Saturday, July 28, 2007

Charles Wright: "Beauty has been my misfortune"

I've been reading Charles Wright's poems for a long time. Ever since his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand and up through his latest work.

Wright has always been slightly out of step with other poets of his generation: unimaginably precise while others reveled in imagistic stream of consciousness; and now becoming colloquial and abstract while around him others try to resurrect the narrative. He is his own poet and a master of his craft.

It is his meticulous use of language that makes Wright stand out. It has characterized his poetry from the beginning, reaching its pinnacle for me in the poems collected in the books China Trace and Bloodlines. One of my favorite poems of all times comes from the former volume:

In some other life
I'll stand where I'm standing now, and will look down, and will see
My own face, and not know what I am looking at.

These are the nights
When the oyster begins her pearl, when the spider slips
Through his wired rooms, and the barns cough, and the grass quails.
The poem forces you to linger and take it in, feeling each line and each image reverberate somewhere in your consciousness. But all is not abstraction. These reflections are tied to the real world, real events, as shown in the opening to "Hardin County" from Bloodlines:
There are birds that are parts of speech, bones
That are suns in the quick earth.
There are ice floes that die of cold.
There are rivers with many doors, and names
That pull their thread from their own skins.
Your grief was something like this.

Or self-pity, I might add, as you did
When you were afraid to sleep
Which brings me to the quotation I started with. Over time Wright's writing has changed. It has evolved from the early raw talent, to the epigrammatic beauty of China Trace, and then over the last twenty years his poems have become more explicitly religious/philosophical and tightly bound to specific natural surroundings. They have also become much longer, more rambling and reflexive.

The poems are still beautiful, still honed to a fine shiny edge. But something is missing.

I've read almost all of his books. But recently, I haven't finished most of them. This weekend I picked up the recent A Short History of the Shadow and was rereading it when I came across the line in the poem "Looking Around":
Beauty has been my misfortune
What's wrong? The line is beautiful, it is lyrical, but I don't believe it. Why is it a misfortune? What has he suffered for it? If the narrator is Wright himself (which the body of his work teaches us to believe) then this cannot be true.

As I say, his poems have changed, as they must. You cannot expect the same thing from a poet 20 years on. Because the poems are longer, the answer to these questions of justification may not show immediately like they do in his earlier, intricately packaged poems. Now, the threads stretch and intertwine throughout the poem and even across poems throughout the book.

However, ultimately, the question must be answered and the taunt of that line must be backed up. And that is what I am not finding in Wright's recent books. Is it there? I fear that it is not and Wright is expecting us to trust him that these discontinuities have meaning without proof. It is a dangerous trick and I am leery of it.

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