Third Decade of Charles Wright's Poetry Publications
AND AGAIN: CHARLES WRIGHT'S NEGATIVE BLUE:
SELECTED LATER POEMS
. . . year after year,
by decade, Charles Wright has had a pencil in hand,
a piece of paper in front
him, as he's scribbled some of the most graceful
sentences and elegant
contemporary poetry, producing a bounty
of poems as durable as
each with the dazzling light of reflection
as if from the cut and
surface of a diamond's facet. Thankfully,
four decades after he
his senses, as he puts it, with the discovery
of his poetic skill,
this ritual of reporting on the world
What do I want my poems to do?
I want them to sing and to tell the story of my life.
÷ Charles Wright
accompanying the announcement of Charles Wright as the winner of the
Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection of poems, Chickamauga,
Philip Levine, who served as judge along with Yusef Komunyakaa and
Sheck, commented: "Has any other American poet been writing as
and daringly over the past twenty-five years as Charles Wright?
But I cannnot imagine who it would be."
time of Chickamauga's
publication, one already would have found difficulty in disputing
assertion or doubting Charles Wright's position among the select
of America's finest living poets. After all, Chickamauga
the first book of poems written by Wright since completion of a
collection, The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990,
containing his second trilogy of books. The first trilogy had
gathered to acclaim in Country Music: Selected Early Poems
winner of the National Book Award. And now, this new work
the initial stage of the third trilogy in that ambitious project
three decades before by Wright. In 1994, as he was writing Chickamauga,
Wright categorized his three projects: "The ultimate end of the first
Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace, seems to be a matter
subject matter to me. The project in The World of the Ten
Things seemed more technical, pushing toward that conversational
. . . I hope the poems I'm doing now, and the ones I'll do later,
will somehow fuse those two approaches."
had already secured a reputation as a verbal musician in his lyric
as a master of the shorter forms of meditative or autobiographical
and as one whose layers of artful lines appear to present the landscape
almost with the vivid colors and carefully placed shapes seen in
by those painters who have served as models for Wright over the years
to whom he often pays homage in his poetry, particularly Paul
"My poems are put together in tonal blocks, in tonal units that work
one another. Vide Cézanne's use of color and form. I
try to do that in sound patterns within the line, in the line within
stanza, and the stanza within the poem. Tonal units of measure,
rhythms in time."
although Wright seems to wish to dismiss the uniqueness of his poems in
extended form ("All my long poems are short poems in disguise."),
had demonstrated his ability to apply his skills to a more expansive
in stunning longer poems like the closing title poem of The
Cross (1981) or as in "A Journal of the Year of the Ox," the
centerpiece in Zone Journals (1988). Indeed, one easily
have believed Wright had fully explored over the years the ever-present
themes of landscape, self, poetry, death, and a search for the
or as he has described his own poetic obsessions: "There are three
basically, that I write about ÷ language, landscape, and the
idea of God."
Levine's praise for the poetry in Chickamauga, no one would
been faulted for questioning whether Wright could continue to capture,
perhaps even more completely, the intricate interplay of these themes,
while maintaining the level of originality and energy thus far
in volume after volume, and few could have foreseen the extent to which
Wright's poems would exceed expectations in Black Zodiac
the masterpiece follow-up book to Chickamauga.
significant single collection in contemporary American poetry, Black
Zodiac displayed this poet at a peak of performance few ever
Consequently, Black Zodiac garnered the Pulitzer Prize for
and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Yet, rather than rest
his laurels, Wright immediately released Appalachia (1998), the
final book of his third trilogy. As might be expected, the
theme of this collection was the reaffirmation of life's value, while
an acknowledgment of death in its elegiac tone, which has been combined
with the distinct impression of an artistic journey coming to closure
the traveler (poet or reader) enriched and enlightened by the trip, now
content but sorrowful at its ending. "I've been doing a kind of
autobiography over the years, trying to make sense of one's life,"
has commented about his three-decade endeavour.
seems fitting that Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, the
of the three collections comprising Wright's third trilogy, perhaps the
most inquisitive and meditative of all with its constant questioning of
the self's embrace of life and acceptance of death, is released in the
year 2000 ÷ the chronological closing of one century, one
the beginning of another:
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?
["Waiting for Tu Fu"]
interview, when discussing the direction of his poetry as he was
the third trilogy of collections, Wright stated: "I think I'll go back
to shorter things. I don't know how short ÷ what I'm doing
sixteen lines or less, but that's just one section. Then maybe
write, if I'm lucky, some one- or two-page poems, something like
But no more forty-page poems, no more book-length poems. I've
that. I'd like to marry Emily and Walt again; I'd like to get the
long line in the shorter poem, if I can." Such thinking even
in the poems themselves. As is often the case in the
stanzas of Wright's poetry, he directly comments upon his
"Sit still and lengthen your lines, / Shorten your poems and listen to
what the darkness says / With its mouthful of cold air" ("Sprung
is a bit of playfulness in Wright's comment about marrying Dickinson
Whitman, something many American poets have been attempting to some
for the past century, one of the marvels of Wright's later poetry is
it does just that. As many modern and contemporary poets have
over the decades, Dickinson and Whitman, even though neither of the two
ever married or had children, are the figurative mother and father of
poetry and its practitioners. A large percentage of American
since the beginning of the twentieth century presents evidence of
inherited from these two great influences, though the best of this
is often seen as derived indirectly or as resembling a combination of
two. In his criticism, Harold Bloom has correctly concluded:
Whitman, Dickinson is the most dangerous of direct influences."
also suggests each of these two innovators has a poetic style that
deceptively easy for readers to grasp and for writers to imitate, but
stays ahead of us by nuance and by metaphoric evasiveness.
waits for us, perpetually up the road from our tardiness, because very
few of us can emulate her by rethinking everything through for
In one of the most beautiful passages from "A Journal of the Year of
Ox," Wright recounts a visit to Emily Dickinson's home. He writes:
I liked the boxwood and evergreens
And the wren-like, sherry-eyed figure
I kept thinking I saw there
as the skies started to blossom
And a noiseless noise began to come from the orchard÷
And I sat very still, and listened hard
And thought I heard it again.
much has been made by critics about the debt Charles Wright owes to the
poetry of Ezra Pound. Certainly, a large part of the attention to
this originates in Wright's own essays relating the important influence
of Pound and The Cantos on him. Wright has also repeated
narratives that offer inklings of his indebtedness to Pound, including
an acount of his first serious encounter with poetry. Wright
tells of being given a copy of Pound's selected poems when he was in
army, stationed in Verona, Italy. He had traveled to where legend
claims the Latin poet, Catullus, had lived in a villa at Sirmione on
Garda in the Italian Alps.
It's still one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, or
to go to. Lake Garda in front of you, the Italian Alps on three
of you, the ruined and beautiful villa around you, and I read a poem
that Pound had written about the place, about Sirmione being more
beautiful than Paradise, and my life was changed forever.
can be no
question about the crucial affect Pound's poetry had in the awakening
Charles Wright as a poet. For this, all of Wright's devoted
surely can be grateful. However, the most significant influence
Wright's poetry must be seen as Emily Dickinson. Wright has
her possession of a prominent place in his regard for the pantheon of
poets. "I admire and revere and am awed by a good many writers; I
have been in thrall to several. But Emily Dickinson is the only
I've ever read who knows my name, whose work has influenced me at my
core, whose music is the music of songs I've listened to and remembered
in my very body."
Wright's selected later poems (in fact, those devoted readers will be
to note the term "selected" may be a bit misleading; few works from the
original volumes are omitted) in this third trilogy "listen hard," they
just might hear echoes of Dickinson's concerns with nature, self, and
spiritual; yet, those sounds are filtered through a Whitmanesque line,
often long and richly filled with specific details of local
However, ever since the appearance of The Southern Cross, the
Wright line, though lengthened like Whitman's, has contained a
characteristic, a split level effect that occasionally occurs within
and that Wright explains as "the low-rider," a way "to keep the line
breaking under its own weight."
this signature line is needed: ". . . my line began to get longer and
'conversational' as I tried to push it as far toward prose as I thought
I could and still maintain it as a verse line. So, I began to
the line, in order to keep it whole. It is always one line, not
and broken in a particular place to keep the integrity of the single
musically." Wright's use of the split line may also be a residue
of Pound's influence on his poetry, and a by-product from "the music of
the lines" in Pound's Cantos that Wright admired so much.
Indeed, Wright has long contended that Pound's "poetic line ends up a
written since initiating the technique of this new "two-step" line, as
well as his comfort with indirect narrative through a layering of
(he believes "the best narrative is that which is least in evidence"),
has resulted in a greater freedom for self-expression, with an
sense of liberation in personal revelation through imagery, allowing
more possibilities for an extended autobiography in lyric. "Using
the dropped line, the 'low rider,' you are able to use both sides of
page, use both left- and right-hand margins, and you can carry the long
line on as an imagistic line rather than a rhetorical or discursive
Wright has explained.
an even more confident and convincing voice, whether sharing narrative
details in the collage of sections stitched to one another in longer
or turning inward in the shorter meditative lyric poems. He has
as much in his comment: "I think a lot of this has to do with the
quality of structure that I started using in 'The Southern Cross,'
allowed me not to be so constrained in the way I earlier thought a poem
had to be, so self-contained; therefore, the language was more
perhaps. As the formal apparatus opened up, somehow the textures
and the linguistic abilities seemed to be able to loosen a bit and
more things in. . . ."
poetry published during the two decades since The Southern Cross
has been uniformly outstanding, and this body of work has achieved a
elevated level of reflection upon the past, as well as a more engaging
portrayal of the present and a more compelling vision toward the
firmly establishing Charles Wright's proper position in the continuing
chronicle of American poetry. The latest, perhaps best and most
evidence of this now has been presented in Negative Blue: Selected
Poems, where Wright has determined:
The unexamined life's no different from
the examined life ÷
Unanswerable questions, small talk,
Unprovable theorems, long abandoned arguments ÷
You've got to write it all down.
Landscape or waterscape, light-length on evergreen, dark sidebar
you've got to write it down.
years, Wright has compared his crafting of poems to the art of
painting, and his focus on landscape has been consistent. In one
of the finest poems of this third trilogy, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua,"
reaffirms the primacy of landscape in his work:
Landscape's a lever of transcendence ÷
jack-wedge it here,
Or here, and step back,
Heave, and a light, a little light, will nimbus your going forth. . . .
has indicated, "my ultimate strength is my contemporary weakness
÷ my subject
(language, landscape, and the idea of God) is not of much interest
But it will be again. How all three configure one's own face is
and must be addressed." In another section of the same poem,
Wright stakes his claim as an heir of the Romantic philosophy in a line
of poets that begins with Wordsworth and Keats before crossing the
to Dickinson and Whitman.
Journal and landscape
÷ discredited form, discredited subject matter ÷
I tried to resuscitate both, breath and blood,
making them whole again
Through language, strict attention. . . .
continually exhibit landscape as a metaphor for self. By blending
landscape with a poetry of personal discovery and revelation, Wright
to a prescription for meditative poetry promoted by the early Romantic
poets, but with a differing definition, a further "fusion" of the
between self and landscape. As Wright views it:
In Keats's letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818, the
"egotistical sublime"of Wordsworth is posited against, apparently,
"negative capability." The poetical character, for the most part,
assumes a negative capability when it operates, submerging itself
in whatever it is portraying or explaining. It moves like a
through the landscape, assuming persona after persona and is never
"itself." The "I" in Wordsworth, on the other hand, is always
never a persona, and attracts nothing of the landscape to itself.
When the "I" in Wordsworth walks through a field of daffodils, it is
always Wordsworth, his real self, speaking, an egotistical sublime
(from its pantheistic nature, or aspirations, one assumes). In
surely some fusion has occurred, some kind of Egotistical Capability,
where the "I" both is the speaker per se and is, to a lesser degree,
subsumed in the landscape. Or a Negative Sublime.
landscape are autobiographical," Wright claims in the closing line of
Landscape Is Abstract, and Tends To Repeat Itself." Indeed,
repeatedly and correctly distinguishes between landscape and nature.
Wright separates the two: "Landscape is something you determine and
nature is something that determines and dominates you." Going
further, he proposes that "nature is inherently sentimental, landscape
is not." Just as the French Impressionist painters turned away
idealized or composite portraits of nature, the historical landscapes
their predecessors, instead choosing to use self-expression in
captured scenes of ordinary landscape heightened only by personal style
or technique ÷ the shapes and density of broken brush strokes,
÷ and enhanced by an angle of light or the intensity of color at
selected time of day, Wright's depictions of landscape are not only
of his personal technique, but also metaphors for reflection, as might
be seen in the following lines from "Stray Paragraphs in February, Year
of the Rat":
A love of landscape's a true affection for regret, I've found,
Forever joined, forever apart,
outside us yet ourselves.
been criticized for his use of landscape in poems, it apparently has
for repetitiveness in his selection of scenery, especially for a
of the view from his back-yard lawn chair ÷ "my biggest canvas,"
quipped ÷ as in the opening stanzas of the following poems:
We have a bat, one bat, that bug-surfs
our late-summer back yard
Just as fireflies begin
To rise, new souls, toward the August moon.
He stumbles unerringly through them,
Exempt as they feint and ascend to their remission ÷
Light, Catharist light;
Brightness to brightness where I sit
on the back brink of my sixth decade,
Virginia moon in the cloud-ragged, cloud-scutted sky,
Bat bug-drawn and swallow-crossed, God's wash.
["Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness"]
I look out at the back yard ÷
sur le motif, as Paul Cézanne would say,
Nondescript blond winter grass,
Boxwood buzz-cut still dormant with shaved sides, black gum tree
And weeping cherry veined and hived against the afternoon sky.
I try to look at landscape as though I weren't there,
but know, wherever I am,
I disturb that place by breathing, by my heart's beating. . . .
["Back Yard Boogie Woogie"]
Or in the closing stanza
at Dusk in the Back Yard after the Mondrian Retrospective":
Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
Gathers itself for sacrifice, its slow
fadeout along the invisible,
Leaving the land its architecture of withdrawal,
Black lines and white spaces, an emptiness primed with reds and blues.
of the seeming limitation in his choice of landscape may be legitimate,
it could be that it is also overstated, perhaps even the product of a
of Wright's intentions. Other than in poems illustrating memories
of his childhood in Tennessee or the nearly two decades of living in
one cannot deny that Wright often does not stray too far from the back
yard of his Virginia home for inspiration. Notable exceptions are
the long poems from Zone Journals that chronicled various
particularly to places Wright considered sacred in his life as he
his fiftieth birthday, or his poems about travels to Italy in which he
evokes those Italian writers and a culture essential to Wright's
as well as the sporadic poems nostalgic for the Italian countryside,
he first discovered a love for poetry while reading Pound when assigned
by the U.S. Army to Verona in 1959.
just as the great Impressionist landscape painters, who reproduced
scenes over and over, had done, Wright always finds a new or nuanced
to present, even in his own back yard. His belief is that
you have to say ÷ though ultimately all-important ÷ in
most cases will
not be news. How you say it just might be."
from Wright's notebooks include a pertinent quote by Claude Monet: "A
can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers, or even clouds."
Like Monet's series with numerous paintings of haystacks or poplars,
presented in a differing light and at times drawn from an alternative
Wright's construction, or perhaps reconstruction, of landscape
language in poem after poem never seems less than innovative and
Perhaps through another comparison with his favorite landscape painter,
Wright has best described his intentions in presenting landscape:
Cézanne has a way of looking at landscape that I find
innovative, revolutionary, and pleasing to my spirit. He breaks
and reassembles the landscape the way I like to think, when I'm
working at my desk, I break down and reassemble what I'm looking
at and put it back into a poem to recreate it, to reconstruct it.
I like the idea that in fact he is very much of a realist although
up close everything looks abstract. But once you get the right
perspective, he is showing you just what's out there. I like to
I'm showing you just what's out there, but as I see it.
has written that Charles Wright has produced "some of the most genuine
spiritual poetry of the last several decades." In an analysis of
his own poetry, Wright concludes: "All my poems seem to be an ongoing
with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation." Nowhere is this
more evident than in the books of his third trilogy. Again and
Wright's descriptive landscapes, sometimes revelatory pieces describing
places of comfort and at other times camouflage for what unknown future
might lie beyond, serve as metaphor for the spiritual understanding he
We live in two landscapes, as Augustine might have said,
One that's eternal and divine,
and one that's just the back yard,
Dead leaves and dead grass in November, purple in spring.
["Indian Summer II"]
argument" is most
apparent in his elegies, such as "Thinking about the Poet Larry Levis
Afternoon in Late May":
Rain back again, then back off,
Sunlight suffused like a chest pain across the tree limbs.
God, the gathering night, assumes it.
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. . . .
The landscape is also
in the expanding number of other poems about one's own consciousness of
mortality that fill this trilogy:
Out of any two thoughts I have, one is devoted to death.
Our days an uncertainty, a chaos and shapeless,
All that our lives are
blurs down, like a landscape reflected in water.
["Meditation on Form and Measure"]
has been a recurrent theme throughout Wright's writings over the
the further one reads into the volumes included in Negative Blue:
Later Poems, the more frequent the appearance of poems directly
death ÷ including a series of six poems titled "Appalachian Book
Dead" spread through the last two volumes and a pair of "Opus
by the above quote from Wright's elegy to Larry Levis, he has always
the landscape as a metaphor for the physical world that acts as a
for the spiritual existence hidden beyond. Wright considers the
between life and death: " . . . someone, somewhere, is putting his
foot, then the second, / Down on the other side. . ." ("American
He deems an acute awareness of death a way of adding value to life, a
reason for appreciating each day given to us: "One life is all we're
to, but it's enough" ("With Eddie and Nancy in Arezzo at the
Grande"). In fact, in the exquisite closing of "Apologia Pro Vita
Sua" ÷ that masterful poem in which he reviews specific events
particular individuals in his life, and as well presents images that
the natural and cyclical process of life ÷ Wright concludes, in
to all life has to offer, each day we're provided may also be treasured
merely as a temporary stay against death's arrival:
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
Next to the bearded grandson my mother never saw.
Some afternoon, or noon, it will all be over. Not this one.
of poems released by others of his generation, such as Mark Strand and
Philip Levine, Wright's numerous poems in this trilogy concerning his
mortality demonstrate an increase of spiritual insight or a depth of
perhaps even greater than that witnessed in his previous works.
of Wright's poems may be read almost as philosophical essays,
studies, or theological pieces positing questions of concern for
"What mask is the mask behind the mask / The language wears and the
wears, I ask myself" ("'It's Turtles All the Way Down'"); "Why do I
about this? Whatever happens will happen / With or without us, /
With or without these verbal amulets" ("American Twilight"); "When it
it ends. What else?" ("After Reading T'ao Ch'ing, I Wander
Through the Short Grass"). In one of the few longer poems of this
trilogy and, as previously stated, one of the most powerful, "Apologia
Pro Vita Sua," Wright asks:
What are the determining moments of our lives?
How do we know them?
Are they ends of things or beginnings?
Are we more or less of ourselves once they've come and gone?
In another of the longer
Narratives," Wright poses perhaps the one crucial question in the
that sums up a main theme he seems to be trying to examine, for which
seeks an answer that may never be attained:
After it's over, after the last gaze has shut down,
Will I have become
The landscape I've looked at and walked through
Or the road that took me there
or the time it took to arrive?
poems, to go along with his examination and evaluation of "death,"
reminds one of past poets like T.S. Eliot or Robert Penn Warren who
images and discourse so thoroughly treated the abstract concept of the
passage of "time" in their works, and he appears as focused on the
of "time" and its ramifications as any poet in the last few
Wright's poems present the paradox of time as both a source of life and
the cause of destruction: "How many times can summer turn to fall in
life?" he asks in "Watching the Equinox Arrive in Charlottesville,
1992." Wright determines that "time is the Adversary, and
sleepless and wants for nothing" ("Apologia Pro Vita Sua").
in the same poem, he further proffers a corollary between the dwindling
amount of time one has left in life and the increasing value one should
place on the life we've been given. Wright declares:
Time is the source of all good,
time the engenderer
Of entropy and decay.
Time the destroyer, our only-begetter and advocate.
Charles Wright compares time to other life-giving elements, like light
and water, that in excess also may eventually cause destruction.
Wright recognizes the intangible nature of "time," which may give life
like sunlight, but which just as relentlessly as light moves forward
inevitably passes us by, leaving behind only lengthening shadows: "Time
and light are the same thing somewhere behind our backs" ("Meditation
Form and Measure"). Thus, one of the initial keys to
life and accepting mortality may be to identify our position in
We hang like clouds between heaven and earth,
between something and nothing,
Sometimes with shadows, sometimes without.
["Poem Half in the Manner of Li Ho"]
In a glorious section of
Wright presents an extended metaphor for the examination of "time":
If time is water, appearing and disappearing
In one heliotropic cycle,
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.
"time," that which may have the power to shape and re-form anything, as
the controlling factor in all of our lives, one that is beyond our
and the one element we can never possess, but which always possesses us
÷ until time comes to dispose of us:
Time, like a burning wheel, scorching along the highway side,
turning the tenants out.
["Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner"]
in a selection of his notebooks from the years 1988-1990, and first
in 1992, about the time he was beginning this trilogy, Wright includes
a passage by W.H. Auden offering the following evaluation of Vincent
Gogh's artwork: "Perhaps the best label for him as a painter would be
Realist. A realist because he attached supreme importance to the
incessant study of nature and never composed pictures 'out his head';
because he regarded nature as the sacramental visible sign of a
grace which it was his aim as a painter to reveal to others."
a description of Wright, as a "religious realist" among contemporary
might be equally appropriate and accurate.
"the heart of nature is nature, the heart of landscape is God."
no major contemporary poet has so openly mentioned "God" as often in a
single volume as Wright does in this collection. He has written
he believes "the true purpose and result of poetry is a contemplation
the divine and its attendant mysteries." In interviews and
pieces, Wright has often spoken of his religious upbringing and
enthusiastic involvement in the Episcopal Church. Although he
from that environment many years ago while still young, Wright feels
a very strange thing about being raised in a religious
It alters you completely, one way or the other. It's made me what
I am and I think it's okay. I can argue against it, but it has
me a sense of spirituality that I prize." Throughout this book,
connects the landscape with the spiritual, links nature and mortality
a developing understanding and acceptance of God:
How strange to have a name, any name, on this poor earth.
January hunkers down,
the icicle deep in her throat ÷
The days become longer, the nights ground bitter and cold,
Single grain by single grain
Everything flows toward structure,
last ache in the ache for God.
["As Our Bodies Rise, Our Names Turn into Light"]
of abstractions such as "time" and "God" are persuasive because they
almost always wrapped between lines containing some of the finest
in contemporary poetry. Wright's greatest gift has always been
ability to present impressive images in musical language. As he
the movement in his poems: "My plots do not run narratively or
but synaptically, from one nerve spark to another, from one imagistic
Wright, even the longer of his poems are not narrative: "I don't even
anymore. It's subterranean. It's always under there, like
underground river, and it will come up to the surface and then go under
again, come back up, go back down." Wright's poems first draw the
reader in and then pull the reader through transitional experiences,
compelling image after another, until the poems end in a final
image or an epiphany, perhaps in the shape of a statement filled with
in a moment of sudden intuitive understanding earned by the cumulative
effect of its preceding images. Clearly, in his poems, as
guidance points out, "narrative does not dictate the image, the image
and Elizabeth Bishop Fake the Break," Wright astutely associates his
with the graceful music or melodic innovation of Miles Davis, and he
a dominant characteristic of his poetry in a comment spoken by Bishop
summarizing her own poetry:
"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.
at thirteen pages another of the longer poems in this collection,
reveals: "The poem uncurls me, corrects me and croons my tune."
knows the descriptive passage has always been a crucial element in the
music of his poetry, the muscular back beat behind the stated
and their more delicate melody, and that together they blend to elicit
an emotional response on the part of his reader:
And so I've tried,
Pretending there's nothing there but description, hoping emotion
That that's why description's there:
The subject was never smoke,
there's always been a fire.
["Lives of the Saints"]
self-effacing attitude, Charles Wright has commented: "As a writer of
I've never had anything, really, except a good ear and a bad
Of course, that "good ear" which allows him to compose the musical
of his poems is undeniably a gift. However, as Wright ironically
suggests, the faultiness or malleability of his memory may be a benefit
as well, especially in its permission, if not its need, for a fair
of reconstruction in the creative process. Some of Wright's
on memory are revealing:
Well, it's been a driving force in my work, certainly. It's the
reconstructible and reconstitutible thing there is because it's always
out of kilter when you put it down. I mean it's not ever quite
you think it was. That's part of its pleasure, to me, because you
you can be as accurate, as descriptively accurate, as possible, and, in
you're reconstituting just by the very act because you never quite
the way it was. No matter how convinced you are, you're almost
wrong to some extent. Memory, after a while, is sometimes all
and so it becomes a great, fertile piece of land to work, particularly
are a Southerner and you tend to live in the past or were brought up
by people who lived in the past.
the turning point in his life happened with that breakthrough
in Italy during his military service in 1959, when he discovered his
to write poetry. "I came to my senses with a pencil in my hand /
And a piece of paper in front of me" ("All Landscape Is Abstract, and
To Repeat Itself"). The four decades of writing since that moment
have been an ongoing and cumulative effort to describe the world around
him, and in doing so, perhaps to comprehend more fully his position in
that world. With his humility still intact, he defines the
process in a poem borrowing a line from Bob Dylan for its title, "'When
You're Lost in Juarez, in the Rain, and It's Eastertime Too'":
Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.
Some of them sound okay and some of them sound not so okay.
Indeed, year after
year, decade by decade, Charles Wright has had a pencil in hand, a
of paper in front of him, as he's scribbled some of the most graceful
and elegant lines in contemporary poetry, producing a bounty of poems
durable as diamond, each with the dazzling light of reflection as if
the cut and polished surface of a diamond's facet. Thankfully,
decades after he came to his senses, as he puts it, with the discovery
of his poetic skill, Wright continues this ritual of reporting on the
around him. Fresh evidence of this continuation can be seen in
extra section of seven new poems ÷ especially the title poem of
"North American Bear" ÷ added at the end of Negative Blue:
Some of these star fires must surely be ash by now.
I dawdle outside in my back yard,
Humming old songs that no one cares about anymore.
The hat of darkness tilts the night sky
Inch by inch, foot by black foot,
over the Blue Ridge.
How bright the fire of the world was, I think to myself,
Before white hair and the ash of days.
predecessor, Emily Dickinson, whose example he has chosen to follow,
Wright has never made grand claims about the magnitude of his poetry,
choosing to view his work as little more than an individual's
or one man's insight as he chronicles the events and experiences in his
own life: "I have no public, or social, aspirations in my work.
my aspirations are private, a locating and defining out of my own
I wouldn't presume to speak for anyone else." Nevertheless, for a
long time now, Wright's precise poems have spoken to many readers, and
for many of them the exactness of his observations has put into words
very emotions they have felt.
Snowfall in the Piazza Dante," another lovely poem about his memories
Italy that appears early in this third trilogy, Wright locates himself
and the reader in a specific landscape ("Verona, late January . . . ")
and an exact time ("It's 1959. It's ten-thirty at night.
been in the country for one week."). Looking back, he recognizes
the distance between then and now, not just chronologically, but in his
own growth and development, as a poet and as an individual: "That was
years ago. / I've learned a couple of things since then."
he has learned his craft as a poet, how to command the language of the
lines and stanzas he scribbles in his notebooks; however, as a result
those scribbled stanzas over the decades, he also may have learned a
one answer he's been seeking to the questions he raises about
the world and his place in it, as he concludes: "If there is one secret
to this life, it is this life."
should be delighted that Charles Wright's desire for an understanding
his position in the world around him is not yet sated. In "Sky
the closing poem of Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems,
the section containing new poems at the end of the book, Wright offers
another description of the landscape:
Clear night after four days' rain
moon brushed and blanched, three-quarters full.
Arterial pulse of ground lights and constellations.
It is as if Wright
although the life-long project of three trilogies has now come to
there is no way he can put aside that passion for landscape in the
of poetry he discovered in Verona in 1959:
I've talked about one thing for thirty years,
and said it time and again,
Wind like big sticks in the trees ÷
I mean the still, small point at the point where all things meet;
I mean the form that moves the sun and the other stars.
What a sidereal jones we have!
Immensity fills us
Like moonrise across the night sky, the dark disappears,
Worlds snuff, nothing acquits us,
And still we stand outside and look up,
look up at the heavens and think,
Such sidebars, such extra-celestial drowning pools
To swallow us.
Wright has decided he still has more "scribbling" to do, he still has
and there is more to learn from the repeated "defining" of his own life.
Wright, Charles. Negative
Selected Later Poems. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2000. ISBN: 0-374-22020-4 $23.00
© by Edward Byrne