(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Charles Wright’s CHICKAMAUGA contains a selection of recent poems, many of which first appeared in literary magazines and journals such as THE YALE REVIEW, POETRY, and ANTAEUS. The book is divided into six groups of poems, but there are a number of common themes in all of the poems. Wright meditates upon history, language, and, above all, the emptiness that exists in the midst of nature’s plentitude. The poems are complex but accessible and rewarding, with some close attention to Wright’s inventive metaphors and precise imagery.

The first group of poems in called “Aftermath.” All of the poems in this group play off the work of other poets, including T. S. Eliot and Li Po. Many of Wright’s poems deal with absence, “The shadow that everything casts.”

The second section, “Terra Cognita,” has a number of narrative poems. Themes of absence and time are also found in this group, although these narrative poems are leavened by their humor and the presence of Wright’s engaging voice.

Many of the poems, especially those in the section entitled “Broken English,” make reference to history and its destructive effects. The title poem of the collection states, “History handles our past like soiled fruit.” For Wright, change is in everything and the source of human sorrow. Another important theme is language. Language is a structure and a way of knowing, “Without the adjective there is no evil or good.”

The theme of change in the last group of poems includes a cyclic element. This element is most notable in “Looking Again at What I Looked at for Seventeen Years,” where Wright uses a metaphor of the tide to shows how everything is taken away. Nevertheless, the next line asserts “Until it all comes back . . . It’s like that.”

CHICKAMAUGA is one of the most impressive collections of poems of the last two decades. Wright is an excellent poet, and this may be his finest book.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, April 1, 1995, p. 1374.

Detroit News and Free Press. April 23, 1995, p. F7.

Library Journal. CXX, April 1, 1995, p. 99.

The New Republic. CCXIII, August 7, 1995, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 27, 1995, p. 97.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXI, Autumn, 1995, p. SS137.

The Yale Review. LXXXIII, October, 1995, p. 144.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 31)

Chickamauga is an impressive collection of poems. Charles Wright divides the book into six distinct sections of lyric poems, although the sections are linked by common themes. Inventive metaphors and precise imagery as well as complexity of thought and engaging voice make this collection a most appealing and significant achievement in late twentieth century poetry. Wright is clearly a poet at the top of his form.

The first section is called “Aftermath,” and nearly all the poems play off the poems of other writers, such as T. S. Eliot and Li Po. The first poem, “Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn,” sets the mood as it tries to add up “the simple arithmetic of my life.” As in so many of the poems in this collection, there proves to be no neat sum or adequate formulation of elements or transcendence. “Everything” may come from “something,” but “only something comes from nothing.” The focus shifts from accounting for the whole to the absence in all things. Wright uses the metaphor of a snail that “carries its emptiness like a child/ It would be rid of.” The last lines reverse the beginning as “one and one make nothing, he adds,/ endless and everywhere,/ The shadow that everything casts.” So summation and addition have given way to metaphor. All things, especially humankind, exist only in the shadows they cast; there is no accounting that will sum up anyone’s life. The metaphor of the shadow points to an illusory and evanescent existence, not a transcendent one. There is, however, no despair at this realization—only acknowledgment of the true nature of the world and a feeling of awe at perceiving it.

“Lines After Rereading T. S. Eliot” continues the exploration of absence and works from some of Eliot’s central concerns. The first section uses images of “fading”; there may be a “wasteland,” but it is inhabited by a “cricket” who is very sure of his place and path. The second section speaks of the inability of human beings to find “forgiveness” in their divided nature, “outside time, outside comprehension.” The last section of the poem deals with ambition and, like Eliot’s impersonal poet, recommends being both “illustrious and unknown.” Wright seems to depart from Eliot, however, when he speaks of humans’ desire to “fade” as nature fades, although it is into an Eliotic “anonymity.”

“Reading Lao Tze Again in the New Year” deals with the cycles of change: “Prosodies rise and fall./ Structures rise in the mind and fall.” These “structures,” however, are illusions or “compromise.” As is common in these poems, “Loss is its own gain.” The “gain” is in understanding one’s “emptiness” and allowing it to be moved by other forces such as the “tide.” The last section of the poem reverses the imagery. Under “sunlight spray,” the birds are about their business; their role, guided by instinct, is sure. Human beings, in contrast, are “placed between now and not-now”; yet they are held there by “affection,” illuminated in a brilliant metaphor: “Large rock balanced upon a small rock.” The ending balances a recognition of the displaced condition of human beings with a metaphor that insists on relatedness, vulnerable as it may be.

“Easter 1989” is divided into three sections. The first is filled with images of renewal, faint as they are in March. The “new grasses” are “stung with rain,” and “crocus circles appear.” The second section reverses this movement. The “instinct” that gives life also brings death. Human beings are “butting the nothingness—/ in the wrong place, in the wrong body.” In spite of that, the last section of the poem celebrates the coming of spring and its renewal, suggested by the title, as

Out of the caves of their locked beings,
fluorescent shapes
Roll the darkness aside as they rise to enter the real world.

As the rock of Christ’s tomb is rolled aside, nature rises out of its seasonal darkness to take its place in the “real world,” a world of things.

“Cicada” deals with “emptiness” in a significantly different manner. It begins with regret and restlessness and moves to an image of the “cicada’s whine,” the only song and sound in the rain drenched land. It is a song of “emptiness, . . . such emptiness at the heart of being.” In the last section, the rain becomes part of a “heliotropic cycle” “and moves the body to music.” Yet “time is not body’s movement”; it is only the “memory” of movement. “We measure what isn’t there./ We measure the silence./ We measure the emptiness.” The instruments of precision that science or philosophy creates can measure only what has flown. Once more, Wright brings readers to...

(The entire section is 1968 words.)