Charles Wright: Review by Christian Detisch

Charles Wright, Oblivion Banjo (Straus and Giroux)


Reading Charles Wright, I think of an old tension: poetry is not a journal—but perhaps, as Charles Wright suggests, “through language, strict attention,” if the journaling impulse paid more attention to form, to style, could it be poetry?

Journal and landscape

—Discredited form, discredited subject matter—

I tried to resuscitate both, breath and blood,

                                                                        making them whole again

Through language, strict attention— [354]


Discredited forms, discredited subject matter: and yet they remain my favorites—the forms and subject matter that can almost always excite my imagination and interest, because they seem so focused and contingent on the observer or especially the creator’s own subjectivity in the moment they’re being produced. So it seems fitting for Wright, whose entire career has been obsessed with contingency, openness, and the wilds of consciousness, that journal and landscape would serve as both medium and method for his poetic oeuvre.


Journal and landscape, where the subjectivity influences, or essentially creates the outer world in a process where creation becomes a method of exploration. I think of something a writing teacher once told my wife: “Inner weather is outer weather,” which is certainly true for landscape but also for journaling: if “landscape was the method,” as Wright says, I can only imagine what he means is how landscape becomes the ground upon which our inner search takes place, and how we navigate its textures, contours, curves—the only way, in fact. The same way that journal becomes a free space to move the mind, to move in the mind. Where the mind explores its own luminosity:

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 roads that took me there

                                                  or the time it took to arrive?

How are we balanced out,

                                          by measure, number and weight

As the Renaissance had it,

The idea of God with a compass or gold protractor in his hand?

Lovely to think so,

                              the landscape and journey as one… [322]


Language is both medium and subject matter—language, indeed, is part of landscape, which seems like an awful restriction, but also a facet of that continuity so necessary in Wright’s work. As in The Matrix when Neo reaches out to touch the mirror and realizes the mirror at once reflects him, but is also material that reaches out to him and covers him—that’s the strangeness of Wright’s project. Charles Wright’s silvery mirror—light, light, light—as Dante saw, both instrument and music; substance, as Dante saw, and sound, and path forward—landscape as something we move through and change and are changed by, landscape as something that leads us. I’m thinking of David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous:

[68, Spell of the Sensuous] To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen. Clearly, a wholly immaterial mind could neither see things nor touch things—indeed, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things—can touch, hear, and taste things—only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us.

Or, Meister Eckhart:

The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love. [179, Eckhart]


This continuity extends not only to landscape but to Wright’s poetic masters. He’s always in conversation with them:

Go in fear of abstractions…

well, possibly. [377]

This conversation functions as both homage and extension. And perhaps, especially for Wright, re-constituting it all into a particular style. Raw material re-worked into something, into sense. Into vision. It’s as if revelation were slowly exposed: he returns to comfortable subjects, but also to obsessions. And we learn to endure those emptinesses, but also to expect, expound, endure them. Or to see them from another angle. In this way, attention is a way of changing our vision, not just for Wright but for his interlocutors. (“The world is perceiving itself through us.”) And it’s also an acknowledgement that Wright’s audience is not so much among the living as, increasingly, the dead—a harrowing thought. Poetry then, and the journal form, works as a way of keeping the silence out—a way of focusing the silence…and entering it.


Pickwick was never the wind…

It’s what we forget that defines us, and stays in the same place,

and wait’s 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 bottomland slowly becoming a lake.

It lies in a landscape that keeps my imprint


            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 first time,

And lie down, and tell no one. [133]


Wright’s primary inheritance from Dante and Augustine: that the self is not fixed but instead requires this constant circularity and dialogue with the poets, people, and landscape in his past to attempt to see a proper view of soul, returning to it enough to see it from all angles, understanding its quaint immensity. Circularity and form, the return to those well-turned subjects suggests not conflict, but curiosity. Said another way: conversion is not a discrete moment, but a life-long process.


In his book Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky wonders if writing is linked in some way to the way we move. “Why and how might a professional soldier like Ulysses S. Grant come to write so well?” he asks. “Could it reflect the fact that nineteenth-century Americans recited a lot of poetry, so that the mimesis of meaning came into the region we designate as in our bones or under our skin?” [48] I like this idea, that poetry’s medium is not some exterior thing like ink and paper but our bones, our skin. In this sense, a writer’s style could be thought of as, say, someone’s gait. Style is how one ambulates in the world. And one of the pleasures of Oblivion Banjo are the sequential snapshots of Wright’s style, where the early bouncing, quick acuities of sound and intuited sense (Bloodlines) lengthen into the more expansive lines of thought fused with image and insight (Black Zodiac) to the late, relaxed stance of a man sipping in the late afternoon’s lager light:

And why not, this world has been good to us,

the sun goes up and the sun

Goes down, the stars release and disappear,

                                                everything tutta gloria wherever we turn our faces. [711]


Books I-IX of the Confessions are all about the tension of keeping God at arm’s length, but it’s telling that once God is accepted, the tension isn’t resolved as much as it’s assented to and refocused. Augustine’s submission doesn’t change the question he’s been asking his whole life; the question is reframed, from “How can I believe in You?” to “How can I more perfectly believe in You?” Ultimately, Augustine is getting at the difficulty of faith, both sides of it. But to write about God in America is to write about a lost God. (I mean this for those who would think of themselves as “faithful” and those who would not, both.) I’m not interested in diagnosing the reasons for this attitude, other than to say I resist the knee-jerk irony. Why, I wonder, do poets feel a need to keep God—or their belief in God—at arm’s length, or even further, especially when God can’t stay out of their poems?

A God-fearing agnostic,

I tend to look in the corners of things,

Those out-of-the-way places,

The half-dark and half-hidden,

                                                the passed-by and over-looked,

Whenever I want to be sure I can’t find something,

I go out of my way to face them and pin them down.

Are you there, Lord, I whisper,

                                                knowing he’s not around,

Mumble kyrie eleison, mumble O three-in-none. [561-2]

The distance Wright affords himself here is, I suppose, one meant to provide some space for vision, a means of keeping perspective. And yet. I don’t believe blind faith will save us, but our doubt won’t, either; especially when we can’t or won’t look past it. Moments like these in Wright, when a question is posed to the Invisible with the answer already decided on by the poet—“knowing he’s not around”—are among the most uninteresting in the book. If there’s a powerful tension, both aesthetic and spiritual, maintained by drawing God closer then pushing God away in our lives and in our art, that tension crumples when reduced to a linguistic gesture. Here, the question becomes one not of faith, but of—perhaps poets can’t help but conflate the two—inspiration: “What will happen when we settle our own questions?” When that happens, the problems of poetry become motions of un-felt form.


Wright never takes the leap of faith Dante does on the threshold of the Earthly Paradise, through the fire that eventually refines him—“The visible carries all the invisible on its back,” writes Wright, which is at once a proclamation of faith, and a refusal of it. This seems to me ultimately a failure of nerve, since as much as a poet can wax about the invisible, I want to know how much you trust it to catch you; or at least how much you trust that it’s worth falling through the fire. Great poetry has been written that subscribes to Wright’s own metaphysics—the “metaphysics of the quotidian,” as he calls it—where the invisible is suggested and carried by the visible. Charles Wright is a truly great poet. But I can’t help feel that the poems, when they come up against the possibility of God, compulsively hedge their bets. And Wright’s colloquial apophatic stance doesn’t open to an unspeakable possibility, but reveals the poet’s limits.


Stretches of Oblivion Banjo are boring. One surely must expect to be bored occasionally when reading a nearly-800 page book covering four decades of writing. And a poet will be forgiven for their blander fare, especially if they’ve cooked up something this delicious:

Things in a fall in a world of fall, and slip

Through the spiked branches and snapped joints of the evergreens,

White ants, white ants and the little ribs. [67]

But when style lazes into reflex, when the cycle of preoccupations idle from treading water while waiting for the next wave into routine movement for the sake of exercise, some hardening of the muscles—well, that’s how I explain a late-career effort like Sestets where Wright looks to a compression of form to tighten the poems into some sort of vitality. It largely doesn’t work. Part of this is a question of intensity—one just runs out of petrol—but mostly because for Wright, his sense of compression has always required the suggestion of contiguity. He’s at his best when his poems, condensed fragments that they often are, seem to split out to the rest of the writing, expand. A kind of fission. Too diffuse or too discrete, and they read as rote response, as inert rhetoric.


Perhaps what’s most discernable in Wright is the way the consciousness pieces together itself—is shaped and changed by—fragments. I cannot make it cohere: the splendor of that confusion. Perhaps what I should allow for is the grace or beauty of that confusion, which poetry does not resolve, exactly, but tolerates and shapes: that’s real power, and real grace—giving a shape to confusion, which is at the center of Wright’s project.


And perhaps the greatest value of Oblivion Banjo is how it allows us the watch this dissolution, the intensity dispersing. Boredom, diffusion, but many fine bits of splendor, as Wright—via Pound—might say. Flickers that demand the attention; or flickers that arrest the attentions. The same way that Pound can only say “I cannot make it cohere” at the end of his lifelong endeavor to indeed make his Cantos cohere, so Wright can only say “all goes back to splendor” toward the end of a career spent trying to trace that splendor to its source:

Who knew it would take so many years to realize

—Seventy years—that everything’s light—

The day in its disappearing, the night sky in its distance, false dawn,

Bat wings and shadow pools,

                                                that all things come from splendor? [623]

Some claims can only be made after you’ve lived enough to earn them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses this problem when talking about “Cheap grace”:

At the end of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge Faust has to confess:

“I now do see that we can nothing know.”

That is the answer to a sum, it is the outcome of a long experience. But as Kierkegaard observed, it is quite a different thing when a freshman comes up to the university and uses the same sentiment to justify his indolence. As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception. For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired. The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. Such a man knows that the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace. But those who try to use this grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves. [51]

What would this knowledge mean without experience, discipline? It’s another question of embodiment—the synaptic experience and links that can only be formed in time, gained through practice. We’re required to work in the medium of time. In this sense, Wright’s work gets to the question of what led to the unwitting, invisible gift and instinct—gift of instinct?—of poetry. We spend a lifetime learning, often unknowingly, the landscape of our own brains, its architecture. Taken all together, Oblivion Banjo’s final insight is that our whole life is the price of our style.

Christian Detisch has had poems and reviews in Blackbird, Image, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. He is completing a Masters in Divinity at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

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