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The Many Voices of Charles Wright


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The Many Voices of Charles Wright


Charles Wright’s massive new volume of selected poems, “Oblivion Banjo” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is assembled from nearly fifty years of his “small words, / Out of the wind and the weather.” The poems are banked impressions, like snowdrifts after a blizzard, or deposits left by a receding tide. In them, “places swim up and sink back, and days do,” leaving behind their residue. Amid the ordinary gains and losses of the calendar year arrive the vivid envois of the past: a country drugstore, the “kamikaze Fiats” of Rome, a statue of Dante under alpine snow.

Wright was born in 1935, in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee. He attended Davidson College and the University of Iowa and served in the Army, in Italy. He taught for many years at the University of Virginia, publishing volumes of poetry at regular intervals. Everything Wright touches takes on his style, a vernacular scavenged from place-names in Tennessee and Italy, the songs of the Carter Family and the cadences of the blues, and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Li Po, Dante, Emily Dickinson, and others. The name of one of his works, “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner,” describes many of his others, too.

Even the title of this volume gives a taste of Wright’s method of blending vocabularies: the word “oblivion” boasts a provenance in Western philosophy and literature, while the sound of the banjo brings back the “tinkly hymns” of Wright’s Southern childhood. The resulting “country music” is the distinct twang of one mind, remarkably constant despite sometimes audacious changes of form. A prose poem, a sprawling free-verse composition, and a sequence of economical sestets: they sound little like one another, but they all sound like Wright.

Wright’s second collection, “Hard Freight,” from 1973, includes a prank manifesto that almost instantly entered anthologies and syllabi. “The New Poem” begins on a pugilistic note:

It will not resemble the sea.
It will not have dirt on its thick hands.
It will not be a part of the weather.

The poem is nine such statements in nine end-stopped lines. Although it is sometimes taken at face value, the new poem that Wright describes is certainly not “The New Poem,” which, despite its austere rhetoric, is full of yearning. It’s nothing like Wright’s mature work, but it makes clear that he will be one of those poets, like Wallace Stevens, who bring sumptuous particulars into the world by negation.

Wright began to read and write poetry in Italy, while he was in the Army. It was, he later told The Paris Review, the “form that seemed suited to my mental and emotional inclinations.” He said that he was “trying to write about what I’d been seeing—Italy—in terms of what I was reading.” Above all, he was reading Pound’s “Pisan Cantos,” written while the poet was imprisoned, near Pisa, at the end of the Second World War. With Pound as his Baedeker, Wright experienced the landscape through one man’s idiosyncratic emphasis. Wright adds to the sedimentary layers of description already settling on old places, rather than breaking fresh imaginative ground. A couple of years later, back in Italy, Wright encountered Pound himself, in Venice, staring at a church: Wright approached him, stood silently by his side, then skulked away. He didn’t want an autograph or a blessing; he wanted to share his idol’s point of view.

It was during this period that “I came to my senses,” he writes, “with a pencil in my hand / And a piece of paper in front of me.” In “A Journal of Southern Rivers,” from 1990, he describes this birth:

What hast thou, O my soul, with Paradise, for instance,
Is where I began, in March 1959—
   my question has never changed,
Always the black angel asleep on my lips,
       always
The dove’s moan in the mimosa tree,
The blue faces of the twice transfigured
       closing their stone eyes.

The quotation is from Pound’s “Blandula, Tenula, Vagula,” a poem inspired by the famous last words of Emperor Hadrian. Everything in Wright is “twice transfigured” in this way, a quotation of a quotation, an image of an image. “I find myself in my own image,” Wright reports, “and am neither and both. / I come and go in myself as though from room to room.” A poet like Wright finds himself only in prior acts of representation, as in “a photograph of me taking a photograph / Of Holly and me.”

One way of using this big book is as the longitudinal presentation of a sensibility, its fluctuations plotted on a decades-long graph. These patterns are harder to spot in Wright’s individual volumes, so a retrospective arrangement is, in a way, a new composition, not merely a highlight reel. Wright’s poems often begin by settling into an uneventful scene or routine, decorated with trophies of the past, as in “Looking Around,” from his 2002 collection, “A Short History of the Shadow”:

I sit where I always sit,
northwest window on Basin Creek,
A homestead cabin from 1912,
Pine table knocked together some 30 years ago,
Indian saddle blanket, Peruvian bedspread
And Mykonos woven rug
nailed up on the log walls.

Several poems in the volume begin this way, each with a slightly different set of talismans. The poems furnish an elegant bachelor space, a man cave with soft touches and a long prospect on the past, in which Wright’s memories, like lightning bugs, appear.

Wright’s chronology notes the passing dates and seasons and, perhaps less often than one would expect, some personal and cultural milestones. But he advances while facing backward, drifting away from the points of origin that he seems more and more keen to recover the further he goes along. An early poem, “The Southern Cross,” suggests how Wright’s childhood memories must contend with gaps and lapses, as in a photo album:

It’s 1936, in Tennessee. I’m one
And spraying the dead grass with a hose.
The curtains blow in and out.

And then it’s not. I’m not and they’re not.

Or it’s 1941 in a brown suit, or ’53 in its white shoes,
Overlay after overlay tumbled and brought back,
As meaningless as the sea would be
if the sea could remember its waves . . .

In this static scene, the curtains introduce movement and change. Suddenly we’re racing, “overlay after overlay,” through Wright’s youth: age six, age eighteen. A 2004 poem, “My Own Little Civil War,” reconstructs an even more distant scene, of Wright’s ancestors in Sullivan County, “the only county in Tennessee that did not secede / Throughout the entire Civil War.”

Because these poems are both progressive and recursive, the present moment, with its “armchair and omelette,” is already hoary. Nothing in Wright’s work is ever new: in “A Journal of English Days,” Wright thinks of Paul Cézanne in Provence, who “died there today / Seventy-seven years ago, October 22”; several lines and several days later, “Sunday, October 30th,” he remembers “Pound’s birthday ninety-eight years ago,” before ending with a “Short Riff for John Keats’s 188th Birthday.” In this jumbled time line, Pound’s famous dictate “Make it new!” gets redrawn in his disciple’s work:

Redundancies of the spring peach trees.

Old fires, old geographies.
In that case, make it old, I say, make it singular

In its next resurrection,
White violets like photographs on the tombstone of the yard.

Once time is set up this way, we become contemporaries of our own ancestors. At moments, Wright’s work feels like an enormous, timeless front porch, where long-lost friends like Lao Tzu drop by: “the masters, like our memories, mix / And mismatch, and settle about our lawn furniture, like air.”

Wright’s later poems attain visionary intensities, fusing belief and deflation. His gregarious asceticism—asceticism over drinks, as it were—bears traces of Dante, St. Ignatius, Augustine, and the Buddha. These solemn figures make rather jaunty appearances in the work, but none of them seem to me to be the source of its charisma. Instead, it’s the lightness that I value most in Wright’s work. Often, he’ll begin in the key of pontification, then slide into friendliness. “Everything comes from something, only something comes from nothing,” he writes, then adds, “Lao Tzu says, more or less. / Eminently sensible, I say.” Or:

     Augustine says
This is what we desire,
The soul itself instinctively desires it.
     He’s right, of course.

This isn’t mysticism—it’s chitchat. It looses Augustine back into the cultural stream, a favor that Wright has done for so many of his literary and spiritual mentors. In a Wright poem, you might find out what Freud wrote about Leonardo’s little wax animals, so light that the wind would carry them away. These details aren’t quite a narrative (Wright has claimed to be the rare Southerner who can’t tell stories); they enter the poem, then leave it, as casual, beautiful reminders of the fact that we die, and that art has a chance to outlive us.

A book this huge had better be excellent company. Wright—with his sometimes cantankerous affection, his sympathy for the reader who has, as he has, seen and heard this all before—is profoundly companionable. Within the repetitive cycles of his verse we find the loveliest surprises: an afternoon in the cupola at Emily Dickinson’s house, the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, the “sizzle like E.T.’s finger,” the “afternoon undervoices” of kids playing red rover.

Immersed in these poems, we don’t find “knowledge or truth”; instead, like Wright standing mute beside Pound in Venice, “we get no closer than next-to-it.” Wright paraphrases the hilariously named philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, writing that “the definer of all things” is “beyond wisdom, beyond denial.” His judgment of this philosophy is one that I share, and would apply to Wright’s own poetry: it all “sounds good to me.” ♦

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