V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

The Third Decade of Charles Wright's Poetry Publications




. . . year after year, decade by decade, Charles Wright has had a pencil in hand,
a piece of paper in front of him, as he's scribbled some of the most graceful
sentences and elegant lines in contemporary poetry, producing a bounty
of poems as durable as diamond, each with the dazzling light of reflection
as if from the cut and polished surface of a diamond's facet.  Thankfully,
four 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 world
around him.

                   What do I want my poems to do?
                             I want them to sing and to tell the story of my life.

                                                            ÷ Charles Wright

In an essay accompanying the announcement of Charles Wright as the winner of the 1996 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection of poems, Chickamauga, Philip Levine, who served as judge along with Yusef Komunyakaa and Laurie Sheck, commented: "Has any other American poet been writing as beautifully and daringly over the past twenty-five years as Charles Wright?  Possibly.  But I cannnot imagine who it would be."
    At the time of Chickamauga's publication, one already would have found difficulty in disputing Levine's assertion or doubting Charles Wright's position among the select handful of America's finest living poets.  After all, Chickamauga was the first book of poems written by Wright since completion of a magnificent collection, The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990, containing his second trilogy of books.  The first trilogy had been gathered to acclaim in Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1982), winner of the National Book Award.  And now, this new work signaled the initial stage of the third trilogy in that ambitious project planned three decades before by Wright.  In 1994, as he was writing Chickamauga, Wright categorized his three projects: "The ultimate end of the first trilogy, Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace, seems to be a matter of subject matter to me.  The project in The World of the Ten Thousand Things seemed more technical, pushing toward that conversational language. . . .  I hope the poems I'm doing now, and the ones I'll do later, will somehow fuse those two approaches."
    Charles Wright had already secured a reputation as a verbal musician in his lyric poems, as a master of the shorter forms of meditative or autobiographical poems, and as one whose layers of artful lines appear to present the landscape almost with the vivid colors and carefully placed shapes seen in compositions by those painters who have served as models for Wright over the years and to whom he often pays homage in his poetry, particularly Paul Cézanne: "My poems are put together in tonal blocks, in tonal units that work off 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 the stanza, and the stanza within the poem.  Tonal units of measure, tonal rhythms in time."
    In addition, although Wright seems to wish to dismiss the uniqueness of his poems in extended form ("All my long poems are short poems in disguise."), Wright had demonstrated his ability to apply his skills to a more expansive canvas in stunning longer poems like the closing title poem of The Southern Cross (1981) or as in "A Journal of the Year of the Ox," the forty-page centerpiece in Zone Journals (1988).  Indeed, one easily could have believed Wright had fully explored over the years the ever-present themes of landscape, self, poetry, death, and a search for the spiritual, or as he has described his own poetic obsessions: "There are three things, basically, that I write about ÷ language, landscape, and the idea of God."
    Despite Philip Levine's praise for the poetry in Chickamauga, no one would have 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 witnessed in volume after volume, and few could have foreseen the extent to which Wright's poems would exceed expectations in Black Zodiac (1997), the masterpiece follow-up book to Chickamauga.
    As well as any significant single collection in contemporary American poetry, Black Zodiac displayed this poet at a peak of performance few ever reach.  Consequently, Black Zodiac garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a National Book Critics Circle Award.  Yet, rather than rest on his laurels, Wright immediately released Appalachia (1998), the final book of his third trilogy.  As might be expected, the overriding theme of this collection was the reaffirmation of life's value, while offering 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 spiritual autobiography over the years, trying to make sense of one's life," Wright has commented about his three-decade endeavour.
    Therefore, it seems fitting that Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, the compilation 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 millennium, and 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"]

    During a 1992 interview, when discussing the direction of his poetry as he was beginning 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 now is sixteen lines or less, but that's just one section.  Then maybe I'll write, if I'm lucky, some one- or two-page poems, something like that.  But no more forty-page poems, no more book-length poems.  I've done 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 appears in the poems themselves.  As is often the case in the autobiographical stanzas of Wright's poetry, he directly comments upon his intentions:  "Sit still and lengthen your lines, / Shorten your poems and listen to what the darkness says / With its mouthful of cold air"  ("Sprung Narratives").
    Although there is a bit of playfulness in Wright's comment about marrying Dickinson with Whitman, something many American poets have been attempting to some extent for the past century, one of the marvels of Wright's later poetry is that it does just that.  As many modern and contemporary poets have recognized over the decades, Dickinson and Whitman, even though neither of the two ever married or had children, are the figurative mother and father of American poetry and its practitioners.  A large percentage of American poetry since the beginning of the twentieth century presents evidence of traits inherited from these two great influences, though the best of this poetry is often seen as derived indirectly or as resembling a combination of the two.  In his criticism, Harold Bloom has correctly concluded: "Like Whitman, Dickinson is the most dangerous of direct influences."  Bloom also suggests each of these two innovators has a poetic style that appears deceptively easy for readers to grasp and for writers to imitate, but "Whitman stays ahead of us by nuance and by metaphoric evasiveness.  Dickinson waits for us, perpetually up the road from our tardiness, because very few of us can emulate her by rethinking everything through for ourselves."  In one of the most beautiful passages from "A Journal of the Year of the 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.

    Over the years 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 personal narratives that offer inklings of his indebtedness to Pound, including an acount of his first serious encounter with poetry.  Wright often tells of being given a copy of Pound's selected poems when he was in the army, stationed in Verona, Italy.  He had traveled to where legend claims the Latin poet, Catullus, had lived in a villa at Sirmione on Lake Garda in the Italian Alps.

        It's still one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, or expect
        to go to.  Lake Garda in front of you, the Italian Alps on three sides
        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.

    There can be no question about the crucial affect Pound's poetry had in the awakening of Charles Wright as a poet.  For this, all of Wright's devoted readers surely can be grateful.  However, the most significant influence on Wright's poetry must be seen as Emily Dickinson.  Wright has acknowledged her possession of a prominent place in his regard for the pantheon of past 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 writer I've ever read who knows my name, whose work has influenced me at my heart's core, whose music is the music of songs I've listened to and remembered in my very body."
    If readers of Wright's selected later poems (in fact, those devoted readers will be pleased 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 the spiritual; yet, those sounds are filtered through a Whitmanesque line, often long and richly filled with specific details of local color.  However, ever since the appearance of The Southern Cross, the Charles Wright line, though lengthened like Whitman's, has contained a distinctive characteristic, a split level effect that occasionally occurs within lines and that Wright explains as "the low-rider," a way "to keep the line from breaking under its own weight."
    Wright asserts this signature line is needed: ". . . my line began to get longer and more '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 break the line, in order to keep it whole.  It is always one line, not two, and broken in a particular place to keep the integrity of the single line 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 broken Whitmanian line."
    Wright's poetry written since initiating the technique of this new "two-step" line, as well as his comfort with indirect narrative through a layering of images (he believes "the best narrative is that which is least in evidence"), has resulted in a greater freedom for self-expression, with an accompanying sense of liberation in personal revelation through imagery, allowing him more possibilities for an extended autobiography in lyric.  "Using the dropped line, the 'low rider,' you are able to use both sides of the 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 line," Wright has explained.
    He has displayed an even more confident and convincing voice, whether sharing narrative details in the collage of sections stitched to one another in longer works or turning inward in the shorter meditative lyric poems.  He has acknowledged as much in his comment: "I think a lot of this has to do with the layering quality of structure that I started using in 'The Southern Cross,' which 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 self-contained perhaps.  As the formal apparatus opened up, somehow the textures and the linguistic abilities seemed to be able to loosen a bit and allow more things in. . . ."
    Indeed, Wright's poetry published during the two decades since The Southern Cross has been uniformly outstanding, and this body of work has achieved a more elevated level of reflection upon the past, as well as a more engaging portrayal of the present and a more compelling vision toward the future, firmly establishing Charles Wright's proper position in the continuing chronicle of American poetry.  The latest, perhaps best and most persuasive, evidence of this now has been presented in Negative Blue: Selected Later 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
        Of evening,
                            you've got to write it down.

                                                ["Black Zodiac"]

    Throughout the years, Wright has compared his crafting of poems to the art of landscape painting, and his focus on landscape has been consistent.  In one of the finest poems of this third trilogy, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," Wright 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. . . .

    Wright previously has indicated, "my ultimate strength is my contemporary weakness ÷ my subject (language, landscape, and the idea of God) is not of much interest now.  But it will be again.  How all three configure one's own face is important and must be addressed."  In another section of the same poem, again 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 Atlantic 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. . . .

    Wright's poems continually exhibit landscape as a metaphor for self.  By blending landscape with a poetry of personal discovery and revelation, Wright returns to a prescription for meditative poetry promoted by the early Romantic poets, but with a differing definition, a further "fusion" of the relationship 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 chameleon
        through the landscape, assuming persona after persona and is never
        "itself."  The "I" in Wordsworth, on the other hand, is always itself,
        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 our time,
        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.

    "All forms of landscape are autobiographical," Wright claims in the closing line of "All Landscape Is Abstract, and Tends To Repeat Itself."  Indeed, Wright repeatedly and correctly distinguishes between landscape and nature.  Wright separates the two: "Landscape is something you determine and dominate; nature is something that determines and dominates you."  Going even further, he proposes that "nature is inherently sentimental, landscape is not."  Just as the French Impressionist painters turned away from idealized or composite portraits of nature, the historical landscapes of their predecessors, instead choosing to use self-expression in rendering captured scenes of ordinary landscape heightened only by personal style or technique ÷ the shapes and density of broken brush strokes, for example ÷ and enhanced by an angle of light or the intensity of color at a carefully selected time of day, Wright's depictions of landscape are not only reflective 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.

    If Wright has been criticized for his use of landscape in poems, it apparently has been for repetitiveness in his selection of scenery, especially for a fondness of the view from his back-yard lawn chair ÷ "my biggest canvas," he has 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.
        Flap-limbed, ungathered,
        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 of "Sitting at Dusk in the Back Yard after the Mondrian Retrospective":

        Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
                begin their business.
        It's August.
                            The countryside
        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.

    Though such criticism 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 misunderstanding of Wright's intentions.  Other than in poems illustrating memories of his childhood in Tennessee or the nearly two decades of living in California, 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 journeys, particularly to places Wright considered sacred in his life as he approached his fiftieth birthday, or his poems about travels to Italy in which he evokes those Italian writers and a culture essential to Wright's sensitivity, as well as the sporadic poems nostalgic for the Italian countryside, where he first discovered a love for poetry while reading Pound when assigned by the U.S. Army to Verona in 1959.
    Nevertheless, just as the great Impressionist landscape painters, who reproduced similar scenes over and over, had done, Wright always finds a new or nuanced perspective to present, even in his own back yard.   His belief is that "what you have to say ÷ though ultimately all-important ÷ in most cases will not be news.  How you say it just might be."
    Published excerpts from Wright's notebooks include a pertinent quote by Claude Monet: "A painter can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers, or even clouds."  Like Monet's series with numerous paintings of haystacks or poplars, each presented in a differing light and at times drawn from an alternative angle, Wright's construction, or perhaps  reconstruction, of landscape through language in poem after poem never seems less than innovative and instructive.  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 particularly
        innovative, revolutionary, and pleasing to my spirit.  He breaks down
        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 think
        I'm showing you just what's out there, but as I see it.

    Michael Chitwood 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 argument with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation."  Nowhere is this more evident than in the books of his third trilogy.  Again and again, 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 seeks.

        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"]

Wright's "ongoing argument" is most apparent in his elegies, such as "Thinking about the Poet Larry Levis One 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 ever-present 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"]

    Although mortality has been a recurrent theme throughout Wright's writings over the decades, the further one reads into the volumes included in Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, the more frequent the appearance of poems directly about death ÷ including a series of six poems titled "Appalachian Book of the Dead" spread through the last two volumes and a pair of "Opus Posthumous" poems.
    As suggested by the above quote from Wright's elegy to Larry Levis, he has always viewed the landscape as a metaphor for the physical world that acts as a facade for the spiritual existence hidden beyond.  Wright considers the transition between life and death: " . . . someone, somewhere, is putting his first foot, then the second, / Down on the other side. . ." ("American Twilight").  He deems an acute awareness of death a way of adding value to life, a greater reason for appreciating each day given to us: "One life is all we're entitled to, but it's enough" ("With Eddie and Nancy in Arezzo at the Caffé Grande").  In fact, in the exquisite closing of "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" ÷ that masterful poem in which he reviews specific events or remembers particular individuals in his life, and as well presents images that mirror the natural and cyclical process of life ÷ Wright concludes, in addition 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
                from California,
        Next to the bearded grandson my mother never saw.
        Some afternoon, or noon, it will all be over.  Not this one.

    As in recent collections of poems released by others of his generation, such as Mark Strand and Philip Levine, Wright's numerous poems in this trilogy concerning his own mortality demonstrate an increase of spiritual insight or a depth of wisdom perhaps even greater than that witnessed in his previous works.  Some of Wright's poems may be read almost as philosophical essays, psychological studies, or theological pieces positing questions of concern for all:  "What mask is the mask behind the mask / The language wears and the landscape wears, I ask myself" ("'It's Turtles All the Way Down'"); "Why do I care about this?  Whatever happens will happen / With or without us, / With or without these verbal amulets" ("American Twilight"); "When it ends, it ends.  What else?" ("After Reading T'ao Ch'ing, I Wander Untethered 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 poems, "Sprung Narratives," Wright poses perhaps the one crucial question in the trilogy that sums up a main theme he seems to be trying to examine, for which he 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?

    In these later poems, to go along with his examination and evaluation of "death," Wright reminds one of past poets like T.S. Eliot or Robert Penn Warren who through images and discourse so thoroughly treated the abstract concept of the passage of "time" in their works, and he appears as focused on the issue of "time" and its ramifications as any poet in the last few decades.  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 one life?" he asks in "Watching the Equinox Arrive in Charlottesville, September 1992."   Wright determines that "time is the Adversary, and stays sleepless and wants for nothing" ("Apologia Pro Vita Sua").  Elsewhere 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.

    In his poetry, 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 and inevitably passes us by, leaving behind only lengthening shadows: "Time and light are the same thing somewhere behind our backs" ("Meditation on Form and Measure").  Thus, one of the initial keys to understanding life and accepting mortality may be to identify our position in relation to "time":

        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 "Cicada," Wright presents an extended metaphor for the examination of "time":

        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.

Eventually, Wright's poetry acknowledges "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 control 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,
        Reorganizing, relayering,
                                                turning the tenants out.

                                                ["Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner"]

    Interestingly, in a selection of his notebooks from the years 1988-1990, and first published in 1992, about the time he was beginning this trilogy, Wright includes a passage by W.H. Auden offering the following evaluation of Vincent Van Gogh's artwork: "Perhaps the best label for him as a painter would be Religious Realist.  A realist because he attached supreme importance to the incessant study of nature and never composed pictures 'out his head'; religious because he regarded nature as the sacramental visible sign of a spiritual grace which it was his aim as a painter to reveal to others."  Such a description of Wright, as a "religious realist" among contemporary poets, might be equally appropriate and accurate.
    Wright has stated, "the heart of nature is nature, the heart of landscape is God."  Perhaps no major contemporary poet has so openly mentioned "God" as often in a single volume as Wright does in this collection.  He has written that he believes "the true purpose and result of poetry is a contemplation of the divine and its attendant mysteries."  In interviews and autobiographical pieces, Wright has often spoken of his religious upbringing and one-time enthusiastic involvement in the Episcopal Church.  Although he "fled" from that environment many years ago while still young, Wright feels "it's a very strange thing about being raised in a religious atmosphere.  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 given me a sense of spirituality that I prize."  Throughout this book, Wright connects the landscape with the spiritual, links nature and mortality to 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"]

    Wright's explorations of abstractions such as "time" and "God" are persuasive because they are almost always wrapped between lines containing some of the finest imagery in contemporary poetry.  Wright's greatest gift has always been his ability to present impressive images in musical language.  As he sees the movement in his poems: "My plots do not run narratively or linearly, but synaptically, from one nerve spark to another, from one imagistic spark to another."
    According to Wright, even the longer of his poems are not narrative: "I don't even try anymore.  It's subterranean.  It's always under there, like an 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, one compelling image after another, until the poems end in a final triumphant image or an epiphany, perhaps in the shape of a statement filled with wisdom in a moment of sudden intuitive understanding earned by the cumulative effect of its preceding images.  Clearly, in his poems, as Wright's guidance points out, "narrative does not dictate the image, the image dictates the narrative."
    In "Miles Davis and Elizabeth Bishop Fake the Break," Wright astutely associates his work with the graceful music or melodic innovation of Miles Davis, and he identifies a dominant characteristic of his poetry in a comment spoken by Bishop when 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.

    In "Disjecta Membra," at thirteen pages another of the longer poems in this collection, Wright reveals: "The poem uncurls me, corrects me and croons my tune."  Wright knows the descriptive passage has always been a crucial element in the music of his poetry, the muscular back beat behind the stated abstractions 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"]

    With a typically self-effacing attitude, Charles Wright has commented: "As a writer of poems, I've never had anything, really, except a good ear and a bad memory."  Of course, that "good ear" which allows him to compose the musical lines 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 amount of reconstruction in the creative process.  Some of Wright's thoughts on memory are revealing:

        Well, it's been a driving force in my work, certainly.  It's the most
        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 what
        you think it was.  That's part of its pleasure, to me, because you think
        you can be as accurate, as descriptively accurate, as possible, and, in fact,
        you're reconstituting just by the very act because you never quite remember
        the way it was.  No matter how convinced you are, you're almost always
        wrong to some extent.  Memory, after a while, is sometimes all you've got,
        and so it becomes a great, fertile piece of land to work, particularly if you
        are a Southerner and you tend to live in the past or were brought up
        by people who lived in the past.

    In Wright's memory, the turning point in his life happened with that breakthrough experience in Italy during his military service in 1959, when he discovered his desire 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 Tends 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 writing 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 piece of paper in front of him, as he's scribbled some of the most graceful sentences and elegant lines in contemporary poetry, producing a bounty of poems as durable as diamond, each with the dazzling light of reflection as if from the cut and polished surface of a diamond's facet.  Thankfully, four 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 world around him.  Fresh evidence of this continuation can be seen in the extra section of seven new poems ÷ especially the title poem of that section, "North American Bear" ÷ added at the end of Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems.

        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.

    Like his esteemed predecessor, Emily Dickinson, whose example he has chosen to follow, Charles Wright has never made grand claims about the magnitude of his poetry, instead choosing to view his work as little more than an individual's observations 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.  All my aspirations are private, a locating and defining out of my own life.  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 the very emotions they have felt.
    In "Mid-winter Snowfall in the Piazza Dante," another lovely poem about his memories of 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.  I've 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 thirty years ago. / I've learned a couple of things since then."  Certainly 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 of those scribbled stanzas over the decades, he also may have learned a lesson, one answer he's been seeking to the questions he raises about understanding the world and his place in it, as he concludes: "If there is one secret to this life, it is this life."
    Still, readers should be delighted that Charles Wright's desire for an understanding of his position in the world around him is not yet sated.  In "Sky Diving," the closing poem of Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, anchoring 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 realizes that, although the life-long project of three trilogies has now come to fruition, there is no way he can put aside that passion for landscape in the language 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.

    Thankfully, Charles Wright has decided he still has more "scribbling" to do, he still has "aspirations," and there is more to learn from the repeated "defining" of his own life.

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems.  New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.  ISBN: 0-374-22020-4  $23.00

© by Edward Byrne


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