Monday, January 7, 2008


Some poets just get better. I haven't read Charles Wright since Black Zodiac in the late '90s and I remember first hearing of him through a poem from Zone Journals published in the New Yorker in the '80s. So while not a regular reader of his poems, I have long admired his ability to do three things in almost all his poems: 1) demonstrate an amazing facility for the sound of words while exercising his tonalities in lines that are tautly rhythmic, but which never move too far from the cadences of speech:

Red-winged blackbird balancing back and forth on pond reed,
Back and forth then off then back again,
What is it he's after,
                      wing-hinge yellow and orange,
What is it he needs down there
In snipe country, marsh-muddled,
                                 rinsed in long-day sunlight?
2) describe the natural world with a depth and detail that is mesmerizing (the more so for being exact and precise rather than excessive):

Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow,
Night, in its shallow puddles,
                              still liquid and loose in the trees
3) speak thoughts, often with a simplicity reminiscent of the Chinese or ancient Greek texts he draws upon, that seem to evolve naturally from the meditative nature of his poems:

Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique,
A method of measure,
                    a scaffold for structuring,
I stole its silences, I stepped to its hue and cry.
To put it simply: for his ability to be musical, descriptive, and philosophical all at once. What he is less successful at doing, telling stories or recreating events, he tries to do more of in Scar Tissue than in other books of his I've looked at. The fact that he is still "less successful" at that aspect of poetry becomes one of the more pressing themes of the volume because what Wright (who will be 73 this year) is working with here, often, is the inability to make memory do as we wish, causing the poems to face the fact of loss more baldly and more boldly than is usual.

It's hard to imagine how unremembered we all become,
How quickly all that we've done
Is unremembered and unforgiven...
In other words, nature is still a kind of consolation for Wright but he's ready now to admit that it was only the music of it that really mattered to him and that, in essence, when he's gone, so is that music -- at least as far as he's concerned.

Beginning of June. 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.
What makes the poems so effective is that on every page he demonstrates that the music he has given us is as painstakingly adequate to its inspiration as any words could be, so that his loss is our loss.

Hard to imagine that no one counts,
                                   that only things endure.
Unlike the seasons, our shirts don't shed,
Whatever we see does not see us,
                                however hard we look,
The rain in its silver earrings against the oak trunks,
The rain in its second skin.

Pity the people, Lord, pity their going forth and their coming back,
Pity their sumptuous barricades
                                against the dark.
Show them the way the dirt works.
Show them its sift, the aftermath and the in-between.
That line "Show them the way the dirt works" is as good an example as I can find of what kept me rapt with attention while reading these poems: the simple imperative in a graceful cadence, the alliteration (Wright uses alliteration more than most and, to my mind, gets away with it) of way and works, and the assonance of dirt and works. His music is precise, generous, but never -- or rarely -- mannered. At times there are great playful strides of sound: "Sunlight like Vaseline in the trees, / smear and shine, smear and shine." "The sound of the lilac upsurge rings bells for the bees." Now and then there are figures evoked for the spice of a bathetic charge: "The slit wrists of sundown / tincture the western sky wall..."

More than a few poems become prayers from a "God-fearing agnostic" who knows, as it grows late, that the "urge toward form is the urge toward God." The natural world, for Wright, is the form he has striven to make us -- and the angels -- hear. Scar Tissue, like some of the poems of late Stevens, attests to the truth that a poet through his method -- his own particular folly -- becomes wise.

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