V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




The poet delivers innovatively descriptive passages
that invite readers to involve themselves, inquire
more fully about their connection to nature,
and obtain insight from the imagery.

In a previous lengthy essay, “Time and Again: Charles Wright’s Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems,” appearing in Valparaiso Poetry Review (Volume II, Number 1: Fall/Winter 2000-2001), I examined Charles Wright’s poetry as the author had completed his self-identified trilogy of trilogies, which he has called “The Appalachian Book of the Dead,” closing the third trio of collections with Appalachia (1998). Wright has described his endeavors in poetry over the decades since publication of his 1973 volume, Hard Freight, as a continuous artistic journey, a body of work that displays connections from one step to another: “I’ve been doing a kind of spiritual autobiography over the years, trying to make sense of one’s life.”
    At the time I reviewed Wright’s poetry leading up to those pieces compiled in Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, I suggested “readers should be delighted that Charles Wright’s desire for an understanding of his position in the world around him is not yet sated.” Indeed, I predicted, “although Wright’s 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’d found when first studying the form during his days in 1959 when he’d received a copy of Ezra Pound’s selected poems and traveled to Lake Garda in the Italian Alps, “one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, or expect to go.” Wright read Pound’s poetry while surrounded by the lovely landscape, and he has declared: “my life was changed forever.”
    Now, fifty years since Wright discovered affection for poetry through reading Ezra Pound’s work and observing the beauty of Italy, and nearly a decade since his completion of the trilogy of trilogies, another opportunity arises to evaluate where Charles Wright’s poetry has led him since then. After the publication of Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000), Wright seems to have continued his life-long wandering in words, one intended to investigate, through his poetry, integral elements of experience or observation that reveal a personal perception regarding the magnificent presence of nature and its impact on the spiritual side of humans. Indeed, as Wright has proclaimed in the past: “There are three things, basically, that I write about—language, landscape, and the idea of God.”
    In the years following release of that book of poems in 2000, Charles Wright has begun the twenty-first century with a gathering of work that serves as a bridge to his past poetry but also as a clear movement forward. In recent years, readers have been treated to five volumes of new poetry, including A Short History of the Shadow (2002), Buffalo Yoga (2004), Scar Tissue (2006), Littlefoot (2008), and Sestets (2009). In a number of ways one might consider the first three titles as another trilogy in Wright’s oeuvre, while Littlefoot and Sestets seem to be complementary works deliberately designed in a manner inviting readers to pair them with one another.  
    Wright’s intentions in his writing have always seemed somewhat plain and straightforward. He has openly stated the purpose of his poetry: “What do I want my poems to do? I want them to sing and to tell the story of my life.” Scar Tissue continues the expanded lyrical history of Wright’s life begun when he discovered Ezra Pound’s poetry while a member of the army stationed in Italy nearly half a century ago: “Like Dionysus, I was born for a second time. / From the flesh of Italy’s left thigh, I emerged one January / Into a different world,” (“A Short History of My Life”). However, in this poem and continually throughout his career, Wright’s chronicling completely covers the more than seven decades of his life, traveling back to childhood in his native Tennessee: “I was born on a Sunday morning, untouched by the heavens . . . . The Tennessee River soft shift at my head and feet.”
    A Short History of the Shadow, Buffalo Yoga, and Scar Tissue represent a later stage of Charles Wright’s poetic life story, his “spiritual autobiography” that still links landscape, language, and the likelihood of God. Indeed, the final lines in “A Short History of My Life” offer evidence that demonstrates the extension of Wright’s efforts at chronicling his observations of nature and his interactions with it: “No light on leaf, / No wind in the evergreens, no bow in the still-blonde grasses. / The world in its dark grace. I have tried to record it.”
    In these collections, perhaps to be regarded as another Wright trilogy, the poet particularly concerns himself with issues of memory and mortality even more intently than before, as he continues to inspect and internalize the external world of nature: “Gazing out of some window, still taking it all in, / Our arms around Memory” (“The Wrong End of the Rainbow”). The opening imagery of “Heraclitean Backwash” presents a speaker’s figure in reflection, as if superimposed upon a view of nature in the landscape that fills his vision: “As though the world were a window and I a faint reflection / Returning my gaze / Wherever I looked, and whatever I looked upon.” Wright’s recurring identification with nature recalls similar connections created by one of his most significant influences, Walt Whitman, who also arranged the whole of his poetic life into a lyric progression of spiritual autobiography.
    Nevertheless, in Scar Tissue Charles Wright clarifies the use of landscape in his poetry: “Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique, / A method for measure, a scaffold for structuring” (“The Minor Art of Self-defense”). Wright concedes: “Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God.” Ever since his religious upbringing in Tennessee, Wright has grappled with the concept of God. In “Confessions of a Song and Dance Man,” he categorizes himself: “A God-fearing agnostic.” Though doubtful (“Are you there, Lord, I whisper, knowing he’s not around”), the intention of his life-long search for God seems to be an exploration of the possibility some spiritual sense to our lives might explain to us our complex emotional reactions to the world in which we find ourselves.
    As in past volumes, Wright’s recurring use of religious imagery and holy symbolism or situations with spiritual connotation continues to suggest a sacred element to nature: “Good Friday, then Easter in full drag, / Dogwood blossoms like little crosses / All down the street, lilies and jonquils bowing their mitred heads” (“Last Supper”). Wright’s fascination with the idea of an afterlife of some sort appears more emphatic in his later poetry: “One knows / There is no end to the other world, no matter where it is.”
    When Wright is not projecting into a future beyond the temporal existence of our mortal presence—“Our lives are summer cotton, it seems, and good for a season” (“Transparencies”)—he turns his attention to the past again through memories of younger days, particularly beginning the third of the book’s three sections, where Wright includes a few poems with nostalgic visits to events located in specific years from long ago. “Appalachia Dog” derives its title from the name of a “metallic red” car in the poet’s youth written “in black script on the left front door. / A major ride, dragging the gut in Kingsport in 1952. / A Ford, lowlife and low-down.” In “Get a Job” Wright remembers construction work, the worst of his life, in “Sullivan County, Tennessee, a buck twenty an hour, / 1952.” A recollection of camping with his brother at “Hiwassee Dam, North Carolina” in 1942, during which “incidents flicker like foxfire in the black / Isolate distance of memory,” leads the speaker to suggest a reason we look back so often as we age: “The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods, / Hoping to find the radiant cell / That washed us and caused our lives to glow in the dark like clock hands / Endlessly turning toward the future” (“Archaeology”).
    Significantly, the collection’s middle section, from which the book draws its title, focuses more closely on memory and nostalgia: “It is impossible to say goodbye to the past” (“Scar Tissue”). When Wright delivers another of his wonderfully inventive metaphors to intimate the nearing of an end (“The slit wrists of sundown tincture the western sky wall, / The drained body of daylight trumps the Ecclesiast”), he chooses to use marvelously descriptive language in a way that oddly might provide some comfort or understanding. As he has written elsewhere, Wright believes that poetry remains a means toward “contemplation of the divine and its attendant mysteries.” In this instance, the poet connects time, language, and landscape, each with its need for order, knowing all three supply their own symmetry and organized systems: “The urge toward form is the urge toward God.” Yet, much seems to hinge on the crucial influence of memory: “Names, and the names of things, past places, / Lost loves and the love of loss, / The alphabet and geometry of guilt, regret / For things done and things undone” (“Scar Tissue II”).
    Readers of Wright’s poetry over the years expect commentary within the work on the attachment of language to landscape, the coupling of word and image, as well as a necessity for narrative—fragmented as it may be in memory and in Wright’s style—portraying the past in a manner that explains the present or proposes direction for the future. In the opening poem of Scar Tissue, “Appalachian Farewell,” the poet gives a description of the narrative sense he holds: “The country of Narrative, that dark territory / Which spells out our stories in sentences, which gives them an end and a beginning.” Later, Wright declares at the start of “Scar Tissue II”: “Time, for us, is a straight line, on which we hang our narratives. / For landscape, however, it all is a circling / From season to season, the snake’s tail in the snake’s mouth, no line for a story line.”
    Just as an individual’s scar tissue marks where a wound has happened but not yet fully healed—partially protective and remaining as reminder of a past experience, while also triggering a recall of the emotions felt at the time—the poetry in this collection displays to readers pieced-together evidence of instances that have marked Charles Wright’s life: “memory’s gold-ground mosaics” (“Ghost Days”). Nostalgic revelations in these poems also often serve to shield their speakers to some degree from more unpleasant aspects of memory: “Her full lips telling us just those things she thinks we want to hear” (“The Wrong End of the Rainbow”).
    However, as much as anything, the memory poems in Scar Tissue exist as entities exhibiting proof from the past of a life lived well: “Our lives, it seems, are a memory” (“Transparencies”). In “Vespers” the speaker sees, in the glorious visions of nature around him, a place that allows for some sense of spirituality in the present, especially for an agnostic, and this permits him to playfully conclude: “Not much of a life, but I’ll take it.” Indeed, with such a statement, one might be reminded of Robert Frost’s “Birches,” and his similar declaration: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
    Through the use of memory and with his careful consideration of the past, Wright’s appreciation of his life is a bit more enthusiastic elsewhere. Frequently, he seems “like the man who comes to a clearing in the forest, and sees the light spikes, / And suddenly senses how happy his life has been” (“Morning Occurrence at Xanadu”). In the final lines of Scar Tissue’s closing poem, “Singing Lesson,” Wright advises and directs: “Suffer the darkness to come unto you, suffer its singsong, / And you will abide, / Listen to what the words spell, listen and sing the song.”
    Thus, in Scar Tissue, as in those previous two collections, A Short History of the Shadow and Buffalo Yoga, Charles Wright submits persuasive poetry persistently filled with wisdom, aided by a nostalgic filter of memory and an ability to render exquisite descriptions of nature. This contribution to another Wright trilogy further contains superb work that continues to convince readers about the value of his rich and lyrical language, which once again enlightens the poet during his contemplation and, in the process, enriches our lives as well.
    With the 2007 publication of Littlefoot, Charles Wright seemed to signal to readers Scar Tissue had not only concluded another trilogy but that the shape of this new volume would clearly establish itself as a fresh endeavor. Described on its dust jacket as “an extended meditation on mortality, on the narrator’s search of the skies for a road map,” the year-long project of a book-length poem, full of self-reflection as the poet turned seventy, exhibits some of the more ambitious writing displayed by Charles Wright in recent years.
    Indeed, one would need to revisit Wright’s Zone Journals (1988), released nearly two decades earlier and written about experiences, observations, and travels throughout the year Wright turned fifty, to find a work of his that attempts to push at the edges of confinement normally presented by the limitations of lyrical poetry contained within a single volume. Reviewing Zone Journals for a 1991 issue of New Virginia Review, Sherod Santos described the pieces in Zone Journals as a rich mixture of poetic devices: “With sudden cross-cuts into discourse, narrative, quick-image presentation, dreamscape, flashback, interior monologue, the journals set up relations which, mutually stirred, resolve in time, and only in time, into a sustained investigation of his favorite themes.”
    Wright himself had once labeled the poetry in Zone Journals as demonstrating how “loose” form could become while still constructing lyrical lines of poetry, “conversational in tone but with the rhythmic concentration” of a poem. Similarly, Littlefoot, composed in thirty-five untitled sections, stretches the boundaries usually found in Wright’s individual poems, lengthening readers’ attention as they are invited to join him in a prolonged poetic investigation of important issues, considered through contemplation of nature and the spiritual self, as well as connections drawn between landscape and the human by use of lyrical, and sometimes lush, language. In a sequence of sections again reminiscent of Walt Whitman, Wright explores matters of mortality and questions of spirituality through vivid images and innovative metaphors derived out of memory or imagination. His choice of words even evokes recollections of Whitman’s own poetry: “Look for us under the dead grass, in winter, elsewhere, self-satisfied, apart.”
    Self-knowledge gained during the course of this complex poem (“To know oneself is the final yes, of course”) complements an achievement of greater awareness about features of the natural terrain one inhabits, as well as the manner in which humans fit themselves into the order of the world around them and contemplate upon their place in nature: “As water mirrors the moon, the earth mirrors heaven, / Where things without shadows have shadows. / A lifetime isn’t too much to pay for such a reflection.”  
    In just the second line of the first part in Littlefoot, Charles Wright delivers a plain but important phrase: “You can’t go back.” As much as one retreats to the past, whether in nostalgia or for elucidation, with images revived through memory and the carefully chosen words of the poem’s sprawling lines (“The tongue tries to freeze-frame them as they are, and offer them to us”), time will not permit physical return to one’s younger self: “No matter how fast you drive, or how hard the slide show / Of memory flicks and releases.”
    Each section’s stanzas reach down the page carrying reminders of changes brought about by time, even supplying numerous allusions to mortality, the end of an individual’s time in the light:

        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,
        The waters that rise beneath the earth,
        Bat wings and shadow pools,
                                                            that all things come from splendor?

        The cardinal in his fiery caul,
        The year’s first dandelion globe,
                                                            ash-grey on the ash-green lawn,
        Dear tulip leaves, color of carp bellies, wisteria drools
        Withered and drained dry—
        All light in the gathering darkness,
                                                            a brilliance itself which is set to come.

    Wright discerns the disappearance of everything through the passage of time, and typically reports his finding through a natural metaphor: “Like clouds, once gone in their long drift, there’s no coming back.” As in his previous works, Wright recalls all through the use of landscape and reliance on language, which means seeking disclosure through metaphor: “The language of landscape is language, / Metaphor, metaphor, and metaphor, all down the line.”  The speaker even seems to anticipate the transition of death and wish its arrival would imitate the images of nature he knows so well: “If this were the end of it, if this were the end of everything, / How easily one could fold / Into the lapping and overlapping of darkness.”
    The poet hopes he might be able to preserve some sense of personal history in the details of his language; yet, he often expresses doubt about the effectiveness or durability of his message:

        Description and metaphor,
        The fancy dancing of language,
                                                        to what good end, my friend, to what end?
        And who will remember us and our enterprise?
        Whose fingers will sift our dust?

    In fact, Wright often questions whether he has anything to say that he hasn’t already expressed through previous poetry: “Whatever it is I had to say, I’ve said it.” Over the years, Wright has repeatedly regarded his focus on landscape as an unfashionable and less respected subject in contemporary literature, and he has been self-conscious about his reiteration of its importance in his poetry. Here again, he wonders whether he should move to another topic: “I’ve looked at this landscape long enough, time for another book.”
    Additionally, the poet knows much of his message shared with readers throughout the years has concerned people or places of his past, images stilled (“Time is your mother in a blue dress”) or moments frequently reassembled in his mind’s eye:

        Wherever I’ve gone, the Holston River has stayed next to me,
        Like a dream escaping
                                            some time-flattened orifice
        Once open in childhood, migrating now like a road
        I’ve walked on unknowingly,
                                                        pink and oblivious,
        Attended by fish and paving stones,
        The bottom breaks like mountains it slithers out of, tongued and chilled.

    Wright further advises all of us about the purpose and position a writer might maintain, perhaps as he blends into the scenery he describes and becomes a natural element among the fragments of landscape gathered within the descriptive scraps of lyrical language in the poem:

        A good writer is like a wind over meadow grass.
        He bends the words to his will,
        But is invisible everywhere.
        Lament is strong in the bare places.
        Among the winter trees, his words are fixed to music.

    Littlefoot borrows its title from the name of one of Wright’s horses at his Montana residence, a location that supplies some of the more impressive scenery described throughout the volume. Wright references Littlefoot, the horse, four-fifths of the way through the book in section 28, a curious and compelling part of the poem. In this portion of Littlefoot, Wright labels use of descriptive and figurative language as “fancy dancing” and wonders about the results of devoting one’s life to lyric writing: “to what good end, my friend, to what end?” Indeed, an accompanying question from the subsequent lines (“And who will remember us and our enterprise, / Whose fingers will sift our dust?) will arise again in altered form as a closing question of the book taken from a country music song.
    Section 28 even seems to foreshadow the natural occurrence of death and the eventual silencing of one’s music, the quieting of that lyrical language in his work: “The dispossession of all landscape / As night cuts the music off, and pulls the plug and eases in.” Nevertheless, for now, this part of the poem presents some fine examples of Wright’s descriptive power and lyrical sense when observing nature, the change of weather and drift toward another season, with delicate and elegant lines existing as examples of what could be lost if the poet’s voice were absent: 

        I watch the yellow-tail hawk
                                                        cruising its edges, the willows
        Along the creek’s course,
        Low down and lethal, then up like a slung lariat
        To circle and telescope,
        Eventually to noose back down
        And crumble,
                                only to rise, big wings pumping, back to the west.

        Beside me, the shadow of the wind chime’s bamboo drag
        Turns like a fish on a string
        Noiselessly in the still waters of morning’s sunlight.
        A pack train of white and off-white clouds
        Works east where the hawk had been.

    Wright appears satisfied and comforted by such a presence of nature’s graceful shift, as though he knows the benefit of living among so much wonder outweighs any pain or anxiety about the awareness of mortality and one’s own approach toward death: “The horses, Monte and Littlefoot, / Like the way it is. And this morning, so do I.” Perhaps no poet has so consciously projected his perspective through the imagined reaction of a horse since Robert Frost suggested his horse “must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near.”
    Yet, Wright’s comments again more closely resemble another of Frost’s observations developed in “Birches,” where the poet had suggested: “Earth’s the right place for love.” In fact, section 28 concludes with the speaker explaining a similar crucial understanding of the relationship between life and death, this world we have on earth and the unknown of the future: “After the end of something, there comes another end, / This one behind you, and far away. / Only a lifetime can get you to it, and then just barely.”
    Just as Littlefoot began with a familiar statement (“You can’t go back”), the closing line of this book-length poem contains a popular phrase from music: “Will you miss me when I’m gone?” Wright’s interest in attempting to preserve the past in his poetry through memory, since that remains the only way to “go back,” now shifts to curiosity about the future, when he will be part of that past, and he ponders whether or not he will be missed. Despite the record of his life kept within the many admired books he has published, Wright’s speaker seems uncertain he will be remembered and missed: “Will you love me then as now?”
    As if in an effort to further emphasize contrast between the book-length poem in Littlefoot and the very brief works in Wright’s next volume, Sestets, which includes nearly seventy pieces with six lines each, though many display the poet’s familiar “low-rider” drop down element shaping the lines, even the covers of the two books seem designed to bring attention to their position as opposites to one another. Littlefoot was published with a plain white cover carrying the title and author’s name in simple black print; conversely, Sestets appears with a nearly blank black cover merely sporting the title and author’s name in white lettering.
    Certainly, readers encountering these two works could easily consider the contents of each book as representative of two major nineteenth-century influences Wright has acknowledged: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. As Wright once suggested about Ezra Pound’s lines of poetry, Wright’s own longer two-step lines often resemble broken Whitmanian lines. However, Wright also has recognized Dickinson’s influence as among the most prominent in his poetry: “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.”
    Like Dickinson, Wright compacts contemplation and conjecture into brief compositions that consider relationships between humans and nature, the physical and the spiritual, the past and the present (as well as the future), life and death, love and loss, memory and mortality, creativity and imagination. The poet delivers innovatively descriptive passages that invite readers to involve themselves, inquire more fully about their connection to nature, and obtain insight from the imagery. Perhaps, in Sestets, Wright has finally merged Dickinson and Whitman in his poetry. As he once said in an interview: “I’d like to marry Emily and Walt again: I’d like to get the long line in the shorter poem.”
    Since Wright has hinted all his poetry is an ongoing narrative, one is tempted to engage the collection of short poems as another book-length work in which each piece simply serves as a section of the whole, all influencing and interacting with one another. However, the short form exhibited by the sestets also allows readers an opportunity to contemplate upon each entry individually, perhaps isolating images in a way that heightens their intensity since they are not lost, their strength diluted, merely as passages among many in a longer composition.
    Indeed, the brevity of the poems permits more occasions for reflection, more moments of illumination, and a wider variety of reactions to the observations, sometimes deeply introspective and at other times delightfully humorous. These succinct examinations of lessons presented by life, landscape, and language, often including meditations on one’s mortality and questions concerning death, frequently seem to capture the kind of surprising wit or subtle wisdom Wright might have admired so much in his praise for Emily Dickinson’s lyrics. 
    Wright opens the volume with “Tomorrow,” which focuses on what the future holds in store for all of us, death; yet, the poet perhaps implies the need for everyone to make an effort and illuminate the time we have in life: “If you don’t shine you are darkness. / The future is merciless, everyone’s name inscribed / On the flyleaf of the Book of Snow.” In “Future Tense,” Wright again projects ahead with his statement: “All things in the end are bittersweet.” The joys and adventures of life are temporary, since “time, black dog, will sniff you out.” No one escapes death.
    The speaker in these poems sometimes concerns himself again with the closing question in Littlefoot: “Will you miss me when I’m gone?” Wright concludes one sestet (“In Praise of What’s Missing”) with a suggestion that naturally all will continue, like the “wind and water” or “a drifting cloud,” even after we are gone: “As days once were, and will be again.” Nature’s continuity cannot be deterred, even by one’s imaginative work: “water remains immortal— / Poems can’t defile it” (“By the Waters of Babylon”). The poet also advises with a bit of wit: “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word uttered in childhood or back in the day” (“‘It’s Sweet to Be Remembered’”).
    In “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” dedicated to Mark Strand, Wright once more remarks upon the lack of respect for descriptive landscape poetry or painting from some contemporary critics: “Ah, description, of all the arts the least appreciated.” Nevertheless, as readers have come to expect in Wright’s previous eighteen books of poetry, Sestets displays exciting descriptive passages of nature that evoke emotion or enlighten. “Celestial Waters” begins with an image of “early evening, one duck on the narrow water, pond / Stocked with clouds, / The world reflected and windless, full of grace, tiny, tiny.” In “Autumn Thoughts on the East Fork,” the speaker observes, “when the evening starts to drain the seen world into the unseen / And the mare’s-tail clouds push slowly across the mountains.”
    Charles Wright’s images repeatedly reflect upon the natural shift of time, the arrival of darkness in its various shapes: “Longest day of the year, but still, I’d say, too short by half. / The horses whacked, the dog gone lost in the mucked, long grass, / Tree shadows crawling toward their dark brothers across the field” (“Music for Midsummer’s Eve”). Indeed, Wright would like his poetry to be as exquisite and eternal as nature. However, as he reports in “Time Is a Child-Biting Dog,” poets who “want our poems to be clouds upholding the sour light of heaven, / Will pass our gray hair through our fingers and sigh just a little bit.”
    Though so long has passed since Charles Wright first read and responded to Ezra Pound’s poetry, lasting evidence of Pound’s impact continues in some of Wright’s current poems. In fact, Wright includes an endnote in Sestets that indicates “Return of the Prodigal” was influenced by “something vaguely remembered I’d read in Pound some forty years ago, a Chinese calendar.” This lovely poem describes the second day of summer:

        Now comes summer, water clear, clouds heavy with weeping.
        Tall grasses are silver-veined.
        Little puddles of sunlight collect
                                                        in low places deep in the woods.

        Lupine and paintbrush stoic in ditch weed,
                                                               larch rust a seam on the mountainside.
        No light on ridgeline.

    The poet’s conscious control of a volume of short poems in Sestets resembles a similar project, China Trace (1977), published by Wright more than thirty years ago, which he considered a collection of individual poems that could be viewed as one long poem as well. Wright has revealed that in China Trace he had decided he’d create a book in which all the works would consist of twelve lines or less, each piece offering “an idea of one man’s relationship to the endlessness, the ongoingness, the everlastingness of what’s around him, and his relationship to it as he stands in the natural world.” Sestets resumes this task, though now from the perspective of a more mature individual and a more expert craftsman.
    At many points in the poetry Wright appears to be self-deprecating and doubtful of his accomplishments or abilities as a poet: “Seventy years, and what’s left? Or better still, what’s gone before? / A couple of lines, a day or two out in the cold? / And all those books, those half-baked books, sweet yeast for the yellow dust?” (“With Horace, Sitting on the Platform, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”); “The creek’s voice is constant, and like a shadow embraces many things. / I wish it were my voice, but it’s not. / My voice is a human thing, and weak, and it disappears with the sun” (“Before the Propane Lamps Come On, the World Is a Risk and Wonder”); “No one is able to describe this gold to bronze to charcoal, no one. / So move along, boy, just move along” (“Sundown Blues”).
    Nevertheless, Wright recognizes his advancing age has now allowed him to identify even more fully with nature. “The older I become, the more the landscape resembles me,” the speaker decides in “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Readers, too, will notice the poet’s acknowledgment of a growing unity with the landscape he has so often described from afar, and an acceptance of his part in the natural stages of life as it evolves with time, “a graceless enemy”: “I’m winding down. The daylight is winding down. Only the night is wound up tight, / And ticking with unpaused breath. / Sweet night, sweet steady, reliable, uncomplicated night” (“Time Is a Graceless Enemy, but Purls as It Comes and Goes”).
    Nearly fifty years since Charles Wright read Pound’s poems in Italy and discovered his art, and forty years after his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), appeared in print, Wright continues to chronicle the journey of his life through magnificent poems that explore the world around him. Lyrical lines still uncover fresh insight on his chosen topics: landscape, language, and the idea of God. Even as his poems search the past through memory, never letting go of those people and places that have mattered so much, elements of the past become items that define his present — about all of which he questions whether they will be lost, and not missed, in the future.
    Like the speaker whose thoughts arising upon witnessing the oncoming of winter are recorded in one of his poems, Wright hears the voices of his past calling to him. They are the words he has preserved in his work, and they are the sounds of those who have gone before him, beckoning the speaker to join them: “If the door were open, I’d listen to creek water / And think I heard voices from long ago, distinct, and calling me home. / The past becomes such a mirror — we’re in it, and then we’re not” (“On the Night of the First Snow, Thinking About Tennessee”).
    In Sestets, Charles Wright again holds up a mirror reflecting his self and the landscape surrounding him, as well as offering images all of us can identify as our own. Thus, Wright once more shares his reflections with each of us, meditations on memory and musings on mortality, inviting everyone to understand more fully those difficulties and delights found in the lives we are leading, as well as the complexities contained in this “world as we know it” (“Sunlight Bets on the Come”), even as we wonder, along with Wright in “With Horace, Sitting on the Platform, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” about “the chaos of future mornings just over the ridge, but not here yet.”   


Scar Tissue. Charles Wright. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006. ISBN: 978-0374530839 $13.00

Charles Wright. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008. ISBN: 978-0374531218 $13.00

Sestets. Charles Wright. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009. ISBN: 978-037426115 $23.00

© by Edward Byrne


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