Charles Wright, as many of you possibly know already, has been recently installed as our national Poet Laureate, which has suggested—to me, at least—that it might be fun to look at events early in his career when he was just sculpting his poetic voice, and just growing into his vision. Inevitably, by the time any given artist has ascended to the national stage, he or she has long since established their creative persona, finalized aesthetic decisions, refined their set of themes, polished their style—and in many instances left their best work behind them in the formative, early periods of private struggle with their craft.
What I have here is an article I wrote in 1981 for an encyclopedia of contemporary poets, which as far as I know is long out of print. The Southern Cross had just been published—and had yet to be named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—so my critical view was limited to Wright’s first five books: The Grave of the Right Hand; Hard Freight; Bloodlines; China Trace; and The Southern Cross. He published these collections—along with a translation of Eugenio Montale’s La Bufera e altro—in the 11 years between 1970 and 1981. This is a remarkable body of work produced within a constrained period of creative ferment.
During those years he was on the faculty in the English Department at the University of California, Irvine, where he directed the budding MFA program with another terrific poet, James McMichael—along with occasional interference by the late Robert Peters. In his free time he liked to golf. Wright was in fact a very good golfer, and so was Jim McMichael, and on one occasion I was invited to form a threesome with them to play 9 holes on a local course one late summer afternoon.
On one occasion only was I so invited, because I was awful at golf, just awful, and they did not play friendly games. Their genuine collegial cooperation in the English Department, their united front against the haughty English profs (who looked down upon the tasteless poets, neither of whom taught Critical Theory), their sincere friendship of years duration—all were suspended as they focused like crazy on their next shot. Because each wanted to beat the other. Each fucking wanted to fucking win. Whoa. At the second hole, I picked my ball out of the rough, again, and walked discreetly behind them in the intense California sunlight. I would have shown even further discretion and left for home, except I needed to ride back to campus with Jim in his Volkswagen bus.
I mention this before anyone reads Wright’s poetry of transcendence and concludes, erroneously, that he did not also have his rooted competitions, his commitments and social passions.
II. The Right Transcendence: The Romanticism of Charles Wright
Charles Wright’s most recent book of poetry, The Southern Cross, throws in relief the postures toward transcendence that he has held throughout five collections now. The possibilities of escape from temporality continue to work his imagination as he measures the security of his individual being against a final freedom from the natural world. The incentives for that freedom are legible enough, even if the nature and means of it are not: he often announces a weariness or impatience with the quotidian debris of his life; he is discomfited by his evident lack of place in an earthly community where even “the spider has received her instructions.” (The social world of human politics, history, economics and ideologies he excludes from his imaginative interests.) Finally, he laments his absence from a grace that he persistently envisages above him in the physical heavens among “the cold stars of the Virgin,” the “rapturous windows” of the stellar bodies. There, he claims, the “business is radiance.” By dialectical implication, “here” is the province of gloom and obscurity.
Although his endemic malease amid earthly contingency aligns him with such notable modernists as Eliot and Stevens, Wright’s truer allegiance is to Williams, Pound and the Imagists: those who, in fleeing Victorian embellishments, rooted their poetry in the things of this world. Their technique, biased against abstract statement, places the burden of meaning on description: it seeks to condition language with an objective reality. Wright shares in this aesthetic, at times so thoroughly that he reduces cognition to the aphorisms that introduce his displays of memorable imagery. But unlike his predecessors, he does not harness his descriptive gifts to the stipulations of a factual landscape. He is no realist content to disclose dependable wheelbarrows, but rather is a romantic who attempts to locate beneath the veil of the particular the vital principle that is withdrawn from him. His special transcendence, then, is not an escape per se into a Christianized apotheosis, but instead is a flight into the ineffable core of materiality. His religious diction, lifted from his Episcopal childhood, directs him away from the spiritual realms–about the existence of which he is ambivalent–and toward the proper, nourishing relations between an essential self and an essential nature.
The means of this escape from the dispersions of history into infinite essence is the poetic medium itself, language, the inadequacies of which Wright typically hopes to remedy by concentrating on the concrete. His imagist technique is yoked to his metaphysics, banning such mental activities as reflection and argument because they betray the program of his aesthetic. They disclose the imperialism of the imagination by expressing human desire, by declaring human reason, both of which falsify the world he wants to fathom, whose order he longs to articulate: what we want or think may not be what is there. Yet even by excluding the discursive from the appropriate realm of the poetic, Wright can only disguise the separation between word and thing, self and object. The so-called concrete language of the image defers, rather than gathers, the presence of the object he wants to name. The relation between noun and its material referent is an arbitrary one established by nothing more than our systems of linguistic and cultural traditions. As Paul Valery has pointed out, the word “horse” no better signifies the animal to which it refers than does “equus.” Consequently, the word does not summon the animal’s being, as is hoped, but in fact by offering itself as an incidental substitute calls our attention to the absence of being.
Such inessential connections doom the attempt to secure material essence–a fact that has not escaped Wright: hence the bereaved voice we hear in the poems. Words, he writes in “Definitions,” are the “Disjunctive edges of things,” which is to say they are of little real use to him not only because they are merely the periphery of things, but especially because they are severed (“Disjunctive”) from their objects. His aesthetic, which first led him to dissociate his poetry from the continuities of logical structure, also leads him to remark the separation that still inheres between his silent images and the unknown to which they allude. The new poem, he repeatedly tells us in Hard Freight, “will not be able to help us.” The imaginative act is a tragic one, spurred on by his sense of personal loss and, on occasion, by love. He wonders at the birth of his first child, “What can one say to a son?”, and offers only his recognition of the privileges denied to him but possessed by an impersonal nature. “Indenture yourself to the land,” he counsels, “Imagine you touch its raw edges/In all weather…” but do not delude yourself–we can complete the ellipsis–by thinking you actually do touch them. If the poem at all draws the object nearer, it does so only by spreading out human being toward it like Whitman’s spider launching forth filaments out of itself.
To privilege reality with a presence that is outside of common experience, and then to counsel an imaginative servitude to it, is to define the self outside of history and its temporal determinants. In this Wright revises Pound’s personalized historicism in which the poet construes the fragments of past cultures less as a repressive disintegration than as the occasion to rummage among the debris for untried possibilities. For Pound, the self was to find its freedom in the heterodoxy of time and its opportunities. Wright, on the other hand, even in so recent a poem as “Ars Poetica” in The Southern Cross, prefers to treat that debris as debris: something to be rooted out, or rooted under. Though he begins the poem by stating “I like it back here” (“here” signifying the commonplaces “under the green swatch of the pepper tree”), and though he admits he is “better here than he is there” where “The spirits are everywhere,” yet he is still pressed to ask, “What will it satisfy?” To pose the question is to furnish the answer: nothing much. He still has, he concludes, “this business I waste my heart on./And nothing stops that.”
By discarding the “business” of experience, Wright treats the past neither as a locus of times nor as a succession of events, but as an unhistorical condition for being. History is simply Time, the principle of duration that precedes and makes possible all social content. Consequently, in his poetry seldom do people or localities or events appear in their individuating particularity. Even so intimate a past as his childhood and adolescence, imagined with singleness of purpose in Bloodlines, discloses a home that is not a place but an essential origin, and parents that are recognizable chiefly as fellow victims of emotional and material closures. Mother and father both are significant in this collection for their deaths, which clear away what is incidental and contingent, and leave what is indelible in experience. These ineradicable patterns Wright calls “Tattoos”: the metaphor entitling the the twenty remembrances he has selected from an intermittent span of thirty-three years. What unifies his memories is the stitching of self-consciousness as the poet seeks to defeat the dualism that separates him from an objective, original presence. This has not been a chronological quest: the poems do not disclose an optimistic youth that experience gradually sours. Indeed, no such continuities are biographically pertinent. Because Wright has dated each incident and in an endnote identified the local circumstances of each, we learn that he has been buoyed by optimism as late as 1973 (the present of the poem) and scarred by despondency as early as 1940. So the tattoos are arranged according to dramatic proprieties that, in following a thematic decline from optimism to defeat, preempt the temporal flow of the poet’s life. They are not subject to the erasures of time and subsequent experience.
The thematic continuity on which he strings the disparate beads of his experience has itself two strands. The first (sections 1-10) comprises those epiphanies that disclose, across the abrupt fact of his separation from it, a “Nameless, invisible” presence that “pulls the vine and the ringing tide.” “And what pulls them,” he concludes, “pulls me.” The baldness of that conclusion equates dissimilar experiences–varying from an hallucination induced by blood-poisoning (#6) to his father’s death (#2) to his critique of Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection (#7)–without assaying the differing weights of the poet’s “temporary evangelical certainty” to which they contribute. We are left to wonder what he thinks about those differences, particularly since the sources of his visions often have occasions that abrade his physical and psychological well-being. The puzzle is not fruitful. When, for example, he addresses his dead father, “Between us again there is nothing,” two distinct readings are available, but their contradictions arrest significance rather than usefully double its conviction. One the one hand, the line has idiomatic resonance, everywhere consistent with the poet’s diction and voice, that suggests that differences have been reconciled between two previously hostile contenders. They are “even,” mutually offended and now mutually satisfied. Their presence before each other is purified of their divisive history. On the other hand, the line emphasizes their absolute difference: not a reconciliation but a silence inheres between father and son, who have no means of relating to each other since they now inhabit separate realities. They are absolved of relations, sundered, as Stevens might say, by “the nothing that is.”
The latter reading is more appropriate chiefly because it introduces tonally and intellectually the themes that close the poem. The second thematic strand (sections 11-20) compromises the first not by attacking the hope of presence, but by frustrating its attractions. In section 11 he cringes from his near death in a car wreck that would have fed him, as his father was fed before him, into the natural cycle: “The pin oak has found new meat,/ The linkworm a bone to pick.” It is unclear why, in Wright’s present scheme of things, this brush with death “Trails into the cracked lights of oblivion” while the earlier danger of his blood poisoning produces the visionary “face…at the window.” Why should one trauma offer a different metaphysical insight than a prior though similar threat? The disparity here suggests the beginnings of revised vision that wait for their development in the companion poem, “Skins.” But in “Tattoos,” the different conclusions appear relegated, somewhat inconsistently, to differing intellectual maturities: in 1941 when he was poisoned, he was six years old; by 1958 at the time of the accident, the poet has had an addition seventeen years to consider his severances and decide to inhabit this side of his losses. “We stand fast, friend,” he writes, “we stand fast.”
He believes that he is penalized for this sturdy habit. “Regret is what anchors me,” he writes in the penultimate section, and if we observe the remorse that he voices, we should note as well that he is anchored, or thinks he is anchored, amid his historical being. He is not pitying his life–the quickest solution to which would be his death, an easy remedy–but lamenting the many absences in it: those of his parents, of his own innocence, and of his sensation of authentic presence underlying human structures. His regret moves him to save these losses, if he can, from the dispersions of time, and so situates him in their fragmenting midst. Memory provides the inventory on which his regret works. It acts as a conscience that tattoos the self with its lists of his deprivations. As he regrettably works his rescues, memory reveals his deteriorations, testifies to his failures, and exhorts him to shore things up against the disconnections and accidents of daily life.
Though he is moved to unify, after recognizing the compromises of historical being, “Tattoos” yet ends with no inkling of how he is to begin. That is reserved for the subject of its companion in the collection, “Skins,” which takes up the search, amid the provisional debris of time, for a principle of unity by which the self might regather its world. Central to this quest is the Gnostic belief that the self already embodies the needed means of emancipation from a fragmenting temporality. The initiate properly vaults over the dualism alienating him from authentic presence not by an outward expression of the ego, but by an inward journey toward his own essential center: “You try for the get-away by the light of yourself,” Wright explains. The act of centering the self is a metamorphosis or a series of metamorphoses, a repeated casting off of the temporal skins: all those selves conditioned by exteriority, constrained by its accidental, inevitable bereavements. What will be uncovered, the poet tells us in the tenth and pivotal section, is the “Androgynous tincture, prima materia” that is purged of historical distractions and even of its sexual identity. In this pristine circumstance can the elect discover “one glint of the golden stitch,/The thread that will lead you home” out of the labyrinth of a dark and devouring time into the Plantonic safety of the sun.
The light from that star illuminates an apocalyptic place “Upriver…past landfall and watertrace,/Past wheels, past time and its bufferings….” There the purified self will greet its companions in the neighborhood: “Two men with their six-foot flutes, two women behind them,/Their dance, their song ascending like smoke and light/Back to the sky, back to the place it came from….” As Wright immediately confesses, this is a disappointing vision: “Of course,” he says, “it’s unworkable.” That is an unusual word in this context, “unworkable”; we would expect something other than the diction of pragmatism. But his choice introduces an empirical element in the midst of his idealism, and with it recalls the contemporary world of his day. Indeed, for a great variety of reasons such a primitivist vision will not bring the self into its essential condition. Wright is not so nostalgic for an origin that he can long delude himself to the distinction between the metaphorical value of those aboriginal lives–the mythology of intuitive being unpatterned and unfenced by a civil reason–and the real injuries endemic to those who live in technologically primitive circumstances. The poet has simply uncovered another “skin,” another contemporary fiction of presence that misconstrues the temporality (“Past wheels, past time”) of the political and social structures present in even so-called primitive, tribal societies: those two men and two women inhabit the same world as the poet does, though perhaps in a less temperate corner of it.
The lesson that “Skins” teaches is the futility of the imaginative act, a moral that also resounds throughout Hard Freight. The poet is a fellow sufferer of Sisyphus, rolling his stone: “Go up and go down, what other work is there/ For you to do, what other work in this world?” Or like another mythical inhabitant of Hades, Tantalus, the poet is teased by the sweetest objects of his desire: “Phrases, half-parsed, ellipses and scratches across the dirt.” We behold, he claims, the goal of our quest–the indications of cosmic significance everywhere associated with presence–but its meaning is withheld. Unlike either of the two mythical victims, though, Wright is not necessarily damned to the endless repetition of his discontent. He has imagined two divergent strategies for his escape: he can either try to perfect the purification of the self by inducing an orphic certainty; or he can retreat from purity entirely and instead inform his lagging historical sense by examining the continuing options of human being that the past defines for him.
The first alternative is taken up in China Trace, which completes Wright’s trilogy by bringing to their logical conclusions the themes introduced in Hard Freight and elaborated in Bloodlines. The collection, therefore, has much the nature of summary. In it we detect the familiar privileging of the natural, at the expense of the human, world and the poet’s remorse at his inability to penetrate the veils of multiplicity. “And I turn in the wind,” he complains, “Not knowing what sign to make, or where I should kneel.” “I’ll never know what the clouds promised,” he writes in “Nerval’s Mirror,” “Or what the stars intended to say.” Sentiments such as these beg the question of cosmic significance. The poet cannot lament his ignorance of a particular promise without challenging his grounds for thinking that there is a promise or intent of which he remains ignorant. How can he know? Its presence would manifest itself through its expression, which he finds unintelligible: precisely the state of things we would expect if the stars intended nothing at all. Strictly speaking, there is no promise, hidden or otherwise, save that which he himself has posited there beyond his apprehension of it. His is a self-defeat, then, one that illogically frees him to locate the ground of the sacred outside of the place of human working and willing. There in its transcendent, physically indeterminate being, it is liberated from the contaminations of the marketplace, the unlovely workshops of politics.
Once he has infused the natural ground with this holy presence, it then repays the privilege by enticing the poet to submit himself to its universals. “The dirt is a comforting,” he explains, and wants “to be bruised by God./I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out/…I want to be entered and picked clean.” He is “Waiting for something immense and unspeakable to uncover its face,” We cannot be insensible to the malignancy sugared by this mysticism, or by the many other examples of it in China Trace. The Godly immensity is bruising and unspeakable not only because its size transcends conception but particularly because it is antithetical to human being. It twice silences the poet, once by its sundering magnitude, and once by its alien senselessness. This quietude has the earmarks of intellectual impotence. As Wright has warned us from the beginning, vision is of no use to anyone; poetry, he insists, “will not be able to help us.” The insights gained from it are not sayable, and are therefore–if we are to take him at his word–non-sense; nor are they redemptive since they do not amend human error or sin: “There’s something I want to say,/ But not here…/I don’t move. I let the wind speak.” What it might howl, of course, can have little bearing on human promise as it withers or flowers in time.
What poetry can do, at least in China Trace, is rescue him from the temporal world and the responsibilities of those who abide in it. He is “Released in his suit of lights/lifted and laid clear.” Wright’s flight from responsibility, though mollified by the flourishes of his arresting and nostalgic imagery, is nevertheless a personal impasse. He himself has hidden in the natural ground the values that he retrieves by sacrificing his will and his wisdom. This is a singularly barren field to till, promising only the bitter yield of frustration. For all the obvious attraction the evangelized, hermetic self-exercises over Wright, his most compelling poetry is made not of his purifications, but of his interest in the contingencies that in other moments he refuses willingly to divest.
A handful of poems in the poet’s latest collection, The Southern Cross, discloses a rekindled attention to what is valuable–if perishable–within experience. “Homage to Paul Cezanne” in particular promises to resurrect him from his intellectual defeatism. The debt to the painter that he voices in the title is not thematic, but stylistic. In an interview given in FIELD, the poet explains that “I’ve been trying to write poems…using stanzas in the way a painter will build up blocks of color, each disparate and often discrete, to make an overall representation that, taken in its pieces,…seems to have no coherence, but seen in its totality…turns out to be a very recognizable landscape, or whatever.” The aesthetic described here is adapted from Wright’s earlier homage to the Imagists’ dedication to the sensual object. Indeed, it refines certain strategies that the poet has already developed, particularly those aimed at minimizing the dualism inhering between his poetic language and his poetic subjects. His stanzaic pointillism retreats from the falsifications of narrative: the subordination of the paragraph to the generalized purposes of the whole, the necessary cognitive voice of the narrator who orchestrates transitions and adjusts perspectives. Rather, in his painterly technique, vision becomes architectural, not verbal, and depends upon the purposeful arrangement of those “blocks of color.” The simultaneity of the structure creates a present that, though vitiated by the linear act of reading, is nevertheless central to the poem’s theme: the contemporaneity of all human life whose modes of being are informed by and repeat those of our predecessors.
That we have predecessors, that, in other words, individuals die and so enter the past does not violate Wright’s sense of the contemporaneity of human being, for as “the dead” these individuals continue to exist in an atemporal conglomerate of possibilities by which the human present is continually shaped. We the living inherit and, to a certain degree, choose from the past: in this way is history “present-ed,” introduced into a contemporary household of opportunity. “They carry their colored threads and baskets of silk,” the poet explains, “To mend our clothes, making us look right,/,..they hold us together.” We are hemmed (“they hold us together”) by what has passed before us, which can disadvantage our freedom since not all ancestral decisions benefit, morally or materially, those who derive the consequences. But the dead also extend to living souls the privilege of closure: the cessation of the train of consequences, the presentation of finitude that admits qualitative judgments. To redirect Santayana’s words, if we are domed to repeat history, however a select one, then Wright would have us able to distinguish authentic from inauthentic repetition.
“The dead are with us to say,” he claims, but only as limited partners. Their attendance on the living is conditioned by their rival allegiance to the insentience into which they have perished. They are part of our landscapes, not only our moral ones, but our material ones as well: “Over our heads they’re huge in the night sky./In the tall grass they turn with the zodiac.”
Therein lies their fear (as Wright attributes it to them), that having vanished from the volitional, living present they be absorbed by the natural world: “through clenched teeth, they tell/Their story, the story each knows by heart:/Remember me, speak my name.” Only through remembrance, the burden of present generations, can the members of the past be recalled into the temporal community, dredged from the obliterating universals of existential being. There is justification for their apprehension since the means of the recollection, language, is incompletely able to retrieve the dead from their darkness: “Whose unction can intercede for the dead?/Whose tongue is toothless enough to speak their piece?” These are rhetorical questions that imply their own answers. Wright expects no one to be savior enough to redeem the dead into other selves. What they are saved for is the self-interest of the living, who retrieve from the attic of history the old clothes of preceding generations. In so doing, we multiply our present options, fecundate our current potentials, but as always in Wright’s vision, fail to exorcise the sorrow of our condition.