from Northwest Review, Volume 49, Number 2
More than any other American poet writing today, perhaps more than any poet since Whitman and Dickinson, Charles Wright has recorded in his poems a lifetime of spiritual seeking. That pursuit has had more of Emily Dickinson's skepticism than Walt Whitman's affirmation, more of her struggles with Puritanism, than what Galway Kinnell once called Whitman's "mystical all lovingness." And yet the urge toward Whitman's embrace of multitude and the discretion of Dickinson's straitened thought have combined to create through Wright's genius an instrument which is to the spiritual life in contemporary poetry what the sonnet was for John Donne and George Herbert. Charles Wright has, for over forty years of mastery, given us a mode and a means for that journal of the soul which American poetry has, since Whitman and Dickinson, always had at heart. He has almost singlehandedly invented an American form of the devotional poem.
The spiritual dimension of Wright's poetry is not in dispute. For all of his clear and not so clear statements of apostasy about the Anglo-Catholic faith in which he grew up, for all his insistence on a metaphysics of this world, unhindered by Christian doctrine, the language he has employed, as he endows the natural world with numinosity, even in its ultimate meaninglessness, is often based on a Christian lexicon. I don't think I have to argue this or build a case, that Wright is a religious poet but a heterodox one. In this way he does resemble Whitman and Dickinson who while putting aside creeds and doctrines maintained a sense that the soul was real and though the dimensions of the soul could not be explained by any orthodox theology, sought to find some fit expression for the soul's reality—these United States for Whitman, her vast and liberating bedroom in Amherst for Dickinson. Charles Wright shares this sense and premise, but like them, he also offers a form for that expression. Like Whitman's leaves of parallel free verse lines, like Dickinson's common measure put through all of its changes, Wright's devotional form records a daily attitude of watchful meditation—sometimes like prayer—in which a series of lines recalling Whitman's but staggered like Ezra Pound's concentrate imagery recalling Dickinson but with a sound value out of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Wright himself allows us to follow his spiritual pursuit if we begin with his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand, but only if we look at the five poems he preserved from that collection for the first of his four volumes of selected poems, Country Music. All five poems are in prose. Each of the prose poems presents a persona or landscape which we will meet again in his subsequent work. Yet only in one can I confidently detect that watcher, with a pilgrim's intention, who looks out expectantly for a metaphysical event. In ''Aubade'' he speaks of watching from Govina Bay on Corfu "the sun rise over Albania" and "waiting—calmly, unquestioning—for Saint Spiridion of Holy memory to arise, leave his silver casket and emerge, wearing the embroidered slippers, from his grove of miracles above the hill." This looks like a moment of spiritual yearning done with somewhat cinematic outlandishness. But important to Wright, I think, and his sense of the spiritual, his this-world and this-world-alone metaphysics, is that Saint Spiridion's miraculous relics are actually kept on Corfu. Remnants of a holy individual, associated parts and possessions, have imaginary power but power nonetheless. Wright's emphasis on things, or his attempt to imbue things with meaning, derives from the incarnational Anglo-Catholicism of his background. Though no longer believed, it is still a part of him. The creation has spiritual meaning and value. And Wright still cherishes that Anglo-Catholic inheritance of the Italian Renaissance—the urge to identify the glorious signs of the incarnate world by making art. In this early poem we see the poet in an attitude of spiritual attention, on a day at sunrise, expecting a vision and, on the page, creating one. The poem is concentrated, constrained by its short paragraph form, and devotional.
There are many thematic strains in Wright's work. I am following the one that I think is central. My argument is that his preoccupation with the spiritual values of the world has led him to the journal as poem and out of the journal, to the short poem concentrated on devotional meditation and prayer. Wright's experiments with the short poem, which he has ultimately brought forth as the medium of his devotions, begin with his second book, Hard Freight. One might think first off of the nine-line "The New Poem" with its negations: "It will not resemble the sea. / It will not have dirt on its thick hands. / It will not be part of the weather." But the two forward-looking poems, which will look very much like the most current Wright, are "Chinoiserie" and, though it may seem surprising to say so, "Firstborn." The former reveals Wright's ongoing attempt to emulate the great poets of the T'ang Dynasty, Li Po and Tu Fu, among others.
Why not? The mouths of the ginger blooms slide open,
The willows drag their knuckles across the earth;
Each year has its fields that no one tends.
Our days, unlike the long gasps of the wind,
Stay half in love with the rushes, and half with the water reeds.
Outside the body, all things are encumbrances.
That second stanza, more than the first, could appear in any Wright poem of the last twenty years. What is the appeal of these great Chinese poets? I would say it is their earthliness and earthiness, even as they sacralize the dailiness of life alone or with others, a life of the mind and body in an ongoing harmony with the seasons. Do not be misled by the last line of "Chinoiserie." Though it seems to reject the very thing-oriented world on which so much of Wright thrives, it still insists that the body—that primary thing—is both principal and principle.
"Firstborn," Wright's memorable and often anthologized welcome to his son, attempts what other poems will also attempt—to be a sequence. Wright, who has abjured narrative, even to the point of arguing consistently with the need of a story line, or the trace of a story line, has like his modern master Pound tried to replace the necessity of continuity with the sequence. In the six-part poem, the new father tries to convey to the new son the meaning of his epigraph, from Pound, "Omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt" or as translated in the poem, ''All things that are are lights," Pound's translation of a line by Johannes Scotus Erigena. Each section of the poem is only twelve lines, and each section attempts to meditate on the Pound translation of the Neoplatonist Irish church father. Beyond the advice to "Indenture yourself to the land," it is the names of the land itself—"—Hiwassee and Cherokee / The Cumberland, Pisgah and Nantahala, / Unaka and Unicoi"—which are most moving. The names of reliquary places, rising to the poet's lips in this conveying of tradition to his firstborn, signal where the poet is ultimately heading.
Wright's third book, Bloodlines, includes wonderful set pieces which, as his work has evolved and grown ever more original and unique, may have not attracted the critical interest they should. But after all, he is one of the most prolific poets living, again putting him in the same league with Whitman and Dickinson. Though the sequences "Tattoos" and "Skins" remain remarkable, and the marvelous quasi-narratives of "Virgo Descending" and "Rural Route" are as haunting as ever, I am drawn to the six-line poem "Easter, 1974." This is not simply because of its brevity, though that focused concentration is part of my argument. But it is also its breviary impact, like a passage in a catechism:
Against the tin roof of the back porch, the twilight
Backdrops the climbing rose, three
Blood stars, redemptive past pain.
Trust in the fingernail, the eyelash,
The bark that channels the bone.
What opens will close, what hungers is what goes half-full.
Combined here are two elements of Charles Wright's devotional style: the faith in the physical thing, like a saint's relics (that fingernail, that eyelash, bark and bone), and the increasing inclination throughout his poetry toward the aphoristic, as in the last line. Though he has stated persuasively that he comes out of Pound, along with Whitman and Dickinson, there are times I believe he has Wallace Stevens's gift for finding the novel abstract principle in the physical world, a principle in Stevens necessitated by the rejection of religious orthodoxy.
I would like to say the great and candid statement of religious apostasy, "Bays Mountain Covenant," was part of this movement toward the devotional poem, but as much as I have always admired the poem, I do not think it is. For true lovers of Wright, it reads like a creed. It does so for me, and I think of myself as a true lover of Wright. But there is a deliberateness, a schematic quality about the poem, which those I am arguing for, those impulses toward devotion almost without consciousness of what they are, do not have. The poems I am trying to argue for display more of a sense of the improvisation which a private prayer might have. "Bays Mountain Covenant" expresses the same faith in the natural world that we will come to know in this poet ("he now turns / To the leaf to the fire in the swam log to the rain / The acorn of crystal at the creek's edge which prove / Nothing expect nothing and offer nothing"), but there is an element of the heroic in the poem's resolution, as the poet accepts his place in the natural scheme of things as "the water accepts the whirlpool the earth the storm," which in Wright's devotional mode will be adjusted to a much more modest and probable level. I say this as one who has always believed that, if he wanted to, Wright could compose either a modern Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost. Everything he has done convinces me that he has no intention of ever doing so—in any way that might be obvious.
China Trace, Wright's fourth book, might be thought of as containing the prototype for his devotional form, and while this is occasionally so, the project of the book seems to be as much formal as thematic. In China Trace no poem is longer than twelve lines, and there is one example each of a poem from one to twelve lines long. The title combines both Wright's fascination with Chinese poetry and the ability to trace or follow a sequence, even a story line. But devotions don't necessarily add up as a sequence. They might, if they follow the life of Christ, and it is true that Wright's poems often follow the seasons of a year. China Trace seems to follow some internal design, along with a sentiment from the 16th century Chinese poet T'u Lung: "unable to find peace within myself, I made use of the external surroundings to calm my spirit." This is not to say that there are not poems in China Trace which take an attitude of prayer. "Clear Night" certainly does with its moving passage of anaphora:
I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from the dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.
Wright recognizes, of course, that the natural world, which he has endowed with a meaning just short of divinity, can only say, "What?" in response to such pleading. But the poem that strikes me as looking ahead or to the devotional form which is to emerge is the simple, less than visionary "Sitting at Night on the Front Porch":
I'm here, on the dark porch, restyled in my mother's chair.
10:45 and no moon.
Below the house, car lights
Swing down, on the canyon floor, to the sea.
In this they resemble us,
Dropping like match flames through the great void
Under our feet.
In this they resemble her, burning and disappearing.
And I'm here, sizing the dark, saving my mother's seat.
Setting, time of day, attitude of meditation in a posture that can hardly be called poetic, much less heroic, bring us close to the private articulation of prayer as it focuses, as one does in a devotion, on a subject and a form.
The poem made up of daily entries of the sort which will lead to the great journal poems of Zone Journals and Xionia begins in The Southern Cross, though not announced as such. The title poem, "The Southern Cross" is a long meditation on the past, in twenty-four unequal sections, a double portion for the twelve months of the year. (Numbers are always important to consider in Wright. This is a poet who makes sure that there is an odd number of syllables in each of his lines in order to avoid falling into an iambic rhythm!) Nothing else in The Southern Cross resembles the title poem. As fine as it is the unforgettable "Homage to Paul Cezanne," which successfully creates an analogous poetic style for the style of Cezanne's painting, is all about its form, and though it is always tricky to predict this, it is not a form Wright has returned to. Wright does return to the cycle of a year for his poem in the book-length Littlefoot. But enough of this. Suffice it to say that "The Southern Cross" is the ground of all Wright's subsequent poetry, formally. Within it one can lift out passages that tell us both what is on the poet's mind, gists and piths of the larger poem, and which in themselves focus the devotional attitude. Though the sections are unnumbered, the thirteenth section comes appropriately half way through the poem:
There is an otherness inside us
We never touch,
no matter how far down our hands reach.
It is the past,
with its good looks and Anytime, Anywhere ...
Our prayers go out to it, our arms go out to it
Year after year,
But who can ever remember enough?
And then, the penultimate section, which actually has an old fashioned lyrical tunefulness, seems like a passage lifted from Ecclesiastes and offered as a focus of meditation:
The life of this world is wind
Windblown we come, and windblown we go away.
All that we look on is windfall.
All we remember is wind.
For lovers of Wright's inclination toward narrative, that story line of which he claims there is no trace in "The Southern Cross," The Other Side of the River has been a favorite book. It certainly has been one of mine, for the title poem, for "Lost Bodies" and "Lost Souls," for "Lonesome Pine Special" with its sweeping montage, and of course for "Two Stories." The poem "Italian Days" comes close to hinting at the journal form which will emerge clearly announced in Zone Journals. But for this essay, in which I am trying to locate the sorts of poem which will emerge and to which Wright has given himself in his last five books, I need to look again at a poem that never grabbed me as these others did, "T'ang Notebook." As I implied earlier, it has long been my hope to see Wright emerge as our Milton. His own desire has been, instead, to be our Li Po, particularly the Li Po translated for us by Pound in Cathay. The poems of "T'ang Notebook" read like translations, and a note to the poem suggests that an anthology of T'ang Poems may have been the source for them. I am reminded, however, that a devotion may center on a passage of scripture, a theological idea, or for an incarnational tradition like Wright's, an image. Certainly it was the imagery of T'ang poetry which Pound emphasized. So does Wright:
A water egret planes down like a page of blank paper
Toward the edge of the noon sky.
Let me, like him, find an island of white reeds
To settle down on, under the wind, forgetting words.
But the following passage, which shimmers with that Christian lexicon and iconography which populate Wright's poems, makes me stop and consider why Wright would imply that this moment of Christian devotion belongs to the T'ang Dynasty.
The ten thousand starfish caught in the net of heaven
Flash at the sky's end.
Gulls settle, like grains of dust, on the black sand.
Lady of Light, Donna Dolorosa,
you drift like a skeleton
Through the night clouds.
The surf comes in and goes out like smoke.
Give me a sign,
show me the blessing pierced in my side.
Just as there are readers who are put off by Wright's reluctance and even refusal to engage narrative, there are those who do not care for the religious tendency in his work. I met a former student of Wright's once, years ago, who claimed he had said to Wright, "You have to stop praying!" I realize now that he was simply expressing what other readers of Wright felt and was doing it with the chutzpah of a graduate student. But at that time, when he told me he said this to our mutual teacher, I thought, "You and I have nothing more to talk about." Wright, the poet who prays, who has created a form that allows for the expression of active meditation and private articulation which the devotion also allows, is the poet I have come to value most. He is many other things to other readers, of course.
The journal and the devotion, especially the devotion which appears in a series, are not synonymous forms, though the keeper of a journal and the follower of a devotional will address them on a daily basis. The French and Latin roots of journal have both to do with dailiness, whereas the root meaning of devotion clearly has to do with being devout or avowed to God. Webster's will tell you that a devotion may be an act of prayer or private worship, or an exercise or practice other than corporate or congregational worship. I would further separate the journal and the devotion formally by saying the journal implies a record of and response to the day's events which, until those events have taken place, cannot be made. A devotion, as an exercise or practice, especially as it appears in a series or daily devotions is usually already composed, often made up of prayers or prompts for meditation on scripture, like The Daily Office in The Book of Common Prayer. Devotional poetry has come to be a way of describing religious poetry, like the sonnets of Donne, which appear in a series or sequence; I would include the so called Terrible Sonnets of Hopkins which read as a series of devotional responses to his own dilemma of faith. My argument is that Wright's assimilation of the journal as a form for daily or regular chronological entries in otherwise non-narrative poems has, because of other earlier tendencies toward the writing of devotional poems, led to a form in which the devotion is recorded as the day's journal entry.
The ten journal poems of Zone Journals are composed both in sections, separated by horizontal lines, like all the seriatim poems since "The Southern Cross," but they also include an indication of the entry—a dash for the day's record. The poems record a variety of events, like the anniversary of John Keats's birth in "A Journal of English Days" or a visit to Emily Dickinson's house in "A Journal of the Year of the Ox." The innovative or metaphorical nature of these journals is underlined in the oxymoron of the title "Night Journal." It ends with a statement about one of Wright's ongoing themes—the nature of language:
—Words, like all things, are caught in their finitude.
They start here, they finish here
No matter how high they rise—
my judgment is that I know this
And never love anything hard enough
That would stamp me
and sink me suddenly into bliss.
The expression of yearning for spiritual completion is obvious here, and the confession is poignant. Though the sinner may understand the limitations of language, he takes responsibility for his own failure without blaming anyone or anything else. In fact, "Silent Journal," from Xionia, implicitly takes this failure as a new affirmation of faith in limitation, of the world, of language, and of the soul:
Inaudible consonant inaudible vowel
The word continues to fall
in splendor around us
Window half shadow window half moon
back yard like a book of snow
That holds nothing and that nothing holds
not too prescient not too true
Anyone who knows the opening of the Gospel of St. John—"In the beginning was the Word"—not only should hear the echo in this poem's second line, but also understand that the poet is affirming the creative power of Logos, but of a Logos without a transcendent meaning or connection to God. The excitement of reading this thread of Charles Wright's work is that the way is improvised, the going is intuitive and by association. As I follow it I do not wish to imply in any way that this pursuit of Wright's is programmatic, like following the Daily Office or the Lectionary. This is the beauty and achievement of his journals: they become increasingly daily records of a soul's devotions.
And of the soul's dimensions. Dickinson's and Hopkins' compression becomes more an aim in the poems of Negative Blue, collecting from Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, Appalachia, and including a section called North American Bear. The sprawl of Whitman and Pound returns in only a few poems. Perhaps the curvature of space, suggested by Wright's famous staggered line, is better apprehended in a more condensed form and better serves as analogy for the soul as it moves through time. Time has been Charles Wright's overarching theme, especially time as it has already passed, in some form of realization, and returns in the curving lens of memory. A pair of poems from Chickamauga come close, in their conclusions, to where Wright is headed:
Take off your traveling clothes and
lay down your luggage,
Pilgrim, shed your nakedness.
Only the fire is absorbed by the Holy of Holies.
Let it shine.
("Not Everyone Can See the Truth, But He Can Be It'')
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'')
The pilgrim has been one of Wright's personas for a long time, but this is the first time, I believe, he has suggested that pilgrim's destination might have been reached. Most important in my argument however is Wright's paradoxical claim about structure ("Everything flows toward structure"). This is the opposite of what physics teaches us, like so much of theology. I'm not going to get carried away here, because I know that the structure Wright seeks, as he aches for God, is a means of expression. And that "everything flows" reminds us that structure may be a destination but not an end. After all, the journal as a form ends only when the journal keeper stops making entries, and like the journal, devotions are also diurnal, seasonal, and cyclical. And why not bring Horace in here, too? Ars longa, vita brevis suggests not only that it takes a lifetime to learn an art, but that the art outlasts the lifetime. Wright knows that he, like his words, is caught in his finitude. But there is something he hopes to record or have a glimpse of and therefore actively engage in meditation, which is not so caught. He told us back in China Trace, at the end of "Cloud River": "I'd like to remember my old name, and keep the watch, / Waiting for something immense and unspeakable to uncover its face." The difference between that sentiment of nearly forty years ago and more recent similar expressions has everything to do with his growing awareness of the organic structure of his own soul. Call it maturity and a lifetime of mastering that art which takes a lifetime. The last five lines of "Ars Poetica II" from Appalachia reveal as much.
The night sky is an ideogram,
a code card punched with holes.
It thinks it's the word of what's-to-come.
It thinks this, but it's only The Library of Last Resort,
The reflected light of the Great Misunderstanding.
God is the fire my feet are held to.
It seems almost incidental to add that the first line of this poem is "I find, after all these years, I am a believer—".
Wright's selection from his last five books, A Short History of the Shadow, Buffalo Yoga, Scar Tissue, Littlefoot, and Sestets, is entitled Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems. The word "Late" in the subtitle provides a slight chill, but the title itself calls to mind both the colloquial term meaning "eventually" (by and by) and the old gospel hymn "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" with its first verse:
There's a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.
The punning hint of valediction in the title is also a little unsettling.
Reading through A Short History of the Shadow, which in style continues the sense that the poems are entries in an ongoing journal, I have to admit that I listen with a different kind of interest or alertness when Wright enters his narrative mode, as he does in a poem like "Nostalgia II," which takes us back to his younger days in Italy, the place where he discovered poetry. But I understand that this is not the mode that identifies Wright even to himself or to his readers. It is the following, from "In Praise of Thomas Hardy":
Each second the earth is struck hard
by four and half pounds of sunlight.
Try to imagine that.
No wonder deep shade is what the soul longs for,
And not, as we always thought, the light.
No wonder the inner life is dark.
In the second half of the poem Wright pays homage to Hardy, by using a word Hardy coined, "smalled," and referring to one of Hardy's most famous poems, "Neutral Tones." The lines I have quoted, however, have all to do with Wright's preoccupation in these "late" poems: the nature of the soul. Thus it is not surprising that the book ends with two poems entitled "Body and Soul," both dedicated to the jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, who recorded an immortal rendition of the jazz standard. "Body and Soul II" begins:
The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears—faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
April, and anything's possible.
A simple correspondence implied by the title would be that landscape, being physical, is the body, and music, being bodiless, is the soul. But that both landscape and music have a structure, which is infinitesimal, makes the binary irrelevant. Body and soul are really one, and without one we cannot know the other. That is to say, the body and soul which interest Wright are one, and neither can be considered in conventionally religious or Christian terms.
This attempt to recast conventional religious terms in unconventional ways leads to a title like Buffalo Yoga, for example, which as a title is stranger even than Black Zodiac or Negative Blue, and has a faintly comic tone which those titles lack. And yet the title reminds us that there are many kinds of yoga, a religious discipline, and Wright's own has everything to do with his ongoing meditations on landscape, one of those being the landscape of the far west in Montana. The title poem, a long series like so many of Wright's longer poems, is like them a series of entries, which follow more a radial than a linear pattern. The poem ends with a metaphor so compelling one almost forgets what it implies:
The world is a magic book, and we its sentences.
We read it and read ourselves.
We close it and turn the page down
And never come back,
Returned to what we once were before we became what we are.
This is the tale the world tells, this is the way it ends.
For lovers of narrative the message is clear, even if we wish it were more ambiguous. He repeats it again in Scar Tissue, in the poem ''Appalachian Farewell": ''And where were we headed for? / The country of Narrative, that dark territory / Which spells out our stories in sentences, which gives them an end and beginning ... " Narrative is the structure of death. Wright seeks a structure of life, bittersweet as it may be. One of the most beautiful and simple journal-devotions of Buffalo Yoga is aptly titled "Dolceamara Vita":
Autumn is over. The winter rains
Have settled like feathers from wild geese
deep in the trees.
I start my afternoon rote walk, the wet-step and weekend one,
Up Locust avenue and back down.
The cold-eaten, sap-sunken gold of the maple leaves
Takes on the light and grows big,
The church chimes like empty villages,
ruin-riddled, far away,
Where nobody goes.
The dogwood is redder now than summer's chokecherry,
Sunset sheen like old wax on the steps into the sky,
Rainwater gone, drifting under the streets like nobody notices.
I reach the hospital and turn back.
Behind me day darkens, in front of me darker still.
If had it all to do over again, I'd pull the light
Toward me and start to gleam,
and then not gleam, the way the leaves do,
The dying leaves, and the cold flowers.
This reminds me of any number of the great walking meditations of Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, and even A. R. Ammons. Of course, the greatest walking meditation of all is Dante's. But all take the walk itself, going out, coming to a realization or series of realizations, and usually coming back, as a form, an implicitly narrative one. That Wright includes the dailiness of this meditative trek and the specific route he takes on the weekend is yet another indication that part of his constitutional has become the making of both journal entry and devotion.
As I stated earlier, Littlefoot, Wright's recently published book-length poem, hearkens back to "The Southern Cross;" particularly in its focus on the past but also in the way it follows a year. Like "The Southern Cross," the number of entries bears consideration. The poem takes place in the poet's seventieth year, and is divided into thirty-five sections. Less than a third of the poems are short and at first seem to alternate with the longer poems, but then this alternation ceases toward the end. The thirty-fifth and final section is an old Carter Family standard, "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone," written by A. P. Carter. Wright has long expressed a love of the Carter Family songs, and their "lifey-deathy" themes. Otherwise the emphasis of the various sections of Littlefoot is much like the lifey-deathy emphasis of so much of Wright's work, with a consistent focus in this case on the landscape of Montana. "Littlefoot," in fact, is the name of a horse the poet can see in a meadow near where he is situated.
Almost noon, the meadow
Waiting for someone to change it into an other. Not me.
The horses, Monte and Littlefoot,
Like it the way it is.
And this morning, so do I.
This simple and modest affirmation comes in the twenty-eighth section of the book, and is the penultimate entry in that section. The final entry that follows it has a profundity which one almost takes for granted in Wright, though its impact can still be surprising.
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.
It is in Littlefoot, halfway through, that Wright gives the clearest expression I know to what might be called his existential theology. It comes in section sixteen.
Born again by water into the life of the spirit,
but not into the Life,
Rivers and lakes were my bread and wine,
Creeks were my transubstantiation.
And everything's holy by now,
Vole crawl and raven flyby,
All of the little incidents that sprinkle across the earth.
Easy enough to say,
but hard to live by and palliate.
Camus said that life is the search for the way back
To the few great simple truths
We knew at the beginning.
Out of the water, out of the cold air, that seems about right.
Yes, easy enough for you to say, Mr. Wright! I've been trying to argue this about your poetry for over 5,000 words, and here it is perfectly expressed. Why am I not surprised? The dimensions of the soul, this poet's soul, include the earth and the past, those most apprehensible elements of Time and Space.
So much in this poet's recent work has had a valedictory tone that it makes me apprehensive to think his most recent book, Sestets, may be his last. That apprehension has been somewhat eased by the publication of Outtakes, in Sarabande Books' artist/poet collaboration series. Outtakes includes poems which had to be left out of Sestets. The sestet, as the title implies, is a six line poem, meant to suggest the sestet of an Italian sonnet, which follows the eight-line octave. There could be a sense, then, that Wright's sestets, each of them, follows the turn in some unstated octave. But practically they resemble so many of Wright's short poems, going all the way back to Hard Freight, and yet share the sense with all that has come before in Wright's poetry, that these are entries, leaves, prayers, devotions in a lifelong journal of the soul. One of my favorites is the following, "I Shall Be Released," with its sly tip of the hat to Bob Dylan and an even subtler one to W. B. Yeats.
There is a consolation beyond nomenclature
of what is past
Or is about to pass, though I don't know what it is.
But someone, somewhere, must, and this is addressed to him.
Come on, Long Eyes, crack the book.
Thumb through the pages and stop at the one with the golden script.
Breathe deeply and lay it on me,
that character with the luminous half-life.
Charles Wright has given poetry a great gift, in a durable style and a way of thinking, which I believe will be translated into the lives and work of generations to come. He is the "character with the luminous half-life." He pauses somewhere, waiting for us.
University of Oregon
General and Nonfiction Editor: Daniel Anderson
Fiction Editor: Ehud Havazelet
Poetry Editor: Garrett Hongo