Charles Wright’s Appalachia

The last section of Charles Wright’s Negative Blue ties together many of the themes developed in the first two books, recapping his attempts to transcend everyday life. Those of us who ponder our lives, particularly past events, may seem narcissistic to others, perhaps even to ourselves.

IN THE KINGDOM OF THE PAST,
THE BROWN-EYED MAN IS KING

It's all so pitiful, really, the little photographs
Around the room of places I've been,
And me in them, the half-read books, the fetishes, this
Tiny arithmetic against the dark undazzle.
Who do we think we're kidding

Certainly not our selves, those hardy perennials
We take such care of, and feed, who keep on keeping on
Each year, their knotty egos like bulbs
Safe in the damp and dreamy soil of their self-regard.
No way we bamboozle them with these

Shrines to the woebegone, ex votos and reliquary sites
One comes in on one's knees to,
The country of what was, the country of what we pretended to be,
Cruxes and intersections of all we'd thought was fixed.
There is no guilt like the love of guilt.

Perhaps this poem resonated with me because these are the kinds of things that inspired me to write this blog. Small mementoes of the past may seem downright silly from someone else’s perspective, but Wright shows that this obsession with the past and with life’s little details is not merely an attempt to feed or ego but, rather, an attempt to find the meaning our past.

Wrights contrasts his vision of life’s meaning with the vision of a Buddhist monk:

IF YOU TALK THE TALK, YOU BETTER
WALK THE WALK

The Buddhist monk hears all past
and all future in one stroke of the temple bell,
And pries the world out from a pinpoint.
Or grinds it down from immensity to a wheat grain.
Those are his footprints, there by the monastery wall.
This is the life he rejected, written around us-


Incessant rain, slip-stitch vocabulary of winter trees
And winter dreadlocks on half-abandoned garden stalks
Long deconstructed, so
familiar and comforting
We don't understand a word.
Another February morning at the heart of the world.


The country we live in's illegible, impossible of access.
We climb, like our deepest selves, out of it forever.
Upward, we think, but who knows.

Are those lights stars or the flametips of hell?
Who knows. We dig in and climb back up.
Wind shear and sleight-of-hand, hard cards, we keep on climbing.

Unlike the monk who can find the past or the future in the stroke of a temple bell, Wright sees man discovering himself in the landscape he lives in. Although at times it may seem that our country is “illegible, impossible of access,” whoever we are emerges from that landscape. Like the Transcendentalists, Wright seems to feel that we can only find our deeper self in Nature.

Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that Wright uses the blue of the sky as a metaphor for God:

CICADA BLUE


I wonder what Spanish poets would say about this,
Bloodless, mid-August meridian,
Afternoon like a sucked-out, transparent insect shell,
Diffused, and tough to the touch.
Something about a labial, probably,
something about the blue.

St. John of the Cross, say, or St. Teresa of Avila.
Or even St. Thomas Aquinas,
Who said, according to some,

"All I have written seems like straw
Compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."
Not Spanish, but close enough,
something about the blue.

Blue, I love you, blue, one of them said once in a different color,
The edged and endless
Expanse of nowhere and nothingness
hemmed as a handkerchief from here,
Cicada shell of hard light
just under it, blue, I love you, blue...

We've tried to press God in our hearts the way we'd press a leaf
in a book,
Afternoon memoried now,
sepia into brown,
Night coming on with its white snails and its ghost of the
Spanish poet,
Poet of shadows and death.
Let's press him firm in our hearts, 0 blue, I love you, blue.

It’s not entirely coincidental, of course, that this volume of poems is called “Negative Blue,” and that the color blue repeatedly appears in Wright’s poems. For instance, in “The Appalachian Book of the Dead V” the lines “Eternity puddles up./And here’s the Overseer, blue, and O he is blue…” Although very few of Wright’s poems touch on God directly, God, like the blue sky, seems to be implied in many of them. God cannot be found in things, but we may well discover Him through our relationship to those things.

5 thoughts on “Charles Wright’s Appalachia

  1. Not sure why but with this poet I either really like the poem or intensely dislike it. I thought “…Kingdom of the past…” was terrific, especially the line, “Tiny arithmetic against the dark undazzle”. That’s pretty, isn’t it? But then there’s the other two. Odd, that.

  2. Sorry, I must have had too much wind in my face tonight but that last comment came out sounding suspiciously like Valley Speak. Should stick to code I think…

  3. I like Cicada Blue, the simple “nursery” rhyme preceding brilliance.( towards “hemmed as a handkerchief”!) At the moment Melbourne has been blessed with a string of beautiful Autumn days with clear blue skies, and I’ve found myself looking up into the pure blue, too.

  4. I suppose I have personal reasons for liking each of these songs.

    “in the Kingdom of the Past…” reminds me of one of my favorite rock songs of the past, Johnny Rivers’ “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and my current interest in mementos of the past.

    “If you talk the talk” reflects my current interest in Zen, but also a deeper feeling that I am somehow a product of the Puget Sound area, that I belong there.

    “Cicada Blue” conveys that feeling of eternity I get when I’m cross country skiing in the mountains in winter and the sky is a crystal clear blue, for me, at least, a good metaphor for eternity.

    I think we always like poems because they somehow reverberate on a “personal” level.

What do you think?