“I sit where I always sit,” Charles Wright declares in the first line of the first poem in his book, “A Short History of the Shadow.” He repeats the phrase in the next poem and again in the one after that. But he is sitting somewhere new each time, and what he sees--how he addresses and invests the world around him--alters with each vantage point. Wright’s idea is that, because the world is in motion, the self is too. So when we hold still and attend to the world in its slow changes, we are journeying and changing too.
There is a polemical edge to Wright’s insistence on sitting where he sits, a determination to go on writing the kind of poem he writes. Over a long career he has perfected a particular kind of meditative lyric and an instantly identifiable style. In a sense, that style is the poem, its recurrent drama or story, which is always about what it enacts: the poet’s search for words adequate to the world unfolding before him, day by day. Adequate, that is, to describe the world in its sensual particulars and metaphysical implications: not just the weather, but what it says about the state of our souls. Wright loves the world, but he is impatient to get beyond it. And we feel both impulses in his lavish, restless style.
“A Short History of the Shadow” is his first book since “Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems” (2000), the much-praised gathering of his work from the 1990s and the third in a series of volumes of selected poems that includes “Country Music: Selected Early Poems” (1982) and “The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990" (1990). These summary volumes organize Wright’s lyric poems in larger structures that suggest chapters in a single ongoing work, a grand personal testament and spiritual log.
Embarking now on a new cycle of poems, Wright asks, “where to begin again?” One can almost hear the skeptical internal voice that is needling him: But how will you avoid repeating yourself? Won’t you run out of fresh ways of seeing?
Wright responds by returning to his starting places. These include actual landscapes, such as the Tennessee hills where he grew up in the 1940s and the Italian towns where, as an enlisted man in the 1950s, he discovered Ezra Pound’s poetry and wrote his first poems. They also include his early poetic ambitions and assumptions:
I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it was, and how it would be ....
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I was young.
I still do.
A little later in the same poem, the mood changes. Now the bravura is gone, “the power of words” seems exhausted, and Wright’s faith is tested:
Insubstantial as smoke, our words
Drum down like fingertips across the page,
leaving no smudge or mark. . . .
This word, that word, all fall down.
How far from heaven the stars are,
how far the heart from the page.
Wright moves back and forth between these different feelings about language and its power. There are passages here of the virtuosic writing he has become known for, with wild mixings of slang and high diction (“thus mojo, thus misericordia”) and brilliant, witty conceits (“Winter blue moon, light like a wax-thin slice of finocchio”). This is the masterful language of a poet who can make us feel that what he says about the world is how it is. But just as often he evokes an alien landscape, resistant to our impositions of meaning. Walt Whitman saw the grass as “The beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Wright movingly reworks the image:
The seasons don’t care for us. For them,
transcendence is merely
And never a second thought.
Poor us, they think, poor us in our marly shoes,
poor us in our grass
Following the course of the uncaring seasons, this book traces two complete annual cycles, from March in the first poem to April in the last, as if it took that much writing and living to get to spring (and the fresh start Wright seeks). As a model for this journey, Wright points to Dante in “A Short History of the Shadow,” the title poem placed midway in the book and set at the start of winter. “Only Dante, in Purgatory, casts a shadow,” he explains, “L’ombra della carne, the shadow of flesh-- / everyone else is one.” The book as a whole moves through a shadowland that is Wright’s contemporary purgatory:
This is the way the world looks
In late November,
no leaves on the trees, no ledge to
foil the lightfall.
Yet even in this state of depleted images, we feel “the power of words” revive in those cadenced repetitions (“no leaves ... no ledge”) and that marvelous, mirroring alliteration: “to foil the lightfall.”
Here and elsewhere, part of the power of Wright’s words depends on a distinctive prosody. Every poem in this book is organized either in stanzas with a uniform number of lines (usually three-, four-, or five-line groups) or in sonnets with a break between octave and sestet. One seldom sees these patterns, however, because Wright’s stanzas are broken up on the page by his frequent use of the dropped line, his trademark device. It consists of a line broken in two parts, usually unequal in length, one of which continues on the next line, not as a new line itself (the first letter is uncapitalized), but as an extension of the prior one, as if on a new level. The device allows into the line some of the enigmatic white space bordering the poem. Visually it gives an impression of language flowing over and around unseen rocks.
The break in the dropped line is a formal version of the break Wright is always looking for in the landscapes he describes, what, looking to the nighttime horizon, he calls “the crack, the tiny crack, / In the east that separates one world from the next .... “
Even in this ascetic book that is focused on gathering shadows and dwindling time, Wright’s poems are so sensually rich and gratifying, he may seem satisfied with what he sees, too comfortable in this world to think hard about the next. He anticipates this reaction to his work in the poem “Why, It’s as Pretty as a Picture” in which he calls himself a “shallow thinker.” He means that he is trying to render the surface of experience, its texture and feel, not its deeper logic, because, in the absence of an “overwhelming design,” a master plot we might all believe in, that’s all that we have to go on: only a “postcard,” the sum of appearances.
But Wright is at heart a mystic, not an aesthete. He isn’t satisfied with a pretty picture. He knows there is a landscape behind this one, and the poem ends by evoking it:
The postcard’s just how we see it, and not how it is.
Behind the eye’s the other eye,
and the other ear.
The moonlight whispers in it, the mountains imprint upon it,
Our eyelids close over it,
Dawn and the sunset radiate from it like Eden.
Not how we see it, but how it is. That’s the goal of these poems, as of all of Wright’s work. Yet our only access to that “it"--to the being beyond appearances, what Wright calls Eden, the source of all things--comes in how we see it, day by day, poem after poem, year after year. Because our access is incomplete and metaphorical, dependent on words and their inconstant power, it always needs to be renewed.
Wright insists that this renewal of vision justifies the moral and aesthetic risks it entails (risks of repetition, complacence and fatigue). The poems in “A Short History of the Shadow” prove again that it does.
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The Wind is Calm and Comes from Another World By Charles Wright
Overcast August morning.
A little rain in the potholes,
A little shade on the shade.
The world is unconversational, and bides it own sweet time.
What you see is what you see, it seems to say, but we
Know better than that,
and keep our eyes on the X, the cloud-ridden sky.
Heliotrope, we say, massaging its wings. Heliotrope.