoretical critic like Vendler to give them stature, and many unsuspecting readers may not comprehend the power Vendler wields in the world of poetry, despite her questionable taste.
There is plenty of meditative near-spirituality in Chickamauga, but it's all air and light, history without the details:
If sentences constitute everything we believe, Vocabularies retool Our inability to measure and get it right, And language don't exist. That's one theory. Here's another: Something weighs on our shoulders And settles itself like black light invisibly in our hair …
Since critics don't buy the books they review, they have the luxury of praising hogwash. Pity the reader who gets suckered into paying for it. Wright disappoints me because he can at times create a lovely, quiet lyricism, as in a poem with a clumsy title, “After Reading, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard,” but his asceticism and habitual prosiness betray the very strengths he should be building on. He can do better, though in the present context he has precious little reason to try.
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SOURCE: “On Restraint,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXVIII, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 33-47.
[In the following excerpt, Baker offers a favorable assessment of Chickamauga, drawing parallels between the rhetorical sagacity of Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
I am not concerned here with artistic timidity, moral constraint, or polite decorum—that is, restraint as puritanic virtue—but rather with tactics of restraint which allow us to gauge a poem's opposite pole, its power and passion. Even Walt Whitman is at his most persuasive when his enthusiasms are informed by subdued counter-pressures. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” those ominous, looming “dark patches,” which accompany his confessions of secular guilt, temper his later transcendental encouragements to “flow on … with the flood-tide.” The poem's polar forces—obliteration and regeneration, liability and acceptance—hold themselves in a kind of checks-and-balance. The result is precarious and powerful. Other poets use different methods of restraint: Dickinson with her severe, compact technique (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”); Bishop in her very stance, what Jeredith Merrin calls an “enabling humility.” Restraint can ironize, enable, even sustain, a poet's great passions and wildness. …
Charles Wright uses large, summary abstractions the way most poets use images. His images alone sustain the oblique storylines of his poems. These tactics are the reverse of most other poets. Chickamauga is an essential collection of poetry from one of our most original poets, a lyric master who continues to adjust and refine his complex poetic. Like most of the other poets here considered, Wright is a Romantic, but he is more expansive than Simic, more speculative than Kinnell, and more lavish than Kelly. Readers of Wright's work will here rediscover his wide range of influences and allusions: Southern idiom and landscape, Italian art and culture, Continental surrealism, Oriental detail and clarity, as well as jaunts into Vorticism, Imagism, and Futurism (as he quips in one poem addressed to Charles Simic, those “who don't remember the Futurists are condemned to repeat them”).
Almost nothing ever happens in a Charles Wright poem. This is his central act of restraint, a spiritualist's abstinence, where meditation is not absence but an alternative to action and to linear, dramatic finality:
Unlike a disease, whatever I've learned Is not communicable. A singular organism, It does its work in the dark.
Anything that we think we've learned, we've learned in the dark. If there is one secret to this life, it is this life.
As here in “Mid-winter Snowfall in the Piazza Dante,” Wright's speaker is nearly always physically static and rhetorically circular. He sits in his backyard “rubbing this tiny snail shell,” he watches “the hills empurple and sky [go] nectarine,” he eats “gnocchi and roast veal” at a caffè in Florence, and he ponders. We might understand something more of Wright's aesthetic by noticing that “sitting” and “reading” are the primary titular participles in the first sections of this book, while “waiting,” “watching,” and “looking” come at the end. In the middle (and all the way through) he is talking and talking. The eye becomes a voice. Even given his bounty of allusions and references, I think Wright's truest forebear is Emerson, whom he never mentions. In “Circles,” perhaps his most difficult and lovely essay, Emerson could be prescribing Wright's revolving imagery and rhetorical stance: “Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the termini which bound the common of silence on every side.” Wright's voice throughout Chickamauga is conversational—never lax, never dull, but also never spoken in the larger oratorical tone of Kinnell. If Wright seems continually to muse to an intimate friend, he also knows that the winding destination of language is also its extinction, that the real meanings—personal as well as historical—are ultimately “not communicable.” Emerson in “Circles” concurs: “And yet here again see the swift circumscription! Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it.”
There are precious few contemporary poets in whose work I find as much sheer wisdom as in Wright's. He is fearless in his use of grand generalities, as comfortable with “O we were abstract and true. / How could we know that grace would fall from us like shed skin, / that reality, our piebald dog, would hunt us down?” as with “Snip, snip goes wind through the autumn trees” (“Waiting for Tu Fu”). “Blaise Pascal Lip-syncs the Void” begins with the kind of summary realization at which most other poets' work strains to arrive: “It's not good to be complete. / It's not good to be concupiscent, / caught as we are / Between a the and a the, / neither of which we know and neither of which knows us.” Like Wallace Stevens, echoed in these lines, Wright treats the general (an “a”) as a type of distinct particularity (a “the”). The abstract is as tangible and stimulating as any concrete detail. Emerson once more in “Circles”: “Generalization is always a new influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it.” Still, however thrilling, the operations of language ultimately persist in baffling Wright's desire for transcendence, as he says in “Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember a Line by Li Po”: “We who would see beyond seeing / see only language, that burning field.”
Wright's affinity with Emerson is also apparent in his rhetoric. Emerson is invariably effective at the level of the sentence, but his paragraphs are often monuments to circular structure or to impressionistic meandering. That can be pretty damning for any essayist attempting philosophical stratagems, less troublesome for a poet of Wright's skill and orientation. Wright is indeed a master of the sentence, and his own circular movement in both the stanza and the section seems well-tuned to his thematic faith that “I remember the word and forget the word / although the word / Hovers in flame around me.” Both Emerson and Wright glean considerable rhetorical power by varying the structure of their sentences, migrating with ease from the elongated compound-complex sentence to the clipped aphoristic kicker. I hear Emerson, and also Franklin, in pronouncements like these: “Ambition is such a small thing.” “Prosodies rise and fall.” “Words are wrong. / Structures are wrong.” “This text is a shadow text.” His diverse syntactic arrangements reinforce Wright's doubled persona, both ambitious and humble, and his very long lines are suited to contain his sentence variety. If Wright's language can seem too opulent or his line too thickened on occasion, veering toward the over-lavish, this quality is more frequent in Zone Journals than in the current volume. Far more often, the rich, flexible syntax is an apt partner for Wright's questing imagination.
I can, in fact, think of no other recent poet who can successfully deploy very long lines in such utterly non-narrative poems. In “Sprung Narratives,” the book's longest poem at nine pages, Wright again refers to one of his masters as he alternately reveals and conceals his own strategy for story. Sprung rhythm, that endlessly weird and accurate self-description of Gerard Manley Hopkins's metric idiosyncrasies, of course provides the trope for Wright's more extended application. Where Hopkins says that “the stresses come together,” making a dense, nearly overlapping rhythmic pressure, Wright also suggests that memory is much less a narrative line than a series of bumping, elliptical shards, merging into and abandoning each other. The poem moves through many possible plots and settings—Wright's childhood, Italy in the 1960s, his seventeen years in Laguna Beach, his return “home” in Virginia—and yet, all along, Wright extinguishes story in favor of image, image in favor of abstraction: “Who knows what the story line / became. … The world is a language we never quite understand, / But think we catch the drift of.” He urges himself toward a continued temperance, his deepest act of restraint: “Returned to the dwarf orchard, / Pilgrim, / Sit still and lengthen your lines, / Shorten your poems and listen to what the darkness says / With its mouthful of cold air.” Wright's ascetic discipline is an instruction and an aesthetic. The whole world seems to orbit in a kind of meditative, slow circle around Wright's grave influence. That's the brilliant paradox throughout this big, powerful book. In a poetry where nothing ever happens, everything is possible.
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SOURCE: “Poetry and Silence at the End of the Century,” in Salmagundi, No. 111, Summer, 1996, pp. 195-207.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient discusses Wright's explorations of language and existential silence, or nothingness, in Chickamauga and previous works.]
Our print-besmeared and bomb-shrill century has made silence more acute than ever before. It has made of silence a crisis. At the century's end, two American poets, Carolyn Forché and Charles Wright, stand out for their preoccupation with it, a preoccupation so profound that their poetry, like T. S. Eliot's, approximates prayer.
There is between these two poets an almost clean division of labor. If by the end of the century silence has become polarized beyond any extremes known before, Forché's The Angel of History is the great work on the silence at the pole of the appalled and the disappeared, and Charles Wright's many books a great body of work on the silence that rebukes language, hence repudiates subjectivity and history as well—the silence of the Thus, the absolute, the Beyond. The silent World of God. …
… Charles Wright's work shares with Forché's, and in every fiber, an acid stain of apology, an I-dissolving, balked love and dismay. But Wright's poetry lines up not with Forché's refusal to abandon what has been abandoned by everything, but with T. S. Eliot's filterings of the absolute. His imagination keeps being pulled up to the vertical, whereas hers continues along a historical and horizontal axis.
In fact, Wright's disenchantment with history is even more total, more sincere, than Eliot's. Where Eliot saw people walking around in a Void, a void lined with history as if with newspapers pasted on windows in a spiritual black out, Wright simply leaves out history altogether, and along with it humanity as a cruel and suffering body. It is the singular Other of metaphysics that obsesses him, that and the “the” of a singular, unrepeatable life, the “the” as it evaporates into memory, which, in turn, evaporates and evaporates. But, as he himself acknowledges, and as his critics are required to reiterate, material light, as distinct from the heart of light, keeps intruding on these obsessions—material light and material things. Wright is one of the supreme poets of the physical world. And even if, as he says in “Night Journal,” he writes down the physical world in order to forget it, in “Words like thousands of pieces of shot film / exposed to the sun,” the world is nonetheless unforgettably caught, in multiple splendor, in his pages. Wright is a back yard mystic who alternately wants to become transparent to nature and to God. That is his imagination's cross.
In his stunning book of 1977, China Trace, the poet says, “I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace.” And in the same book: “Nothingness, tilt your cup. / I am the wafer just placed on your tongue, / The transubstantiation of bone and regret / To air and a photograph.” Bone and regret: his startling summation of physical life. Wright places his disenchantment like a wafer on Nothing's ethereal tongue. But a wafer of sound cannot melt on the tongue of silence. Wright is the poet of an always-suspended salvation. He's stuck on the tongue of his own medium of suffering and grace, so much so that he images even an absolving Nothingness as a tongue. Impossible, this device called speech! Always the way and in the way.
Again, Wright is distracted from the purity of Nothingness by the little somethings he's almost ashamed to love. Nature is corrupt with self-enamored change and “that's why we love it,” the poet says in his latest book, Chickamauga, “That's why we take it, unwinnowed, / Willingly into our hearts.” On the other hand, who wants to be appended by Time like a suit coat, as he puts it, “left out overnight / On a deck chair, loose change dead weight in the right pocket”? Wright keeps trying to graft Zen wisdom onto the quaking aspen of his sensibility. “Live in the world unattached to the dust of the world,” he tells himself. But the tree flashes a leaf and he sins again. Wright did not invent the impalement he illustrates, left hand nailed to a blade of grass, right hand to a difficulty imagined emptiness. But perhaps no other poet so possesses and is possessed by the dilemma.
It has kept him more or less in one position through many volumes, at the point of crossing and of failing to cross. Because of it, he cannot exploit drama's drive and resolution, or narrative's bridge-curved and then's. In their place, however, he has invented a unique poetic structure, one that strings affectionate regrets and regretful affections together as in a rosary of alternating doubts and affirmations. As Edward Hirsch has said, Wright “has created a poetics of luminous moments, what Wordsworth called ‘spots of time,’ Joyce ‘epiphanies.’ Such moments loosen bonds of continuity and consequence.” The characteristic gesture of his structures is to point now to an inch of this and now to an inch of that. Here a floral-knot, there a cloud-knot. The dominant rhetorical figure is two, as in “on this hand” and “on the other hand,” or two as in the doubling of verbs, verb nick and verb shimmer, a doubling that pushes against the suspicion that all verbs have been stung with a paralyzing venom.
Wright's dilemma is divided between two possibilities of language: first, that the purity or nothingness of silence is inside words like a rower in a boat and second, conversely, that silence is outside words like the sea surrounding a boat, and let us imagine that the boat is burning. “We who would see beyond seeing,” Wright says in Chickamauga, “see only language, that burning field.” What if we “are our final vocabulary, and how we use it” Wright asks. What if language irremediably marks our limits. The thought is almost enough to make the poet “go down / On all fours,” in his words, “and mewl like the animals and make it mean what it means.” In the poem “Absence Inside an Absence,” Wright again comes into alignment with the young Hegel, saying,
And if we cry out, if once we utter our natural sounds, Even the angels will hide their heads Under their blue wings, it's also said.
Here, Wright appears all but distraught from the knowledge that we are, in a Heideggerian phrase, in the place of language without a voice—the voice of Being. If he is so bold as to entertain the fiction of “our natural sounds”—and he's given to outbursts of both positive and negative fictions, fictions carrying the violence of pain—it is because of and despite his all too familiar knowledge of the utter unlikelihood of this naturalness. Language is inherently universal, abstract. By contrast, “the bush in the flame,” Wright says in “Absence Inside an Absence,” “is the bush in the flame.”
Wright, I think, would no more settle for the immediacy of the animal voice than would Eliot. In the poem “Silent Journal,” published in 1990, he put his faith where his medium is, imaging Reality itself as “the word.” Inaudible consonants and vowels, he says, fall down “In splendor around us,” the “back yard like a book of snow / That holds nothing and that nothing holds / Immaculate text / not too prescient not too true.” God, here, is a poet, nature his book. “The artificer is not his work, but is his art,” Wright notes in “December Journal.” Unlike ours, God's language is the thusness of itself. It contains no referential negativity. Prescience and truth, which rely on a referential function, have no part in it. There are moments when “the visible,” as the poet says in “December Journal,” leads him into “The hymn in the hymnal.” How? His answer: “By being exactly what it is, / It is that other, inviolate self we yearn for.” It is comparable to “the word inside the word.”
At such moments of perception, the eye is the tongue's instructor. But aren't words more lasting than sights are? Shouldn't we seek the transcendence of the literal word inside the word, avoiding love “for things that must fall away”? And so Wright slogs on through words, simultaneously despairing of them and believing in them.
Wright is erratic, then, in his conceptualization of the relation of words to the purity of our Nothing. Continually and anxiously erratic. Language is now an incalculable sum, now only so many coins in the right hand pocket of a jacket left out in the dark and the cold. It is now “fricatives and labials … falling like sequins inside the shadows,” and now no more than “Flash and a half-glint as the headlights pass.” Round and round Wright goes, as he meditates on language, often despairing of words in words too beautiful to strike out.
What would paradise be? “Everyone's name in chalk letters once and for all,” he answers in his splendid book The Southern Cross. What is the relation of the dead to language? “They stand close to the meanings and take them in,” he says. On the other hand, in the same poem, “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” he asks rhetorically, “what do the dead care for the fringe of words, / Safe in their suits of milk?” The dead return to speechless infancy. Milky infancy, Agamben says in his book Infancy and History, is anterior to the consciousness that can never grasp itself as an entirety but, possessing language as it does, foolishly thinks that it has the means to try. Consciousness is, in Agamben's words, a “calvary”; infancy is Eden.
Wright's endless and repetitive vacillations are a symptom of the split in his heart, that torn valentine leaning on this side toward the 10,000 things of the world and on the other toward the inviolate self. If this poet were a better Buddhist, he would stop the tongue-thief, the eye-thief, all the thieves, but he would also stop being a poet of nature and, with the best will in the world, he cannot altogether distinguish nature from God, especially, of course, nature in its most apparently inviolate guises and moments, its evening lessons of graceful fading and anonymity. But it's not in entire conviction that he permits the world to make free with his senses and affections; is he perhaps being trifled with? In his “Lines After Rereading T. S. Eliot,” he speaks of pain as “what calls us, / A life between the rocks, / the desert's sweet syllable. / We cannot forgive ourselves.” “Whatever happened,” he asks in the same poem, “to the dark sublime … / Cross-gap between flesh and abstraction.” The answer is that it was taken up by Charles Wright, but with a significant difference—namely that Wright finds sweetness in both the humped ocean's and the level desert's sweet syllable. He's more nearly forgiving of the flesh than Eliot was, for all his severity toward its “bone and regret.”
In the poetry of both Charles Wright and Carolyn Forché, words tell more than they can be told; much as they may want to, they do not attain to the status of prayer beads. The structures they make and find themselves in refuse to subdue them to structure itself, to structure, in Wright's perhaps too eager words, as “an element of belief” and “syntax / And grammar” as “a catechist.” The work of both poets reflects our century's overexposure to systems—reflects it by keeping a charred distance from all regimentation. In the poetry of both, even if Wright approaches language with a virtuosic determination to make it his own, the word, the line, and small series of lines are closer to a trembling nakedness, a defenselessness, than is apparent in other poetry in English. The work of both might seem to echo what Wright quotes the Buddhists as saying: “Open your mouth, you are lost. … Close your mouth, you are lost.” This is not at all a consoling thing to say, but poetry has never contracted to be consoling. And let us not underestimate the knowledge of life and language and the honesty and courage required to say it.
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SOURCE: A review of Chickamauga, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, p. 967.
[In the following review of Chickamauga, Pratt concludes that Wright's “poetry of sad wistfulness” is tantalizing and promising, though often succumbs to abstractions and stunted revelations.]
Here is a book of poems [Chickamauga] about the American Civil War, right? Wrong. Then what is it about? Aging and death, mostly, but also about places like Laguna Beach (“Seventeen years in Laguna Beach— / Month after month the same weather”), Venice (“Venice is death by drowning, everyone knows”), and Charlottesville (or was it Wallace Stevens who wrote “An Ordinary Afternoon in Charlottesville”?) And are these poems? Yes, if “the prose tradition in verse” still continues, as Ezra Pound insisted it should, and as Marianne Moore continued it, by writing what she said was called poetry only because there was no other category in which to put it. At his best—and he is often at his best—Wright produces prose poems in long, broken lines of verse, with whimsical titles like “Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember a Line by Li Po.”
Wright also tries to observe Pound's principle that poets should “Be influenced by as many great artists as you can,” since almost every one of his poems contains an allusion to another poet or a painter; but he is not always careful to observe Pound's corollary, to “have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it,” for there are thinly disguised and badly mangled borrowings from poets as diverse as Dylan Thomas (“The force that measles the peach tree”) and Eliot (“unhoused and peregrine”) and Keats (“City of masks and minor frightfulness”). More seriously, he ignores Pound's dictum to “Go in fear of abstractions,” being addicted to vague words like structure, deconstructs, and implications and puzzling phrases like “our desires are apophatic” and “It's in light that lights exists.” He has a habit of leading the reader on with mystical innuendoes that never quite rise to the level of vision, as in “Better to live as though we already lived the afterlife” or “last ache in the ache for God.” The title poem, “Chickamauga,” is a case in point: it tantalizes us with the line “The poem is a code with no message,” but it never specifies what code is meant.
Perhaps the best poem in the collection is “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night,” because it puts into words an image of stargazing that is quite arresting: “I like to sit and look up / At the mythic history of Western civilization / Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac.” We are not ready, however, for the image to vanish disappointingly in the final line, “But I've spent my life knowing nothing.”
The poetry of Charles Wright can no longer be called promising, since he has ten previous books to his credit; nor can it be called finished art, since so much of his poetic oeuvre is deliberately indeterminate. “Like migratory birds,” he says, “our own lives drift away from us”; but his poetry seems always on the verge of revealing something miraculous, and therein lies its appeal: it could be called a poetry of sad wistfulness.
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SOURCE: “Wanted: More Complexity,” in Southern Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 136-49.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient commends Wright's skeptical meditations in Chickamauga, but notes that Wright's treatment of the subject of language is not wholly successful.]
Complexity, meaning integration achieved against multiple currents, against odds, is indispensable to major poetic accomplishment. The exquisitely simple lyric—say, “O wild West Wind”—is rare; and given its extreme brevity, “O wild West Wind,” at least, is not so very simple. It is undeniably a great lyric. But major? Major implies the inner bonding of much complexity, even if the result is—as increasingly it has been required to be—half open. …
Charles Wright's Chickamauga returns us to the anguish (which is not to say the achievement) of “transubstantiated moments.” Chickamauga, “site of a Civil War battle on the border of the poet's native Tennessee,” as the dust jacket instructs, is a misleading title; no poet brushes history aside more readily than Wright in order to focus on the turning pages of the scripture of light or to listen to the phantom wealth of “the silence.” History? It “handles our past like spoiled fruit.” It is judged mercilessly, with little of Milosz's profound regret.
The beautiful, doomed name “Chickamauga” may be relevant only because it is, for most Americans, now lost in alienness. The tension, the question, in Wright's work has always been: is this moment, this place (or a past moment, a past place), alien, or not alien enough? His poetry is praise of the exotic, judgment against the familiar, which is often dead or dying by virtue of its familiarity. And nothing is more exotic than the unnamable, the invisible, than what Wright calls, in “Cicada” (echoing The Waste Land), “the silence,” “the emptiness.”
In Chickamauga as in other books, Wright has two styles: an elegiac linear spin and half-line drop, unspooling, leaving him with the blank wooden thread-pony at the end of everything—the decade, the moment, the poem—as a token of “the emptiness”; and a more ritualistic style, measured in patterns of two, this foot and that foot, answering to the body's preverbal experience of balance. He falls back on this second style when linearity disappoints him, as by its nature it must.
This poet has long proven himself a wizard of language and its music, and of natural description inflected by metaphysical hunger, a hunger alternately unsatisfied and fed imaginary, unspoilable fruit. It is his elegiacism that has given him what range his work affords. Everything except emptiness happens, and all that happens passes; few poets object to this fundamental law of existence in so radical, so uncompromising, so continual a way; few are so … unamused, unconsolable. In his experiences in Tennessee, in Italy, in Laguna, California, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, Wright finds the “what happens” that, together with his ravishing descriptions of natural objects and events, gives his poetry its ballast.
In “Sprung Narratives,” for instance, he tells of running away, as a boy, with his older brother, the “Second World War just over,” and of returning to where “adolescence loomed,” eventually learning “to dance with it, cumbersome, loath, in our arms.” Impossible, now, to reach back to it, to what he once could not cut himself out of! The irony and pain of time send him, quick, to the other style, which seesaws across the fulcrum of time as if trying to deny its iron linearity:
Returned to the dwarf orchard, Pilgrim, Sit still and lengthen your lines, Shorten your poems and listen to what the darkness says With its mouthful of cold air.
Midnight, cloud-scatter and cloud-vanish, sky black-chill and black-clear, South wind through the March-bare trees, House shadows and hedge shadows. It's your life. Take it. Next month, next year, who knows where you will be.
Objects divided between two qualities; this weighted here, that weighted there. Such balances approach an ultimate stilling, an equilibrium. How do you “take” your life if it is scatter, chill, and shadow? In this instance, not by Carpe noctem but by shrinking from what the darkness says. Wright's traffic with the absolute is not only one-way.
Wright slices through the pear of time to the inedible seeds. His balancing of phrase and phrase may almost assure him of ontological “measure, number and weight / As the Renaissance had it.” He would like to believe (“Lovely to think so”) that “the landscape and journey” are “one.” But frequently he falls back on language instead: language as landscape, as journey. Language also as, paradoxically, “what the darkness says.” “Without a syntax,” Wright avers, “there is no immortality.” No “the,” no particularity to enjoy continuing forever. But language and “the silence”? The two do not, it seems, equate.
Chickamauga runs the gamut of the possibilities of solution. Maybe there exist somewhere, or could, “syllables scrubbed in light,” even if the earth itself is “dark syllables in our mouths.” Or maybe, at best, words only “rise like mist from my body, / Prayer-smoke, a snowy comfort,” as Wright puts it in “Waiting for Tu Fu.” At times the poet seems to forgo negative capability, to seize on a solution as if it were an oxygen mask in a plane whose cargo door has blown off, spilling the earthly goods. But his entertainment of various possibilities, which has long continued, continues. For him, to live is to keep rising to the question.
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SOURCE: “What Persists,” in Georgia Review, Vol. LI, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 331-55.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen examines the structure, meditative themes, and theoretical underpinnings of Wright's poetry in Chickamauga.]
The most obvious and salient fact about the natural separation of poetry from criticism is that in the greatest ages of poetry there has been little or no criticism. Criticism comes, if at all, after the art.
Things have changed since Karl Shapiro's time—and this is Karl Shapiro's time. But during his long career of writing both poetry and criticism, the gap between the two has simultaneously widened and narrowed. Theorists have discovered what writers always knew (“The meaning of poetry, as far as language is concerned, is the meaning of hey-nonny-nonny. To the poet, hey-nonny-nonny means what the other words in the poem failed to say.”—Karl Shapiro, In Defense of Ignorance, 1960), but they've added a complex new vocabulary to the old insights. In fact, sometimes the “old” vocabulary isn't what it seemed. A previously unpublished essay by Randall Jarrell (which appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of The Georgia Review) reveals that prominent “modernist” critic to have had quite a few insights we have always termed “postmodernist.” The point is that critical ideas, including a poet's ideas about his own work, evolve across time with overlapping strands rather than clear or sudden breaks.
We think of theory as not being the same as criticism. But for the poet, especially today, theory, criticism, and practice are often one. Poets who last have inevitably evolved not only their own aesthetic principles, but an ongoing critique of these principles. In effect, their work is a kind of “practical theory” (in place of I. A. Richards' “practical criticism”). Some poets elaborate on their conceptual underpinnings within their poems; some have a kind of invisible structure that governs their choices. In either case, the reader is often made conscious of the process of writing as much as of the subject matter. Together, these add up to what we might, for want of a better term, call content.
I am convinced one of the things that makes a poet have “sticking power” is the sense the reader has that the poet knows what he or she is about. The poems themselves may be full of questions, but the poet is sure of what to ask. (This is different from the “sticking power” of an individual poem, which may or may not be written by a poet who persists.)
And how do we assess persistence in an age when publishing houses are “downsizing” their poetry lists in favor of blockbuster political or TV personalities and the latest legal wrangle? Excellent poets often have a hard time finding a publisher for second, third, even fourth books. Others have found a publisher with loyalty but often also with an insistence that they produce more to keep them in the spotlight. And meanwhile, it takes a spot on NPR or an invitation by Bill Moyers to pull a book of poetry out of the ho-hum category of negligible sales.
The bottom line is a bitter lesson. The place of poetry in our society has been debated for decades with no apparent answers and no lessening of the urgency of the question. But it's useful to remind ourselves that that question remains urgent to all too few of us. And what about the Internet, with its allure? Will young readers want—and need—the physical presence of the poem on the page? Will they see enough by any one writer to understand the poetry as well as the poem? Or will all our thoughts be scattershot, forays into the unknown?
A writer's poetry is always more than the sum of his or her poems. One can talk about this only when there is a large enough body of work to reveal an ongoing aesthetic. In a poet who persists, a critical overview simultaneously arises from the poems and governs their inceptions. It links those that will be written to those that have been, however different these may sometimes appear. In this essay, I will look at six poets whose work has persisted over time [Charles Wright, Robert Haas, Maxine Kumin, Paul Zimmer, Lisel Mueller, and Leslie Norris]. A key part of their persistence has been their work's ability to judge and, if necessary, correct itself. In other words, this is writing that teaches us how it is to be read.
Three years ago, in the afternoons, I used to sit back here and try To answer the simple arithmetic of my life, But never could figure it— This object and that object Never contained the landscape nor all of its implications, This tree and that shrub Never completely satisfied the sum or quotient I took from or carried to, nor do they do so now, Though I'm back here again, looking to calculate Look to see what adds up.
I'm instantly in the presence of, inside the voice of, Charles Wright. How do I know this? Even without the black-and-white cover of Chickamauga, even without the potent associations of the title, I know this is a “Southern” voice, a voice that will take the time it needs to think the things it wants to think. Speculative, contemplative, the poems of Charles Wright move across the page with the unhurried pace of a porch swing.
Wright is a poet for whom subject matter is subsumed by process. He can, it appears, begin anywhere, with anything, and a poem will emerge if he gives himself enough time and space to ponder the imponderables and to follow his own train of thought through its curious patterns, trusting it to find its way. At the same time, the poems probe and posit and penetrate even as they seem willing to follow a course of natural logic. (I can't help but think of “Snow,” one of my early favorites, which begins with the structure of logic—“If we, as we are, are dust, and dust, as it will, rises”—and moves through the “then” clause with a sweep of religious and scientific history to end, six lines later, on a surprising note: “white ants, white ants, and the little ribs.”) Logic, in a poem, is not always synonymous with “rational.” Wright takes us on associative journeys which open the rational world to new and different interpretations.
Chickamauga was awarded the 1996 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, only the latest of Wright's many recognitions. Divided into six unequal sections, each of which embodies the fluidity of time, the book is a kind of stock-taking, a middle-aged reflection. The first section, “Aftermath,” is a series of responses to the ideas of other writers—T. S. Eliot, Lao Tzu, Celan, Li Po (and even Yeats, if a poem called “Easter 1989” could be said to be referential). Yet each response is filtered through the here and now of landscape, a view through orchard to the Blue Ridge mountains beyond, which colors the response by narrowing it to the specifics of season and circumstance. The second section is a deliberate foray into the “known land” of memory, the exactitude of 1959 and then 1963 in Italy, and the inexactitude of a number of fleeting memories finding a place together in my favorite of the poems, “Sprung Narratives.” Memory—including the impossibility of “fixing” memory, of finding its proper place in the order of things—becomes a motif. But it is the concept that engages the mind, not the event. And memory is not the moment held, but a movement of its own:
This text is a shadow text. Under its images, under its darkened prerogatives, Lie the lines of youth, golden, and lipped in a white light. They sleep as their shadows move
As though in a dream, disconnected, unwished-upon. And slightly distorted. And slightly out of control.
The other four sections twist these strands to form a thread comprised of memory, response, careful observation, and surprising images—until, in a religious sense, it connects “everything with everything else” and, in a more literary vein, “constructs us and deconstructs us.”
“An Ordinary Afternoon in Charlottesville” is exemplary. The somewhat generic title, paying homage to Wallace Stevens, could serve for many of the poems in the book. The ordinary, the title implies, is sufficient; everything is important. The scene is a close-up of an orchard, with birds “combustible / In the thin leaves incendiary—,” and the tone is meditative, a bit melancholy:
Or so they say. We like to think so Ourselves, feeling the cold glacier into the blood stream A bit more each year, Tasting the iron disk on our tongues, Watching the birds oblivious, hearing their wise chant, hold still, hold still …
The poet mediates between the “now and not-now” of the earlier poems; the afternoon is tinged with the familiarity of Dante's Purgatorio and the premonition of a final holding still. Meanwhile, the afternoon “fidgets about its business” as the sunlit feathers of the birds flare in the branches, everything a part of everything else, reminiscent of the Eastern poets Wright has been reading throughout the book.
If Wright's concerns are religious and philosophical—and they are—they are also painterly. He suggests that his poems, like Elizabeth Bishop's are “descriptive.” Light is doubly important, serving as insight, intelligence, intuition, and also as illumination. In “Still Life with Stick and Word,” the poet examines a broken stick along with whatever word is the word of the moment:
Inside now. The word is white. It covers my tongue like paint— I say it and light forms, Bottles arise, emptiness opens its corridors Into the entrances and endless things that form bears. White, great eviscerator.
These lines are characteristic. The reader is invited to participate, to say the word and to watch the thought unfold. To see what form can, and will, bear.
In Wright's case, form allows a freedom of thought. His distinctive lines help him to move from the particular to the abstract—and back again. Even as they break, they continue. Sometimes thoughts falter, then resume; more often they veer away from themselves, catching up the lint of other thoughts, moving outward in associative circles until they embrace idea. Wright's abstraction is built on so many specificities that the reader settles comfortably into its center. But Wright is never satisfied: by noting the repetition of the seasons from the fixed centers of his successive backyards, he can take his own measure from a number of perspectives. (Titles like “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night” and “Looking Across Laguna Canyon at Dusk, West-by-Northwest” show his obsession with getting it right, even in memory.) His answers are answers only for the temporal duration of the poem. What pertains today may not pertain tomorrow. What Wright sees on a winter afternoon may be contradicted in a summer morning's song. “Structures are wrong,” he declares emphatically on page 6; relenting, he admits on page 63, “Everything flows toward structure, / last ache in the ache for God.” The poems may say one thing at any given time, but the poetry is all about not-knowing, about impermanence and flux.
This brings us to “theory” as Wright practices it. His method becomes his message. He does not show us how to (if we were to do it, it would not be like this) but that it can be done. Wright's images, like Sylvia Plath's, are arresting in their uncanny accuracy; the reader discovers a way of experiencing the world that, even in its strangeness, seems incongruously right. Afterwards, we see things differently. While Plath's images are intense, even desperate, each linked to an emotion, Wright's are intent on an internal perception and restrained passion: “The sea with its one eye stared.”
Since Wright's poems are about movement, they let the reader in on the movement even as they self-consciously annotate their own progress, even subvert it to see if the opposite will reveal yet another possibility. Wright's images occupy a juncture; they are the vehicle, moving thought from concrete to abstract and back again. Accompanied by patterns of sound, these images feel as fluid as music, as in “Cicada”:
Noon in the early September rain. A cicada whines, his voice Starting to drown through the rainy world, No ripple of wind, no sound but his song of black wings, No song but the song of his black wings.
Such emptiness at the heart, such emptiness at the heart of being, Fills us in ways we can't lay claim to, Ways immense and without names, husk burning like amber On tree bark, cicada wind-bodied, Leaves beginning to rustle now in the dark tree of the self.
The whole point of all this thinking seems to be to “answer to / my life.” Not to answer, or find an answer for, but to speak to its conditions, both physical and spiritual. The poems approach the age-old question of the nature of the universe and the place of the individual life within it, each time opening wide vistas, and often coming back to the inevitable: “There's only this single body, this tiny garment / Gathering the past against itself, / making it otherwise” and, in another poem, “One life is all we're entitled to, but it's enough,” and in yet another, “When we die, we die. The wind blows away our footprints.”
Like Wright's ten other books of poetry, Chickamauga is not so much a collection of discrete poems as a long meditation. And Charles Wright's body of work really could more accurately be termed a body of thought. From poem to poem, book to book, his work has taken on the thickness of thought. That is, the poems accrete; they weave in and out of one another. Wright effaces himself before the immensity of his questions, his mind asserting its presence through the clarity of his images. The result is not a “shape,” nor is it formless—it's an approximation of human consciousness. Wright teaches us how to listen to him: attentively, with an inward ear and eye. I cherish this work as a whole more than for its specific poems. I count on its being there.
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SOURCE: “Poetic Standard Time: The Zones of Charles Wright,” in Southern Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 566-86.
[In the following essay, Miller examines the development of Wright's aesthetic and philosophical concerns upon the publication of Black Zodiac and discusses the evolving technical style by which he approaches such themes in his poetry since the mid-1970s.]
In the first poem of Black Zodiac (1997), Charles Wright seems to bid farewell to an idea that has sustained most of his career. He has tried, he says, to “resuscitate” journal and landscape—“Discredited form, discredited subject matter”—to no avail. This declaration, from “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” may surprise readers who have come to know Wright through his strange territories of memory and experience: the hypertrophic green backdrops of his Tennessee youth; the Italian paesaggio of his army service and Fulbright travels; the Pacific of his seventeen-year residence in Laguna Beach; and, most recently, his Charlottesville backyard, a sort of suburban cloister for his daily meditations. Wright's dismissal of the journal might also seem too harsh: though the exhausting vigil of “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” doesn't beg to be repeated, the poet has successfully preserved vestiges of the form up to the present.
Discredited or not, landscape and journal still structure his poems. “Apologia” begins with the blooming of April dogwood and ends in the summertime profusion of honeysuckle and poison ivy, and its seasons progress in installments of description and meditation. Wright's brief plaint might, then, be read as a diary entry in a dark mood: a bad day to be superseded, without comment, by better ones. Even on a dull afternoon, Wright can reanimate himself in the natural world with descriptive tenacity. Over the years he has given lasting illumination to Emerson's belief that “the whole of nature is a metaphor for the human mind.” Now, as he passes what he ruefully calls “the back brink of my sixth decade,” it is a fine moment to appraise his contribution—voiced regrets notwithstanding—to American poetry.
If Wright expresses frustration with his chosen form and subject matter, it is partly because he's always been wryly suspicious of his own eloquence. Landscape poetry lies open to the charge of sybaritism, of immersion in rich atmospherics for their own sake; even if it aspires to the philosophical, it risks the show-and-tell seesaw between thoughts and appearances. Increasingly conscious of his aesthetic, Wright in his most recent work often seeks to justify poetic description, to crystallize the ways that the visible world opens avenues to other realms. In the title poem of Black Zodiac, he writes, quoting Stevens, “Description's an element, like air or water”; and in Chickamauga (1995), he enlists Bishop's aid in the defense—proceeding, almost reflexively, with more description:
“It's just description,” she said, “they're all just description.” Meaning her poems … Mine, too, The walleye of morning's glare lancing the landscape, The dogwood berries as red as cinnamon drops in the trees, Sunday, the twenty-ninth of September, 1991.
(“Miles Davis and Elizabeth Bishop Fake the Break”)
In Wright's characteristic syntax, the look of the day and the precise date serve as subordinate clauses to the poet's thought. Ever since China Trace (1977), Wright has been fascinated by dates, the oddity of marking in a Heraclitean stream a spot to which you can never return. Almost inevitably, these impulses coalesced into the Zone Journals (1988); and though he has abandoned the explicit form of the journal, Wright continues, as in this passage in “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” to be haunted by the calendar:
My parents' 60th wedding anniversary Were they still alive, 5th of June, 1994. It's hard to imagine, I think, your own children grown older than you ever were, I can't.
I sit in one of the knock-off Brown-Jordan deck chairs we brought from California, Next to the bearded grandson my mother never saw. Some afternoon, or noon, it will all be over. Not this one.
Past and present intersect in the abstract marker of a number, while the mind slides from temporal specificity to the vague futurity of death. It would be sobering enough to say “Some afternoon, it will all be over,” to align this afternoon with a yet-to-be-determined one; but to inject the revisionary afterthought “or noon” is to give chilling exactness to the day of one's death, to imagine it as an event that happens, when it happens, at a specific time. And the postscript, typical of Wright's sardonic compression, registers a subtle spectrum of feeling: cautious celebration, stubborn defiance, stoic blankness.
For recording such stabs of consciousness, Wright has perfected a syntax that deftly balances dates, description, and introspection. Despite his misgivings, it is at the crossroads of landscape and journal that Wright has found his most distinctive voice; here, he can mediate between space and time, between the impersonal and the personal. Landscape offers a “lever of transcendence,” a way of imagining himself under a similar sky in a different time; it also means what he calls, thinking of Cézanne and Rothko, utter “lonesomeness”—vast space devoid of any other perceiver. The journal-entry form, meanwhile, tethers him to the present, to changeable moods and transitory details.
For all his mystical leanings, Wright cannot help explicitly locating himself in time and place. In this way his descriptive element differs from that of Stevens, with whom he shares a tendency toward abstraction. Stevens once explained of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” that “The weather as described is the weather that was about me as I wrote this. There is a constant reference to the real, to and fro.” Wright could (much less surprisingly) say the same about his own meteorology; he anchors even his most gnomic perceptions in the personal. He has given us a memorable vocabulary and syntax for saying how a particular day looks and feels.
It's easy to pick from Wright's work favorite days, all of which seem to begin with a proposition and then to accrete detail. In a happy moment, you might say to yourself, “Today is sweet stuff on the tongue,” as Wright does in a mid- '80s poem, “California Dreaming”:
Today is sweet stuff on the tongue. The question of how we should live our lives in this world Will find no answer from us this morning, Sunflick, the ocean humping its back Beneath us, shivering out wave after wave we fall from And cut through in a white scar of healed waters, Our wet suits glossed slick as seals, our boards grown sharp as cries. We rise and fall like the sun.
Like Whitman's vicarious twenty-ninth bather in “Song of Myself,” Wright imaginatively projects himself into a flotilla of surfers. As often happens in his poetry, the declarative mode yields to the kinetic energy of phenomena. The subject of the second sentence—the “question of how we should live our lives”—sinks in a current of subordination; reflecting the transfer of force from sea to surfers, the first clause (“the ocean … shivering out / wave after wave”) engenders a second (“we fall from / And cut through”). In describing tidal motion, the constant sparkle of things rising and subsiding, Wright moves from the present participles of the ocean (“humping,” “shivering”) to the past participles of the forms that momentarily float on its surface (“glossed,” “grown”). Perhaps the most arresting of these is “healed,” not only for its theological resonance in a poem that alludes to Easter and “Sunday prayer-light,” but also for the ephemeral event it describes: the water endlessly closing up the gashes the surfboards momentarily carve. We might not expect these flickering motions to be compared with the rise and fall of the sun, but Wright's simile aptly suggests the visionary dimension of what has been no ordinary day at the beach.
Reviewers have often called Wright's poetry “visionary”; and overused though the word may be, it accurately defines the element of the extraordinary in his verse. If you gesture to an ideal realm in order to find this world wanting, you're practicing a form of irony, and if you find the ideal in the real, you're living in an idyll; but Wright hovers between these poles, a pragmatic dreamer. If he is visited by a revelatory vision, it usually has a mundane explanation. “I've had these for forty years,” he says in “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” “light-prints and shifting screed, / Feckless illuminations. / St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, lead me home.” He is talking about migraines, not séances. Elsewhere in Black Zodiac, in “Meditation in Summer and Sleeplessness,” he refers to a less painful illusion: “Without my glasses, the light around the window shade / Throbs like an aura, so faint / At first, then luminous with its broken promises—/ Feckless icon, dark reliquary.” In both visitations, Wright seizes on the sharp word feckless, a term of intellectual judgment amid the verbal haze of auras and light-prints.
Wright once said in an interview that he lacks a “logical, sorting-out type of mind,” and it's true his imagination eschews strict dialectics: the visionary dwells in, or alongside, the everyday. His method might be termed juxtaposition or collage, and his artistic development can be seen in the way he has put his fragments together. It's especially interesting to note how his representation of memory has changed. In the early sequence “Tattoos,” from Bloodlines (1975), memory consists of discrete episodes of hallucinatory immediacy: a fainting spell the poet suffered as a young acolyte, a childhood bout of blood poisoning, an auto accident, a grammar-school handwriting lesson. Beginning with the title poem of The Southern Cross (1981), however, Wright found a more complex form for his memory—a series of blocks separated by little horizontal lines. This patchwork allowed him to alternate between recollection and observation, between backward and forward yearnings. Rather than framing one distinct memory, these later poems create an atmosphere of disconsolate remembrance, a process rather than a result.
In light of later work, “Tattoos” might strike us now as almost naively confident in recapturing the past, but the results are frequently arresting. Each poem—a spot of time without the assurance of narrative—brings the reader, in medias res, to a bewildering sensory world. Wright renders his tattoos with the aural gusto of a poet in the first flush of his powers, as in this tug of vowels in the blood-poisoning episode:
Skyhooked above the floor, sucked And mummied by salt towels, my left arm Hangs in the darkness, bloodwood, black gauze, The slow circle of poison Coming and going through the same hole …
“Skyhooked” modulates into “sucked”; “arm” fades into “darkness”; and the “slow circle of poison” flows through one “hole”—either the original puncture wound or, more unsettlingly, the heart itself. And the immobile arm, frozen into a basketball shot, hangs syntactically between present and past participles, like the buoyant surfers in “California Dreaming.”
Without helpful endnotes, we would not know for sure that Wright was retailing a recovery from blood poisoning. The notes offer a compromise: they keep narrative out of the poem itself but verify that these were real events in Wright's life. This is juxtaposition in extremis, a strange poetry of vision balanced with prose explanations of everyday life. The car accident in “Tattoos,” with its aeronautic metaphor of “take-off” and “re-entry,” dramatizes this tension between the uncanny and the familiar:
So that was it, the rush and the take-off, The oily glide of the cells Bringing it up—ripsurge, refraction, The inner spin Trailing into the cracked lights of oblivion …
Re-entry is something else, blank, hard: Black stretcher straps; the peck, peck And click of a scalpel; glass shards Eased one by one from the flesh; Recisions; the long bite of the veins …
And what do we do with this, Rechuted, reworked into our same lives, no one To answer to, no one to glimpse and sing, The cracked light flashing our names? We stand fast, friend, we stand fast.
At the risk of generic familiarity, we might call this a soul-body poem. With its “oily glide of cells,” the body shares the stuff of the automobile, while the soul hovers as the mysterious physical vector of “inner spin,” the ghost in a literal machine. Soul temporarily takes leave of body at the ellipsis-trail of the first stanza, reunites to feel the consonantal abrasion of glass and scalpel in the second, and triumphantly emerges in the third to deliver a postscript. Where does soul go in the first? Those “cracked lights of oblivion” suggest some astral projection, the tunnel-end of proverbial near-death experiences; and yet, back on earth, they simply denote damaged headlights or the glittering remnants of a windshield. Nostalgic for the celestial cracked lights, Wright feels a strange melancholy of anticlimax about being “reworked” into his “same” life; and we, too, might feel betrayed by the sententious stoicism of the conclusion. Is this the wisdom of the resurrected—we stand fast? The last line seems purposely trite, as if to suggest that nothing worthwhile can be retrieved from such experiences other than an art in which they're recreated.
Wright's tendencies toward the abstract and the biographical merge in “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” the opening poem of The Southern Cross. Having mourned the deaths of his parents in separate poems in Bloodlines, Wright achieves in “Homage” a crystallization—stoically purged of particularity, yet unmistakably full of feeling. It surely ranks as one of the most peculiar elegies in American poetry, in that it replaces the vertical scale of underworld descent and apotheosis with a horizontal landscape of Lucretian dispersal. This is the essential territory Wright has visited ever since, saying in various ways that we remain in the landscape forever. As he starkly and rather awkwardly puts it in “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”: “Like any visible thing, / I'm always attracted downward, and soon to be killed and assimilated.”
“Homage,” Wright has explained, grew out of a nocturnal glimpse of white rectangles on his lawn, which turned out, next morning, to be loose leaves of notebook paper: “At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts / To stay warm, and litter the fields. / We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth.” With this premise, the bare truth behind the illusion is exposed, a truth that turns with tantalizing ambiguity on the fulcrum of litter: if it's a transitive verb, the dead are leaving wanton scraps from their midnight gathering; if intransitive, the dead revert to particles in the landscape, and the spell is broken. Poised between these possibilities, the poem suggests how momentary shivers of the uncanny can become comforting presences, the way the dead might be caught through peripheral vision, in light glimmering on a chair or a shadow moving across the floor.
The poem pays homage not directly but through a visual conceit. Its lines are brushstrokes, restrained elegiac increments that correspond to Cézanne's crisp planes of color:
The dead are a cadmium blue. We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.
We layer them stroke by stroke In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.
If lines of poetry do indeed compare with painterly lines, then Wright might implicitly be justifying the static quality of his syntax—unrelieved by variable phrasing, the dead do such-and-such and we do thus-and-so. This plain style echoes the terse subject-verb cadence in the poems of China Trace, which, for all its imagistic originality, can be dull on the ears, a sort of strained haiku. Yet in “Homage,” Wright's syntactic monotony provides a neutral background against which he arrays the protean shapes of the dead: ghosts in the house who “lie in our beds with their gloves off / And touch our bodies,” Puckish sprites who “shuttle their messengers through the oat grass,” empty spaces the tide fills in, “globules of light,” droplets of rain.
When the spell of this litany is broken in the last section, we feel it as a strangely moving loss—so lulled have we become by the constant propositions about the dead. There is no more “they,” only a solitary, disconsolate “we”:
We're out here, our feet in the soil, our heads craned up at the sky, The stars streaming and bursting behind the trees.
At dawn, as the clouds gather, we watch The mountain glide from the east on the valley floor, Coming together in starts and jumps. Behind their curtain, the bears Amble across the heavens, serene as black coffee …
In this elegy for no one in particular, we mourn the passing of a noun. This is what Wright might call “re-entry”: no longer part of the poet's fantasy, the world of clouds, stars, and wind reverts to what it always was, its serenity marvelously reflected in the animal nonchalances of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor creeping slowly across the sky. Like Keats's knight-at-arms in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” Wright has been enthralled by a vision only to be deserted on a cold hillside, and he ends “Homage” with a shivering vigil: “We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts.”
Wright has continually revisited the landscape of “Homage” but has largely abandoned its abstraction; some element of the personal—often in the form of memory—must give substance to his meditations. The photograph, with its beguiling visual exactness, has long fascinated him as both an ideal of recollection and a naive arresting of time—most memorably in “Bar Giamaica, 1959–60,” from The Southern Cross, in which he revised a Ugo Mulas photo called “Bar Giamaica, 1953–1954.” Wright substitutes his own friends (with whom he frequented the same Milanese bar) for Mulas's subjects and changes the date. Not satisfied with the stop-action of earlier memory poems, Wright crosses photographic stasis with cinematic movement, image with process:
Grace is the focal point, the tip ends of her loosed hair Like match fire in the back light, Her hands in a “Here's the church …” She's looking at Ugo Mulas,
Who's looking at us.
Ingrid is writing this all down, and glances up, and stares hard.
This still isn't clear.
I'm looking at Grace, and Goldstein and Borsuk and Dick Venezia Are looking at me. Yola keeps reading her book. And that leaves the rest of them: Susan and Elena and Carl Glass. And Thorp and Schimmel and Jim Gates, and Hobart and Schneeman
One afternoon in Milan in the late spring.
The poem has the wide panorama of lines and half-lines that have become Wright's trademark. No mere stylistic quirk, the lineation here makes a seismic graph of restlessness; it suits the chaotic sightlines and captures the struggle of a photographer getting everyone into the picture, or of a poet trying to hold memory still. Starting with the language of technical mastery (“Grace is the focal point”), the poet grows less sure of his grip on the past (“This still isn't clear”) and ends up with a roll call of names yet to be filled in. It is an unlyrical task, recording those names, but the longer line accommodates the burden.
The names mean nothing to us, of course; they share the anonymity of the people in Mulas's photograph, and have perhaps become as much ghosts to Wright as they are to us. Characteristically, Wright resumes the flow of time after the freeze-frame: the party breaks up, and the photographer, a casual Prospero, drinks his coffee and leaves the stage props behind. Ugo stands in for the poet himself, who, after everyone has left, lingers in memory, sparely marking the passage of seasons. Wright registers the cold finality of departure in a drop through white space into the bereft line “Ever again.” The poem ends with a disappearance, one of his favorite kinds of conclusion; here it takes the form of a fadeout through an odd “star filter of memory.”
Wright's obsession with memory and forgetfulness participates in a larger and more sublime sense of appearances and vanishings in the world, things passing through filters into somewhere else. In The World of Ten Thousand Things, the collection of his poems from the '80s, we see this literally from one end to the other—from “Homage to Paul Cézanne” to the curt “Last Journal,” in which the poet offers a variation on the Buddhist fire-sermon of decay:
Soon enough we will forget the world. And soon enough the world will forget us.
The breath of our lives, passing from this one to that one, Is what the wind says, its single word being the earth's delight.
Reading chronologically through this decade of Wright's career, we can't help feeling some disappointment in this last poem, a pinched and wrung-out result of what the poet has called in Chickamauga an aesthetic of “subtraction.” “Last Journal” contains the merest prose-skeleton of an idea, too close to the bare bones of its own paraphrase; it lacks the flesh he had given with such sensual generosity in earlier work. If Wright's talent lies in the shock of juxtapositions, then this poem falls far short of his best. It represents, we might say, the inverse of “Tattoos”—not the pure presence of memories, but their absolute negation.
Wright has been perfecting his poetry of juxtaposition ever since the title poem of The Southern Cross. The blocks of that poem represent what he was later to call “zones”: here, they include the Italy of his early adulthood, the Tennessee wilderness of his youth, and a Montana cabin of the present. He establishes his characteristic structure: a shuttling between memory and observation, between the sifting of old images and sensations and the present view through a window. After Wright's raid on his mental attic for stored souvenirs, the outward vista promises a momentary gust of spring cleaning. Wright, who's often professed an aversion to linear narrative, admires the caprices of the weather not only as emblems of human consciousness but as alternatives to it: “The rain just starting to fall, and then not fall, / No trace of a story line.” The poem, it turns out, also lacks storyline; in fact, many recollections echo the flat binary syntax of the rain—the rhythm of falling and suddenly not falling:
It's 1936, in Tennessee. I'm one And spraying the dead grass with a hose. The curtains blow in and out.
And then it's not. And I'm not and they're not.
Wright's memories often appear in this penumbral way, like glimpses through billowing curtains. If, to borrow a phrase from Tennyson, these poetic blocks are short swallow-flights, then some never really get off the ground; but fortunately, not all are earthbound. The straitened, deadpan notation of “China Trace” and “Homage” alternates with more extended lyricism, as when Wright recalls time spent in Venice:
After 12 years it's hard to recall That defining sound the canal made at sundown, slap Of tide swill on the church steps, Little runnels of boat wash slipping back from the granite slabs In front of Toio's, undulant ripples Flattening out in small hisses, the oily rainbows regaining their loose shapes Silently, mewling and quick yelps of the gulls Wheeling from shadow into the pink and grey light over the Zattere, Lapping and rocking of water endlessly, At last like a low drone in the dark shell of the ear As the night lifted like mist from the Ogni Santi And San Sebastiano into the cold pearl of the sky …
The attempt to recapture one sound yields a radiant accretion of other layers of experience: opalescent colors, place-names, the cries of gulls. Even as he laments the difficulty of recalling the canal's “defining sound,” those echoing liquids and labials—slap, slipping, slabs, ripples, lapping—say otherwise. The ear, Blake said, is a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in, and here Wright synesthetically imagines it as a dark shell to hold the pearl of the sky, a reliquary akin to memory itself.
On the inadequacy of memory, we may think the poet protests too much, as when he writes, “I can't remember the colors I said I'd never forget / On Via Giulia at sundown, / The ochres and glazes and bright hennas of each house.” Hasn't he invoked the precise shades of the artist's palette? But no: they form only a generalized Mediterranean postcard, a loose approximation of what that street looked like on a certain day and hour. The kaleidoscopic sensations of Wright's time in Italy remain inextricably a part of the past, “an otherness inside us / We never touch,” a pearl that can't be pried from the shell. Whatever onomatopoeia the poet applies to the Venetian canal can only be a pale surrogate of the original moment: it was Wright, as Stevens would say, and not the canal we heard.
Stevens, of course, exulted in the breach between imaginative language and experience; but Wright has never felt such confidence, partly because he's striven to represent his past in a way that Stevens never did. Over the years, Wright's attempts have often come attached to a caveat about language—as pale shadow, residue, proximate marker for vanished things. In such moments the poet gives us eloquence with one hand and takes it away with a dismissive wave of the other. Scholars of the elegy call this the “inexpressibility topos,” but we, after repeated exposure, might call it merely a tiresome habit. In much of his finest work, Wright forgets to lament his limitations, as at the end of “The Southern Cross,” where he transforms the empty spaces of the irrecoverable and inaccessible into a place of exquisite yearning:
It's what we forget that defines us, and stays in the same place, And waits to be rediscovered. Somewhere in all that network of rivers and roads and silt hills, A city I'll never remember, its walls the color of pure light, Lies in the August heat of 1935, In Tennessee, the bottom land slowly becoming a lake. It lies in a landscape that keeps my imprint Forever, and stays unchanged, and waits to be filled back in. Someday I'll find it out And enter my old outline as though for the 1st time,
And lie down, and tell no one.
Forgetfulness here takes on a broader significance, encompassing not only the gaps in Wright's memory but also the things he could never have known. Rather than assigning himself something (the sound of a Venetian canal) to recall, he imagines a place that existed on the day of his birth, but of which he could have no consciousness. After starting with a memory of himself at age one, Wright presses further back, to the horizon of his existence. Like Keats's embowered niche in “Ode to a Nightingale,” the imprint in the Tennessee landscape is both bed and grave; it links Wright's first year to the hour of his death, as well as to a pastoral beyond that shimmers with a light that never was on sea or land.
By now such landscapes are immediately recognizable as Wright's, not only for their language but for their appearance on the page: the airy amplitude of white space, the outrider-lines drifting eastward like clouds. From a long line of cartographic intricacy (“Somewhere in all that network of rivers and roads and silt hills”), the eye moves to a short line of yearning (“A city I'll never remember”) to an outrider of dreamlike fragility (“its walls the color of pure light”). Why is this last line set adrift? Imagine it incorporated into the preceding one, or capitalized and moved to the left margin: its fugitive unreality would be diminished.
Wright's lineation, then, marks a kind of conceptual zoning. In “To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky,” from The Other Side of the River (1984), the eighteenth-century poet hovers as a constellated patron saint while Wright marks time below:
I know you're up there, hiding behind the noon light And the crystal of space. Down here, In the lurch and gasp the day makes as it waits for you In your black suit and mother-of-pearl, The mail comes, the garbage goes, the paired butterflies Dip and swoop in formation, Bees trail their tongues and tiptoe around the circumferences Of the melaleuca puffs, Sucking the sweetness up, July 27th, The hummingbird asleep on her branch, the spider drawn up in flame.
The indented “Down here” literalizes Leopardi's drop from the firmament, but Wright's earthly gaze nonetheless pulls us into a comforting place, containing the cheerful in-out cycle of mail and garbage, the acrobatics of butterflies, the tropical specificity of melaleuca. Often in Wright's poems of the '80s and '90s, it is impossible to quote just a few lines, so irresistible is the rhythm of his observation—the opposite of the halting sentence-units of his earlier work. “Sucking the sweetness up, July 27th” may not be astonishing in itself, but it takes part in a larger mosaic of notation. Here he takes a bemused pleasure in the sheer arbitrariness of dates, in the sense that neither the celestial Leopardi nor the buzzing bees care a fig for July 27; only Wright, caught between them, does. In his manner of juxtaposition, he places two poets—one living, one dead—on either side of a veil. But the real interest of such symbolic zoning lies in the way Wright makes the realms of life and death overlap, to reach a new sense that, as Frost put it, earth's a fine place for living.
Other poems from this volume have strong Christian overtones, in the familiar Wrightian effort to see tokens of the sacred in the ordinary. Set on Easter Sunday, a frequent seasonal touchstone for him, the title poem cheekily refers to the “purple joy” of a Chevrolet, and it compellingly connects vernal nourishment with the rite of communion in the epithet “Easter with all its little mouths open into the rain.” “Lost Bodies” is a meditation organized around the axis of a remembered hilltop crucifix in Tennessee, a beacon that impassively watches over sordid motel liaisons and the dilapidation of tourist cabins along a forgotten stretch of road. Introducing a technique he will repeat in Zone Journals, Wright interleaves all this with memories of Lake Garda. Italy, a “sacred place” in his mythology, shines through the drearily opaque landscape in glimpses of almond blossoms and cypresses. These halcyon memories might intimate a promise of salvation, but they don't end the poem; instead, we return to the cold hillside and Christ on the cross, in a vision far bleaker than the conclusion of “Homage”:
All things that come to him come under his feet In a glorious body, they say. And why not? It beats the alternative, the mighty working Set to subdue the celestial flesh.
And does so, letting the grass grow stiff, and the needles brown, Letting the dirt take over. This is as far as it goes, Where deer browse the understory and jays leap through the trees,
Where chainsaws Whittle away at the darkness, and diesel rigs Carry our deaths all night through the endless rain.
After the biological and astronomical sublime of “Homage” and “Giacomo Leopardi,” the brief theological excursus in “Lost Bodies” jars us; we don't really need a prose commentary on the crucifix. But Wright interrupts himself with such startling abruptness that we forgive his exposition: “And does so …” And what does so? It takes a moment to realize that this is the Wordsworthian “mighty working,” a coiled energy that unspools itself in inexorable clauses to the poem's end. “Homage,” by contrast, lingered in the enchantment of the benign black-coffee bears—a starry afterimage. In the edgier, less fanciful “Lost Bodies,” Wright reduces his metaphor of divine “working” to the tireless human machinery of chainsaws and diesel rigs.
Despite the seeming jumble of perceptions in “Giacomo Leopardi” and “Lost Bodies,” both poems have strong conceptual organizations: sky versus earth, cross versus highway. The diary form Wright adopted a few years later in Zone Journals simply gave more room for his predilections: the juxtaposition of places, the fascination with dates, the dislocations of travel and nostalgia, the variations on a theme of weather. In a sense the journals respond to the elegiac note of earlier memory poems like “The Southern Cross.” If you can't return to the past, at least you can resolve to do a better job of recording the present—a task anticipated in “Bar Giamaica” by Wright's friend Ingrid, who is conscientiously “writing this all down.”
Yet to write it all down, even if that were possible, wouldn't make much of a poem; and Wright acknowledged in a 1985 interview that he would need for his journals a principle of design that went beyond just the calendar. The act of keeping a journal does, of course, imply certain alignments: to write a date on a clean sheet of paper is to connect it to earlier dates in one's life, as well as to milestones in history. In Wright's imagination, times become further associated with spatial zones—symbolic places from both personal and official history. In various pilgrimages in “A Journal of the Year of the Ox”—to a Cherokee burial ground, to the homes of Dickinson and Poe, to the town where Petrarch died—Wright's attempts to envision the past's richness jar against the present's impoverished commemorations, such as the tourist-trap frescoes advertising Petrarch's poetry and a heartbreaking sign that scrupulously marks the “3.61 Acres Returned” to the Cherokee nation. Remembering the Verona stadium where he used to have reveries about Catullus, Wright calibrates the limits of his search for lost time in a physical gesture of straining:
Catullus's seat—VALERI—was carved on top of the left-hand wing. I used to try to imagine—delicious impossibility— What it must have been like to be him, his vowels and consonants The color of bee wings in the bee-colored afternoons. An iron-spiked and barbed-wire jut-out and overhang loomed Just to my left. I always sat as close to it as I could.
To quote “Lost Bodies,” this is as far as it goes. Wright's longing for the honeyed hives of Roman poetry runs into the fences of the present; yet those “bee-colored afternoons” seem, for a moment, to encompass both eras. Stadiums might crumble, but the weather is forever; and Wright uses the color of skies as a transcendent backdrop that squares his calendar with the grander time-line. When he refers to skies as “pre-Columbian” or “Mannerist,” he is not merely engaging in aesthetic free association but thinking about the periods they represent and what Stevens called “the look of things,” then and now. “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” begins in the gray opacity of January clouds and ends with Wright scanning the winter skies for Halley's comet, so that the sky becomes a kind of crystal ball for the year. “How far can you go if you concentrate,” he asks, “how far down?”
Whereas “Year of the Ox” pledges itself to 1985, come what may, “A Journal of English Days” is devoted to the experience of a country, and to a deliberate vision of it. The poem is patterned by daytrips; but behind this to-and-fro, Wright is always aware of the larger motions of a world suspended in unimaginable space, amidst a cosmic wind “[t]hat blows continuously under our feet / Holding up everything.” In an account of Sunday train rides, Wright's impressionistic sketch of the passing stations gives way to a larger sense of motion:
Sadness of platforms, black umbrellas Doleful on benches, half-opened, damp, Tedious sense Of expectation, the clouds Continuing on for days past our destinations …
Of course clouds move on; it is only the temporary frame of a train window, the visual equivalent of a journal date, that makes weather seem part of a bounded picture. One's travels, Wright reminds us, are a tiny subset of larger migrations.
“English Days” closes with a flashback to a Sunday in September when the poet sat in the courtyard of the Victoria & Albert Museum gazing at a bronze Buddha. In a playful circuit of imitation, Wright resembles the stranger who appears at the poem's beginning sitting in the lotus position on a “weightless, effortless” day in Kensington Gardens; he has become a buddha contemplating the Buddha. In the finale, Wright gathers all the flickers of light and currents of air into one splendid metaphor:
Weightlessness of the world's skin undulating like a balloon Losing its air around us, down drifting down Through the faint hiss of eternity Emptying somewhere else O emptying elsewhere This afternoon, skin That recovers me and slides me in like a hand As I unclench and spread finger by finger inside the Buddha's eye …
It seems like a fantastic yogic exercise—to imagine the sky as a membrane that slowly sinks to re-cover you in twilight after the day's restless peregrinations. Wright's undulating balloon suggests the world of illusion that Buddhists call maya; and its deflation is both cosmic and intimate—the “faint hiss of eternity” and the breath of someone meditating. Nirvana, as Wright probably knows, comes from the Sanskrit for “a blowing-out.”
If Wright expresses a philosophy in “English Days,” he does so in this allusive, imagistic way. We catch him, as Whitman might phrase it, in “drifts.” Yet sometimes the drift comes attached to more overt summary, as in this gorgeous description of a rose garden:
One of those weightless, effortless late September days As sycamore leaves tack down the unresisting air Onto the fire-knots of late roses Still pumping their petals of flame up from the English loam, And I suddenly recognize The difference between the spirit and flesh is finite, and slowly transgressable …
We may be suspicious of this “suddenly”: surely Wright had this thought in some of his earliest poems. It isn't the familiar moral that's sudden, but rather the way he comes to it—transplanted to England, the lotus-in-the-mud of Buddhist iconography becomes a demure rose-in-the-loam.
Lately Wright has reversed this stratagem: rather than looking at a rose and then thinking about mind-body dualism, he is more likely to read Descartes and then apply it to the things in his backyard. The tendency is especially strong in Xionia, the final sequence in The World of Ten Thousand Things, and in Chickamauga. Books replace the pilgrimages and milestones of the journal-poems. In the past Wright thrived on the friction between the visionary and the real, pictorial and verbal, eternal and diurnal; lately, in poems that invoke Eliot, Celan, Richard Rorty, Plutarch, St. Augustine, and John the Solitary, he has been testing literature on the pulse of life. These poems often bear such humorously prolix titles as “After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard.” Such titles shed any pretense of spontaneous response to nature; clearly literature has come first, echoing in the poet's mind like snatches of music. “Blaise Pascal Lip-syncs the Void,” from Chickamauga, provides a template for Wright's recent form:
There's change and succession in all things, Pascal contends, But inconstancy, boredom and anxiety condition our days. Neither will wash for him, though, since nature is corrupt.
That's why we love it. That's why we take it, unwinnowed, Willingly into our hearts.
December, 4 p.m. Chardonnay-colored light-slant Lug weight in the boned trees. Squirrel dead on the Tarmac. Boom-boxing Big Foot pickup trucks Hustle down Locust, light pomegranate pink grapefruit then blood. We take it into our hearts.
“Once you start thinking in sentences and ideas,” Wright said in 1985, “you're working toward prose,” and he seems to have inched perilously close. These snippets of books might be compared with his earlier insertion of remembered vignettes, but it is trickier to paste in prose fragments than to integrate one's own memories. The demon of quotation plagues “Blaise Pascal” and newspaper articles alike: what synonym for “said”? Wright settles on “contends,” but the verb seems too stridently rhetorical for the penseur. The colloquial phrase “wash for” offers a softer alternative, its folksiness bringing Pascal into the orbit of Wright's self-deprecating idiom. In the second phase of Wright's pattern, earthy particulars contrast with quoted abstraction—here, the insistent modernity of brand names, the specificity of his neighborhood, and the grotesquery of a flattened squirrel. Wright's chromatic transcription of twice-flattened roadkill nicely demonstrates his point about the human capacity to absorb the world in all its shapes, no matter how ugly.
And yet it's hard not to think that Pascal has been made to serve as a philosophical straight man, a foil to Wright's pagan, imperfect, messy “we”—the collective persona that embraces all accidents, imperfections, ambiguities. By now, Wright's bibliographic citation takes on a recognizable pattern:
God is not offered to the senses, St. Augustine tells us, The artificer is not his work, but his art: Nothing is good if it can be better. But all these oak trees look fine to me …
As Kafka has told us, sin always comes openly: It walks on its roots and doesn't have to be torn out.
How easily it absolves itself in the senses, However, in Indian summer …
In these examples the Wrightian half-line serves the new purpose of lightening the load of philosophical quotation, of clipping a line that verges on prose. These passages function as baselines to be quarreled with or confirmed by experience; in moments of disagreement, as in the drubbing of Augustine, Wright's reaction recalls Samuel Johnson's kicking of a stone to make his point about idealist philosophy: “I refute it thus.”
Quotation need not be a stone to kick, of course. In “Cicada,” from Chickamauga, the awkwardness of borrowing disappears because the poem convincingly dramatizes the act of reading and reflection. The world of the poem comprises two zones, the confinement of a study and the outdoors of a rainy day:
All morning I've walked about, opening books and closing books, Sitting in this chair and that chair. Steady drip on the skylight, steady hum of regret. Who listens to anyone? Across the room, bookcases, across the street, summer trees.
In the syntactic and visual rhythm of fretful pacing, Wright suggests an impasse, the immeasurable gap between the books he's been reading and the world beyond his window. Venturing a quotation from Augustine on resisting “the allurements of the eye,” as if to see if it will solve his dilemma, he substitutes the stimuli of the ear—the counterpoint of a cicada's drone against September rain. As he listens, Wright muses on another Augustinian passage, about the elusiveness of sound:
If time is water, appearing and disappearing In one heliotropic cycle, this rain That sluices as through an hourglass Outside the window into the gutter and downspout, Measures our nature and moves the body to music.
The book says, however, time is not body's movement But memory of body's movement. Time is not water but the memory of water: We measure what isn't there. We measure the silence. We measure the emptiness.
If you compare the length of two syllables, Augustine wrote in the Confessions, you must keep the memory of the first in your mind even as you utter the second, while both waft away into the past. As John Hollander pointed out in Vision and Resonance, Augustine's example implicates poetry as a ritualized marker of time, a ghostly index of vanishings. Wright finds a memorable image for the belatedness of human perception in the shed husk of a cicada left “in the dark tree of the self.” The poem's last section finds an eloquent correspondence between literature and life: first, Wright offers the lovely triangular analogy among time, rainwater, and bodily movement; then, corrected by Augustine, he adds his melancholy qualification and subsides into silence. Here, philosophy is not to be confirmed or denied, but poetically enacted.
Wright succeeds most signally when his descriptions both invite and elude philosophical paraphrase. If made to summarize the invigorating “Easter 1989” from Chickamauga, we might say something about the superposition of the biological on the religious; but this can't keep pace with the physical gusto of Wright's version of resurrection—a heady brew of cells, membranes, and enzymes mixed with the ceremonial trappings of habits, cowls, and cassocks. This landscape is tinted with the pathetic fallacy, but not in the expected way. It bristles with hidden assassins: the willow “[m]enacing in its green caul,” the full moon “gunning under the cloud's cassock,” and the “power that kicks on / the cells in the lilac bush,” undoing us by a sort of electrocution. Wright has often written about the breach between official landmarks, like New Year's, and the way he feels; here, Easter resurrection becomes the disorientation of waking up in his middle-aged body—reworked, as he put it in “Tattoos,” into his same life:
We are what we've always thought we were— Peeling the membrane back, amazed, like the jonquil's yellow head Butting the nothingness— in the wrong place, in the wrong body.
Butting the nothingness: in the exuberant aural collision of words, Wright gets inside the jonquil's assertive stem with Keatsian energy. So dazzled are we by this felicity that the next verse-paragraph, a cabalistic aphorism from Pseudo-Dionysus (“The definer of all things / cannot be spoken of”), passes as the merest blur.
Visiting luminaries like Pseudo-Dionysus sometimes seem like interlopers in Wright's landscapes, but in another poem from Chickamauga, a line from Li Po (“The river winds through the wilderness”) actually sets the Milky Way in prospective motion:
Sunlight reloads and ricochets off the window glass. Behind the cloud scuts, inside the blue aorta of the sky, The River of Heaven flows With its barge of stars, waiting for darkness and a place to shine. We who would see beyond seeing see only language, that burning field.
The scene pulses with life as alluvial star-clusters flow through an aerial heart. Who would have thought to call the sky an aorta? Behind the metaphor we see the Greek verb meaning to lift up, hear the faint syllable of air, remember the naming of earthly thoroughfares as arteries. We “see only language,” indeed. Wright can't help adding the appositive kick of “that burning field,” which turns the invisible concept of “language” back into a metaphor, the sun-dazzled meadow in which he started. And yet this last sentence breaks the spell of Wright's fine images; it adds an opaque gloss to the radiant translucence of the words. The heavenly river barge, the sun's artillery, the sky-blue aorta—all threaten to vanish under a self-conscious sermon to the converted. Such generalization is perhaps the unavoidable residue of a poetry that aspires to both descriptive particularity and philosophical presentation. Yet finally we don't need to be reminded that we're seeing only language; if we have been reading Charles Wright, we have been grateful for it all along.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1830
SOURCE: “Survivalist Selves,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1998, pp. 180-89.
[In the following excerpt, Wojahn offers a favorable evaluation of Black Zodiac.]
When the Coptic monks of Nag Hammadi concealed their sacred papyri in clay jars and hid them in caves for safekeeping, they did so in fear of persecution. They were, after all, classified as heretics by the church. The monks surely had no idea that it would take some eighteen centuries for their trove of Gnostic texts to see once again the light of day. And they scarcely could have imagined that the Nag Hammadi tractates, with their weirdly eclectic mixture of Christian, Judaic, Manichean, and Neoplatonic traditions, would have found a particularly avid readership among American poets of the 1990s. Charles Wright and Brenda Hillman are a case in point: both have acknowledged James M. Robinson's edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English as an important inspiration for their recent work, and although it would be wrong to label these writers as neo-Gnostics (poets tend to use their influences to create metaphors, and for the most part eschew attempts to make of their poems a “philosophy”), the debt they and many of their peers owe to the Gnostic tradition is considerable. Why Gnosticism? To some degree because its message is self-affirming, though it is a self-affirmation of a distinctly bleak and unromantic sort. Like good post-structuralists—and many of our best poets—the Gnostics were skeptical of nearly everything. The Gnostics, of course, hated the body, and with a vehemence that would make the average bulimic seem an amateur; they disdained the world as well, holding that it had been created by a set of delusional gods known as the archons; the trick of enlightenment lay in rejecting the deluded gods who had created the material universe and in embracing the true God, who was immaterial and dwelled within the selves of those who possessed the secret knowledge of gnosis. This world, in other words, was the product of an elaborate cosmological conspiracy, making Gnostic creation stories such as The Hypostasis of the Archons read like the plot of an “X-Files” episode. The seeker of gnosis, faced with a world that is “too much with us,” sounds very much like the beleaguered selves who populate the contemporary poem. Wordsworth and Blake, both of whom possess a pronounced Gnostic streak, are doubtless the great predecessors of these beleaguered selves. But while Wordsworth and Blake saw the self in heroic terms, contemporary poets do not. Our poetic selves are just trying to scrape by, resulting in what too often seems a kind of bunkered solipsism, the poetic equivalent of survivalism. Gnosticism speaks to that solipsism, for good or for ill. (And it speaks to it even on a superficial aesthetic level: certain of the Nag Hammadi translations, because they are fragmentary, non-linear, cumbersomely oracular, and peppered with lacunae, look and read for all the world like language poems.) But if today's poetic self is survivalist, this can at least mean that it seeks to conserve something from its experience, even if that is merely the record of its wanderings as “a pilgrim and a stranger.” As Brenda Hillman plaintively asks in a poem in her 1993 collection, Bright Existence, “What shall we be? What shall we do now / divorced from our lives and from this century?” (69).
To find answers to these questions is no small task, but it is something which Charles Wright has been seeking for some thirty years. His project has always been one of spiritual quest, puzzled and often rivening self-reckonings, and querulous Proustian investigations into the meaning of time. The Big Questions abound in his work; they are repeatedly reshaped, reconfigured, and mulled over, and at times, in a very provisional fashion, they are answered. Wright doesn't much trust conclusions, even those of his own making, though he does trust—perhaps to a fault—his ability to formulate his questions elegantly, and this is why his past work has sometimes seemed too lapidary, and even arch. Wright is a breath-taking phrasemaker, and possesses an infallible ear; he has skills for which most other poets would sell their souls. But he has sometimes let his considerable talents and ambitions devolve into sophistry and the easy tour de force. Such shortcomings have been especially frustrating in Wright's case, perhaps because we sense that a poet who professes to be at work on an ongoing spiritual autobiography should not be so detached, so coolly painterly in his approach, nor so prone to glib self-imitation; Wright's progress seemed to stall a bit in the 1980s, succumbing to tics and mannerisms. But then, with his 1995 collection Chickamauga, the work changed. Wright seemed to have entered a new and far more compelling phase in his career; this phase continues with his new volume, Black Zodiac, in which Wright continues to work at the height of his powers.
Wright's new poems find him in an autumnal mood. He is in his sixties now, and is increasingly concerned with aging and mortality; perhaps this explains in some degree the new urgency of his poems. The dynamics of time and memory have been important subjects for Wright ever since his 1975 sequence Bloodlines, yet these earlier poems seem dry and technique-driven in comparison to the new ones. There is a small category of poets—Cavafy and Wright's fellow Southerner Robert Penn Warren being notable examples—who seem to practice thematically for the perspectives of old age long before they actually begin to collect social security, and Wright, with his characteristic loftiness and finicky wisdom-seeking, seems now to be among this group. He's been grooming himself for the role of elder poet for years, and he throws himself into the performance with considerable gusto, a new and more varied tonal range, and with all of his abundant stylistic flair intact. The following section from the book's opening sequence, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” is nominally about the aches and pains of late middle age, but soon it becomes something more:
Something will get you, the doctor said, don't worry about that. Melancholia's got me, Pains in the abdomen, pains down the left leg and crotch.
Slurry of coal dust behind the eyes, Massive weight of the musculature, dark blood, dark blood. I'm sick and tired of my own complaints.
The quick flash like a compass foot through the groin— Melancholia, black dog, everyone's had enough.
Spiritual sciatica, in other words. And, as with so many of Wright's recent poems, the passage is wrenching and self-deprecatingly funny by turns, as well as quirkily majestic in its prosody. The bluster of the spondees in the final stanza's opening lines is replaced in its closing by the falling rhythms of the ending clause, as if Wright were sonically enacting the sharp stab of pain and the dull ache of its aftermath. No one but Wright has a style like this, and it is so individual that even Wright himself can gently lampoon it with an effort entitled “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner.”
It's a bit unfair to quote the above passage out of context, but not especially so. Both Wright's short lyrics and his lengthier sequences tend to begin in medias res, and to avoid emphatic closures; they are neither rhetorically nor narratively linear, but instead seem to unscroll in the manner of Chinese landscape paintings, blending into one another and unobtrusively accumulating their thematic resonance along the way. Wright has abandoned the habit of entitling such sequences as “journals” in the way that he often did in his work of the eighties, but it is best to think of Black Zodiac as pages from an ongoing poetic diary, and the book possesses the virtues we look for in writers' notebooks: the poems seem improvisational but never slapdash; and they possess a tone of intimacy and immediacy that saves them, despite their gravity, from the grandiosity that sometimes has been Wright's downfall. The collection is in some ways a kind of commonplace book as well; Wright likes to pay homage to his tutelary spirits through imitation and sometimes through outright “sampling,” and they are a very diverse lot, ranging from Morandi to Hopkins, and from the Tang poets to Robert Johnson. Into this mix are also thrown some rhapsodic spiritual musings—Wright is a mystic, but never an ascetic one—and a wealth of autobiographical fragments. It makes for a heady concoction, and sometimes the only devices which ground Wright's poetry are calendrical. As befitting a journal, the poems almost always allude to the seasons or even to the specific dates of their composition. These gestures are rarely mechanical, however; in a Wright poem, even something such as the quality of light on a winter's day can be rendered with a painterly acuity and a subtle psychological intricacy. As he writes in the opening of “Deep Measure”:
Shank of the afternoon, wan weight light, Undercard of a short month, February Sunday … Wordlessness of the wrong world. In the day's dark niche the patron saint of What-Goes-Down Shuffles her golden deck and deals, one for you and one for me. …
Wright here seems to be describing a kind of spiritual version of Seasonal Light Deprivation Syndrome. The meditation and the metaphors emerge playfully, via a kind of word jazz. But soon the stakes get higher, and within a few more lines we have a majestic ending, almost biblical in its cadences, and in its stark appraisals of time and mortality:
Deep measure, deep measure that runnels beneath the bone, That sways our attitude and sets our lives to music; Deep measure, down under and death-drawn; Pilgrim, homeboy of false time, Listen and set your foot down, listen and step lightly.
Typically, the poems of Black Zodiac begin off-handedly but end in metaphysical yearning and even in terror. Wright may aspire to wisdom, but the tradition of mysticism to which he aligns himself can never view wisdom as consoling. To understand “deep measure,” Wright suggests, we must also understand that a kind of ongoing personal apocalypse must accompany all true knowledge, immanence is combustible. As the Christ of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas puts it, “I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.” Wright seems, in his new work, to be guarding the same fire. And, just as the Gnostics professed that their path was not for everyone, Wright is not a poet for every reader. The inwardness and ardor of his work makes the writing of most contemporary poets seem facile and reportorial. Yet this also means that, despite its gorgeousness, Wright's poetry is not exactly reader-friendly. But this is, of course, our fault, not his. The jacket of Black Zodiac quotes a review which labels Wright as “the premier poet of America.” I don't know if it's wise to carry one's praise for Wright that far, but at the moment there is no one who is better.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841
SOURCE: “Charles Wright, Poet of Landscape, Melds Tradition and Innovation,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 1998, pp. B10-11.
[In the following essay, Ingalls presents an overview of Wright's formative experiences, his poetry and artistic concerns, and critical reception.]
In the beginning, Charles Wright didn't know he wanted to write poetry.
“It sort of came like a thunderbolt out of the blue,” he says.
The year was 1959, and he was 23, newly arrived in Verona: Italy, as a member of the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. He had read some fiction and a little T. S. Eliot as an undergraduate at Davidson College, but no poetry to speak of—no poetry that spoke to him.
He had picked up a copy of Ezra Pound's Cantos in the airport in New York, and had taken it along with him on a sightseeing trip to Sirmione, a town on the tip of a finger of land that juts into Lake Garda, pointing toward the Alps on the opposite shore.
“I sat at the end of the Sirmione peninsula under olive trees and read Pound's poem about sitting in the same place and looking at the Alps,” he recalls.
“And boom—this was one of those classic epiphanies: Maybe this is something I can do.”
Nearly 40 years later, he has done it with a vengeance. Widely regarded as one of the best American poets alive today, Mr. Wright has won many awards for his work—most recently, this year's National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac, his 12th volume of poetry.
Mr. Wright has an “impeccable musical and prosodic sense.” Carol Muske, a poet and professor of English at the University of Southern California, wrote in The New York Times Book Review last year.
She and other critics praise the vividness of Mr. Wright's images, the precision of his language, and the musicality of his rhythms.
“A young poet can look at Wright's work to see how it's done,” Ms. Muske wrote.
Dogwood insidious in its constellations of part-charred cross points. Spring's via Dolorosa flashed out in a dread profusion. Nowhere to go but up, nowhere to turn, dead world-weight.
They've gone and done it again, dogwood, Spring's sap-crippled, arthritic, winter-weathered, myth limb. Whose roots are my mother's hair.
From “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” Black Zodiac
Mr. Wright, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has just completed Appalachia, which will be published in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The book is the final work in a trilogy with the working title Journeyman that includes Black Zodiac and Chickamauga (1995). It's the third trilogy that Mr. Wright has written in the last 30 years. The others are Country Music (Wesleyan University Press, 1982) and The World of the Ten Thousand Things (Noonday Press, 1990).
The notion of writing trilogies brings to mind Dante, who has been a strong influence on Mr. Wright's work, representing “in a large and amorphous sense what was possible,” he says. “He's just the greatest poet I ever read.”
He read Dante in both English and Italian. “I would read the English first and then read the Italian,” he says. “Then I could get the music of it and see what he was doing.”
Other influences include Eugenio Montale, an Italian poet whose work Mr. Wright has translated; Emily Dickinson; Gerard Manley Hopkins; and Ezra Pound.
Mr. Wright is “such an interesting combination,” Ms. Muske says in an interview. “He is in some ways a traditionalist and in some ways an innovator. That's what makes his work so intriguing.
“Although he knows meter, rhythm, and rhyme cold,” she continues, “he tries a kind of experimental scoring in his work, almost like film scoring.”
Mr. Wright builds his poems like collages, she says, combining disparate themes and conversations, high poetic discourse and plain, down-home speech. She quotes lines from “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” that refer to Mr. Wright's youth:
It's Wednesday afternoon, and Carter and I are on the road For the Sullivan County National Bank Loan Department, 1957, Gate City and Southwest Virginia.
We're after deadbeats, delinquent note payers, in Carter's words. Cemetery plots—ten dollars a month until you die or pay up. In four months I'll enter the Army, right now I'm Dr. Death.
Riding shotgun for Carter, bringing more misery to the miserable. Up-hollow and down-creek, shack after unelectrified shack— The worst job in the world, and we're the two worst people in it.
“You can't lose those lines once they're in your head,” says Ms. Muske. “It's like hearing music that haunts you.”
Mr. Wright's brand of music is influenced by a boyhood spent in the South. He was born in 1935, in Pickwick Dam, Tenn. His father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the family moved from town to town, following the rivers of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.
Mr. Wright attended Davidson College, with the vague notion of becoming a writer. But fiction did not speak to him, and fiction, he says, “was what I thought everybody wrote, because I didn't know any better.”
He majored in history. He also participated in R.O.T.C. and, on graduating in 1957, entered the Army. After a quick immersion in Italian, he was posted to Verona.
Mustered out four years later, Mr. Wright enrolled in the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa. At that point, his knowledge of poetry was more or less self-taught. After the epiphany in Sirmione, he frequented the base library, devouring what it had to offer, which was “hit or miss,” he says. “I read Eliot, e.e. cummings, probably a little Frost, and Pound.”
He recalls that his lack of formal education in poetry became glaringly evident on the first day of class at Iowa. “The first sentence out of the first mouth was ‘I don't think the iambic pentameter is working well in this poem,’” he recalls. “I was dead meat. I didn't know what iambic pentameter was. I didn't know what any of that stuff was.”
“I never said anything for two years—the kind of student I detest now,” he continues. “But the older you are, the faster you learn, and also the scareder you are, the quicker you learn.
“I was scared and old and learned quickly.”
What he learned first, he says, was what everybody else was doing. Then he tried to figure out how to do something different.
After receiving a master's degree from Iowa, Mr. Wright won a Fulbright scholarship and returned to Italy to attend the University of Rome and to work on translations of the Italian poets Cesare Pavese and Eugenio Montale. Soon after his return to the United States, Mr. Wright began teaching at the University of California at Irvine. In 1983, he moved on to the University of Virginia, where he teaches poetry-writing workshops for undergraduate and graduate students.
Mr. Wright's poems contain evocative descriptions of the places he's lived, and he is generally viewed as a “poet of landscape,” as James Longenbach, a professor of English at the University of Rochester, puts it. Many of his poems are set no farther afield than his back yard. There he sits, day in and day out, observing the changes that accompany the cycle of the seasons—the swelling of buds in the spring, the flight of a bat on a summer's evening, the desultory brush of autumn leaves against the sky.
“I'm very influenced by what I look at,” Mr. Wright says. “Almost all of my poems start by something I see, rather than something I think of. Looking at something, I start thinking about and describing it. And then something else comes in.”
Warm day, early March. The buds preen, busting their shirtwaists All over the plum trees. Blue moan of the mourning dove. It's that time again, time of relief, time of sorrow The earth is afflicted by.
From “Still Life with Spring and Time to Burn,” Chickamauga
He “takes very specific, unpromisingly mundane places and looks at them so hard that he discovers a universe of possibility,” says Mr. Longenbach.
By its nature, poetry is distillation—language boiled and filtered and filtered again. But more than for most poets, Mr. Wright's verse is a highly concentrated essence, his metaphors visual lozenges, like Italian fruit candies that explode with flavor when bitten into.
The brilliance and inventiveness of his images never cease to astonish, says Helen Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard University. “Just when you think that the leaves or the sky or the grass or the clouds can't be described one more way, he does it,” she says. “And each one is a fresh turn of the kaleidoscope.”
Within Mr. Wright's lush descriptions of landscapes resides an intense longing for spiritual transcendence. He compares himself to Emily Dickinson, whom he calls “the skeptical religious person who nonetheless can't stay away from thinking about it—God, religion, any possibility of salvation.”
“Not buying the whole organized package,” he says, “but not able to shake the spiritual resonances from one's life.”
… Roses rot In the side garden's meltdown, shrubs bud. The sounds of syllables altogether elsewhere rise Like white paint through the sun— familiar only with God. We yearn to be pierced by that Occasional void through which the supernatural flows.
The plain geometry of the dead does not equate, Infinite numbers, untidy sums: We believe in belief but don't believe, for which we shall be judged. In winter, under the winter trees— A murder of crows glides over, some thirty or more, To its appointment, sine and cosine, angle and are.
From “Lives of the Saints,” Black Zodiac
Through it all, Mr. Wright maintains his perspective. He has a sort of poetic sixth sense that alerts him when it's time to back off so that his poems don't begin to sound sanctimonious or didactic. “This is an important point to emphasize,” says Mr. Longenbach. The sublime wouldn't be meaningful in his poetry, if he weren't also in touch with the mundane.
“His poems have moments of wonderful self-mockery and acute self-doubt—moments that make the ambitious project of the poetry more believable, more tenable.”
The meat of the sacrament is invisible meat and a ghostly substance. I'll say.
From “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” Black Zodiac
Mr. Longenbach notes that although the poet is being “his most augustly spiritual” in this work, Mr. Wright pauses to mock his own seriousness with the wry comment “I'll say.”
“I love those kinds of moments in his work, when competing aspects of his sensibility come together,” says Mr. Longenbach, “this grand spiritual side and the side that says, ‘Wait a minute, Charles. What are you talking about?’”
Ultimately, Mr. Wright says, writing poetry is “like talking to yourself.” His poems are a journal of his life's journey, beginning with that moment in Sirmione nearly 40 years ago.
“I still assume that the epiphany happened because there was something in me waiting to be opened up,” he says.
“It was the case of the irresistible force meeting a movable one.”
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SOURCE: “Old Masters,” in Southern Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 621-34.
[In the following excerpt, Daniels concludes that the poems of Appalachia reveal an “emptiness” indicative of Wright's unresolved spiritual longing.]
Could two poets be more different than Adrienne Rich and Charles Wright? Rich conceives of her job as fierce seeing—“the thing itself and not the myth,” she wrote, famously, in “Diving into the Wreck”—but Wright attempts the opposite:
Nothing's more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. The job is to make it otherwise.
Wright couldn't be more bored by unmediated visions of the things we “actually see.” He is after not merely “the names of things,” but “their real names, / Not what we call them, but what / They call themselves when no one's listening” (“The Writing Life”). In Appalachia, the ninth book in his ambitious trilogy-of-trilogies project, Wright is more consumed than ever by his desire to pierce the veil of reality and glimpse the other side.
This mystical impulse at the core of Wright's work, and the lambent energy of his poetry, proceed, one imagines, from a lust for transformation and transcendence. He discovered early on the efficacy of combining a compressed, epigrammatic voice with an expansive form. This yoking of the anti-closure, open-field composition he prefers and the concise and pointed nature of his image-based statements gives his poems an unusual appeal: in them we are coming and going at the same time. The hand is opening, but it is closing, too. The sensuous, quirky feeling is surely part of what has made his work popular with readers and critics:
And that's what we're talking about, the difference between the voice and the word, The voice continuing to come back in splendor, the word still not forthcoming. We're talking about the bush on fire. We're talking about this quince bush, its noonday brilliance of light.
(“Ostinato and Drone”)
Wright's persona is always on the lookout for the sublime, always searching for something to believe in. God is a major character in this work. “[I]f God were still around,” he writes in the first poem—implying, of course, that He's not—“he'd swallow our sighs in his nothingness”—so, perhaps, He is around. Part of Wright's dilemma stems from his possessing a Catholic aesthetic imagination but a moral consciousness that is more evangelical Protestant. The maker he might love is the Catholic God of the mystics, God the Artist, who reveals Himself through His masterpieces of landscape and memory, nature and art. The one he has internalized, however, is the punitive and withholding Old Testament Jehovah—rigid, vindictive, literal-minded, and not interested in much more than ensuring that his followers walk the straight and narrow. Wright's God is a sadist—holding the poet's feet to the “fire of his consuming self,” “kneeing our necks to the ground,” deforming a paradisal backyard garden into “God's crucible.” When Wright anguishes, “Why can't I offer my heart up / To what's in plain sight … ?” (“The Writing Life”), we know why: this God is likely to sucker-punch the poet.
Trapped in a religious mind that prohibits aesthetically expressive modes of worship, Wright is stymied. He sees shadowy evidence of God in everything: “At midnight, the moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells, / God wandering aimlessly elsewhere” (“The Writing Life”). Again and again, though, he denies that vision. In “Cicada Blue,” he writes, “We have tried to press God in our hearts the way we'd press a leaf in a book”—as if God were that containable, that manageable. Poised on the precipice of Hopkinsesque illumination, Wright consistently chooses retreat over surrender:
We haven't a clue as to what counts In the secret landscape behind the landscape we look at here. We just don't know what matters, May dull and death-distanced, Sky half-lit and grackle-ganged— It's all the same dark, it's all the same absence of dark. Part of the rain has now fallen, the rest still to fall.
(“Thinking about the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May”)
Wright's long-running quarrel with God seems to culminate in Appalachia. The consciousness of these poems appears comfortable enough with the belief that God is still possible despite the existence of evil. What Wright can't seem to figure out is how our world can be so annihilatingly beautiful if God is the cruel bully he is convinced He is.
This adversarial concept of God has turned Wright's attention on several occasions to Simone Weil, the leftist political philosopher and religious thinker who died of anorexia in 1943. Weil, a French Jew who embraced Catholicism, wrote of the mystical, ascetic tradition of her adopted Church. She makes an effective foil for Wright's seeking: “Affliction's a gift, Simone Weil thought—/ The world becomes more abundant in severest light” (“Stray Paragraphs in April, Year of the Rat”). Here he refers to Weil's essay “The Love of God and Affliction,” in which she addresses the theodicean question of why a loving God would create a world in which suffering is possible. Earlier in the poem, Wright paraphrases Weil when he writes, “If we were to walk for a hundred years, we could never take / One step toward heaven— / you have to wait to be gathered.” Therein lies the difficulty. Weil devised a personal theology of decreation, in which she imagined the journey to heaven as the total submission of body, mind, and will to God in order to achieve what she desired, mystical union—but Wright can't quite stomach that. He's on the mat, struggling with a trickster God who changes shapes second to second, morphing into everything and nothing: a God passionately present one moment, agonizingly indifferent and distant the next.
In other books Wright has shored up many fragments against the ruins of his world—the music of language, homages to other artists, the diversions of travel, the mysterious tunes of words from other languages. Here, however, there is less to divert our gaze from the emptiness at this poetry's center. Wright's voice is full, ultimately, of pain. “If a man die,” Job asks plaintively, “shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). Wright asks the same question, poem after poem, in these beautifully moving lyrics.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4538
SOURCE: “Ars Longa,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXXV, No. 1, October-November, 1999, pp. 78-89.
[In the following essay, McClatchy provides an overview of Wright's artistic and thematic development from the publication of The Grave of the Right Hand through Appalachia. While offering a generally favorable assessment of Wright's poetry, McClatchy faults the retrospective arrangement of Wright's work into a unified series of trilogies.]
Some long poems are born long; some achieve length; and some have length thrust upon them. In the beginning, there was an orderly sequence to a poet's career, from the lyric to the epic, and genres were steadied by tradition. In the nineteenth century, rigid categories and definitions loosened, and every stay or knot was next undone either by modernist poets or adventuresome readers. No one reads Whitman's Leaves of Grass as the long poem Whitman himself may have thought it, and some oddball critics have read a plot into Dickinson's discrete lyrics so they may be read as an epic. The Waste Land seems miniaturized next to, say, the Idylls of a King. Even so, it seems precision-tooled next to The Cantos, which Pound pursued as an epic—but did he ever have any idea where he was headed with that mishmash? Paterson too fizzled out. Hart Crane's The Bridge remains the purest and most successful example in our century of The Long Poem, grandly conceived, written at the pitch of epic elevation, its themes spanning centuries and continents.
It is more likely nowadays that our long poems become so after the fact. Berryman's Dream Songs began as a modest suite that over the years rose, as if by means of alcoholic yeast. Lowell's History took off in the two diaristic Notebooks, then climbed to the right altitude for the long traversal. Merrill's “Book of Ephraim,” first part of another book, quadrupled in size on demand—the forces (i.e., his subject matter) insisting over the Ouija board that he sit not for witty conversations, as before, but for a series of complicated lessons. Other notable long poems, from Ted Hughes's Crow to Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America, are really sequences of bite-sized lyrics or moral epistles, whereas a book-length poem like John Ashbery's Flow Chart just grows like Topsy.
With Charles Wright's new book, we are presented with an odder instance. The dust jacket of Appalachia states that “almost thirty years ago, Charles Wright began a poetic project of Dantean scope—a trilogy of trilogies … now brought to completion.” The odd thing is this: the statement suggests that Wright had this idea in mind from the start, yet this is the very first mention of it. To emphasize the point, the page headed “Also by Charles Wright” for the first time forswears listing his previous individual volumes, as he had done in every earlier collection. Now he lists just his two most recent books and two compilations, Country Music (1982) and The World of the Ten Thousand Things (1990). It would seem that a Long Poem has been willed retrospectively into existence. Is it a ploy to inflate a body of work, or to be seen as a writer of larger ambitions? Or—this is more likely—is it only just now the poet has seen the figure in his carpet?
The symmetry is slightly askew for a “trilogy of trilogies.” Both of the earlier compilations are distilled from four, not three, discrete volumes. Country Music corrals The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), and China Trace (1977). These books are not a single gesture slowly enacted over the arc of a decade. From his debut collection, The Grave of the Right Hand, he keeps only five of its thirty-two poems, and those five poems themselves constitute one of the book's five sections, the one called “Departures” (an aptly named starting point, but weaker than the more characteristic section called “American Landscape”), and are all written in prose. So Country Music begins with a recitative. It's a decision both perverse and practical. The impulse to disown one's apprentice work is natural enough, though Wright's prose is slightly more affected than his poetry in this book, and the “Departures” suite poses as exotic rapture, quite out of tune with the bulk of Country Music. I doubt most readers, given a poem from Wright's first book, would recognize it as his. Yes, smudged versions of later, more crisply drawn images are here (“Outside, in the night, a wind / Rises, clacking the dry fronds / Of the jacaranda tree.”), but the lines are limp, the tone an echo of his training. My imaginary reader might have guessed young Mark Strand, for example, and there is a generic similarity between the two—at least at this stage. Strand went on to make larger versions of his early maquettes, ever more intimate and portentous, hollow and eerie. Wright slipped into a different set of singing robes; his voice cracked, and instead of a piping purity, his poems later sound like the crooning silkiness of a mezzo, and his thematic range abandons the sardonic for the sublime. Strand has kept himself steadied by leaning on Stevens. Wright's more febrile imagination is a chariot pulled reluctantly toward the sun by Hopkins, Dickinson, Crane, and Montale. But all that only became apparent later on. By discarding his earliest poems from Country Music, Wright wants to keep the compass pointing ahead, and not be seen as merely spinning.
In it original edition, Hard Freight has forty poems; from them, Wright chose twenty-seven for Country Music. The poems of his second book print as positives what had in his first book been negatives. The focus is sharp, perspectives aligned, tone controlled. The elegantly expatriate symbolism, all cool surfaces and murky depths, yields to a more distinctive voice. It's a book that predicts this poet's bipolar affinities: Italy and America, the near and the remote. These are not only sites, but temperaments too. In a letter to his brother, Keats once claimed that “there are two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things—the worldly, theatrical and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual and ethereal.” The first half of the book is set in Italy—the enchanted Italy of the noble and sentimental pilgrim, as well as the fantastic Italy of the imagination, lacquered over with translucent texts by Dante or Piero. Later books return compulsively to the Italian landscape, which for Wright is an idealized field of memory, his virtual paradiso, spiritual and ethereal. But the second half of Hard Freight, and the half he names the book for, is far superior, worldly and theatrical, and the signal of his later refinements. Beginning with “Dog Creek Mainline,” he hovers over the rural South of his childhood—also idealized, but in its primitive aspects. These poems have all the emptiness, the grandeur, the loneliness of the American landscape, the sepia of old dreams, twang of banjo, and cry of loon. Wright's next book, Bloodlines, is so clearly his breakthrough that it is no wonder he re-prints it entire in Country Music. First of all, the autobiographical strain dominates. His sense of self is fraught, his sense of home darkly ironic: “Home is what you lie in, or hang above, the house / Your father made, or keeps on making.” He's come to hold and be held by “all the small things we used once / To push the twelve rings of the night back,” and to evoke the land (mostly Tennessee) whose refrain is generation:
The earth is what follows you, Tracing your footsteps, counting your teeth, father And son, father and grandson, A knife, a seed, each planted just deep enough. You start there.
He starts there, indeed, and tracks his memories and fantasies through two extraordinary sequences of irregular sonnets, the appropriately paired “Tattoos” and “Skins.” Anecdotes and images from his past—prayer meetings, sexual encounters, dreams—are conjured, the actual petals reserved for footnotes to each, the attar in each sonnet's vial of a rare headiness. These poems are suffused with remembered light, sometimes the camera's flash, sometimes the moon's haze, which radiates into his gift: “Inflamed like asparagus in the night field, / You try for the get-away by the light of yourself.” The getaway he recounts is not an angry one, only haunted, especially by the deaths of his parents to whom he offers eloquent elegies in two long poems. The despair of loss is transformed into an enduring wonder:
And what does it come to, Pilgrim, This walking to and fro on the earth, knowing That nothing changes, or everything; And only, to tell it, these sad marks, Phrases half-parsed, ellipses and scratches across the dirt? It comes to a point. It comes and goes.
Here is Wright's mature voice, the rhetoric clipped, the tone wary. The line, as Henry James would say, sits securely in the saddle. The phrases accumulate and solidify in order to celebrate, ruefully, evanescence. Vanishing acts, the evidence of things not seen, the lamplit figure disappearing through the door … these are the burden too of China Trace. (All but three of its poems are included in Country Music.) This book is one of Wright's finest, intense and seamless, the achievement at last of his mature style, and home to some of his most acclaimed lyrics. (I would count “Snow,” “Stone Canyon Nocturne,” “Spider Crystal Ascension,” and “Clear Night” not only stars of the book but among the great lyrics of the past half-century.) The marvelous plaiting of images, the cadence of phrases and clauses, the suppressed and enigmatic narratives, the metaphysical echoes, the self as emblem—here finally is Charles Wright. The late Seventies was a low point in civilization, but out of the pot-smoke and beads emerged this austerely beautiful breviary, this illuminated manuscript. Nothing happens in these poems; there are no people. An eye slowly opens and closes. Everything transpires inside a sensibility. I don't “understand” many of these poems—which is to say they don't resemble poems I have learned to understand. The same is true for me of poems by Blake and Dickinson, Mallarmé and Auden. (On certain days I could add Frost or Bishop: there is nothing so sly as the Plain Style in the hands of a dark master.) When stumped, we call these poets or these poems “hermetic,” sidle around them, and move on. Then, like Parthian horsemen, we turn to aim a shot of praise. But my admiration for these poems has only increased over the span of a quarter-century since I first read them, slack-jawed. They are the Buddha's smile, the dolphin's teeth, the galaxy's whirr, the coins on the eyes of the dead. And they're hunting for God, a stern principle and hot desire, both of which elude him.
And here, where the swan hums in his socket, where bloodroot And belladonna insist on our comforting, Where the fox in the canyon wall empties our hands, ecstatic for more,
Like a bead of clear oil the Healer revolves through the night wind, Part eye, part tear, unwilling to recognize us.
The World of the Ten Thousand Things also gathers together four earlier collections: The Southern Cross (1981), arguably Wright's finest single volume, The Other Side of the River (1984), Zone Journals (1988), and a shorter group called Xionia, which had been previously printed in a fine press limited edition. The dust jacket for the omnibus edition claims only a chronological coherence: that the gathering allows us “to see Wright's work of the past decade as, in essence, one long poem, a meditation on self, history, and the metaphysical.” There is no linkage with Country Music, and it does make more sense to see this work of a decade as a more seamless group because, unlike his earliest books, these four books are so stylistically consistent.
The Southern Cross effects the shift from the shorter line Wright preferred in earlier work to a long, often broken line. Or, not “broken,” but trailing, a hemistich dropped both to extend and diminish what's preceded it. It's the minor key of a dying fall, and the effect is of the marvelous antiphonal echo of a Gabrieli chorale. It's also linked to the way memory trolls, dragging its nets along under the surface. There is in Wright a Stevensian strain that wants to contrast the sufficiency of the world with our restless ideas about it:
It's noon in the medlar tree, the sun Sifting its glitter across the powdery stems. It doesn't believe in God And still is absolved. It doesn't believe in God And seems to get by, going from here to there.
But generally he is after more. His poems are shifting panels—on one is an Italian landscape, on another a Montana outback, on a third his Charlottesville backyard, and so on—drawn back and forth across an ache, an eye, a desire for transcendence. It may be that all religious poets are poets of memory—the memory of something before or beyond. Certainly this is so for Wright. It allows him both his painterly emphasis and his philosophical stage directions. He is, above all, a decadent poet—if by decadent we refer to the writer who prefers the chapter to the book, the sentence to the chapter, the phrase to the sentence. As I write this I am listening to a new recording of Stravinsky's Firebird, conducted by Valery Gergiev, who takes the music at a much slower tempo than the composer's own recording. It's gorgeous, but as the hidden inner voices emerge, the arching line goes slack. This tendency works against what we think of as the epic thrust. Still, if God is in the details, that is where Wright looks for Him, that is his quest. No poet writing today has his lush musicality. He once defined his love of “the sound and weight and rub and glint of words” as the axis on which his work turns. He writes lines of a sable luxuriance you can run your fingers through. His jump-cutting is phrasal: words coalesce into phrases, phrases are strung into clauses. His poems accumulate themselves. (I wonder if in fifty years, readers will think of Charles Wright and Amy Clampitt and Jorie Graham as nearly identical poets, each with a philosophical turn of mind, but a penchant for the illuminating detail and detached phrase, each a poet of a decided floridity.) The way phrases link is itself the dreamwork of memory:
It's linkage I'm talking about, and harmonies and structures And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.
Something infinite behind everything appears, and then disappears.
It's all a matter of how you narrow the surfaces. It's all a matter of how you fit in the sky.
Wright wants to fit into the sky. He constantly worries about—no, worships—the God he doesn't believe in. There's more the pagan than the Episcopalian about him, thank God. His gods are everywhere in the Ovidian landscape. And both The Southern Cross and The Other Side of the River plunge back to his childhood Tennessee, to the Italy of his young manhood: sacred sites which flicker in the half-light of his evocations, a golden bowl of images charged with mystery and possibility, with nostalgia and new knowledge. His descriptions of the natural world—and Wright looks at landscape not nature (that is to say, at a nature already composed by the hand or eye)—are as ravishingly exact and startling as any since Father Hopkins. But it is “the secret landscape behind the landscape” that draws him on, just as poetry is, as he recently told an interviewer, “a way to use language to get beyond language.” A formidable task: to write about what isn't there in order to fall silent before it.
Is it an epic task? At times. Zone Journals is the question mark. The poems of this book, all haunted and haunting, each written with Wright's accustomed allure, pose as diary entries; each is dated. There's a slight prosy texture to some of them, but that's not the problem. I expect Wright was trying to loosen things up. But isn't there a contradiction between the journal squib and the epic? Between the casual and the sublime? This is not an easily decided question. Whitman's Specimen Days, for instance, is a text I have taught in a course on American Epic. But that is because it has an underlying structure clearly informed by all the reading aloud of Homer the young Whitman used to do on the beaches of Long Island. He is driving towards a theme—the doing and undoing of a nation, the call to battle and the refuge of nature—that overrides the format of the diary. But Wright is content to loaf and invite his soul. If he lacks the Homeric narrative line, he strikes instead what Auden called the lacrimae rerum note. The Virgilian gravitas is here, despite the hillbilly slang and sotto voce asides. A larger pattern is at work as well. If there were a myth all these poems enacted it would be that of Euridyce, the tale of death and redemption and the second loss, the moment of the fatal backward glance at the beloved: how we save what's lost in order then to lose what's been saved. Like Proust, Wright would say that the only true paradise is a lost paradise.
The next three book were published in quick succession: Chickamauga in 1995, Black Zodiac in 1997, and Appalachia one year later. One assumes that, as before, a further volume that gathers and re-titles these three will eventually be published. It would be a tighter and more balanced book than its two companions, because these three most recent collections spring from one impulse. Chickamauga appeared in the year of the poet's sixtieth birthday, and all three books are a sustained meditation on mortality. The last of them, Appalachia, continually evokes an Appalachian Book of the Dead, but in no sense are these books any sort of guide to the afterlife or anthology of spells for use by the newly dead to protect them in the next world. Rather, Wright's Book of the Dead is more of a directory. He has his guardian spirits, to be sure; these books function as a kind of commonplace book, filled with quotations from Wright's favorite authors, stationed along the way like talismanic milestones. But it is the ghosts, not saints, that preoccupy him; not the saved but the lost. They are the ghosts of friends and family, the ghost of his younger self, the ghost he is fated to become. All of them suffuse the landscapes described with an exquisite melancholy. “When I write to myself,” he once told an interviewer, “I'm writing to the landscape, and the landscape is a personification of the people on the other side.” It is, and always has been in Wright's work, a map of memories and a route to the dead. Chickamauga begins with a Keaton-esque image that sets the tone of controlled fear:
The world is a handkerchief. Today I spread it across my knees. Tomorrow they'll fold it into my breast pocket, white on my dark suit.
The steady, eroding roll of the surf sounds throughout the book. Its poems are set in ironic spring or hollow autumn. Its speaker is referred to as a “pilgrim,” an acolyte of the Keatsian fullness that is death's predicate. The God, or God-principle, he sought before yields now to something more abstract and intimate.
The book says, however, time is not body's movement But memory of body's movement. Time is not water but the memory of water: We measure what isn't there. We measure the silence. We measure the emptiness.
Sounding his most Eliotic, he has only fragments to shore against the accusations of emptiness, against the onrush of time:
What have you done with your life, you've asked me, as you've asked yourself. What has it come to, Carrying us like a barge toward the century's end And sheer drop-off into millennial history? I remember an organ chord one Sunday in North Carolina. I remember the smell of white pines, Vitalis and lye soap.
In Black Zodiac too, every second thought is of death. The time is “shank of the afternoon, wan weight-light,” and his life is “a loose knot in a short rope.” Does the poet protest too much? Has he narrowed his focus too melodramatically, anointing his own forehead with holy oils against the end? If so, then it's as harrowing as any such set of reflections since Berryman. The taste of ashes, the bruised magnolia petal, the smog at sunrise, the purgatorial wait are the cards Wright deals, hand after hand.
It always amazes me How landscape recalibrates the stations of the dead, How what we see jacks up the odd quotient of what we don't see, How God's breath reconstitutes our walking up and walking down. First glimpse of autumn, stretched tight and snicked, a bad face lift, Flicks in and flicks out, a virtual reality. Time to begin the long division.
Appalachia now completes the meditation. (To emphasize its role in ringing down the curtain on a trilogy, its numerology is insistent. The book is divided into three sections.) Its pared-down spareness is announced on the opening page: “Renunciation, it's hard to learn, is now our ecstasy.” Here is the via negativa, and Wright walks the line. His melancholy points an accusing finger at his muse in the midst of the shrine to her he has made of his study:
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. Who do we think we're kidding?. …
Shrines to the woebegone, ex votos and reliquary sites One comes in on one's knees to, The country of what was, the country of what we pretended to be, Cruxes and intersections of all we'd thought was fixed. There is no guilt like the love of guilt.
The tone of these poems is more tentative in its consolations, more staccato in its advance, more assured in its capacity to live amidst uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after gaudy effects. His cry now, in fact and with reason, is, O for a Life of Thoughts rather than of Sensations! He is reluctant now to indulge in nostalgia, the ache for home: “the soul that desires to return home,” he says, “desires its own destruction.” But in looking ahead, he finds “an end without a story,” the erasure of sequence and meaning on the margins of the void. Throughout his career—one of the truly splendid careers in contemporary American poetry—he has striven to write a body language, a style with an overt and seductive physicality, a style with spin on its gravity, a feather rising in the canyon, a riff on the old chants. But this is a book—no, the book—that lets go. The body is abjured. The language is dealt like a final hand.
When your answers have satisfied the forty-two gods, When your heart's in balance with the weight of a feather, When your soul is released like a sibyl from its cage, Like a wind you'll cross over, not knowing how, not knowing where, Remembering nothing, unhappening, hand and foot.
The world's a glint on the window glass, The landscape's a flash and fall, sudden May like a sleet spill On the tin roof, no angel, night dark. Eternity puddles up. And here's the Overseer, blue, and O he is blue …
That blue—for Wallace Stevens, the color of the imagination; for Billie Holiday, something else again. The color dominates the final pages of the book—or, of the trilogy. I suppose it is, finally, the blank sky at which we gaze and from which we expect answers. Its emptiness is our American sublime. Its unresponsive immensity is the bright slate on which we chalk our questions, the alphabet of our yearnings. Let me quote the final page of this enormous project. It starts with an overview out of MacLeish, and swiftly rises, gathering up motifs from earlier poems.
Mid-August meltdown, Assurbanipal in the west, Scorched cloud-towers, crumbling thrones— The ancients knew to expect a balance at the end of things, The burning heart against the burning feather of truth. Sweet-mouthed, Big ibis-eyed, in the maple's hieroglyphs, I write it down.
All my life I've looked for the slow light, this smallish light Starting to seep, coppery blue, out of the upper right-hand corner of things, Down through the trees and off the back yard, Rising and falling at the same time, now rising, now falling, Inside the lapis lazuli of late afternoon.
Until the clouds stop, and hush. Until the left hedge and the right hedge, the insects and short dogs, The back porch and barn swallows grain-out and disappear. Until the bypass is blown with silence, until the grass grieves. Until there is nothing else.
So the long poem ends with the poet on the back porch, looking over his suburban lawn, like a latter-day Thoreau. The effect should be our realization that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. That grieving grass should alert us at once to Wright's affinity with Whitman:
I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven, O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions, If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?
Perhaps now his publisher will publish a tome with selections from all eleven books, trimmed and shaped like a topiary, as The Definitive Edition. Or it may be that when Charles Wright has published three more collections, they will be sheaved together and talk will start of The Tetralogy. These sorts of designations—whatever: Long Poem, Epic, Trilogy—are in the end descriptions of how we want a poem to be read rather than descriptions of how it may have been conceived of or written out. By calling his eleven books a trilogy, Wright gives a quasi-Dantean shape to his project. Its installments, then, deal first with the past—his bloodlines and traces; the second, and most gorgeous, group deals with the present, the plenitude of his gift and the world, the conjunction of flesh and spirit; and this last installment has focused on the future—which is to say, on death, on the bitter hug of mortality. It has been a journey in three legs, from the autobiographical to the mythic to the mystic. The great long poems are about the founding of a city, and Wright has taken the rubble of his past to build the invisible city of the soul. But something nags at me when I read this book's flap. In the end, I prefer to read the trilogy in a less structured, more fluid manner. I can sense the underlying pattern and discuss it abstractly, but what I read is a twentieth-century Song of Myself, a mercurial and exhilarating and profoundly affecting account of one man's moods and imaginings. It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4622
SOURCE: “An Interview with Charles Wright,” in Southern Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 442-52.
[In the following interview, Wright discusses his education and formative influences, the thematic unity of his trilogy of collected works, and his poetic style, technique, and approach to serious philosophical subjects.]
All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation.
—Charles Wright, Halflife
Charles Wright's poetry is a strange alchemy, a fusion of the direct, understated lyrics of ancient Chinese poets like Tu Fu and Wang Wei, the lush language of nineteenth-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the allusive, rhetorical movement—the “gists and piths”—of Ezra Pound's Cantos. The element common to each is a search for transcendence in the landscape of everyday. For Wright that landscape might be the shores of Italy, his native Tennessee, or his own backyard on Locust Avenue in Charlottesville. He calls it “eschatological naturalism: a school of one.” An imaginary argument with Tu Fu in “China Mail” reveals the underpinning—both highbrow and tongue-in-cheek, serious and self-effacing—of Wright's poetry: “Study the absolute, your book says. But not too hard, // I add, just under my breath.” Wright's poems yearn for the ideal, but are tempered by a suspicion of futility.
This focus on unanswerable questions has allowed Wright's work to be peopled by family and familiar locales without slouching into private confession. And the unfolding of his “impersonal autobiography” over three decades has earned him the praise of critics—from Harold Bloom to Helen Vendler—and the seemingly unanimous admiration of other poets. In 1979 he won the PEN Translation Prize for his version of Eugenio Montale's The Storm and Other Things; in '83 he received the National Book Award for Country Music: Selected Early Poems; and in '95 he was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Yet nothing could have prepared Wright for the laurels heaped upon his 1998 collection Black Zodiac, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Pulitzer. When we talked in his office at the University of Virginia in early June, he was at the end of a nonstop string of interviews, readings, and appearances. All of which makes Wright both pleased and a bit uneasy.
When he joined the military and was assigned to a counterintelligence unit in Italy in 1959, poetry was not an avenue for Wright to gain acclaim but rather a ready escape. It wasn't until a seminal experience in Italy—reading Pound's “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” at the Grotte di Catullo, on Sirmione Peninsula, the very ground where the poem was conceived—that Wright felt the desire to compose poems of his own. Until that time, his life had followed a very different course. He was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, and grew up in nearby Kingsport. While attending Davidson College, in North Carolina, he majored in history and planned to enter a career in law or advertising once he completed his military service. But in Italy he read Pound voraciously, using Selected Poems and The Pisan Cantos as his guidebook, and wrote some of his first verses—including the prose poem “Nocturne,” which commemorates his experience on Sirmione. Soon he had pulled together a small batch of poems and sent them to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
He attended the workshop from 1961 to '63, then spent two years in Italy translating Montale on a Fulbright, and returned to Iowa for 1965–66. Later that year he took a teaching job at the University of California at Irvine, where he remained—apart from a one-year Fulbright lectureship at the University of Padua—until 1983. Since then he has taught creative writing at the University of Virginia, where he holds the Souder Family Professorship. In fall 1998, Farrar, Straus & Giroux released Appalachia, to be followed by a fine-press edition of North American Bear and another Selected volume [Negative Blue] in spring 2000. With that publication, the thirty-year project—the “trilogy of trilogies”—will come to an end.
We will have to wait to see what comes next. What is certain is that Wright's is among the most interesting projects in contemporary American poetry. Wedding the Whitmanically inclusive free-verse line with the introspection and wit of Emily Dickinson, Wright's poems are as conversational as they are complex. Though he eschews conventional narrative, the forward tug of time dominates. The quotidian acquires its own transcendence; he remains ever mindful of Dante's assertion that “the true purpose of and result of poetry is a contemplation of the divine and its attendant mysteries.” Without fanfare or pretension Charles Wright addresses those mysteries. Though soft-spoken, his voice is singular and unmistakable.
[Genoways:] Talk a bit about what drew you to poetry.
[Wright:] Well, I had no interest at all until I graduated from college and realized I wouldn't be able to write prose, because I had tried to write stories and they had all ended up purple: you know, no storyline, no action, no definition of any kind. And I can remember sitting in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters at Ft. Holleburg, Maryland, and being very proud of myself one evening, because everyone else had gone to the bar and I sat home drinking wine and reading a book of Chinese poems—translations I had found somewhere. And I don't know whether I liked the poems so much or whether I liked the idea of myself staying away from the riffraff and reading a book of Chinese poems as a twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant. Right after that, I remember going to New York on leave for the weekend and buying—since I was interested in poems by that time (in the abstract)—a copy of The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. When I went out to California to the language school, I didn't have time to do that sort of business. I was studying every night for hours and every weekend, but I still had Pound's Selected Poems, and I took that to Europe. When I got to Italy, the book of Chinese poems, somewhere in the mists, got lost.
In March 1959, two months after I got to Verona, where I was stationed, a friend of mine had borrowed—when he found out that I had it—the Selected Poems of Pound, and he gave it back to me. I told him I was going one afternoon to Lake Garda, and he said, “Read this poem, ‘Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula,’ because you will be sitting at the end of Sirmione Peninsula on Catullus's supposed villa.” And I did, and I thought it was fabulous. And it didn't have a storyline; it was a lyric poem. It worked by accretion—it described the landscape; it had interior questions that were unanswerable, the rhetorical questions one tends to ask in one's life. I thought this was pretty much it, and from then on I got very much interested in trying to write poems. Or what I thought were poems. I didn't know what a poem was. Of course, I'd taken English courses in college, but I never paid much attention to poetry … but I started hearing something, and I continued to hear it as I moved through the rest of the Selected Poems.
There was an old bookstore on Villa Mazzini where Arni Schweiwiller published fine-press books. Al'insignia del Pesce d'Oro: at the sign of the golden fish. That was his logo. Pound was so weird at that time—just one year back from St. Elizabeth's and living up in Milano—that he would let Schweiwiller, who had a little press in Verona, have the first editions of his poems; then they would go to Faber & Faber, then to New Directions. This little bookstore had these editions of cantos, of odd poems and translations, and it also had commemorative items. So there was access to some Pound material. That was basically how I came to it, and that was the only thing I knew about poetry—which wasn't enough, of course, but it was a start. I got a tune in my head.
And from there I went to Iowa, where I was never officially admitted. I just sort of walked in and started taking classes. No one knew any different, because there were two teachers [Donald Justice and Paul Engle], and each thought the other had taken me in over the summer. It was very loosely run in those days. I think it was actually much more interesting, and I can say that, because I've taught in the current one. I realized from the first day that The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound was not going to get me very far in the workshop, and so I had better start reading something else.
When you got to Iowa, you began schooling yourself in and writing a lot of formal poetry.
Yes, well … It was mostly during the three years afterward—two in Italy and then the third year back at Iowa—that I was writing in pentameter and rhyme and meter, trying to get that under some kind of control. At least get a handle on it. I did experiment with that some at Iowa in the first two years, but since everybody else was doing syllabics, hey, why shouldn't I? I didn't know anything; I was doing whatever was happening.
I was very lucky to be there during the breakup of the '50s glacier of strict formalism that Iowa had had. There was still enough of that ice around so that I could find out what it was about, but people were leaning toward freer movement in their lines. Syllabics were a halfway house. People had been trying to write some free verse, of course, but it was still OK, and even applauded, to write formal meters too. At the same time, people were doing prose poems. It was a good time; a lot of things were going on.
The syllabics you began writing, those that appeared in The Grave of the Right Hand, are all either five-syllable or seven-syllable lines. And your lines still have odd syllable counts.
Well, except for every once in a great while.
What is the appeal of the odd-syllable line?
For one thing, I like numbers. I graduated from high school in '53, college in '57, and my laundry number in college was 597. … There are all these odd numbers. But mostly it was to keep it out of any kind of normal progression, which is to say that if you have even numbers you're more likely to fall into tetrameter or pentameter. Easier to keep it out—but still have the ghost of it—with the odd, because you get an extra little syllable. The seven-syllable line is still my ur-line even now, thirty-five years later. And my seven-syllable line will stretch to thirteen, another one I like, or fifteen or seventeen, sometimes nineteen, and then back down to as low as three or five. But the seven-syllable line is the one everything starts from—either goes forward from or stays back from. I suppose that's because once I started doing that I really heard it in my head, and I can't get it out. Sort of like someone learned pentameter and then did other things, but when they come back without thinking to what a line of poetry sounds like, it always sounds like pentameter. Well, I didn't have that; I had the seven-syllable line, and it's close enough to formal meter that it pleases my ear. It makes a musical sound, and even if you stretch it and shrink it, you have this background of formal meters to overlay your conversation on. Not chitchat, but a conversational tone that keeps it from being, you know, “What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?”—the first line of “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula,” which I thought was so gorgeous at the time. Still OK, but a little Victorian. Pound was, as we all know, the last great Victorian. He threw his body over the barbed wire, and modernism ran up his back and over into no-man's-land. He was there, looking, but he still got hung up on the wire the rest of his life. Without him modernism wouldn't have gotten there, but I'm not sure he ever really caught up. He was a great Victorian, just like Hopkins. That has nothing to do with what you asked. …
But it's interesting, because both Pound and Hopkins seem to have so profoundly influenced your work.
I guess it's sound patterns. I like sound. That's no secret, and Hopkins was so idiosyncratic and so odd, inimitable, that you can really enjoy him—or dislike him, I suppose, if you're William Carlos Williams and think he's taking everything the wrong way—but you can enjoy him without guilt and without fear. Pound is somewhat the same way. I haven't read him in twenty, twenty-five years. Everybody reads someone a lot in the beginning, and whoever pulls you in sticks with you. And you hope somebody good pulls you in and not somebody bad—somebody you can't get rid of. So, yes, I was pulled in by an occasionally great poet, someone who's very interesting and helped shape the way we look at things in this century. I would rather have been pulled in by Pound than by Eliot, even though I admire Eliot's poems, and I especially like Four Quartets. But I would much rather have been initiated by Pound, because I think the possibilities for exploration are larger. At least in my case, Pound would be expansive and Eliot restrictive. But I didn't have a choice—I just happened upon Pound; that's the way it went. I feel fortunate.
The statement at the beginning of Appalachia bills it as the completion of a “trilogy of trilogies.” Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace, together with a prologue from The Grave of the Right Hand, became Country Music; then The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, together with the epilogue Xionia, became The World of the Ten Thousand Things; and now Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia complete the last trilogy. What do you see each of those sequences as doing, and how do they work as a whole? You describe it as a sequence.
It's an odd sequence. All three trilogies do the same thing, and they have essentially the same structure. Past, present, future: yesterday, today, tomorrow. That's just the guiding—well, it's not a thought—the guiding sound bite behind the first trilogy, which actually went that way, I think. Then I wanted to technically alter the way I was writing the line in the next group, and I went on other explorations. For instance, I tried to do more narrative in The Other Side of the River; I did longer poems in Zone Journals. And I wanted to bring in other kinds of business, like raising the diary form to a higher level of artifice. I don't know exactly how to say that, but I wanted to make it a more serious form, and I wanted to see what one could do with it in poetry and still have it be entries. So all that was behind the next group of books, but they're still structured the same way. There's the past, the present, and the future, but larger. And so is the last one. I still don't know the name of the last trilogy, but that's on top of the second trilogy, so you get an inverted pyramid. It's the same pyramid but larger each time.
So, to answer your question, they're all doing the same thing, which is a kind of radar echo, I suppose, of the Divine Comedy. You know, I don't even like to bring those words up, but—the way James Merrill had three books in The Changing Light at Sandover, and the way Pound was trying to write one, the way a lot of people do—that's the thing the sonar is coming back from that you can never see and never approach.
That's why I said Appalachia is not a paradiso, because I seem to be incapable of writing one. Though mentally, perhaps, certainly spiritually, it's become a book of the dead, because I can give a pep talk to those who might be true believers, which is what most books of the dead are, the Egyptian books of the dead. That's why it's the last one, and, I guess, why it was written so quickly in terms of my usual production. Chickamauga took five long years to write, and both Black Zodiac and Appalachia together took three years and four months. I saw the end in sight, I saw the conclusion of what I was trying to do. And when I didn't do anything for months and months and months, I realized I really was at the end. I wasn't just kidding myself. I had had something I was trying to do, and I did it, and that was it. Now I can sort of shut up again, I hope.
That's a real glaze-over, because there are lots more things that go together to make up each individual book, and each poem is individual—they don't depend on what precedes and what follows—but they are enhanced, I think, in the overall thing. And I do think that this last trilogy is as much one as the first was. I suppose the middle one would be the least “trilogeic,” in the sense I've been talking about, but since it's more about the present—you know, “the world of the ten thousand things”—that seems only fair. Naturally, it should be the least structured.
And Appalachia seems to be a conclusion not only to this trilogy but to all of them. There are references throughout to your earlier books.
There are things in Appalachia that go all the way back to the first trilogy, particularly China Trace, because that's its mirror book. That's on purpose, not because I didn't know what else to say. That's why I said the trilogies are all doing the same thing, only differently, more expansively.
Some of these poems seem even to look like the earlier poems. There are a number that are completely left-justified, with none of the trademark drop lines.
I don't know why. It's just the way I was hearing it. Maybe once I sped up and saw the end, the lines moved faster. What I've been working on since Appalachia is this thing I started in March, and I'm still … I have a couple of stanzas, each about six lines, and one or two of them will be dropped. I do know that every once in a while in Appalachia there seems to be a spate of them with not too many drop lines. I don't know why that is.
How do you decide how the poem will move across the page? How do you decide between a drop line and a line break, for example?
I don't have a program for the way I use them. It's the way I hear them. If it's coming together and springing, then I'll drop it down. If it needs to have a little push, I'll drop it. If it seems to be breaking under its own weight, then I'll drop it to the next line. If it doesn't, I let it go. I don't have any program: “Out of every five lines one or two must be dropped.” It's not like that.
No, but there is an amazing sense of structure in your work—which is surprising, when so much of it seems to be an argument against narrative.
Not really. Do you mean professionally or in my own stuff?
In your own stuff. I don't think you're being dogmatic. But there is a tension between your resistance to narrative and this overarching architecture—in each individual poem and in constructing a twenty-seven-year cycle. And so many of your books move forward in time, in strict allegiance to chronology. Explain the difference, in your mind, between structure and narrative, and between chronology and narrative.
Overt narrative tells a story. Covert narrative also tells a story, but in a different language. Everything has a narrative to it; don't get me wrong. It's just that I'm no good at storyline. My story is always underneath, always covert. Chronology perhaps is a way of helping move that mole under the ground, and you watch his little pile behind him as he goes. Structure, of course, is my substitute for storytelling. I guess I'd like to be like Robert Frost and spin yarns in beautiful blank verse, but I can't do it, so I have to make up my own prosody. Out of a deficiency I've tried to make a positive thing. And I talk about it so much that people think, “Even if I don't like it, at least he knows what he's doing.” But structure long ago became paramount to me in forming my poems, because narrative is not going to hold it together. So the way I layered impressions, images, the observations, is key to covert, unspoken narrative, but it was there inevitably. At least I hope it was there, holding it together, because something has to. You can't just put it in a box and say, “There's a structure.” That's what the New Formalists try to do. The Old Formalists built that box, you know? There's a big difference. So I was trying to build my own box in a different way. That's why I have this juxtapositional way of putting things together. That works in poems; it would be disastrous in prose. And it is, which is why I don't seem able to do essays or that sort of thing, because my mind just doesn't work in those terms. I can get a thought from A to B, but I go circuitously. I can't go straight to it. I think I'm going straight to it—I'm trying to—and the storyline gets you there, but as I say, it's always hidden. Like a punji stick underneath the trail. Sometimes you stumble on it, sometimes you don't. All I can say in answer to that question is that I perceived in my poetic makeup a huge deficit and deficiency, and I've tried to make something out of that void.
And others are embarked on similar projects. What sets your work apart for me—and David Young points this out—is your sense of humor. It seems when you're up against the most serious matters in your poems, you're at your most self-effacing. It's not looking directly into the face of the divine. …
It's checking out the belt buckle. As I should. That's true. It would be foolish to take one's self as seriously as one's subject matter. I'm really glad that David Young recognized this, because everybody is always saying, “This guy is so morbid, so somber,” and I never thought of it that way. I thought I was talking about serious things, but never in a way that would be ponderous or turgid. In one's secret self, one comes up against these things; you have to face them, but you also have to realize that you're just a song-and-dance man. So you had better sing as best you can and shuffle off to Buffalo. And that's it. But you don't want to not go in and do it.
I don't know. It's hard to talk about that. It's all so much larger than all of us. You have to be careful how ponderous you can start to sound, or no one is going to take you seriously. You can't sound like Ecclesiastes all the time.
In Appalachia, the poem “Star Turn II” opens with the description of the night sky. There are a few comparisons, but after it's compared to a sequined dress, there's this drop line: “—hubba, hubba—.”
My favorite line in my entire works. I knew it from the second I wrote it.
But it's not the sort of interjection we expect to find in contemporary poems, especially not those tackling the sorts of issues you're taking on.
Yes. The seriousness you're trying to describe is there, but there is also a little levity to make it easier to take. I think “hubba hubba” is witty—actually, I think it's funny. Most of my stuff tries to be witty. For instance, there's the line “‘Sainthood the bottomless pity’ someone said.” Well, I said that, because I thought it was sort of witty and it had to do with what I was getting ready to say. It's a serious thought, but it's also humorous. I'm not as funny as Jim Tate, for instance, who is amazingly and continuously funny. As Woody Allen once put it, “Too much seriousity is a bad thing.” So I try not to have too much seriousity.
You've spent twenty-seven years creating your poetics and writing this trilogy of trilogies. What are you going to do with next twenty-seven years?
I really don't know. Obviously, I'm going to keep writing poems. This spring has been kind of crazy, but I hope everything will settle down and I can get back to work. I obviously will not have this same path or trajectory in mind, so … it's hard, it's impossible to change what you're thinking, but I've got to come at it in a different way from the journey this project seems to have been on—from the early poems in Country Music to the last poems of Black Zodiac and Appalachia. At least I see a definite arc—a movement with different weaves to it—but the arc is always the same: from the past to the impossible or possible, the improbable or probable future. And that's good. I did that. Now I've got to figure out how to be interesting to myself with the accouterments that I have accrued over the years. And not write the same poems. We've all got maybe four or five ideas in our heads our whole lives. We know that, and we all write basic variations of the same handful of poems, because those are what our interests are. If you don't write what your interests are, it will be a piece of fluff—or worse, a piece of something else. And so I have my concerns and my interests, and I'll have to figure out a way to reshuffle them and keep on writing poems. I can't turn into an essayist, because I can't keep the thoughts straight. If I'd had a life, I could have written a memoir. I never got a life; it's all in my poems.
Or all you're willing to show.
One can't help but notice that you've appeared uncomfortable at times this spring, especially at the Pulitzer reception.
Well, one wants one's work to be paid attention to, but I hate personal attention. I just want everyone to read the poems. I want my poetry to get all the attention in the world, but I want to be the anonymous author of Black Zodiac. That's impossible to do, I know. Some people love the spotlight; I like the shadows. I like the spotlight on my work, because that's what's important. It's better-looking and younger and wealthier and more articulate. No, I never have liked the spotlight. I have friends who love it and are great at it. Not me. The attention for the book is wonderful. I'm not sure it's gotten me more readers, but I've got more buyers, and that's good. So keep those cards and letters coming to the bookstores. Not me.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
Blasing, Muthu Konuk. Review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, by Charles Wright. Michigan Quarterly Review 31, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 425.
Blasing offers his evaluation of The World of Ten Thousand Things.
Bond, Bruce. “Metaphysics of the Image in Charles Wright and Paul Cézanne.” Southern Review 30, No. 1 (January 1994): 116-25.
Provides comparative analysis of Wright's poetry and Cézanne's paintings, drawing attention to their shared concern with the incomplete quality of human experience and aspects of transcendence, primitivism, and transmutation in their works.
Garrison, David. “From Feeling to Form: Image as Translation in the Poetry of Charles Wright.” Midwest Quarterly 41, No. 1 (Autumn 1999): 33-47.
Examines Wright's effort to translate emotion into language and, in turn, to explore contradictory aspects of language and the theme of mortality in his poetry.
Gussow, Mel. “A Good Ear for the Music of His Own Life.” New York Times (16 April 1998): E1.
Provides an overview of Wright's life, poetry, and accomplishments upon his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac.
Kalstone, David. “Lives in a Rearview Mirror.” New York Times Book Review (1 July 1984): 14.
Offers praise for Wright's collection The Other Side of the River. Kalstone asserts that this collection is not as strong as The Southern Cross, but assesses Wright as one of the best middle-generation poets, claiming that his poetry now has a retrospective authority.
Kirsch, Adam. “Between Heaven and Earth.” New York Times Book Review (28 February 1999): 21.
A review of Appalachia in which Kirsch comments on the consistent themes and limitations present in much of Wright's work.
Logan, William. Review of Zone Journals, by Charles Wright. New York Times Book Review (4 September 1988): 9.
A primarily negative review of Zone Journals. Logan faults Wright's collection for its lack of coherence and life.
Mobilio, Albert. “The Word's Worth.” Village Voice (29 April 1997): 55.
Mobilio gives a positive assessment of Wright's Black Zodiac, praising his “exacting eye and lyrical invention.”
Muske, Carol. “Guided by the Dark Stars.” New York Times Book Review (31 August 1997): 11.
Muske gives a positive review of Black Zodiac, commenting that she finds Wright's autobiographical poetry to be “hauntingly personal.”
Pankey, Eric. “‘Perilous Interface’: Recent Poetry.” Partisan Review LXVI, No. 2, (Spring 1999): 344-49.
Pankey offers a positive assessment of Black Zodiac.
Tillinghast, Richard. Review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, by Charles Wright. New York Times Book Review (24 February 1991): 18.
A laudatory review of The World of Ten Thousand Things in which Tillinghast praises Wright's ability to weave together wide-ranging themes and subjects into a single extended poetic sequence.
Vendler, Helen. “The Transcendent ‘I’.” New Yorker (29 October 1979): 160, 162, 165-68, 171-74.
Vendler discusses the influence of Italian poet Eugenio Montale on the themes, style, and imagery of Wright's poetry, particularly as found in Bloodlines and China Trace.
Wright, Charles. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
Includes the author's discussions and comments on poetry and his own work.
Additional coverage of Wright's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 36, 62, and 88; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 165; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 82; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; and Poetry for Students, Vol. 10.
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