Chickamauga

(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.