Charles Wright

Five poems, selected by Daniel Cross Turner, and an interview with the poet.



Since landscape’s insoluble,
Then loath at last light I leave the landfall, soft and gone.
Or it leaves me.
                           I’ve got a tune in my head I can’t let go,
Unlike the landscape, heavy and wan,
Sunk like a stone in the growing night,
Snuffed in the heart like a candle flame that won’t come back.
Our world is of little moment, of course, but it is our world.
Thus it behooves us to contemplate,
                                                           from time to time,
The weight of glory we should wish reset in our hearts,
About the things which are seen,
                                                      and things which are not seen,
That corresponds like to like,
The stone to the dark of the earth, the flame to the star.
Those without stories are preordained to repeat them,
I saw once in the stars.
                                      Unclear who underwrote that,
But since then I’ve seen it everywhere
I’ve looked, staggering
Noon light and night’s meridian wandering wide and the single sky.
And here it is in the meadow grass, a brutish script.
We tend to repeat what we don’t know
Instead of the other way around—
                                                         thus mojo, thus misericordia,
Old cross-work and signature, the catechism in the wind.
We tend to repeat what hurts us, things, and ghosts of things,
The actual green of summer, and summer’s half-truth.
We tend to repeat ourselves.
One longs for order and permanence,
An order as in the night sky just north of Mt. Caribou,
Permanence like the seasons,
                                                coming in, going out,
Watchman and wanderer. There’s been no cure, however, and no
Ecstasy in transcendent form, so
Don’t look for me here, incipient, now, in the artifice.
Florence is much on my mind, gold leaf and golden frame,
Infinite background of the masters—
Mayfire of green in the hills,
                                               watchtower and Belvedere,
The Arno, as Dino said, like a dithering snake,
Sad swipe of forgetfulness.
Last chance, a various universe.
A few more rising and setting suns.
Always the spike of the purple lupin, always the folded hands of the dog rose.
Childhood, gentle monk.
His eye extinguished,
                                   someone’s red-gold heart-mouth has sealed his lips.
No wind in the evergreens, no singer, no lament.
Summer surrounds us, and wordless, O blue cathedral.
A few more sorrowful scenes.
The waters murmur, shadows are moist in the upper meadow.
Silence wide as a wasteland through the black streets of the forest.
Over the white eyelids of the dead,
                                                         white clover is blossoming.
Late snow like a fallen city shimmers the mountain’s riprap and stare.
Unmullioned window, stained light.
The lapis lazuli dragonflies
                                             of postbelief, rising and falling near
The broken slab wood steps, now one by one, now in pairs,
Are not the dragonflies of death with their blue-black eyes.
These are the tiny ones, the stems, the phosphorescent,
Rising and falling like drowned playthings.
They come and they disappear. They come back and they disappear.
Horizon-hump of pine bristles on end toward the south,
Breath-stealer, cloudless drop cloth
Of sky,
             the great meadow beneath like a mirror face down in the earth,
Accepting nothing, giving it back.
We’ll go, as Mandelstam tells us, into a growing numbness of time,
Insoluble, as long as landscape, as indistinct.

from A Short History of the Shadow (FSG 2003)
Reprinted by permission of the author.



Always it comes when we least expect it, like a wave,
Or like the shadow of several waves,
                                                             one after the next,
Becoming singular as the face
Of someone who rose and fell apart at the edge of our lives.
Breaks up and re-forms, breaks up, re-forms.
And all the attendant retinue of loss foams out
Brilliant and sea-white, then sinks away.
Memory’s dog-teeth,
                                   lovely detritus smoothed out and laid up.
And always the feeling comes that it was better ten,
Whatever it was—
                                people and places, the sweet taste of things—
And this one, wave borne and wave-washed, was part of all that.
We take the conceit in hand, and rub it for good luck.
Or rub it against the evil eye.
And yet, when that wave appears, or that wave’s shadow, we like it,
Or say we do,
                        and hope the next time
We’ll be surprised again, and returned again, depite the fact
The time will come, they say, when the weight of nostalgia,
                                                                             that ten-foot spread
Of sand in the heart, outweighs
Whatever living existence we drop on the scales.
May it never arrive, Lord, may it never arrive.

from A Short History of the Shadow (FSG 2003)
Reprinted by permission of the author.



Afternoon overcast the color of water
                                                             smoothed by clouds
That whiten where they enter the near end of the sky.
First day of my fifty-fifth year,
Last week of August limp as a frayed rope in the trees,
Yesterday’s noise a yellow dust in my shirt pocket
Beneath the toothpick,
                                     the .22 bullet and Amitone.
Sounds drift through the haze,
The shadowless orchard, peach leaves dull in the tall grass,
No wind, no bird shudder.
Green boat on the red Rivanna.
                                                   Rabbit suddenly in place
By the plum tree, then gone in three bounds.
Downshift of truck gears.
In 1958, in Monterey, California,
I wrote a journal of over one hundred pages
About the Tennessee line,
About my imagined unhappiness,
                                                       and how the sun set like a coffin
Into the gray Pacific.
How common it all was.
                                        How uncommon I pictured myself.
Memento scrivi, skull-like and word-drunk,
                                                               one hundred fourteen pages
Of inarticulate self-pity
Looking at landscape and my moral place within it,
The slurry of words inexorable and dark,
The ethical high ground inexorable and dark
I droned from
                       hoping for prescience and a shibboleth . . .
I remember the word and forget the word
                                                                   although the word
Hovers in flame around me.
Summer hovers in flame around me.
The overcast breaks like a bone above the Blue Ridge.
A loneliness west of solitude
Splinters into the landscape
                                             uncomforting as Braille.
We are our final vocabulary,
                                               and how we use it.
There is no secret contingency.
There’s only the rearrangement, the redescription
Of little and mortal things.
There’s only this single body, this tiny garment
Gathering the past against itself,
                                                     making it otherwise.

from Chickamauga (FSG )
Collected in Negative Blue (FSG 2000).
Reprinted by permission of the author.



Dove-twirl in the tall grass.
                                             End-of-summer glaze next door
On the gloves and split ends of the conked magnolia tree.
Work sounds: truck back-up-beep, wood tin-hammer, cicada, fire horn.
History handles our past like spoiled fruit.
Mid-morning, late-century light
                                                    calicoed under the peach trees.
Fingers us here. Fingers us here and here.
The poem is a code with no message:
The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath,
Absolute, incommunicado,
                                            unhoused and peregrine.
The gill net of history will pluck us soon enough
From the cold waters of self-contentment we drift in
One by one
                    into its suffocating light and air.
Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax
And grammar a catechist,
Their words what the beads say,
                                                     words thumbed to our discontent.

from Chickamauga (FSG )
Collected in Negative Blue (FSG 2000).
Reprinted by permission of the author.



I was walking out this morning with rambling on my mind.
—Sara Carter
There’s a curve in the road, and a slow curve in the land,
Outside of Barbourville, Kentucky, on U.S. 25E,
I’ve always liked
                            each time I’ve passed it,
Bottomland, river against a ridge to the west,
A few farmhouses on each side of the road, some mailboxes
Next to a dirt lane that leads off through the fields.
Each time I’d think
                                How pleasant it must be to live here.
In Kingsport, when I was growing up,
Everyone seemed to go to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, up U.S. 23,
All the time.
                      Everyone had an uncle or aunt there,
Or played golf, or traded cars.
They were always going up there
                                                      to get married, or get liquor,
Or to get what was owed them
By someone they’d been in the service with.
Lone went up there more often than anyone else did,
Part of his territory for State Farm,
                                                         somebody said,
Without much conviction.
When the talk turned to whiskey,
                                                      and everyone dusted his best lie off,
We all know, or thought we knew, where Lone went
With his funny walk and broken back
He could hit a golf ball a ton with,
                                                        even if he did stand sideways
Like a man hauling a body out of the water,
Being the real owner, we thought, of that gas station out on the Jonesboro highway
You went to the back of
                                        for a pint after 10 p.m.,
Lone getting richer and richer until the Moose Lodge
Started to take his business away
                                                    by doing it legal, and during the daylight.
So Lone went back, we all thought,
To stumping around the golf course, still
Hitting it sideways, still selling whatever he could
To anyone foolish enough to play with him and pay him,
Old Lone, slicker than owl oil.
It was all so American,
The picket fence of wrought iron a hundred years old,
Lilacs at every corner of the lawned yard
                                                                  in great heaps and folds,
A white house and wild alfalfa in scattered knots
Between the fence the cracked sidewalk,
The wind from the Sawtooth Mountains
                                              riffling the dust in slow eddies along the street
Near the end of June in Hailey, Idaho,
The house where Pound was born,
                                                        with its red maple floors
And small windows two blocks from Idaho 75,
Hemingway ten miles on up the same road between two evergreens,
Nobody noticing either place
                                                as the cars went through town
All night and all day, going north, going south . . .
Another landscape I liked
Was south of Wytheville, Virginia, on U.S. 52
Just short of the Carolina line,
                                                 a steel bridge over the New River,
Pasture on both sides of the road and woods on the easy slopes,
Big shrubs and trees lining the riverbanks like fur,
The road and the river both
Angling back toward the Iron Mountains,
The valley bulging out to the east
                                                       in a graceful swirl,
The dead chestnut trees like grey candles
Wherever the woods began . . .
What is it about a known landscape
                                                          that tends to undo us,
That shuffles and picks us out
For terminal demarcation, the way a field of lupine
Seen in profusion deep in the timber
Suddenly seems to rise like a lavendar ground fog
At noon?
                What is it inside the imagination that keeps surprising us
At odd moments
                            when something is given back
We didn’t know we had had
In solitude, spontaneously, and with great joy?
Today, at midsummer noon, I took the wooden floats
To the Yaak River, the small ones I’d carved from the larch
And cedar chips,
                             and loosed them downstream
To carry my sins away, as the palace gardians did each year at this time
In medieval Japan,
Where the river goes under the new bridge
                                                                      on County 508
And the first homesteaders took up their quarter sections.
From Sam Runyan’s to Susie Speed’s
Through white water and rock and the tendrilous shade
Of the tamaracks,
                              out into rubbery blotches of sunlight,
The floats’ shadows hanging beneat them like odd anchors
Along the pebbled bottom, the river slowing and widening,
The floats at great distances from one another
Past Binder’s cabin under the black
                                                          of the evergreen-covered dam
And over the falls and gone into foam and next year . . .
In the world of dirt, each tactile thing
                                                             repeats the untouchable
In its own way, and in its own time.
Just short of Tryon, North Carolina, on U. S. 176,
Going south down the old Saluda Grade,
                                                                   kudzu has grown up
And over the tops of miles of oak trees and pine trees,
A wall of vines a hundred feet high, or used to be,
Into South Carolina,
That would have gone for a hundred more with the right scaffolding,
Rising out of the rock and hard clay in thin, prickly ropes
To snake and thread in daily measurable distances
Over anything still enough long enough,
                                                                  and working its way
Out of the darkness and overhang of its own coils
To break again and again
Into the sunlight, worthless and everywhere,
                                                                        breathing, breathing,
Looking for leverage and a place to climb.
It’s true, I think, as Kenko says in his Idleness,
That all beauty depends upon disappearance,
The bitten edges of things,
                                            the gradual sliding away
Into tissue and memory,
                                       the uncertainty
And dazzling impermanence of days we beg our meanings from,
And their frayed loveliness.
Going west out of Kalispell, Montana, on U.S. 2,
If you turned at Kila,
                                   and skirted the big slough
Where Doagie Duncan killed three men some seventy years ago
After a fight over muskrat hides,
Then turned south toward the timber
                                                            and higher ground
On the dirt road to the Flathead Mine,
Past Sundelius’ homestead and up toward Brown’s Meadows,
Then swung down where the mine road
                                                                branches right and doubles back,
You’d come through the thinning spruce and fir
And lodgepole pine to suddenly open hillsides
And deep draws
                           of the Hog Heaven country
And start to see what I mean, the bunchgrass and bitterroot
And wild clover flattening under the wind
As you turned from the dirt road,
                                                      opened the Kansas gate
And began to follow with great care
The overgrown wagon ruts through the blowing field,
                                                                              the huge tamarack snag,
Where the tracks end and the cabin is,
Black in the sunlight’s wash and flow
                                                             just under the hill’s crown,
Pulling you down like weight to the front door . . .
The cabin is still sizable, four rooms and the walls made
Of planed lumber inside,
                                         the outside chinked with mud
And cement, everything fifty years
Past habitation, the whole structure
                                                          leaning into the hillside,
Windowless, doorless, and oddly beautiful in its desolation
And attitude, and not like
The cold and isolate misery it must have stood for
When someone lived here, and heard, at night,
This same wind sluicing the jack pines
                                                                and ruined apple trees
In the orchard, and felt the immensity
Loneliness brings moving under his skin
Like a live thing, and emptiness everywhere like a live thing
Beyond the window’s reach and fire’s glare . . .
Whoever remembers that best owns all this now.
After him it belongs to the wind again,
                          and the shivering bunchgrass, ad the seed cones.
There is so little to say, and so much time to say it in.
Once, in 1955 on an icy road in Sam’s Gap, North Carolina,
Going north into Tennessee on U.S. 23,
I spun out on a slick patch
And the car turned once-and-a-half around,
Stopping at last with one front wheel on a rock
                                                                            and the other on air,
Hundreds of feet of air down the mountainside
I backed away from, mortal again
After having left myself
                                        and returned, having watched myself
Wrench the wheel toward the spin, as I’m doing now,
Stop and shift to reverse, as I’m doing now,
                                                                       and back out on the road
As I entered my arms and fingers again
Calmly, as though I had never left them,
Shift to low, and never question the grace
That had put me there and alive, as I’m doing now . . .
Solo Joe is a good road.
It cuts southwest off Montana 508 above Blacktail Creek,
Crosses the East Fork of the Yaak River
                                                                 and climbs toward Mount Henry.
Joe was an early prospector
Back in the days when everything came in by pack string
Or didn’t come at all.
                                    One spring he shot his pet cat
On the front porch with a rifle between the eyes
As she came through the cabin door.
He later explained she was coming for him
                                                                      but he got her first.
He drank deer’s blood, it was said, and kept to himself,
Though one story has him a gambler later downriver near Kalispell.
Nobody lives there now,
But people still placer-mine in the summer, and camp out
Illegally on the riverbank.
No one knows anything sure about Joe but his first name
And the brown government sign that remembers him.
And that’s not so bad, I think.
                                                 It’s a good road, as I say,
And worse things than that will happen to most of us.
The road in is always longer than the road out,
Even if it’s the same road.
I think I’d like to find one
                                          impassable by machine,
A logging road from the early part of the century,
Overgrown and barely detectable.
I’d like it to be in North Carolina,
                                                       in Henderson County
Between Mount Pinnacle and Mount Anne,
An old spur off the main track
The wagons and trucks hauled out on.
Blackberry brambles, and wild raspberry and poison ivy
Everywhere; grown trees between the faint ruts;
Deadfall and windfall and velvety sassafras fans
On both sides . . .
                              It dips downhill and I follow it.
It dips down and it disappears and I follow it.

from The Other Side of the River (FSG, 1984).
Collected in The World of the Ten Thousand Things (FSG (1990)
Reprinted by permission of the author.


©1984-2005 Charles Wright, reprinted by permission of the author.

Charles Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee in 1935. He spent his youth and early adulthood in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. He graduated with a B.A. from Davidson College in 1957, then joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Verona, Italy from 1957-61. After his time of service, Wright earned an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa in 1963, then was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Rome, 1963-65, as well as a Fulbright Lectureship at the University of Padua, 1968-69. He has taught at the University of California at Irvine and now teaches at the University of Virginia. Wright has published fourteen volumes of poetry as well as translations of Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana. He has also produced two collections of nonfictional essays and interviews, Halflife (1988) and Quarter Notes (1995). His stature as one of the most compelling voices at work in contemporary American poetry is evident in his numerous prestigious awards for his verse, including a PEN Translation Prize in 1979, an Ingram Merrill Fellowship in 1980, a Lenore Marshall Prize for Chickamauga (1995), a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for Black Zodiac (1997), and an Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.