Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Three Wrights at the Solstice


Charles Wright, James Wright, C.D. Wright


Summer is the time for poetry--it's curious how reading five or six poems can take an entire morning when you have the time to spare. For the past week I've been reading and rereading our new poet laureate's collection Appalachia, one part of a trilogy that is itself one part of a trilogy, all of which books and their resplendent poems ask us to reconsider just what it was we thought poetry was about. Wright is a deep thinker whose loosely structured but dense poems ask fundamental questions that aren't "about" life, or death, or God--though these are among the subjects Wright tackles--but about how a person asking questions about life and death and God goes about his business. Wright brings us along with him as his inner life moves restlessly through a repertoire of questions.  Since I'm in the habit of asking myself who a poet reminds me of--a bad habit, for one should just enjoy the poetic moment--I can't help but think of how much Gerard Manley Hopkins was after some of the same things as Wright. Both look deep into the core of things, into the mystical nature of the world, poke around a bit and bring up (more often than not) a shiny stone.  Here's a poem I can't stop thinking about called "Basic Dialogue":

The transformation of objects in space,
                                                            or objects in time,
To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise....
It's always the same problem--
Nothing's more abstract, more unreal
                                                            than what we actually see.
The job is to make it otherwise.

Two dead crepe-myrtle bushes,
                                                   tulips petal-splayed and swan-stemmed,
All blossoms gone from the blossoming trees--the new loss
Is not like old loss,
Winter-kill, a jubilant revelation, an artificial thing
Linked and lifted by pure description into the other world.

Self-oblivion, sacred information, God's nudge--
I think I'll piddle around by the lemon tree, thorns
Sharp as angel's teeth.
                                     I think
I'll lie down in the dandelions, the purple and white violets.
I think I'll keep on lying there, one eye cocked to heaven.

April eats from my fingers,
                                            nibble of dogwood, nip of pine.
Now is the time, Lord.
Syllables scatter across the new grass, in search of their words.
Such minor Armageddons.
Beside the waters of disremembering,
                                                             I lay me down.

Nothing is more unreal than what we really see...

I love the restlessness of this poem; the visceral feel and rub of specific objects (it's not a nature poem!), the casual movement from the mundane to the almost sublime (but never quite); the language ("piddle" and "nibble"), the shock that comes with the line "Now is the time, Lord," as if challenging God to make good on some promise that's encoded in the dying blossoms--a "jubilant revelation." Can a poet get away with being as philosophical as Wright? I don't like everything he does ("Syllables scatter across the new grass" is forced), but there's hardly a false move in the three books of Wright's I've been able to read.  How about this: "How small the stars are tonight, bandannaaed by moonlight, / How few and far between--Disordered and drained, like highlights in Dante's death mask." ("Star Turn II").  To ask about Wright's "themes" is to ask what a seventy-something-year-old, observant, well-read, and word-mad man might think about in the course of a day.  His theme, I guess, is how to live. Mine too.

And then there's C.D. (no relation to Charles, as far as I know). Carolyn D. Wright, of the Ozarks, has a sensibility quite different from that of her fellow southerner, Charles. Where Charles (of Charlottesville) is philosophical and formal, Jeffersonian, preoccupied with the deeper questions, C.D. is informal and immediate, raw and visceral, Jacksonian, casual in the way she presents the everyday shocks of life:

A girl on the stairs listens to her father
Beat up her mother.
Doors bang.
She comes down in her nightgown.

The piano stands there in the dark
Like a boy with an orchid.

She plays what she can
Then she turns the lamp on.

Her mother’s music is spread out
On the floor like brochures.

She hears her father
Running through the leaves.

The last black key
She presses stays down, makes no sound
Someone putting their tongue where their tooth had been.


God isn't going to be showing up anytime soon in a C.D. Wright poem. In C.D.'s poems folks are also waiting around, but not for the dying blossoms of winter; they're waiting instead for a bit of rest, or a rag of dignity:

Approximately Forever

She was changing on the inside
it was true what had been written

The new syntax of love
both sucked and burned

The secret clung around them
She took in the smell

Walking down a road to nowhere
every sound was relevant

The sun fell behind them now
he seemed strangely moved

She would take her clothes off
for the camera

she said in plain english
but she wasn’t holding that snake
"The new syntax of love." I was just downtown here in Albuquerque picking up an old pair of boots I'd had resoled. The shoemaker is an Hispanic man a decade or so older than I am (and going into his shop always takes me back several decades).  As he handed me my boots I joked that I'd love to go dancing in them now that they were repaired, but that, unfortunately, all the good country bars in our hometown were closed. And he said, "Nothing's like it used to be anymore," and I thought how often I've heard that line lately--how often I've said it myself. C.D. Wright, bless her poetic soul, is a poet who, among other things, laments the way things once were, or perhaps the way we wish they had once been. 

Then there's James--the Ur/Uber-Wright. I'm tempted to reproduce "The Blessing" here, but I'll restrain myself and offer this one instead. You'll notice how the great bard of Dobbs Ferry, Ohio, a man who in his youth looked eerily like my deceased best male friend, threads the needle between Charles and C.D.--there's the quotidian and the metaphysical in every line Jim wrote:

Crouched down by a roadside windbreak
At the edge of the prairie,
I flinch under the baleful jangling of wind
Through the telephone wires, a wilderness of voices
Blown for a thousand miles, for a hundred years.
They all have the same name, and the name is lost.
So: it is not me, it is not my love
Alone lost.
The grief that I hear is my life somewhere.
Now I am speaking with the voice
Of a scarecrow that stands up
And suddenly turns into a bird.
This field is the beginning of my native land,
This place of skull where I hear myself weeping.

("Listening to the Mourners")

I've been immersed in poetry for weeks now. Translating some contemporary French poets, reading through the Complete Lorca, dipping into old favorites--Maxine Kumin, Stephan Dunn, Ruth Stone, John Logan--trying some translations of Antonio Machado (without success), and writing some new ones of my own.  Summer is the time for poetry, baseball, beer, and long walks...Enjoy!
Try these books:
Appalachia, by Charles Wright (FSG)
Rising, Falling, Hovering, by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon)
Above the River: The Complete Poems, James Wright (Noonday Press)

George Ovitt, (6/18/14)


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