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.

Wright’s Black Zodiac

“Black Zodiac,” the second book of Negative Blue, is rather daunting at times, though that may well be part of its appeal. It sometimes seems me that Wright is facing precisely the same problems I am in trying to come to terms with in trying to integrate what I’ve read into a coherent philosophy of life that will allow me to face those struggles that lay ahead.

The title poem from this section opens with the problem of dealing with memories that do not seem to fit together in any coherent way:

Darkened by time, the masters, like our memories, mix
And mismatch,
and settle about our lawn furniture, like air
Without a meaning, like air in its clear nothingness.
What can we say to either of them?
How can they be so dark and so clear at the same time?

Those who have read widely, or even not so widely, have certainly confronted this problem many times in their lives. While reading the poetry of one master, his ideas seem clear and convincing. Later, reading another poet his ideas, too, seem clear and convincing. It is only when placing them side by side that you realize that the visions are not compatible, that both cannot be true. It’s not only our reading that seems incompatible, though. Life experiences themselves often seem contradictory, leading us to totally different views of human nature or the meaning of life.

Failing to adequately answer such problems, it’s easy to end up wondering if:

The unexamined life's no different from
the examined life-
Unanswerable questions, small talk,
Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments-
You've got to write it all down.
Landscape or waterscape, light-length on evergreen, dark sidebar
of evening,
you've got to write it down.

This is a frightening rebuttal to the argument that the unexamined life is not worth living, an argument that Wright seems to pursue enthusiastically in his poetry. Is it merely compulsion that forces us to “write it down?” Do we bloggers gain anything when we “write it all down?”

Although my favorite poems in this section are really the long poems “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” that begins the section and “Disjecta Membra” that ends the section, they seem far too long to cite and analyze here. “Envoi,” though, seems to represent major themes in this section quite well:

ENVOI

What we once liked, we no longer like.
What we used to delight in settles like fine ash on our tongues.
What we once embraced embraces us.

Things have destinies, of course,
on-lines and downloads mysterious as the language of clouds.
My life has become like that,

Half uninterpretable, half new geography,
Landscapes stilled and adumbrated, memory unratcheting,
Its voice-over not my own.

Meanwhile, the mole goes on with its subterranean daydreams,
The dogs lie around like rugs,
Birds nitpick their pinfeathers, insects slick down their shells.

No horizon-honing here, no angst in the anthill.
What happens is what happens,
And what happened to happen never existed to start with.

Still, who wants a life like that,
No next and no before, no yesterday, no today,
Tomorrow a moment no one will ever live in?

As for me, I'll take whatever wanes,
The loosening traffic on the straightaway, the dark and such,
The wandering stars, wherever they come from now, wherever
they go.

I'll take whatever breaks down beneath its own sad weight-
The paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder, for instance,
Language, the weather, the word of God.


I'll take as icon and testament
The daytime metaphysics of the natural world,
Sun on tie post, rock on rock.

Too often life does seem meaningless, especially in an increasingly materialistic world where “novelty” is highly valued. Wright also knows that thinking too much offers few answers and more often than not results in impassable “dead-ends,” and a resulting sense of alienation from one’s choices.

Someone as widely read in Oriental literature as Wright obviously is aware of the Zen tradition of “living in the moment” to eliminate the buzz of ideas that constantly distracts from “right mind.” But he seems to reject this approach in his rejection of the mole, dogs, birds, and insects because there is “no next and no before, no yesterday” and, ultimately, “no today,” because “consciousness is the result of seeing today in light of the past and future possibilities.

Rather than settling for either of these, he would rather settle for “whatever wanes,” “whatever breaks down beneath its own sad weight.” Then he offers concrete examples of these things, “the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Coincidently, Ryder’s dead bird reminds me of Morris Graves’ painting of birds that I mentioned falling in love with last year. More examples of Ryder's work can be found at The Art Archive.

“Jesuit Graves,” Wright’s tribute to Gerard Manly Hopkins, seems to offer another possible answer to life’s problems:

JESUIT GRAVES

Midsummer. Irish overcast. Oatmeal-colored sky.
The Jesuit pit. Last mass
For hundreds whose names are incised on the marble wall
Above the gravel and grassless dirt.
Just dirt and the small stones
how strict, how self-effacing.

Not suited for you, however, Father Bird-of-Paradise,
Whose plumage of far wonder is not formless and not faceless,
Whatever you might have hoped for once.
Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 3 July 1995.
For those who would rise to meet their work,
that work is scaffolding.


Sacrifice is the cause of ruin.
The absence of sacrifice is the cause of ruin.
Thus the legends instruct us,
North wind through the flat-leaved limbs of the sheltering trees,
Three desperate mounds in the small, square enclosure,
souls God-gulped and heaven-hidden.


P Gerardus Hopkins, 28 July 1844-8 June 1889, Age 44.
And then the next name. And then the next,
Soldiers of misfortune, lock-step into a star-colored tight dissolve,
History's hand-me-ons. But you, Father Candescence,
You, Father Fire?
Whatever rises comes together, they say. They say.

Those of us who love his poems may well feel that Gerard Manly Hopkins has transcended death through his powerful, beautiful poetry as Wright suggests here with titles such as “Father Bird-of-Paradise,” “Father Candescence,” and “Father Fire.” But another possibility is even more intriguing, that the very act of celebrating life’s, and particularly nature’s, beauty is a transcendence. “Whatever rises comes together.”

Charles Wright’s Negative Blue

I’m always pleased with myself when I find a new poet I like by myself rather than having been introduced to him in a class, by a friend’s recommendation, or even by a magazine I respect. Charles Wright is such a poet.

I picked up Negative Blue while browsing the poetry section at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The fact that the hardbound was only $8 would probably have made me avoid it if I hadn’t had time to actually pick up and browse it. After reading the first section entitled “Chickamauga,” I find it difficult to limit myself to just three poems to illustrate why I like Wright so much.

Surprisingly, I noticed that I had previously read some of his poems in a favorite anthology and not taken particular note of them. If I’d known that Wright was inspired to write poetry through his discovery of Ezra Pound while in Italy, I probably wouldn’t have gone any further. Wright is obviously an “intellectual” poet and like Pound and T.S. Eliot often includes Italian phrases and literary allusions in his poems, though that’s not illustrated in the poems I’ve chosen to examine here, except for "Mondo Henbane." Generally I avoid “intellectual” poetry in favor of more “romantic” poetry, but Wright does a remarkable job of tying personal insights to literary works.

Like much modern poetry, particularly poetry written in the spirit of Pound and Eliot, there is a definitely a dark side to Wright’s poetry:

THERE IS NO SHELTER

Each evening, the sins of the whole world collect here like a dew.
In the morning, little galaxies, they flash out
And flame,
their charred, invisible residue etching

The edges our lives take and the course of things, filling
The shadows in,
an aftertrace, through the discards of the broken world,
Like the long, slow burn of a struck match.

I don’t know about you, but too often lately it seems there is no shelter from mankind’s sins, sins that seem to determine our very lives. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, you hate me, and I’ll hate you. Perhaps it’s merely a sense of “original sin,” but it seems more likely that we’re besmudged not by original sin, but by sins of omission, by our unwillingness to devote our lives to fighting the sins others have committed in our name.

Unaware of this “invisible residue” determining the course of our lives, it’s still hard not to feel the “long, slow burn of a struck match.” Life is often painful, especially when we’re unaware of why it is so.

Perhaps we’re haunted by these sins because we try to avoid looking directly at them. We act like we believe if we ignore problems they won’t exist:

THE SILENT GENERATION

Afternoons in the backyard, our lives like photographs
Yellowing elsewhere,
in somebody else's album,
In secret, January south winds
Ungathering easily through the black limbs of the fruit trees.

What was it we never had to say?

Who can remember now-
Something about the world's wrongs,
Something about the way we shuddered them off like rain
in an open field,
convinced that lightning would not strike.

We're arm in arm with regret, now left foot, now right foot.
We give the devil his due.
We walk up and down in the earth,
we take our flesh in our teeth.
When we die, we die. The wind blows away our footprints.

I suppose this helps to explain why I started a weblog in my old age and why I’m unwilling to limit my comments to just the poetry I usually focus on. I don’t want to be merely footprints blown away by the wind. I don’t want to die regretting that I didn’t at least try to fight what I felt was wrong. I need to live my beliefs, even to act on them when necessary.

Although I find Charles Wright’s analysis of modern man’s problems insightful, I doubt if I would like his poetry as much as I do if he didn’t also offer moments of respite from human misery as he does in poems like:

MONDO HENBANE

The journey ends between the black spiders and the white spiders,
As Blake reminds us.
For now,
However, pain is the one thing that fails to actualize
Where the green-backed tree swallows dip
and the wood ducks glide

over the lodgepole's soft slash.
Little islands of lime-green pine scum
Float on the pot-pond water.

Load-heavy bumblebees
Lower themselves to the sun-swollen lupine and paintbrush throats.

In the front yard, a half mile away,
one robin stretches his neck out,
Head cocked to the ground,
Hearing the worm's hum or the worm's heart.
Or hearing the spiders fly,
on their fiery tracks, through the smoke-choked sky.

Henbane is used to “procure sleep and allay pains.” Beginning with an allusion to Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” not only gives an added resonance to the poem but suggests that seeing life as good or bad is, as Blake suggests in that poem, “owing to your metaphysics.” For Wright, the escape from pain comes from seeing the lushness of the world, if only temporarily. The scene of the lush pond alive with dipping swallows and pollen-laden bumblebees makes him forget “good and bad,” at least until the last line where he imagines that the robin, it’s head intently cocked, may be listening to Blake’s spiders.