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:


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:


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.”

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