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:


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:


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:


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.