Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 06:22AM
National Book Foundation

Country Music: Selected Early Poems

By Charles Wright

Original and Current Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Eric Smith writes:

I wonder if Charles Wright bought the new Kanye West album. I imagine him pausing for a moment on the posse cut “Monster,” in which Kanye flicks his Auto-Tune to the Halloween setting, and out rumbles

I shoot the lights out
Hide till it’s bright out

before dissolving into a clatter of even darker drums. I wonder, because I think of Wright’s “Death” a poem from China Trace, included in Country Music: Selected Early Poems. That poem, in full:

I take you as I take the moon rising,
Darkness, black moth the light burns up in.

He’d pause, I think, seeing a connection between his work and that of this young artist who knows not only the “darkness visible” (Milton being the obvious touchstone), but who also knows that this inversion—the illuminating, even obliterating, power of the dark, and the tendency of light to obscure—presents the author with an opportunity to somehow pin the world down and better see its workings, and how it works on him.

In Country Music, one sees the fascination with this inversion play across Wright’s four earliest books. The first, The Grave of the Right Hand, is represented by a handful of mostly unremarkable prose poems. Each has its moments (it would be difficult to ignore the musical oratory of “The Voyage”—“O my stunted puppets!”). But it is only in “Nocturne,” which details across three finely-tuned sentences a night in which an outraged Bacchus appears, and “all is unshingled by the moon,” that something almost visionary occurs in the balance between the breathlessness of the prose and the lyric intensity of the vocabulary. But even then it sounds like a shorter fiction one would easily find (and find more satisfying) among Julio Cortázar’s works, rather than the Wright that emerges in Hard Freight.

In the second book, the subjects—a looser assortment of places (many near water, or water themselves), things (angels and pillow-cases, photo negatives and bougainvillea), and occasionally the living (Wright’s son Luke is the center of the stupifyingly good “Firstborn”)—are more varied, as is the music that accompanies them. What serves Wright best in this collection, other than embracing that illuminating darkness, is the democratic lack of hierarchies among the poems’ objects of attention. In some of the poems, one gets the impression of a painstakingly arranged collage. Other poems assemble their meanings in the way one rummages through a kitchen junk drawer. In either mode, there is an intentionality that is missing from the first book’s selections. The poems, too, are more participatory, depending on the reader to help puzzle out these associations. The arrangements here reflect a need to see how these things function in concert, rather than as isolated objects, which is compounded by a reverence for those discoveries. In doing so, Wright makes us welcome in those discoveries and rediscoveries of places, as in “Dog Creek Mainline” and “Blackwater Mountain,” or aware of the fragility of fatherhood in “Firstborn.”

There is plenty to say about the good in Bloodlines. These poems are almost all worth reading, and in some cases more finely-tuned than those in Hard Freight. This tuning comes from more relaxed compositions that depend less on lists and associations, and embrace more fully the lyric intensity an uninterrupted line can build. He doesn’t get it right every time (some sections of “Tattoos” sag into inscrutability), but those missteps are more than made up for in “Virgo Descending,” perhaps the best poem in this selected, and on the short list of Wright’s best overall. In it, the speaker navigates a half-finished house, inhabited by a grandmother who “stands / like a door ajar on her soft bed.” The speaker’s own room is overrun by “jasmine, / White-gummed and anxious, their mouths sucking the air dry.” The last stanza offers something like an aphorism (something a younger Wright often avoided):

Home is what you lie in, or hang above, the house
Your father made, or keeps on making,
The dirt you moisten, the sap you push up and nourish . . .

Any surprise that this clarity comes only after a descent “down / Where the worm and the mole will not go”?

The final volume, China Trace, is in many ways a synthesis of the previous two books. It carries its name well, offering in many of the poems only outlines of things, depending again on the associative, list-driven poems of Hard Freight and the almost conversational tone of the best of Bloodlines. The poems are again much shorter, and the real pleasure in these poems is the attention to the weight of individual lines. It is difficult not to love “Sleep, in its burning garden, sets out the small plants,” or “The plum tree breaks out in bees,” and this, the last line of one of my favorites: “I live in the one world, the moth and rust in my arms.”

Although Trace sometimes dawdles in the quotidian (though “Quotidiana,” with its “necktie of ice” is one of the better pieces), it more than makes up for this by shaping from the mundane poems that are at once spiritual and full of longing for something more concrete “rooted half under the earth,” as in this poem, “Noon”:

The dirt is a comforting, and the night drafts from the sucker vines.
The grass is a warm thing, and the hollyhocks, and the bright bursts from the weeds.
But best of all is the noon, and its tiny horns,
When shadows imprint, and start
                                              their gradual exhalation of the past. 

Again, as in “Death,” and many of the poems in the two books that came before, we see a darkness that has exposed and consumed all that catches Wright’s attention. But it is also here we notice a shift toward a part of day that bears its own music, one that allows this darkness a release; a promising threshold for a poet who continues to stun his readers with each successive volume. Here, the Wright I imagine clutching the new Kanye skips back to track three, where Rihanna, accompanied by her own tiny horns, offers simply this:

Turn up the lights in here, baby.
Extra bright. I want y’all to see this.

Eric Smith
is a managing editor of Cellpoems. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Five Points, and Best New Poets 2010. He teaches at Marshall University.

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