Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems by Charles Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384pp., $20.00.
One of the tasks of poetry, at least since Romanticism, has been to inhabit the landscape, placing the reader into a profound, meaningful relation to nature that requires meticulous attention to natural forms while somehow transcending them. Whitman possessed a vigorous capacity for making the reader feel that nature includes humanity—the poet’s ability to catalog all forms of life and to capture the vitality of man-made things impressed upon American verse a sense of our environment as an expression of our nation. Frost took this legacy in a somewhat darker direction, intimating that both mankind and the natural world are cryptic, gnomic. We ignore nature’s messages at our peril, but we’re never convinced that the messages are getting through. By and large, the major American modernists were not students of nature—there are profound moments of nature notation in the works of Williams, Stevens, Pound, and Eliot, but we’re aware of the textual bias of their imaginative interactions with the world. Poetic utterance interrogates a world of words, with, at times, a sense that there is a vital environment thriving beyond the text, though it’s as text that it must be registered.
Charles Wright walks the line between the dictates of the Romantics and the modernists throughout a long career that now, with a collection subtitled “Selected Late Poems,” is poised for its end. In this culling of six previous books of poems, we’re well aware that Wright long ago mastered his particular idiom, that “the Charles Wright poem” is a unique meditative event all its own. We may, if we like, weary of his reflective mastery, of his ability to manifest always the same poetic persona, but, if we do, then we probably also tire of reading books of haiku, sonnets, or surrealist prose poems.
Or we may let the sameness of his poems be a comforting formal element, a sign that tells us where we are; as Wright somewhat laconically observes in “Buffalo Yoga”: “It’s never the same day twice.” No, and so it’s never quite the same poem, though it may often feel like it. Even if we don’t need to read many of these poems to get a sense of what Wright does well, those who persist will see something that I give Wright great credit for: the ability to render the passage of time as a thought process. Can we see this done too much?
“In the affinity is the affection,
in the affection everything else
That matters, wind in the trees,
The silence above the wind, cloud-flat October sky,
And the silence above that.”
In terms of elective affinities, Wright is squarely in the Poundian line. For him, Pound’s Cantos are a poetic form that can contain the poet’s brain, no matter how varied, and not least in the love of Dante and of Chinese poetry that Wright shares. Indeed, Wright almost reflexly pays tribute to his masters:
“The dying narcissus poeticus by the cabin door,
Bear grass, like Dante’s souls,
flame-flicked throughout the understory,
The background humdrum of mist
Like a Chinese chant and character among trees,
Like dancers wherever the wind comes on and lifts them . . .”
—“Confessions of a Song and Dance Man” from Scar Tissue
In these volumes, perhaps more than in some earlier collections, there is also an aging man’s fondness (the books collected here were published [makes it sound like they were published in late 60s and late 70s but not years between, which isn’t correct: “from Wright’s late 60s to late 70s”) for recalling his own youth. Vivid memories surge with the pleasure of imagining friends from the service or from his early days:
“I can see it still, chopped and channeled, dual pipes,
Metallic red, Appalachia Dog
in black script on the left front door.
A major ride, dragging the gut in Kingsport in 1952.”
—“Appalachia Dog,” from Scar Tissue
Many poets, of course, discourse about poetry or reminisce over their lives. And many poets observe the natural world, but Wright, at his best, finds its music and metaphors, and makes it a tune with pictures in it:
“Sunlight like Vaseline in the trees,
smear and shine, smear and shine.
Ten days of rain and now the echoing forth of blank and blue
Through the evergreens.
Deer stand on their hind legs
in the bright meadow grasses.
The sound of the lilac upsurge rings bells for the bees.
Cloud puffs, like mortar rounds from the afterlife,
pockmark the sky.
Time, in its crystal goblet, laps and recedes, laps and recedes.”
—“Matins,” from Scar Tissue
What Wright brings to all his interests is a mind that is both a part of the world and apart from it—or rather he offers a world that is not wholly based on observation or reflection. That world is the poem. Without the poem, there is only Charles Wright in his yard:
“Backyard, my old station, the dusk invisible in the trees,
But there in its stylish tint,
Everything etched and precise before the acid bath
—Hemlocks and hedgerows—
Of just about half an hour from now,
Night in its soak and dissolve.”
But the poem is, more than anything, a way of pressing the world—the poet’s being in the world is the world—into lines. The force of these individual lines is what keeps me reading Wright’s poems. In their stringent suggestiveness, Wright’s lines bring to mind a mature Rimbaud:
“Dullness of distance in the shadowless corridors
Down through the forest,
lilacs deglazed and past repair,
Pine squirrels riding the grub line from thicket to windowsill and back.”
—“Buffalo Yoga Coda III,” from Buffalo Yoga
A poem has little purpose if no line in it impresses us or arrests us, and most poets are able to give their readers this essential sense of taming the mysterious into the intelligible. But Wright is willing to risk the reach that exceeds his grasp time and again. We don’t know why the poet is speaking, sometimes we don’t even know what the poem is speaking of, but, in our attention to its language, we find that something we know nothing of—the poet’s views—becomes accessible to us. In this process, repressed knowledge—such as our relation to our own mortality—becomes magically present to us. Such is the satisfaction of reading Charles Wright poems. A satisfaction akin, I imagine, to the satisfaction of writing Charles Wright poems—even if the poet himself is pinched by his own imagination:
“Our song resettles no rocks, it makes no trees move, it
Has come to nothing, this sour song, but it’s all we’ve got
And so we sing it
Matter we have no choice in.”
—“Mondo Orfeo,” from A Short History of the Shadow
One of the pleasures of these “late poems” is seeing Wright acknowledge—like a crotchedy old man tired of his own company—that poetry, as he practices it, has always been something done “in a pinch.” The constant imperative must be met. The poet marshalls his forces and tries to make music from a few brute facts: that change is constant, and that the natural world lacks language. To the poet is left the task of addressing this disparity, providing, from his own lack of a dedicated natural purpose, a voice for his race (or at least that part of it that shares his language) in its race to get to nowhere. It’s only natural.
“The insect world has no tongue to let loose, and no tongue to curb,
Though all day and all night it cries out.
Who says we shouldn’t listen to them?
Who says we shouldn’t behave ourselves as they do,
no noise but for one purpose?
Whatever the root sees in the dark is infinite.
Whatever the dead see is the same.
Listen, the rivers are emptying
under our feet,
Watched over by all the waters of the underworld.”
—“Scar Tissue,” from Scar Tissue
For Wright the natural world includes death, and is therefore mythic even while he’s looking at it or listening to it. And the mythic for Wright has a distinctly literary component; it’s what knowing languages and poetry adds to what we sense: it adds a sense that no one is ever only alone, or simply unique. By virtue of words, we participate in what’s been said memorably by others, and so we sympathize with Wright’s attempts to thread the day through his mind’s needle eye. The reward is brief bits of lucidity that can measure the moment, as in this poem (here in its entirety), “The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight,” from the closing pages of Sestets, the last book included:
“The world’s an untranslatable language
without words or parts of speech.
It’s a language of objects
Our tongues can’t master,
but which we are the ardent subjects of.
If tree is tree in English,
and albero in Italian,
That’s as close as we can come
To divinity, the language that circles the earth
and which we’ll never speak.”
We find in Wright at once an absolute skepticism about the means at our disposal—our arbitrary and varied tongues—and an absolute faith in articulation’s importance. What more can a poet do than show us the struggle to say something and give us the poem as consolation, inviting us to participate in his longing to make the most of what is so fleeting?
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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