Charles Wright’s Oblivion Banjo – published in advance of his 85th birthday (Farrar, Straus, £20) – is somewhere between a Collected and Selected and begins with a homage to Ezra Pound:
Today is one of those days
One swears is a prophecy:
The air explicit and moist,
As though filled with unanswered prayers
This sounds like the day everything started for Wright. After graduating from college in 1957, he joined the army and was posted to Verona. A friend suggested that he visit Sirmione on Lake Garda and read Pound’s celebration of it, ‘Blandula, Tenella, Vagula’. Pound’s poem begins: ‘What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?’ The question longs to be rhetorical – what could be more lovely than the spot he’s in? – but the longing isn’t wholly satisfied because Pound entices us to speculate on what a beyond might be. Wright called that day ‘my most momentous occasion’, the opening of ‘a magic door’. Part of what it opened onto, though, was a hauntedness. As Wright sat there he felt an exile within his exhilaration.
Pound gave Wright a method as well as a mood: the lyric poem organised not by cause and effect but by ‘gists and piths’. Much has been made of the arcs of development that distinguish Wright’s collections (his nine early books were gathered into three selected volumes, ‘a trilogy of trilogies’), but Oblivion Banjo isn’t a Bildungsroman. It’s the episodes that linger, not the project. Jump in – pretty much anywhere – and you find Wright just where he’s always been:
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.
In Wright’s perplexed pastoral, it’s not clear whether human activity is a herald of order or a glitch in the system. Do we take a leaf out of nature’s book as we continually renew ourselves, or do our repetitions spell trouble? The options aren’t mutually exclusive – and, besides, we only ‘tend’ to repeat. Although his poems often sound like one another, Wright coaxes the unforeseen from the same old same old.
Born in 1935, Wright had a nomadic childhood, growing up in Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina as the family travelled around for his father’s work (they moved ten times before his tenth birthday). His education was spent ‘under the evangelical thumb’ of the Episcopal Church, and he attended a boarding school nicknamed ‘Jesus Tech’ by its students. The church – ‘from which I fled and out of which I remain’ – left its mark: he describes himself as a God-fearing agnostic and says that all his poems are off-key hymns. God isn’t just ‘the sleight-of-hand in the fireweed’; he’s ‘pig drool and up-in-the-air and the yelp from the grass’. Asked for a description of his poetic voice, Wright said it was speech from outside the stained glass, looking in. He also employs less plangent forms of nostalgia and numinosity; back in the day, ‘Coca-Cola came in six-ounce green bottles, as God intended.’
Wright’s poetry assumes that the past is where we are headed. Memory has always been his stimulus – a fertile piece of land to work, he’s said, ‘particularly if you are a Southerner and … were brought up by people who lived in the past’. His grandmother died when he was sixteen, and both his parents before he was forty. In Bloodlines he writes that ‘Home is what you lie in, or hang above, the house/Your father made, or keeps on making.’ Many of his lyrics unfold in a strange in-between time; they live a posthumous existence in which we are ‘Left with ourselves/As though we were dead, or otherwised’. But rather than settling into omniscience, the poems feel at once belated and expectant; an everyday thing (someone cutting grass, say) arrives as ‘a visitation, or some event/The afternoon’s about to become the reoccasion of’. Wright looks to the future to clarify – and perhaps redeem – the past. He has written of Eugenio Montale (whose collection The Storm he translated into English) that his ‘imagery gives hints of a succession of little apocalypses’. This might suggest that the Apocalypse is never now, or that you’ll need more than one.
As a teenager Wright worked as a reporter for a local paper, and later claimed of his first byline – ‘By Chuck Wright, Times-News Staff Writer’ – that ‘nothing since has ever been so beguiling in print to me.’ After the army, he was offered a place at the Columbia School of Journalism but turned it down to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Donald Justice became his mentor. At the time, Justice was experimenting with both traditional metres and syllabics: ‘The old order was starting to break apart and a new, looser order was looming,’ as Wright recalls. He’s fond of Montale’s claim that poetry rises out of prose and yearns to return to it, and his lyrical intensities are punctuated by chatty moments (‘How do I want to say this?’ he sometimes asks, mid-poem, or ‘What was it I had in mind?’). He counts each syllable and every stress in his lines; most have ‘the iambic ghost’ tapping behind them, but the lines also allow for other semi-absent presences (‘a kind of half-free verse, I suppose’).
Wright’s aim is to create ‘Emily Dickinson on Walt Whitman’s open road, kinetic compression within a more open-ended space’, and this led him to experiment with a split-level line (‘the low rider’, he has sometimes called it): ‘In the world of dirt, each tactile thing/repeats the untouchable’; ‘I love the idleness of the pine tree,/the bright steps into the sky’; ‘Swallow pure as a penknife/slick through the insected air’. In Wright’s work, singular, apparently self-contained things are tied to movement, plurality or process. In Zone Journals (1988), he watches the last wind of summer in the dogwood trees: ‘Across the street, flamingoing berries’.
A description reveals – or implies – something about its describer, and in Wright’s poetry the self, like the world it watches, is on its way out. This might be why he’s fond of stargazing. ‘I gaze at the constellations,’ he writes, ‘forgetting whatever it was I had to say’.
How small the stars are tonight, bandannaed by moonlight,
How few and how far between –
Disordered and drained, like highlights in Dante’s death mask.
Or a sequined dress from the forties – hubba-hubba –
Some sequins missing, some sequins inalterably in place.
I’m not sure what to make of his claim that ‘hubba-hubba’ is his favourite line in his work (‘I knew it from the second I wrote it’), but he isn’t just being facetious; the fading yet never wholly faded glamour of the stars remains a spur to desire – and to emulation. ‘Dante makes you want to have your own life, and to do the best you can with it,’ Wright says. ‘His poem is a great Platonic model of both life and art.’ Oblivion Banjo is ‘a small-time paradiso’ – but it humours its creator’s need to believe in the Big Time of transcendence.
Wright has become increasingly willing to go with the flow, to end a poem by saying things like ‘And it’s been okay,’ or ‘I guess so.’ Sometimes his casualness seems stage-managed, yet his sense of existing at a slight remove from himself (of being ‘the character who plays me’), and not being able to hold it together (‘I can’t tell a story, only Southerner I know who can’t’), has helped shape his strangest effects. In The Other Side of the River (1994), he recalls a camping trip to Mount LeConte in Tennessee when he was eleven. Prone to sleepwalking, this time he wandered half a mile to a cliff edge with a thousand-foot drop, and then, ‘Deeper in sleep than the shrubs’, stepped to the edge:
When my left hand, and then my right hand,
Stopped me as they were stopped
By the breathing side of a bear which woke me
And there we were,
the child and the black
bear and the cliff-drop,
And this is the way it went
– I stepped back, and I
And I walked down through the rhododendron
And never looked back,
truly awake in the
And I ducked through the low flap
Of the tent, so quietly, and I went to sleep
And never told anyone
Till years later when I thought I knew what it meant,
which now I’ve forgot.
Hush and thrill; plodding blankness and slow-motion tactility; a trailing-off more resonant than any interpretation: these are the distinctive features of Wright’s lyricism. And they are enhanced by a barely perceptible run of rhymes and off-rhymes (‘rhododendron, anyone’; ‘stopped, drop, stepped, forgot’; ‘went, tent, meant’; ‘black, back, flap, sleep’) that seems to embody the action of a mind feeling around for coherence.
To read large swathes of Wright is to be induced into a trance, so it’s hard to pick out landmarks in Oblivion Banjo, though the collection at its centre, Black Zodiac (which won the Pulitzer in 1998), foregrounds a long-standing preoccupation. It begins by restating Wright’s commitment to a discredited subject matter – landscape – and ends by confessing: ‘I think of landscape incessantly.’ ‘All forms of landscape are autobiographical,’ he writes, yet the scenery often refuses him privileged access to his life: ‘The river stays shut, and writes my biography.’ He finds ‘the silvery alphabet of the sea/increasingly difficult to transcribe’; the ‘aphorisms skulk in the trees,/Their wings folded, their heads bowed.’
‘Everything I can see knows just what to do,’ he writes in The Southern Cross (1981). The object, by being exactly what it is, stands as a picture of the inviolate self. Sometimes Wright’s brooding envy of the landscape creates a wish to dissolve into the objects of his gaze; at other times his eye turns to things it can’t keep in focus: swallows, for example, ‘darting like fish through the alabaster air,/Cleansing the cleanliness, feeding on seen and the unseen’, or the light on certain mornings:
A light like the absence of light it is so feral and shy.
A pentimento, even.
It is as though it dreamed us out of its solitude.
It is as though we’re glazed here, unasked for, unremembering
‘As a writer of poems,’ he says, ‘I’ve never had anything, really, except a good ear and a bad memory.’ If his memory were better his associations might be worse; one of his most frequent is a visual-aural synaesthesia. He has observed that the white space in and around his poems is ‘really white sound … sound the ear doesn’t always pick up but which is always there, humming, backgrounding, like silences’, and his writing keeps looking and listening out for it: ‘No sound but the sound of no sound,/late sunlight falling on grass’; ‘No moon, no motorbike, no bird./The silence of something come and something gone away’. Sitting in the October light, he thinks of ‘Morandi’s line/Drawn on the unredemptive air’, a line which contains the energy of absence, ‘always on the point of disappearing, of not seeming to be there’.
Finishing Oblivion Banjo, I was left in a Wright-like quandary: ‘I seem to have come to the end of something, but don’t know what.’ The book offers itself as ‘the perfect distillation’ of his life’s work, but this is a little counterintuitive, partly because the poems have the air of unfinished business, and partly because the later volumes are less powerful than the earlier ones: Wright sometimes appears to be leaning on the gnomic rather than thinking with it. Still, just when you think he’s running out of steam, you come across a lyric such as ‘Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts through the Night Sky’:
Beyond the boundaries of light and dark, my mother’s gone out and not come back.
Suddenly now, in my backyard, like the slip moon she rises
And rests in my watching eye.
In my dreams she’s returned just like this, over a hundred times.
She knows what I’m looking for,
partially what she comes back not to tell me.
Is the return a curse or a gift? As so often in Wright, it’s hard to be sure whether recurrence is a getting stuck or a working through, a compulsion to repeat or an incantatory appeasement. The unceremonious beauty of the last line whispers a counterclaim to his need to lay his ghosts to rest. For Wright, intimacy has distance and inscrutability built-in. The mother-moon is described as rising ‘Suddenly now’. A trajectory or motion is made oddly instantaneous, yet what he wants to register is the suddenness of the thing becoming apparent. The syntax tells of a recognition of what has already passed – the only kind of recognition there is. For sublunary creatures, the timeless moment is the one you’re a little early or late for. ‘It’s like writing a poem about snow while snow is falling,’ Wright once said. ‘You try not to.’