Charles Wright’s Oblivion Banjo
(Charles Wright, Oblivion Banjo: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
Charles Wright’s volume, Oblivion Banjo, issued by Farrar Straus in 2019, consists of a selection from ten books of poetry published between 1973 and 2014. In its 727 pages the poet meditates mostly about three obsessions. There is his past, which means principally his childhood in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and the time he spent in Italy in his early twenties. There is also his yearning for a God he says he no longer believes in. The third obsession is different: its object exists in the everyday world and the present tense and is visible in front of him as he writes. It’s landscape. It’s easy to imagine we already know this poet, who broods about God and the fading past and landscape. There must be countless such poets in every century, every country. But that isn’t the story that Oblivion Banjo tells. When Wright talks about God he seems to be trying his best not to sound too Victorian and lugubrious and when he writes about the past he’s often incapable of spellbinding even himself but when he writes about landscape he sounds like no one else. It’s the stick-stemmed spikes of the lemon tree and the birds singing an atonal row unsyncopated from tree to tree and the cloud figures stepping forth like dreams awaiting their dreamers and the dogwood electrified and lit from within by April afternoon late-light and the afternoon that teeters a bit on its green edges that solicit his most intricate and original language. Rarely God. Very rarely the past. “We all rise, if we rise at all, to what we’re drawn by,” Wright says in his poem, “Lives of the Artists.” His poems about landscape are richer, more interesting, better than the poems about God or the past and they are richer in part because he has done his best to accommodate his other two obsessions in his poems about landscape. The making of this discovery is the buried narrative of Oblivion Banjo.
Charles Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee in 1935 and graduated from Davidson College in 1955 with a degree in history. From 1957 to 1961 he served in the United States Army Intelligence Corps, stationed in Verona, Italy. Upon his return, he received a master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1963, where he also attended the Writer’s Workshop. He taught in the Creative Writing Center of University of California, Irvine from 1966 to 1983. In 1983 he won the National Book Award for Country Music: Selected Early Poems and in 1998 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac. Hired by the University of Virginia, Charlottesville in 1983, he retired in 2010. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2014 to 2015.
The landscapes Wright describes are more local than those in poems by most other poets. Readers come to know intimately the back yard of his house in Charlottesville. There are the two plum trees, the gum tree, the apple tree, the lemon tree, the oak, the dragon maple, the white pine, the hemlock, the dogwood, the magnolia, the mock crab-apple tree, the crepe myrtle bush, the dwarf orchard, “down deep at the bottom of things,” the half-circle of arborvitae. There is a high privet hedge on two sides. There’s “a strip of sloped lawn.” Wright also has, we learn from his poems, a cabin in Troy, Montana and there the yard is bigger. Outside the cabin there are bullbats and great blue herons and moose. Two meadows are mentioned. There are tamaracks and lodgepole pines. He refers to two creeks. There’s a propane tank. Coyotes skulk and jump. He can see Mount Caribou from his chair. A reader might think that the Montana landscape is nothing like the Charlottesville landscape but that isn’t true. For Wright it’s just like it. As Wright told Daniel Cross Turner in a 2003 interview, “In memory all my landscapes are the same. In reality too, come to think of it.” The two landscapes are the same. They’re both back yards. The same poet is spending his life meditating on them.
The word “landscape” sounds important enough but the words “back yard” sounds trivial. A. R. Ammons, a Southern poet whom Wright sometimes resembles, wrote in his poem, “Circles,” “I can’t decide whether / the back yard stuff’s / central or irrelevant.” Wright doesn’t care: he doesn’t want to be central or relevant: If it’s all just “back yard stuff,” that’s okay. And how can Wright be relevant? Relevant to the public? Ammons, in his poem “Hibernaculum,” wrote, “public, I have nothing to say to you, nothing: except / look at the caterpillar under this clump of grass: it / is fuzzy: look at the sunset: it is colorful.” That’s like Wright.
So he sits in his chair, brooding about his obsessions. First there is the past. Wright has no particular gift for remembering it, as he himself admits. No involuntary memories flood him unexpectedly and his voluntary ones can seem a little skimpy. Smells, which often trigger memories in other people, seem not do so for Wright. In a 1998 interview with Robert Zawacki, though, Wright said that what he longs for is not memories but memory. Coleridge wrote in his Notebooks that he wishes he could “have a continued dream, representing visually & audibly all Milton’s Paradise Lost.” That idea of a “continued dream” sounds very attractive: Paradise Lost regained. That’s what Wright means by memory. Unfortunately he remembers far from “all” and, to add to the misfortune, he is consumed with nostalgia. Eric Pankey, in his book, Vestiges: Notes, Responses and Essays, reminds his readers that “Nostalgia afflicts those with good and bad memories alike.” It may be a crueler affliction, though, for people who are bad at remembering. John Ashbery, in his prose poem, “The System,” updates Coleridge’s fantasy, writing of the desire to “treasure each moment of the past, get the same thrill from it that one gets from watching each moment of an old movie.” The idea of “each moment” also seems very attractive. Wright, too, is drawn to the idea of the past as a film. In his poem, “Italian Days” he writes, “Cut to Ferrara” and further down the page, he writes, “Cut to Verona.” But, for all his bravado, he is like a film editor who doesn’t have “each moment” but is trying to make the best of the footage he has. People with faulty memories can go into the past as often as they like, of course, but they can’t stay long. Why not? Why can’t they remember? They know that the past happened. They have, like Wright, framed photographs on the wall. And souvenirs, which could so easily recall the past to mind if they had a mind. For all the good they do, they might as well be knickknacks, locally and recently purchased. It’s not as if one is trying to recollect traumatic events. One is just trying to remember Italy in the late fifties. Why is it so hard?
Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Repetitions of a Young Captain,” uncannily evokes the intensity and insistence of Wright’s relationship with his past in Italy. “It had been real. It was something overseas / That I remembered, something that I remembered / Overseas, that stood in an external world. // It had been real. It was not now.” In one or two of his poems about Italy, Wright puts his own name in the poem, as if to establish for the record that he was really there in that external world. His poem “Self-Portrait” begins with the phrase, “Charles on the Trevisan.” And two lines later he writes, “Charles on the Trovaso.” But look how quickly the stanza turns to landscape: “Holding the pages of a thrown-away book, dinghy the color of honey, / Under the pine boughs, the water east flowing.” Wallace Stevens, to return to him, offers this aphorism: “Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.” That is certainly the trouble now but maybe in Italy when Wright was a young man life was also an affair of people? He thinks it might have been; he hopes it was. In his poem, “Bar Giamaica, 1959-60,” he remembers the names of his friends from that time. “Grace is the focal point, the tip ends of her loosed hair / Like match fire in the back light, / Her hands in a ‘Here’s the church…’ She’s looking at Ugo Mulas, /Who’s looking at us.// Ingrid is writing this all down, and glances up, and stares hard.// This still isn’t clear. // I’m looking at Grace, and Goldstein and Borsuk and Dick Venezia / Are looking at me. Yola keeps reading her book. // And that leaves the rest of them: Susan and Elena and Carl Glass. / And Thorp and Schimmel and Jim Gates, / And Hobart and Schneeman / One afternoon in Milan in the late spring.” If names were the same as people, Wright’s past would have been, without doubt, an affair of people. In fact, we don’t learn much more about the people, the ones engaged in activities or “the rest of them” than their names; they are memorialized without ever being given life. Wright resolves the scene—which has not generated any tension and doesn’t need resolution— by referring to the time of day, the place and the season. One afternoon in Milan in the late spring. It’s worth noting the story behind the poem just quoted. Wright told Andrew Zawacki in the same interview that “I used a picture by an Italian photographer named Ugo Mulas, it’s called Bar Giamaica, 1953-4, which is a bar in Milano that I used to go to in 1959 and 1960 and I put my own people into the positions he had his own people in in the same scene.” The photograph helped Wright create a scene that another poet might have remembered without it. In his poem, “Lost Bodies” Wright tries again to evoke the special dynamism and magic of his friends in Italy—but he has to admit the truth. “Mostly what I remember is one garden, outside the town of Garda / Between the lake’s edge and the road: / Corns and beans it looked like, and squash and finocchio.” The fact is, as he says in his poem, “The Southern Cross,” “The landscape was always the best part.” Landscape is always reliable, ready to step in and save a poem that set out, with the best of intentions, to be about people.
Wright never lets us forget about his problems with memory. Most of “Southern Cross,” a 16-page poem written when Wright was in his forties, is about his difficulties in remembering as completely as he wants. Sometimes, perhaps to comfort himself, he imagines it is a failure everyone shares—as, to different degrees, almost everyone does. We can never remember enough, he says: “There is an otherness inside us / We never touch, / No matter how far down our hands reach. / It is the past, with its good looks and Anytime, Anywhere…/ Our prayers go out to it, our arms go out to it / Year after year / But who can ever remember enough?” Curiously, he can talk about the past as if he were talking about God: Our prayers go out to it, our arms go out to it. The past and God can both be defined as “an otherness inside us.” In fact, Wright’s memory of the past and his memory of God are similar in the way they tease him with glimpses. In his poem, “Homage to Mark Rothko” Wright talks about “the fields of memory and devotion.” But names and faces and events and activities disappear from his memory and religious devotion seems dishonest since he believes he no longer believes in God. So much for memory and devotion. Wright is left with just the fields, which means the landscapes, which means the yards in Virginia and Montana.
It isn’t just the years in Italy. There are also Wright’s childhood and adolescent years. The problem here, as he knows, is that even if he did have a good memory he isn’t a very good storyteller. Italy in the late 1950s, he may have hoped, was sufficiently captivating that one might evoke it with place names and people’s names and Italian phrases and Italian atmosphere and hope that the reader, remembering movies by Fellini and Antonioni, will somehow feel that intriguing stories have been told. And if not, that’s okay too. Italy in the fifties was a glamorous place and time. But a childhood in the American South is different. Stories are expected, not least by readers who expect that every “regional poet” is a storyteller. Such readers can’t be fooled. Wright told J. D. McClatchy in a 1991 interview that “I grew up in a very rural, deprived, poor—very poor—area of the country.” That sounds potentially compelling, but Wright never really makes the deprivation and poverty come alive in stories. Once again he knows the problem, and is candid about it. “I am the one Southerner I know,” he tells McClatchy, “who can’t tell a story.” He continues. “No one in my family told a story—ever—in my life. I never remember my father telling one story—ever—or my mother or my grandmother, on either side. No one told stories, which is why I can’t tell one, I suppose. I’m not used to hearing stories told.” Wright knows that there are people (and not just in the South) whose lives seem automatically to organize themselves into one perfect tellable anecdote after another, whose anecdotes come complete with novelistic detail. Characters abound, each with complicated motivations. We follow the plot and picture the scenes. There’s a powerful sense of atmosphere. All this in an anecdote. Imagine what they could do with a story. How do they do it, these people? Their stories, as Wright says in his poem, “Littlefoot,” are so “deliciously slow and drawn out.” People who have faulty memories, on the other hand, have, apart from a few stories to dine out on, just a large or small number of brief sequences, sometimes not even sequences. There is always a terrible possibility, though: there might have been a story taking place that day, not a brief sequence but a real story deliciously slow and drawn out, that someone else who was there could now tell. But the person who has only the brief sequence (if that) wasn’t paying enough attention. Samuel Beckett in “Texts for Nothing 7” describes what may have been Wright’s state of attention that day: “thinking of something else, yes, that’s it, the mind elsewhere, and the eyes too, if the truth were known, the eyes elsewhere too.” Probably Wright was gazing at bushes and trees and clouds, at atmosphere.
Of course some stories do involve upsetting or traumatic incidents. Many poets specialize in such incidents. Not Wright. There are stories Wright desperately wants to remember and stories he really doesn’t. When his memories are painful he’s a reluctant storyteller. Inquisitive readers get all his bad memories, for example, in highly truncated form in one very early long poem “Tattoos,” and Wright never afterwards returns to most of them. The numbered stanzas of that poem don’t give much away and the correspondingly numbered notes at the end of the poem that are meant to explain the memories give away even less. Wright is going to confide in us as sparingly as possible. Here is a sample of some of the notes, each in its entirety: 2. “Death of my father. 5. Acolyte; fainting at the altar, Kingsport, Tennessee. 6. Blood poisoning; hallucination; Hiwassee, North Carolina. 9. “Temporary evangelical certitude; Christ School, Arden, North Carolina. 11. Automobile wreck; hospital, Baltimore, Maryland. Note 15 explains the 15th stanza. “The day of my mother’s funeral, in Tennessee.” A reader might pause over the 13th stanza, which gives a fairly explicit but also very truncated account of sexual molestation. Turning to the 13th note, the reader would find this: “The janitor; kindergarten.” (Words which rivals Humbert Humbert’s account of his mother’s death in Lolita-– “picnic, lightning”— for compression.) Has confessional poetry ever been so perfunctory? In his other memories Wright can’t say very much. Here he won’t.
Most people like to reminisce, if the memories are pleasant, and they’re content in general to remember as much as they can. If they can’t remember, it’s not a big deal. They can’t remember everything. Why is it so important for Wright to have a “continued dream” about his past? First and foremost, he wants to be young again, to be the young boy who believed unquestioningly in God and then the young lieutenant who thought the future would be as full of possibilities as the present. Nothing could be better than to live not here and now but in what Beckett in “Texts for Nothing 9” calls “the here of then.” But a reader may suspect another reason why Wright wants all of the past. What is Wright, what is anyone, without clear and complete memory? Some people don’t care but some people do. Without clear and complete memory he is a fragment, at best—and what kind of poetry can a fragment write? Fragments maybe, barely. The reader gets the word “fragment” from Kafka, who describes the catastrophe of a faulty memory in one of his Notebooks. “Weakness of memory for details and the course of one’s own comprehension of the world—a very bad sign. Only fragments of a totality. How are you going even to touch the greatest task, how are you going even to sense its nearness, even dream its existence, even plead for its dream, dare to learn the letters of the plea, if you cannot collect yourself in such a way that, when the decisive moment comes, you hold the totality of yourself collected in your hand.” Who would not (once the possibility was offered) want to hold the totality of oneself in one’s hand? And why should a person not be able to hold that totality? It belongs to that person. “I am my past, I do not have it; I am it,” Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness. The past is Wright. He has a claim on it. Why should he, having lived so many years in good faith, have to become just a fragment of a totality? If only someone would tell him—remind him—of everything that happened. A living souvenir. With a mind. But his parents are dead. Tracy K. Smith, in her poem, “No Fly Zone,” asks, “What would your life say if it could talk?”
A reader might expect, from reading Wordsworth’s poetry, some talk of recompense at this point. And there is a recompense for Wright: it’s here, the back yard, the place where is he now. In his poem, “After Reading T’ao Chi’ing, I Wander Untethered Through the Short Grass,” he writes, “I stand inside the word here, as that word stands in its sentence, / Unshadowy, half at ease.” The phrase “half at ease” is scrupulously honest and revealing; a reader can hear discouragement and hope in it at the same time. The hopefulness leads Wright to start thinking not only about the word here but the word now, the present moment. Although “now” becomes a crucial word for him, it doesn’t require a special language or tone of voice. It can be referred to casually, without recourse to language like T. S. Eliot’s, whose phrase “Time present and Time past” from his poem, Four Quartets, can be spoken only in stern sepulchral tones. Wright is not like that. He wants to be as “unshadowy” as possible. Days of the week begin to enter the poems. He tells us not only what season it is but what month. He even tells us stories of a sort about the months. March, April, May is a narrative: It has moments of suspense, surprise; it has big and small reveals; it has subplots; it is certainly lavish with atmospheric details. And it’s compelling. In any event, it’s manageable. (Maybe only a lyric poet would consider it a narrative.) Wright tells stories about the immediate past as well. December, January, February. He’s probably grateful to have at hand a past so recent that there’s no possibility of surrendering to nostalgia and suffering from incomplete memory. Better a little past than a long one. Still, he evokes the previous winter sparingly— because the present, simply put, is better than the past, even the immediate past. Schopenhauer said so, in the second volume of Parerga and Paralipomena. “That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing.” The present has the advantage of actuality. The present is where everything is, currently. All the abundance is there. Wright starts telling us in his poems what time it is. But he is only “half at ease” because there is still the past—he can’t dismiss it that easily. Schopenhauer said that the present is better than the past but maybe he was wrong.
And there is God to be dealt with. Nietzsche (and the sixteen-year-old Charles Wright) said God was dead but maybe they were both wrong. In any event, God never quite goes away. A reader might feel that he seems to want to stay. He does seem to be doing his best to get mentioned in Wright’s poems. Francis Thompson, in a famous Victorian poem, compared God to the Hound of Heaven. That sounds like Wright’s God. A hundred years older, he is still indefatigable. He doesn’t want to be just mentioned, he wants to be the sole topic of the poems. Wright, in God’s view, ought to write poems in which the poet says he believes in him, as he did between the ages of six and sixteen. God doesn’t want Wright to sound lugubrious or Victorian but to express his unquestioning belief in contemporary language, if possible. God also wants Wright to employ as much descriptive detail in writing about him as he uses to write about trees and birds. God, of course, can’t be described, not in detail and not in general. And apophatic imagery is instantly tiresome. But that’s what God seems to want. Or so the reader of Oblivion Banjo speculates.
Wright does defend himself (somewhat half-heartedly) against God. In his poem, “The Minor Art of Self-defense” he refers to God as “the ghost that over my little world / Hovered.” But he doesn’t just hover, of course. He’s more proactive than that. God has high hopes—and he’s right to have them, because Wright does allow himself to be tempted, at least to the extent of trying to write about God in contemporary language, which often means, unfortunately for God, ironized language. It’s one of Wright’s minor arts of self-defense. What God doesn’t seem to understand is that what Wright really wants to write about is landscape, not God. The landscape is visible, it’s right in front of him, it’s part of the real world and when he looks at it he writes original and extraordinary poems. God, on the other hand, is invisible, and not part of the real world, so called and he doesn’t inspire Wright in the same way. Also, it’s dangerous to write too much about God. Francis Thompson said, in his poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” that he was “sore adread, / Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.” That fear makes sense to someone being pursued by the Hound of Heaven, as Thompson was and as Wright sort of is. Because God would probably not want Wright to write about nature in his usual unpredictable and exuberant manner. That is, Wright could continue to write about nature but he would be expected to find God there every time. It used to be that writing about nature just was writing about God. What is nature but God, people used to ask. Wright doesn’t want to see God in his back yard every time. If he sees him, fine, but he doesn’t see him, not really. If something in the yard reminds him of God he will mention him and meditate on him but that’s it. It’s like a novel by Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. It’s a stalemate, page after page—even if they’re both too shy of each other to call it one. Awaiting each other’s unmistakable, unambiguous summons, they remain as they were, an Agnostic and the God of his youth.
To break the stalemate, God tries to compromise. Probably he would rather conduct the entire operation in the form of an interior otherness but this poet is oddly invested in the real world. If God has to appear in the real world, very well, he can do that, kind of. He can almost disclose himself as a cloud, for example, or almost manifest himself as the breeze. The point is, if he can suggest his presence in the landscape he can get into the poems and if he gets into the poems it is because Wright is allowing (though not necessarily welcoming) him in. In his poem, “The Other Side of the River,” Wright says, “Something infinite behind everything appears, and then disappears.” In his Montana poem “Invisible Landscape,” he writes, “God is the sleight of hand in the fireweed.” God is audible in the poem, “A Journal of True Confessions” as “something I can’t see / But hear the occasional fateful rustlings of.” He is audible again, and louder, in the poem, “Buffalo Yoga.” Wright says, “God’s ghost taps once on the world’s window, then taps again/ And drags his chains through the evergreens.”
The past, using the same methods, also tries to get into the poems. And, again, Wright lets it in. “How like the past the clouds are,” Wright says in his poem, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua.” And in his poem, “Black Zodiac,” Wright watches his memories settle about the lawn furniture in his back yard. Like God, the past tries to involve itself in the clouds and to entangle itself in the trees and bushes and foliage and hedges of Wright’s back yard. It can feel to the reader as if the unforgotten God and the almost-forgotten past would, if they could, spread like kudzu over the landscape poems—sometimes it seems as if they do. In his poem, “Remembering Spello, Sitting Outside in Prampolini’s Garden,” we read the lines, “No word for time, no word for God, landscape exists outside each. / But stays, incurable ache, both things.” The past (here, “time”) and God ensure that landscape stays both things.
God doesn’t give up. He’s undiscouragable. Besides, the poet used the phrase “incurable ache.” The phrase “incurable ache’ applies to the past as well, but the past does gradually and tentatively give up on the poet. Wright persists with the bygone days for a while. Before he peters out, he writes poems about high school as well as a poem called “College Days.” But, as Wright begins to suspect, his poems about his memories aren’t very memorable. Meanwhile, very single day the distance between the poet and the past increases. And, of course his memory is not improving as he ages. Maybe it’s time for the poet and the past to relinquish each other. Wright starts mentioning the past less and less frequently. In a 1999 interview with Ernest Suarez and Amy Verner, Wright says, “As I get older, I find that I don’t write about memory so much. Or I write about memory in a different way, which is to say that memory is not as count-on-able as I once thought it to be. It’s not as all-giving and sustaining and nourishing as I once thought it to be.” The word “nourishing” here probably comes from Wordsworth’s discussion of memory in Book XI of The Prelude. The connection suggests that Wright’s memories are not “nourishing” like Wordsworthian spots of time. They lack “distinct pre-eminence” and “renovating virtue.” It’s not working, poetically. In his poem, “Portrait of the Artist in a Prospect of Stone,” Wright says, “Nothing is ever lost, I once said. That was untrue, / I know now, the past is hiding place / Beyond recall or recovery, no matter our wants or our diligence. / Whatever is gone is gone.” Sometimes he writes as if he doesn’t actually mind forgetting. “Even a good thing remembered,” he writes in in his poem, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua, “is not as good as not remembering at all.” Wright’s tone gets more and more nonchalant as he writes about failures of memory, both long and short-term. One poem begins, “As soon as I sat down I forgot what I wanted to say.” Kafka wrote about how terrible it was to have a faulty memory but Kafka might have been wrong. In his poem, “Southern Cross,” Wright tries out this cheerful idea: “It’s what we forget that defines us.” But his failures to remember do not affect his relationship, if that’s what it is, with God. Whatever is gone is gone, but God refuses to go. The reader can’t blame him. How many other contemporary poets mention God at all?
Whatever is gone is gone. The pronouncement sounds uncharacteristically solemn and cold. That isn’t Wright’s usual tone. He doesn’t generally sound cold in his poems, as, say, Eliot does in Four Quartets. Instead Wright seems, in poems, reserved, gentle, “courtly,” according to one interviewer. He has the virtues that might be ascribed to a fourth century desert father who would graciously see visitors if he had them. Yeats, in his poem, “The Spur,” wrote, “You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attention on my old age. / They were not such a plague when I was young; / What else have I to spur me into song?” Wright is as far from being a poet of lust and rage as can be imagined. In fact, he succeeds in avoiding many of the clichés associated with aging poets. To compare him to a poet closer to him in time and geography than Yeats, here is the beginning of Robert Penn Warren’s poem, “Driver, Driver.” “Driver, driver, hurry now—/ Yes, driver, listen now, I / Must change the address, I want to go to // A place where nothing is the same. / My guts are full of chyme and chyle, of Time and bile, my head / of visions, I do not even know what the pancreas is for, what / Driver, driver, is it for? Tell me, driver, tell me true.” Wright is never panicky and shrill like late Warren. Nor is he charmingly cantankerous or adorably crusty in his poems, like Robert Frost and Marianne Moore in their later years. One imagines Wright “hoarse from silence” to borrow a phrase from Roethke’s notebooks. Or “fallow-voiced,” to use Wright’s own phrase for himself. (In his poem “North American Bear” he calls himself “a sixty-two year old, fallow-voiced, night-leaning man.”)
If Wright doesn’t usually sound cold in his poems, he does not usually sound warm either. Certainly, his poems do not include elements that other people turn to for warmth. There is, for example, almost nothing about children or indoor life in Oblivion Banjo. Here, in a 2002 poem “Body and Soul,” Wright says the only thing he has to say (in a book of 727 pages) about present tense indoor family life: “Across the room, someone gets up and arranges the things.” There are some children. He hears the laughter of their games from distant yards but the children in those poems are probably stolen away from Four Quartets. He does tell us that he dreamed of a dinner in a monastery where “roast children were served up.”
His tone isn’t cold or warm, then. What it is, often, is strange, as the reference to roast children suggests. (That was a dream, it’s true, but he put it in a poem.) Solitude makes people strange and poets are strange to begin with. Solitude makes Wright strange enough to say, in his poem, “Disjecta Membra” (a weird enough title), “I think of landscape incessantly” and strange enough to say in his poem, “Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat” (an even more peculiar title) that landscape is “outside us, yet ourselves.” In the same poem, he tells us that “The dregs of the absolute are slow sift in my blood.” Like Emily Dickinson, whom Wright greatly admires, he likes to say things in his poems that would be very difficult to respond to if he said them to you. The strangeness isn’t caused just by solitude. Too great a concentration on the visible world and on his own thoughts sometimes makes him strange—more so than usual. One moment he is in this world; the next he’s in another. For forty years he’s had migraines (which he evokes in his poem, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”: “Strict auras and yellow blots, green screen and tunnel vision, /slow ripples of otherworldliness”) but the otherworldliness evoked in so many of his poems isn’t the kind that goes with migraines. It’s different. He’s more like a poet than a migraine-sufferer. When he switches worlds, Wright brings everything with him: everything becomes otherworldly. And everybody: his neighbor, for example. In his poem, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” he writes, “Today in mid-November’s ochre afternoon light, / All’s otherworldly, my neighbor rolling his garbage carts to the curb.” His neighbor, unaware (the reader assumes) of what is happening, hesitates and looks up—there is a certain slant of light—before he goes back inside.
The “other world” suggested by the word “otherworldly” is for Wright the world of poems. It’s a world he might visit before the poem comes or afterwards or during. Maurice Blanchot in his essay, “The Work’s Space and Its Demand,” writes that art has its origin not in this world and “not in another world but in the other of all worlds.” That’s where Wright goes. (It’s very close to the spiritual world, though, a proximity probably not lost on God.) A. R. Ammons, the source of the happy-go-lucky phrase “the back yard stuff” is another poet of the otherworldly. Here are some phrases from a poem by Ammons called “He Held Radical Light.” He held radical light as music in his skull. Reality had little weight in his transcendence. His head back, mouth working, wrestling to say, to cut loose, from the high unimaginable hook: released, hidden from stars, he ate, burped, said he was like any one of us, demanded he was like any one of us. Ammons in his poems can be like any one of us but, like Wright in his poems, he has moments when he isn’t. If Wright (the Wright of the poems) saw you approach him—say you were the neighbor rolling the garbage carts to the curb on that November afternoon— he might say, as he does in his poem, “North American Bear”: “There is a final solitude I haven’t arrived at yet.” And you might wonder: what would that look like?
In his poem, “Disjecta Membra” Wright uses the phrase “unpeopled landscape” perhaps echoing the phrase “dispeopled kingdom,” in Samuel Beckett’s short story, “First Love”. The reader might wonder: why is the landscape so unpeopled? There used to be people, sort of, in Italy. And in high school. There are no people in part because so many of the poems take place in Wright’s back yard, which hasn’t been, in the poems so far, a venue for get-togethers. In a 1998 interview with Ernest Suarez and Amy Verner, Wright says, “It’s true that there are not any people in my poems. There’s a wonderful photographer named Josef Sudek who just died recently. He had only one arm, his left arm, and he had this big stand-up camera. And someone once said to him, your pictures are always of landscapes, or churches or still lifes. Why aren’t there ever any people and he said, well, when I start out there are always people there, but by the time I get everything ready and I take the picture, they’re all gone, and that’s sort of the way I feel. The people are sort of there, but by the time I get through going through everything, the people are gone and the concerns are there.” Wright is happy to talk about the fact that he’s not a people person in his poems. He told Miriam Marty Clark and Michael McFee in a 1988 interview, “The only time I tried to do something that a critic suggested was after Helen Vendler’s first long piece on my work. She said it would be nice to have some people in the poems so I tried, particularly in The Other Side of the River (1984). But then I also saw that that wasn’t my major interest. I did listen and I did do it, and I must say that on account of that it’s probably my most approachable book. I realize that. It’s not that I’m trying to be perverse in not continuing that. It’s just not my motif.”
The people are gone and the concerns are there. There is an atmosphere of people, or there was. Wright isn’t a misanthrope. Walt Whitman, gossiping with Anne Gilchrist about Thoreau, said, “I do not think it was so much a love of woods, streams and hills that made him live in the country, as a morbid dislike of humanity.” (There will be more to say about Whitman’s own love of woods, streams, and hills.) Wright shows no morbid dislike or disdain for people. It’s just that, as he says in the wonderfully titled “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner,” “To be separate, to be apart, is to be whole again.” He is like Rilke, who wrote in a letter in 1912, “people will always be the false way for me.” Still, although Wright needs to be alone as much as possible, he does still experience loneliness or, as he calls it, “lonesomeness”—and that might be caused by a longing for other people, though it’s more likely a longing for people in the past, many of them, like his mother in particular, long dead. But Wright, no matter how lonely he sometimes feels, will not give up his solitude. He is stubborn. In his poem, “Signature,” he writes, “Don’t wait for the snowfall from the dogwood tree. / Live like a huge rock covered with moss, / Rooted half under the earth and anxious for no one.” Still, he does have a sense of humor about his hunger for solitude. In his poem, “Passing the Morning Under the Serenissima,” he tells us about Heraclitus the Obscure: “Unable to take the ‘full clarity’ of his fellow man, / He took to the mountains and ate grasses and wild greens.” And he told Andrew Zawacki in an interview in 1998: “In my fantasy life I have dreamed of the perfect reclusion being the best way to think and write about what one was thinking about. As one gets older, that becomes less and less of an attractive option and more and more of a possible necessity. Any time it becomes a possible necessity, instead of a choice, anything starts to lose its luster a little bit. My ambition now is to be what John Ashbery once termed himself to be, ‘a well-known recluse about town.’” Town would be unendurable, though, if he didn’t have his back yard to return to. He even feels, oddly, that his love for solitude is requited. In his poem “Littlefoot,” he writes, “I have loved, and been loved in return, by solitude.” He says that about nothing and no one else in Oblivion Banjo.
Notice should be taken, though, of a group of people who do appear in the poems, though, to be fair, they’re not quite people: they’re the unpeople of the unpeopled landscape. They’re almost people: each of them is, to quote Beckett in his novel, The Unnamable, “not far short of a man, just barely a man, sufficiently a man to have hopes one day of being one.” In a poem from his second volume, Bloodlines (1975) Wright ends a stanza with the line, “We stand fast, friend, we stand fast.” Liking the formula, he uses it throughout Oblivion Banjo, varying it each time. His “people” multiply. We meet—meet is too strong a word— brother, pal, friend, my friend, man, my man, Stranger, Buckaroo, dog, Buddy, dude, Jack, amigo, George, wind-rider, wind-spirit, Pilgrim, cousin, Hoss and Slick, among others. (Slick is one of Wright’s favorite adjectives and suddenly, arrestingly, it’s someone’s nickname.) Wright doesn’t mean “reader” when he uses these names. We’re actual people, and he isn’t much interested. He is more interested in the “people” who are sufficiently a person to have hopes one day of being one, the ones named or nicknamed Bud, Pal, Amigo and Hoss. They are better than poetry readers. They’re not readers at all. Their nicknames suggest a secret life beyond the contemplative life that Wright appears in his poems to be living. That secret life is one of action, and jauntiness and swagger and aplomb. They’re lively and adventurous, their nicknames suggest; they lead reckless out-of-doors lives. It’s a male-dominated world, judging by the nicknames. In fact, there are only men. Or maybe it’s the same man every time? Is it to relieve that monotony that Wright calls him by a variety of nicknames? Next time Slick shows up he might be called Hoss. Or Slick might not be the same Slick. It’s useless to speculate. Still, although each of them, Brother or Pal or Friend or Buckaroo, is given a temporary individuality he is scarcely rescued from anonymity. He remains anyone, someone. Still, he is not no one. It’s true that he never has a last name, as Ramon Fernandez does in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Scholars have spent decades trying to figure out if Stevens was referring to the Ramon Fernandez and, if so, why. No scholar will ever research these “people.” Nor could the scholars even if they wanted to. Still, these “people” are not no one.
They show up a fair amount. A reader might ask: why would any of them show up more than once? Maybe they like to. One can imagine being gratified by being called buddy, pal, brother or amigo or Slick or Hoss. You’re not only not no one, you’re (though still anonymous) a particular sort of person, who is being singled out. It is sometimes dangerous to be singled out and named, as we see when Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men addresses the person he is about to kill with his bolt stunner as “friendo.” But there is nothing for Wright’s “people” to fear. In fact, it is good fortune to be one of them. The poet is giving you a name that offers you a new perspective on yourself. It’s like the sudden sense of warmth and well being a certain kind of person feels when a waitress at the diner calls them darlin’. But to get back to men: you’re being talked to man-to-man. There is, for the length of a sentence, male bonding. Somebody else besides you thinks of you as “one of the roughs.” That’s good for morale. Hard-bitten, hardheaded remarks are aimed at you. Sometime the talk has a rugged post-apocalyptic flavor: “When the world has disappeared, amigo, / Somebody’s got to pick up the load,” Wright says. Are you part of a post-apocalyptic cowboy poem? Now the poet is saying something flattering to your intelligence. “After a time, Hoss, it makes such little difference / What anyone writes,” Wright says in his poem, “Relics.” It’s an invitation for reassurance. No sir, it does make a difference, you might be preparing yourself to say. But he’s moved on and it’s too late and you’re mortified by your seediness and your interchangeability. In fact he called you Hoss when Amigo is your name. That’s not right. (At least he didn’t call you Friendo.) Shoulders hunched, you trudge back out of the poem. The talk about jauntiness and swagger and aplomb was just a made-up backstory, foolish vainglory. You’re no one.
Wright generally writes about “people” like Hoss—for all that he quickly discards them—with great sympathy. He is not a poet with a gift for empathy for people, as he admits in a Louise Glück-like poem, “No Entry.” But these are his “people.” He’s responsible for them. In his poem, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” he writes that “The disillusioned and twice-lapsed, the fallen-away / Become my constituency: those who would die back / To splendor and rise again / From hurt and unwillingness / their own ash on their tongues, / Are those I would be among, / The called, the bruised by God, by their old ways forsaken / And startled on, the shorn and weakened.” And he celebrates them in his poem, “Littlefoot.” “Praise for the left-out and left-behind, / Praise for the left-over and over-looked.” He speaks of “Failure, our two-dimensional side-kick” in his poem, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua.” Rilke, too, describes such people in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Malte, the narrator, says, “They are here and away again, set down like lead soldiers. The places where one finds them are somewhat remote, but by no means hidden. The bushes recede, the path curves slightly around the grass-plot: there they are with a quantity of transparent space around them, as if they were standing under a glass dome. You might take them for pensive pedestrians, these inconspicuous men of slight, in every respect modest, build.” Malte adds, “It is not that I want to distinguish myself from them, when I go about in better clothes that have belonged to me from the start, and set store on living somewhere.” Malte feels that he could easily share their situation and condition, if things don’t go well for him in Paris. Wright has the same fear if the back yard stuff doesn’t work out. He doesn’t want to be a failure, to live under the conditions that his “people” suffer. There is a worse condition, though, which Wright calls “Nothingness.” Luckily, that hasn’t so far been a permanent condition.
So it isn’t true that Wright doesn’t talk to “people” in Oblivion Banjo. He does. He also talks to God. That is, he prays, sort of. Why does Wright pray even though he doesn’t think he really believes? Maybe it makes him feel wholly (or at least a little more) present to himself or it gathers him up, organizes him, makes him feel fleetingly that he has the totality of himself collected in his hands. Probably it reminds him of his childhood in church. Maybe it feels like a memory. Maybe it seems (for a second) like a speech-act of some kind. It should be noted that he prays only for himself. There are no intercessory prayers. He doesn’t pray for Jack or Hoss. Their cause is hopeless.
His prayers must be unsatisfying to their recipients. Tracy K. Smith describes the situation in her poem, “It & Co,” in which God is called “It.” “”Unconvinced by our zeal, it is un- / Appeasable.” Wright’s prayers, as we read them in his poems, are not the kind that would appease a deity for the poet’s lack of real belief. His prayers are, for one thing, always petitionary. In the early poem, “Clinchfield Station,” Wright says, “Father advise us, sift our sins.” Advise? Sift? The Father must be able to sense that something is off. Wright’s prayers to the Lord are, nevertheless, confident. “Listen up, Lord, listen up,” he says in his poem, “Lives of the Saints.” But the Lord doesn’t listen, not to words like those, and after a while Wright mostly stops addressing him when he prays. (Soon he starts using the name “Lord” in his poems the same way he uses “Amigo” or “Slick”—as if it were a nickname for someone whose cause is hopeless, someone he wouldn’t pray for, much less pray to.) Surprisingly, Wright never prays to Christ. He told Daniel Cross Turner in an interview in 2003 that he is “God-haunted perhaps, but not Christ-haunted.” He is, he says, “a God-fearing non-believer but Christ doesn’t really enter into it.” Once God takes human form, maybe, Wright loses interest.
The poet’s prayers are sometimes addressed to Christian entities or at least Lords—private Lords, mostly, their existence and powers known only to the supplicant. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, tells his readers that Hesiod “reckoned up at least thirty thousand gods.” That’s a lot to choose from but Wright makes up his own gods. The poem “Link Chain” ends, “Lord of the Anchorite, wind-blown bird, / Dangle your strings and hook me. / I am the gleam in your good eye, I am your ticket; / Take me up, and drop me where I belong.” Does the Lord of the Anchorite understand the meaning of the lines, “I am the gleam in your good eye, I am your ticket”? What would God make of that prayer? Does he suspect that, like all the prayers, it’s really addressed to him? For that matter, what does the Lord of the Anchorite make of it? Should a prayer be too obscure or too private for its recipient? Or is the Lord of the Anchorite the only one who would understand the prayer? Probably he does not get it, at all. Possibly he’s irritated by it. One can imagine him gladly taking Charles Wright up and dropping him. In any case, Wright quickly drops the Lord of the Anchorite. There are always other supernatural beings to pray to in a pinch. For example, there is this prayer, from his poem, “Black Zodiac”: “Lords of the discontinuous, lords of the little gestures / Succor my shift and save me.” And this prayer, in “Disjecta Membra”: “Lord of the broken oak branch, Lord of the avenues / Tweak and restartle me, guide my hand.” (A Lord is present in Wright’s yard who isn’t God. Is Wright trying to arouse God’s jealousy?) And this prayer in “Littlefoot”: “Lord of the sunlight, Lord of the left-over, Lord of the yet-to-do / Handle my heaven-lack, hold my hand.” Wright also likes to pray to saints. In “A Journal of True Confessions” he petitions a saint. “St. Xavier, hear me, St. Xavier, hear my heart / Give my life meaning, heal me and take me in.” He also canonizes new ones, “Saint Stone” for example. Maurice Blanchot in his essay, “The Work’s Space and Its Demand,” quotes Kafka: “My incapacity to think, to observe, to determine the truth of things, to remember, to speak, to take part in the life of others, becomes greater each day; I am turning into stone.” Kafka has a greater claim to the name of Saint Stone than anyone, even Wright, but it’s Wright who canonized the saint. In any event, Wright has moved on to other made-up saints. One of Wright’s poems is called “Saint Someone.” (Can one be canonized without ever being identified by name? The dream of the recluse.) There is also a Saint Shush to whom Wright doesn’t pray, for obvious reasons.
Sometimes it seems as if Wright is saying prayers rather than praying, to use a distinction made by William Law in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728). Wright admits as much but says it’s a general failing: “We’ve said our prayers out of our mouths, not out of our hearts,” he writes in his poem, “The Narrow Road to the Distant City.” (He is quoting William Law.) But the cadences of the prayers are often so seductive one can’t blame the poet for wanting to just hear himself say them. In his poem, “Citronella,” for example, Wright prays, “Forsake me not utterly, / Beato immaculato, and make me marvellous in your eyes.” Should one, registering the eloquence, suspect a shade of insincerity or maybe deliberate parody? God might. He might suspect that the supplicant is over-ardent, his distress not dire. But God isn’t the audience here. (But what if he is always the audience for all the prayers? What if he hears earnestness in even the most showy and actorly petitions. That would be a nuisance for Wright.) Wright likes the phrase “Beato Immaculato” and wonders whether it might sound even more ardent and sincere if the word “beato” was in English. He prays, in his poem “Littlefoot”: “Deliver us, blessed immaculata, adorn our affections.” Is that a prayer or not? If not, what is it? Is it, to borrow a phrase from Four Quartets, an unprayable prayer? Some of the fervor and eccentricity of Wright’s petitionary prayers may come from Theodore Roethke, a poet Wright admires. In his 1948 poem, “The Lost Son,” Roethke wrote “Snail, snail, glister me forward, / Bird, soft sigh me home, / Worm, be with me, / This is my hard time.” Oddly, while Roethke prays to snails, birds and worms, Wright doesn’t pray to elements of the landscape, apart from the occasional broken oak branch. He wants to describe them, not pray to them. Description, though, he sometimes thinks, may be a kind of prayer. In his poem, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox,” Wright says that “attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” It is worth noting that in a later poem, “Georg Trakl Journal,” he writes, “Never forget where your help comes from. / Last year, and the year before, the landscape spoke to me / Wherever I turned.” He is thinking of the 121st Psalm: “I will lift up mine eyes onto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” The psalmist didn’t literally mean the hills, the landscape, the Blue Ridge mountains or Mount Caribou, for example, but Wright does.
Wherever I turned. Wright keeps turning over and over again toward the visible, which can, of course, be seen as an act of disobedience.. Thomas a Kempis, for example, in his fifteenth-century Imitation of Christ, says, “Keep this proverb often in mind. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Therefore, withdraw your heart from the love of things visible and turn yourself to things invisible.” Wright likes to be given such directions, even if he doesn’t follow them. In his poem, “Cicada,” Wright quotes Augustine’s Confessions, a book he calls in a 1998 interview with Ernest Suarez and Amy Verner, “the iconic book of my life”: “This earthly light / Is a seasoning, tempting and sweet and dangerous, / Resist the allurements of the eye, / Feet still caught in the toils of this world’s beauty resist / The gratifications of the eye.” However much Wright loves Augustine’s prose, it doesn’t do much to make him remember to resist the allurements and gratifications of his back yard. What else can he be absolutely sure of? The landscape is really there, even if everything else drifts away. The landscape doesn’t just seem to be there for a few seconds. It isn’t fleeting, like God and the past. He tells us in “Watching the Equinox Arrive in Charlottesville, September 1992,” that “like migrating birds, our own lives drift away from us. / How small they become in the blank sky, how colorful, / On their way to wherever they please. / We keep our eyes on the ground, on the wasp and pinch bug. / As the years grind by and the seasons churn, north and south, / We keep our eyes on the dirt. / Under the limp fins of the lemon tree, we inhabit our absence. / Crows cross-hatch and settle in, red buds and dust sparrows / Spindle and dart through the undergrowth. / We don’t move. We watch but we don’t move.” Landscape once again comes to his rescue here. The landscape, with the wasp and pinch bug, the dirt, the limp fins of the lemon trees, the crows, the red buds and dust sparrow, the undergrowth, is always count-on-able. In “December Journal” he writes, “I keep coming back to the visible. I keep coming back / To what it leads me into.”
What it leads Wright into is a version of late twentieth-century Romanticism. His version, in general, is different than the nineteenth-century version. He is ironic, guarded but at the same time, to use the word again, nostalgic. He could almost be a postmodern poet except for his focus on trees and birds and for the yearning a reader can sometimes detect behind the irony and guardedness.. Wright’s version is different, also, because he is working with less. For the nineteenth century Romantic poet it was good if there were cataracts and mountain peaks, an atmosphere of storminess and struggle and triumph. Byron sees a glacier in the Alps and calls it a “frozen hurricane.” On the same trip, Byron writes: “Set out to see the Valley; heard an Avalanche fall, like thunder; saw Glacier—enormous. Storm came on, thunder, lightning, hail; all in perfection and beautiful.” And here is Coleridge in the Lake Country. “The sight of the Crags above me on each side & the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight.” Later, Coleridge writes, “A succession of Waterfalls 7 in number; the third of which is nearly as high as the first.” And later: “I found an imperfect Shelter from a Thunder-shower—accompanied with such Echoes! O God! What thoughts were mine! O how I wished for Health & Strength that I might wander about for a Month together in the stormiest month of the year, among these places, so lonely & savage & full of sounds!” Wright likes loneliness but not savagery. Anyway, he avoids heroic posturing. One imagines him, when he is alone in the Montana landscape, less like a Caspar David Friedrich figure and more like staffage. In any event, the phrase “O God! What thoughts were mine!” is something Wright could never say in a poem or in life. Just as he doesn’t want to sound like a Victorian poet, he doesn’t want to sound like a Romantic one
If Wright did say it, it would be for parodic or partly parodic purposes. He is drawn to a certain kind of language, one that is partly ridiculous and partly in earnest. (He’s Osric and Hamlet at the same time.) Wright starts to find (or to pretend to find, or to imagine finding or to prepare himself to find) his never-quite-outgrown religious yearnings risible. Although he still sometimes uses religious language with sincerity, he is also capable, as was evident in some of his prayers, of being parodic in his use of it. (Reverence and irreverence are mixed unpredictably in Wright’s work, as they are in Gustav Mahler’s. Mahler was lucky that he could mark his scores with the phrase “with parody.”) Wright starts using words like “transplendent. ” Stars “transverberate” now in his poems. In a poem called “Is” he writes, “Transcendence is a young man’s retreat, and resides in a place / Beyond place, vasty, boundless.” Pretending to compete with Coleridge who, in his Notebooks of 1795, writes of the “charms or Tremendities of nature,” Wright uses the word “vasty.” Although he disavows the word at the same time as he uses it, the reader senses that he likes it. It’s the wrong word but a great word. It’s wrong because although Wright’s back yard isn’t inglorious, exactly (it does have the oak tree, the Virginia cedar, the lemon tree, though its fins are limp), it isn’t a place beyond place, it’s in or near Charlottesville, Virginia, “the northern South,” as he calls it and it isn’t boundless, it has the high privet hedges on two sides, it’s the opposite of vasty. There’s “a strip of sloped lawn.” His land in Montana sounds a bit more vasty, less like a back yard and more (it has two meadows and two streams) like a panorama. His back yard in Charlottesville, on the other hand, is not even an inadequate version of pastoral. Still, it’s familiar and comfortable. He has his chair. To borrow a phrase from Beckett’s “Texts For Nothing 2” “What could be more endurable?”
Sometimes he wants more, though and says so, straight out, earnestly, with no irony, maybe. “I have a thirst for the divine, like a long drink of forbidden water,” he says. That sounds earnest. Kierkegaard, in his chapter on Mercifulness in Works of Love (1847) writes that “Earnestness is a person’s God-relationship; wherever the thought of God accompanies what a man does, thinks and says, earnestness is present; therein lies earnestness.” But the poem that includes Wright’s reference to his thirst for the divine is called “Lost Language.” He can’t talk about spiritual thirst without making fun of it—and of himself, for having the temerity to ask not only for a drink but also for a “long” drink, which will save him from the embarrassment of having to ask again immediately. In any event, he continues to use foppish spiritual words. He can compensate for his downsized Romantic landscape with what Robert Burton calls “ambitious swelled words.” In his poem, “California Dreaming” he uses the word “apotheosizic.” There’s a giddy pleasure, the poet feels it, the reader feels it, in being sesquipedalian. In his poem “Buffalo Yoga” Wright calls the clouds above his yard “transubstantiatonally strange.” Wright finds such words humorous but at the same time he’s like someone who, though he says magic words mockingly, still hopes they might work. (It’s not unlike prayer.) In the early poem, “Cloud River” Wright tells us that he is “waiting for something immense and unspeakable to uncover its face.” That isn’t the Episcopalian God of his childhood. If it does come it will come from Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming.” Still, Wright will have a word to welcome it. The word transubstantiatonally is, if not immense, long and at least initially unspeakable.
The only certain thing is that the immense, unspeakable thing will find Wright sedentary. As Oblivion Banjo continues, there are more and more poems that include the phrase “I’ve been sitting here.” Wright sits in his chair, winter and summer, year after year; he’s a hero of perseverance, a saint, if saints can be sedentary. One was: he’s like the fifth-century St. Simeon Stylites, who sat on the top of a forty-five foot pillar for thirty-seven years. A poem from Chickamauga (1995) is called “Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn.” In another poem from the same book Wright tells us he is “back in the same chair.” The Lord of the Anchorite understood and answered at least that part of his prayer, clearly; he took him up and dropped him where he belonged. In “Still Life with Stick and Word,” Wright says, “Next week. Back in the same chair.” While Robert Duncan wrote, “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow,” Wright doesn’t need permission to return. It’s his meadow (in Montana), it’s his yard (in Virginia.) Once he goes to visit Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. “I sat where she sat,” he says in his poem about the visit. He tells us that he looked out at her boxwood and evergreens. It’s her chair and her yard, though, not his, and nothing happens. He returns down south to his own chair.
Where he sits, solitary, purposeful, a prophet of quarantine. Sometimes he gets up. Maybe he wanders, browsing, or drifts, melancholizing, to borrow a word from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. But even moving slowly about, even drifting (on a good day he might stroll or saunter) he is always looking, always observing. Can there be such a thing as a flâneur in nature? He is never bored. (Morning, Wright says in “Littlefoot,” is the “never-boring miracle.”) Can nature be tedious? It’s a taboo question, one to be avoided as much as possible, though Wright does permit himself one or two poems about boredom with it. (An early one is called “Next.”) And once in a while he might direct pointed remarks at the seasons. In “A Journal of Southern Rivers” he writes, “One August starts to resemble another. ” And again in “Watching the Equinox Arrive in Charlottesville, September 1992” he asks, “How many times can summer turn to fall in one life?” (Tu Fu, the eighth-century Chinese poet whose poems Wright’s often resemble, asks, in “Thoughts Brimful: Cut-Short Poems,” “How many times can spring turn summer in this one life?”) In “Looking Around II” Wright asks, “What can I possibly see back here I haven’t seen before?” Nature can become boring, of course. Anything can. Jacques Moran asks, in Beckett’s novel Molloy, “Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom in the long run?” Even the immense unspeakable thing would become a trial by the second day. One imagines the poet writing another poem called “Next.” Would God become boring? The question goes unasked.
Meanwhile, the poet sits in his chair. There is so much to see and to say. Wallace Stevens wrote “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Wright might wonder, why only thirteen? He looks around and words come. “What’s dark gets darker against the shrinking twilit sky,” Wright notes in “Looking Around II.” Again: “Hedgerow and hemlock and maple tree. / A couple of lightning bugs. / Dog bark and summer smell. Mosquitoes. The evening star.” Again: “the plum tree breaks out in bees.” It’s in “Looking Around III” that Wright starts to wonder about boredom. but he never acts bored in his poems. Nor does he ever let us see him idle or indolent. We never, for example, see him in a hammock, possibly because he remembers James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” which ends with the realization, I have wasted my life. (There haven’t been many hammocks in poems since then.) Anyway, Wright’s a monk of a sort and monks at least according to the fourth century Sayings of the Desert Fathers anathematize “relaxation of the body.” And who writes in a hammock? Because Wright, at the edge of his yard, is never not at work. It should be noted that it’s almost never yard work. Almost never because once he does do yard work. In his poem, “Local Journal,” not quite half way through Oblivion Banjo, he takes pruning shares to cut the sticks of the rhododendron back. Apart from that, he never tends anything in these poems. He doesn’t plant or transplant. He doesn’t weed. There’s no flower gardening. He doesn’t seem to do any gardening—at least none that he mentions in his poems. Beckett gardened. Wright doesn’t even mow the lawn. (Although he says in one poem, enigmatically, “I’ll see that the grass gets mowed.”)
Wright, in fact, keeps a surprising distance from the subject of most of his poems. As he says in “The New Poem,” the new poem “will not have dirt on its thick hands.” It’s not just that he doesn’t garden: he is in general scrupulously unphysical in his relationship to his yard. For example, he looks at the grass but he almost never sits or lies on it. Once—inspired, he says, by a poem by Tu Fu—he does bring his bed outside. And Wright says, in his poem, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” that he lies in sweet clover. And once he lies down in the dandelions. (And then, maybe remembering that he didn’t dislike it, lies down again 110 pages later). He is as far as can be from Andrew Marvell who, in his long poem, “Upon Appleton House,” wrote, “Bind me, ye woodbines, in your twines, / Curl me about, ye gadding vines, / And, oh, so close your circles lace, / That I may never leave this place: / But lest your fetters prove too weak / Ere I your silken bondage break, / Do you, O brambles, chain me too, / And, courteous briars, nail me through.” It’s encouraging to see for once a desire not to dominate nature but to be dominated by it. Wright, though, in the same situation, would probably courteously tell the briars that he would just as soon go back to his chair. Beckett in a 1930 letter to Thomas McGreevy, writes, “I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats—squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips & rubbing his hands ‘counting the last oozings, hours by hours.’” Keats is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum that includes nature enthusiasts at one end and nature lovers at the other. It’s not clear exactly where Marvell belongs on that spectrum. Marvell is more enthusiastic than Keats but there are those who are more enthusiastic than either of them. A reader might recall Samuel Butler’s observation that “eating is touch carried to the bitter end” and notice that, though Keats licks his lips, he doesn’t eat. Because what is there to eat? Grass? Beckett’s Molloy eats the grass and Nebuchadnezzar eats the grass like oxen and Heraclitus the Obscure eats grasses and wild greens. But they’re not poets. We hear about their exploits through others. Whitman, on the other hand, tells us about his exploits himself, which go beyond eating. A nature lover securely stationed at the furthest end of the spectrum, Whitman enjoys, as he tells us in “Song of Myself,” sexual intercourse with the earth. “Smile O voluptuous coolbreathed earth! / Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!” he begins, and then a few lines later cries out, “Smile, for your lover comes! // Prodigal! You have given me love….therefore I to you give love! / O unspeakable passionate love! // Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight! /We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.” (Charles A. Dana, reviewing Leaves of Grass in the New York Tribune, praised Whitman’s “genuine intimacy with nature.”) Charles Wright is somewhat less assertive in his poems, as is the earth. In “Disjecta Membra” he says, “My shadow sticks to the trees’ shadow” and leaves it at that.
To return to mere crouching. Wright is, in comparison with Keats, more of a brooder than a croucher. But he’s not against crouching. He doesn’t, for obvious reasons, kneel, but he does, now and again, assume a crouching position. At least he makes observations like a crouching person: “All the little black bugs have left the daffodils,” he tells us, for example. And he can be physical. Beckett used the word “rubbing.” So does Wright, by coincidence: In “Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn,” he writes of “rubbing this tiny snail shell between my thumb and two fingers / Delicate as an earring.” But mostly Wright looks from a distance. Blanchot, in his essay, “The Essential Solitude” writes about “what happens when what you see, although at a distance, seems to touch you with a gripping contact, when the manner of seeing is a kind of touch, when seeing is contact at a distance.” The past never offers Wright much real contact even at a distance. Maybe God, if he existed, would offer such contact if Wright gave him more encouragement. But, although it may seem that Wright avoids direct dealings with landscape, there is somehow gripping contact at a distance. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, writes, “Those other senses, hearing, touch, may much penetrate and affect, but none so much, none so forcible as sight.” That sounds like Wright. It isn’t Whitman, but it’s a good life.
So Wright sits in his chair and looks, moving happily back and forth between the world of the senses and the world of ideas. Among the ideas, there are two that are inescapable, two about which some decision must finally be made. He has, he thinks, no future as a poet, possibly, with the Episcopalian God and he has, he knows, no future as a poet with the past. The words themselves make that plain. What he has a future with as a poet is the lemon tree and the dogwood and the rest—because his best ideas have their source in the world of the senses. And in gratitude to the future, Wright becomes a poet on whom nothing taking place in his yard is lost. He wants to be worthy, which means never giving us meager or inattentive description. Hölderlin, in a draft of a hymn, writes, “And to experience what it is / Demigods or patriarchs feel, sitting / In judgment. Yet they are not equal to everything / In their surroundings, i.e., life, buzzing with heat and the echo of shadows.” Wright, always in search of atmosphere, is happy with the echo of shadows. In his poem, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” he writes, “The swallows and bats at their night work / And I at mine.” His statement of vocation is unusually bold in that poem: “—I have no interest in anything but the color of leaves, / Yellow leaves drawing the light around them / Against the mumped clouds of an early November dusk—”
Mumped? Wright’s word choices as he continues may be a sign that he’s finally “at ease in the natural world” to borrow and slightly alter a phrase from his poem, “Black Zodiac.” He’s fully at ease now, that is, not half at ease. He knows the back yard stuff is working. His vocabulary, surprising from the start, becomes even more playful and unexpected. It’s not just that he has fun with spiritual terminology but with all words, any words. In a poem about the eighteenth century British poet Thomas Chatterton, Wright celebrates Chatterton’s “inventing his own vocabulary.” Wright himself does something like that. In “Meditation on Form and Measure,” he begins a stanza with the words, “Spruce-cloister abbeyesque, trees monk-like and shadow-frocked.” It’s as if he wants to suggest at the same time effortfulness and effortlessness: an anxiety to find the right words and a nonchalance about the rightness of the words chosen. He writes: “Nubbly with enzymes, / The hardwoods gurgle and boil in their leathery sheaths.” Curious words come to him and he lets them come. Sitting in his chair, he watches—with an analyst’s evenly hovering attention—the clouds or the trees or the birds or the grass and words, often remarkable words, come to him. (He’s Dorothy and William Wordsworth at the same time.) It’s not as if he is constantly being startled as he watches or that he wants to “restartle” us, to use the startling word he used in his prayer to the Lord of the broken oak branch, Lord of the avenues. Robert Duncan said in an interview that in William Carlos Williams’s poetry, “everything appears as an epiphany” to Williams. Wright is not constantly having epiphanies. The reader is startled more often by the words chosen than by the thing seen. Mumped. Abbeyesque. Undrumrolled. Nubbly. Flamingoing. The more unexpected the word, the better.
Most often it is the sunset that inspires his desire to startle. Wright’s words for the sunset seem both carefully chosen and tossed off. Ammons might be content to say “Look at the sunset: it is beautiful.” Wright has more fun than that. In two different poems many pages apart in Oblivion Banjo, he says, “I love to see that evening sun go down” and he really does. Certainly he loves to describe it going down. At the same time he likes disappointing our expectation that words about the setting sun will evoke some of its majesty and glory. The sun, in fact, doesn’t believe in God, as Wright says in a poem. If the sun believes in anything, it’s the everyday world and so Wright compares it to things in that world. In his poem “A Short History of the Shadow” he sees an “Orange Crush sunset over the Blue Ridge.” In his poem “Arkansas Traveller” the sunset is “like carrot juice down the left pane of the sky.” It may be that Wright wants to avoid what Stevens, in his poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C” calls “the strict austerity / of one vast, subjugating, final tone.” That is, Wright doesn’t always want to sound rueful and meditative. In his poem “Dog Day Vespers,” the sun is “an orange mousse through the trees.” In any case, almost always when he is describes the sunset, he avoids the exalted and lofty and gives us instead the defiantly undignified.
Wright also likes to write about the sun not setting but shining. Here again he startles us with his words, some of which are hyphenated, some not. His rationale is unclear. There is hawklight, underlight, Vaseline-coated light, December lastlight, acid light, pigeon-light, gnat light, smallish light starting to seep, coppery blue, out of the upper right-hand corner of things, peach light, Sunday prayer light, stain of saint-light on a choir stall, cantaloupe-colored light, lung light, rubbery blotches of sunlight, late-century light, dust light, second-hand light, dishcloth light, wrung out and almost gone, brandy-colored light, spider light, yard light (which is, he tells us, like the inside of a diving bell not yet in deep water.) In “Summer Mornings’ there is “a light like the absence of light it is so feral and shy.” Stevens, in his poem, “Local Objects” writes, “Little existed for him but the few things, / For which a fresh name always occurred.” A fresh name does always occur to Wright. And it is always everyday light, even when Sunday and prayer and choir stalls are evoked. It is never heavenly or blinding light. It’s never accompanied by a voice. Augustine in his Confessions, writes, “My soul is flood-lit by light that space cannot contain.” No souls are flood-lit in these poems. It’s just physical light, sufficient to see by. It’s not especially kindly, and it usually doesn’t lead on.
One imagines the poet, affable, wistful, mild-mannered, sitting in his chair. Interesting words come to him. And not just words all by themselves. Conceits, analogies, personifications, correspondences, metaphors come to him. They involve the sunset and the sunlight and everything else he can see and he puts them in his poems. It’s a strangely intimate gesture, coming up with metaphors. Because nature must crave it. Because nature isn’t enough, sometimes. It must know that. It isn’t boring, it just isn’t enough, sometimes. If God were available, God would be enough. Memories, too, if there had been enough of them, and if they’d been long enough, would have been sufficient. But Nature is on some days not enough. It’s count-on-able, it’s abundant, but it can seem insufficient in a way that feels like it must be offering an invitation to his imagination, must be saying, Supplement me; Augment me. Say something original about me. In his poem, “Meditation on Song and Structure,” Wright quotes the Rumanian philosopher and essayist, E. M. Cioran. “Nature abhors originality, according to Cioran / Landscape desires it, I say.” Landscape wants originality and Wright is more than happy to oblige it. In his poem, “Littlefoot,” he writes, “The language of nature, we know is mathematics / The language of landscape is language, / Metaphor, metaphor metaphor, all down the line.” The landscape seems almost to be coming up with its own metaphors. In Wright’s poem, “May Journal” he writes that “Iris in in abundance / And onion and rhododendron metaphor wildly.”
Loren Eiseley, in his foreword to Not Man Apart: Photographs from the Big Sur Coast (1964) writes of the relationship between Robinson Jeffers and the landscape in which he lived: “It was one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his background that I know of in literature.” Wright has that kind of relationship with landscape. That’s the odd thing about landscape: because there are constantly changes and variations in it, conversation feels two-way. He is extraordinarily responsive to it. “I sense a certain uncertainty in the pine trees,” he writes in his poem, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua. “Seasonal discontent, quotidian surliness. / Pre-solstice jitters that threatens to rattle our equilibrium.” Nature introduces a topic, then changes it. Or the poet looks elsewhere, changing the subject himself. Things happen unexpectedly: “a small rain commences / Then backs off,” he writes in his poem, “Homage to Samuel Beckett.” Or: “Rabbit suddenly in place / By the plum tree, then gone in three bounds,” as he says in his poem, “Tennessee Line.” Now nothing at all happens. Poet and landscape are motionless. They wait. It’s a lull. Something suddenly happens, involving a light breeze. These aren’t stories, exactly, but they feel almost like installments of something. Call it March April May. “A shallow thinker, I’m tuned to the music of things,” Wright says in his poem, “Why, It’s Pretty as a Picture.” “The conversation of birds in the dusk-damaged trees, / The just-cut grass in its chalky moans, / The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I’m all ears / To all this and half again.” Birds talk to each other. Dogs talk to each other. The poet listens and it’s as if they know he’s listening. What will the next ten minutes bring? The twenty minutes after that? There are changes in the sky. But keep your eyes on the flowers and birds. In his poem, “April Evening,” he writes, “Spring buzz-cut on the privet hedge, a couple of yellow cups / Downdrafting from the honeysuckle. / One bird in the hapless holly tree giving us liftoff and glide.” Put it this way: Nature, if it isn’t communicative, exactly, is expressive. And it makes the poet expressive, inspiring him to say beautiful, startling things. It seems like a good life. Again, as Beckett asks, what could be more endurable?
Except that Nothingness is present in the yard with him. It’s always nearby now, lying at lurch. It’s the other suitor and, like God, it’s playing the long game. What is Nothingness and why does the word appear so frequently in Wright’s poems? It isn’t the Nothingness made famous by Buddhism. If only it were. Nor is it like otherworldliness. There’s still a world in otherworldliness. There is poetry. Instead, it’s the space Wright fears most. Inside Nothingness, God doesn’t exist, of course, and the past is gone and there is no nature. No God, no past, no nature. There is overmuch solitude and Wright talking endlessly with nothing to talk about. The scariest thing about Nothingness, probably, is that it takes away nature. Beckett, in his novel The Unnamable, describes the feeling when nature is taken away: “Even if there were things, a thing somewhere, a scrap of nature, to talk about, you might be reconciled to having no one left, to being yourself the talker, if only there were a thing somewhere, to talk about, even though you couldn’t see or know what it was, simply feel it there, with you ” If there were things, a thing somewhere, a scrap of nature, to talk about. Everyone has his or her own image of utter desolation. That’s Beckett’s—and Wright’s.
Inside Nothingness Wright is absolutely alone. What Robert Burton called “feral melancholy.” In the world, where Wright spends most of his time there is overmuch solitude too and he feels depression. Feral melancholy is certainly scarier than depression but depression is pretty bad. Wright refers, in “Looking Around III,” to “the black lake that pools in my heart” and in “Ars Poetica II,” he writes, “I believe that dead leaves and black water fill my heart.” In his poem, “Littlefoot,” he writes for the only time in Oblivion Banjo explicitly and at length about his depression. “There is a kind of depression that empties the soul. /The eyes stay bright, the mind stays clear as Canada on an autumn day / Just after the rain. / But the soul hangs loose as a plastic bag in a tree /When the wind has died. It is that drained. / And overcast. The little jack-weeds / That line its edges exhale, / And everything falls to a still, uneasy remove. / It stirs when the wind shifts, and seasons tumble and stall. / It stirs, but it doesn’t disappear. /Though weeds re-up and the clouds relent, it doesn’t disappear.” Once again, landscape enters, trying to rescue the poem, but it isn’t strong enough. In the world, there is depression. Inside Nothingness (which wants to swallow you up for good) there is feral melancholy. Better to stay in the world, if possible, where there is also some possibility of happiness.
Sometimes the presence of Nothingness is concealed, sometimes it’s conspicuous—but it’s always there. Wright learns gradually to deal with Nothingness or at least to get used to it somewhat. He talks more or less calmly, in “A Journal of Southern Rivers,” about “the nearness of Nothingness.” It haunts him, though, as it does certain fifteenth-century disciples of Jesus. In Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, Jesus says to one such disciple, “Left to yourself you always lean toward nothingness. You quickly fall and quickly you are overcome; you are quickly disturbed and quickly you become discouraged.” Still, Wright can be funny about it. “Every existing thing can be praised when compared with nothingness,” he says. And he starts using the (partly parodic) phrase “the great void” when he talks about it. In his poem, “China Mail,” Wright says that “walks in the great void are damp and sad’ in “late middle age.” Nothingness is less terrifying maybe, if you can call it a damp, sad void. Wright mentions the great void in his poetry more and more. At least there isn’t a jump-scare every time he notices it. As Beckett writes in “Fizzle 8: For to end yet again,” “He facing forward will sometimes halt and hoist as best he can his head as if to scan the void and who knows alter course.” Wright can alter course. That’s better than to be swallowed up for good. He’s been inside. How has he gotten out? It’s not clear. He just has. So far.
More importantly he’s been able to accommodate God, though maybe not in his heart. Probably that will never happen. The stalemate will never be broken. But he can accommodate him in the landscape he concentrates on all day and in the poems he writes about landscape. The ghost of God and the ghosts of the past are just there, like Nothingness. They’re a part of the landscape and of the landscape poems. They will have to be satisfied with that. Wright is satisfied. There is happiness in that.
If Nothingness has been playing the long game throughout Oblivion Banjo—hoping to get Wright for good—but death (which has the same aim) takes over for the last few books. More and more a proximity to Nothingness becomes a nearness to death. It is coming. Nothing can stop it. He thinks about death now more often even than Prospero. In his poem, “Meditation on Form and Measure” he says, “Out of any two thoughts I have, one is devoted to death.” Wright knows the end will be soon and says it. He doesn’t say it to keep it from happening but simply to register his recognition that it’s near. Wright will one day be someone with whom others hold one-way conversations. Death must be what he meant (even if he didn’t know it) when he talked about “the final solitude” that he hadn’t arrived at yet. The words of Wright’s poems grow sparer, as if they know that time is running out. Elias Canetti, in The Agony of Flies: Notes and Notations, writes, “How does old age affect words? They begin to sound strange to us, as if they themselves had some premonition they will no longer be uttered in infinite iteration.” Still, he keeps writing. A Buddhist hermit from Tibet named Milarepa, who died in 1123, left the world The 100,000 Songs of Milarepa. Charles Wright, the reader suspects, would utter the words in infinite iteration until he had 100,000 poems, if it were possible. But he only has the time he has. “What have you done with your life,” Wright imagines the eighth century Chinese poet Tu Fu asking him in his poem, “Waiting for Tu Fu.” It’s not as if Wright wants to offer what other people would call a storyline. But there is one, maybe. He could, like other older people, be sitting in a pew in a church or on the couch in the house, sitting under lamplight with the photograph albums but he’s in his chair looking at his back yard. How did he come to be sitting there? It might be good to think about the past again. That was a defeat. And God again. That was a stalemate. And landscape, of course. That was a victory for both sides. What have you done with your life, Tu Fu asks. The title of one of Wright’s poems gives an answer Tu Fu would have appreciated: “Landscape as Metaphor, Landscape as Fate and a Happy Life.”
Nick Halpern‘s essay on Robert Duncan appeared in the last issue of Free Verse.