Looking for Lethe
Charles Wright, Scar Tissue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
“The major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God.” That is not Charles Wright. It’s Wallace Stevens quoted in Wright’s collection of prose “improvisations,” Halflife. Reading Wright’s poetry, it’s easy to understand the poet’s sympathy with Stevens. In the recently published Scar Tissue, Wright declares himself a “God-fearing agnostic.” I don’t doubt his agnosticism, and there is a certain charm in such a declaration, but Wright is clearly interested in the “idea of God.” The religious references in his poetry are many, and the tone is ironic, even playful. The speaker in one poem admits that he “mumble[s] kyrie eleison” as he dances in an “acolyte’s robes.” “High Country Canticle” is the name of another poem and the German visionary Hildegard of Bingen is summoned in yet another. Religious poetry hasn’t been so much fun since John Donne. It’s as if the poet wore big floppy shoes under his monk’s smock. But that doesn’t keep Wright’s poems from being some of the most beautiful religious poems written today, and by religious I mean the search for permanence and form. In the book’s title poem Wright calls this search a kind of desperation:
There is desperation for unknown things, a thirst
For endlessness that snakes through our bones
Like a lit fuse looking for Lethe,
whose waters reward us,
Their blackness a gossamer and grief.
“Like a lit fuse looking for Lethe” is Wright at his best, but “snakes through our bones” is Wright at his most sublime. He is a religious poet in the way Emerson was a religious thinker, but there’s a slight undertow of sadness in his poetry. Call it a melancholy transcendentalism.
Wright is slowly but surely becoming one of the major American poets of the last half-century, but he is also becoming one of the most monotonous. His ars poetica could be summed up in the following formula: describe landscape, write aphorism. In Wright’s previous book, A Short History of the Shadow, he reflects on Wang Wei by reminding himself, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” It’s a line of enormous wit that would make the ancient Chinese poet proud. But there does seem to be an awful lot of sitting in Wright’s poems, as if every poem were written before a window open on some landscape, be it sublime or ordinary. Wright has surely heard this complaint before. In the poem The Minor Art of Self-defense he beats his critics to the punch by explaining: “Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique, / A method of measure / a scaffold for structuring.” In the next line Wright proves the Stevens line he quoted in 1987 still holds true for him: “Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God.” This pays homage to Stevens, but it also compares the Great Divine with the human imagination, an idea, it’s easy to believe, Stevens would have appreciated.
Despite Wright’s apology some readers may wish for a wider range of experience in his poems. I often ask myself what a Charles Wright love poem would look like, but reading his poetry you get the idea Wright would rather die than write a love poem. Or any other kind of poem that doesn’t include flora and fauna. Wright’s poetry can easily be defined by what it’s not. There are no love poems, no city poems, no war poems, no protest poems, no heartache poems, no poems of pain or grief or any other kind of emotion. In one poem I counted the following animals, mentioned here in chronological order: an ant, a dung-beetle, horses, a firefly, a hummingbird, a chipmunk, a sparrow, a grasshopper, and a robin. But after the litanies of insects and birds there are mediations, or philosophical lyrics, for lack of a better phrase, of tremendous wit and lucidity:
The thread that dangles us
between a dark and a darker dark,
Is luminous, sure, but smooth sided.
Don’t touch it here, and don’t touch it there.
Don’t touch it, in fact, anywhere—
Let it dangle and hold us hard, let it flash and swing.
One can easily complain about the lack of people in Wright’s poems, but the few poems in which Wright memorializes his friendships are among the least successful in the book. Wright obviously knows, and we’re glad he knows, that he is at his best sitting where he always sits, before any kind of landscape, recording the flow and flux of his thoughts, contemplating the incompatibility of man’s mortality with his “thirst for endlessness.”
It is the acknowledgement of just such an impossibility that makes Wright’s poetry so rewarding. In the book’s penultimate poem The Woodpecker Pecks, but the Hole Does Not Appear, Wright begins, “It’s hard to imagine how unremembered we all become, / How quickly all that we’ve done / Is unremembered and unforgiven.” I read Scar Tissue several times before realizing Wright says nearly the same exact thing in the same colloquial tone half way through the book in Scar Tissue II: “Hard to imagine that no one counts, / That only things endure.” On the surface it’s a prosaic line buried in the middle of the book, but it connects the end of the book with the middle and it gives Scar Tissue, I think, a deeply satisfying unity. Of course, it would be easy to take the intellectual high road and say, “No, Mr. Wright, it’s not hard to imagine. It’s not hard to imagine at all.” But the truth is, it is hard to imagine, and Wright knows it. Even more than that, he feels it. Wright knows, like the northern Italians he quotes, that “the shroud has no pockets,” but he also knows it’s sometimes possible, if we’re lucky, to feel the “bright wingrush of grace.”
JAMES O'CONNOR is a poet, playwright, and translator from Brooklyn, New York. He is the editor and translator of Against Heaven, the Selected Poems of Dulce Maria Loynaz.