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Charles Wright

“Whatever it was I had to say,” Charles Wright writes on the first page of Littlefoot (FSG 2007), “I’ve said it.”  Two years later, in 2009, Sestets, his most recent book, came out.

“Instead of going over poems today,” Charles said one day a few years ago as our small, always-awestruck-in-the-presence-of-Charles-Wright class gathered around a seminar table at the University of Virginia, “I’m gonna read you some John Cage.”  He then began to read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I am here,” he said, “and there is nothing to say.  If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.”

Thank god he does.  If he had nothing to say at the beginning of Littlefoot, a beautiful book-length poem, then he certainly had much more nothing to say in Sestets.  For, in Sestets, we find the God-hunger and dark humor from Wright’s other works—“What’s up, grand architect of the universe?” he writes in “Terrestrial Music”—but in a new form for him, and an interesting contrast to Littlefoot’s length.  Sestets is a book of brief poems, each just six lines long, the brevity of which harkens back to his much earlier work, which is similarly condensed. However, the poems that compose Sestets retain Wright’s signature long and long-winded lines that often split and drop down midway through.

Another distinguishing element of Wright’s work is his titles, which often act as little poems in and of themselves.  One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the poem “If This Is Where God’s At, Why Is That Fish Dead?” from the previous book A Short History of the Shadow. And here in Sestets, this element continues, as we get similarly brilliantly layered titles, such as, “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky” and “Autumn is Visionary, Summer’s the Same Old Stuff.”  Even “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” wonderfully humorous, opens up to suggest that even the people we most admire we forget when we age and memory falters.  “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock / is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word / uttered in childhood or back in the day,” he writes in “It’s Sweet to Be Remembered,” a title inspired by Lester Flatt.

Many of Wright’s poems are inspired or informed by songs and song lyrics, which contributes to the playfulness of Wright’s work, even as it addresses the direst of last things. “Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time” begins, “Whump-di-ump-whump-whump, / tweedilee tweedilee tweedilidee, / I’m happy as can be…” and he means it—I heard him read it once and he went ahead and sang the line.  The poem goes from this playful beginning to an impulse to remember the details about the song, and who sang it, and then a reflection about the faults of memory in the face of lost time, as then settles, as Wright often does, on a heartbreaking ending image:  “Pretty nice, but that was then, / when our hearts were meat on the grill.  // And who was it, Etta James or Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker? / The past is so dark, you need a flashlight to find your own shoes. / But what shoes! and always half an inch off the floor, / your feet like the wind inside them.”

The brilliance of these poems lies in the way they at once comment on human existence in a flawed, rough world while also commenting on poems, songs and art itself, on why art exists, and how.  “The metaphysics of the quotidian is what he was after,” reads the first line of the book, an ars poetica for this book of poems, rife with thoughts and images that occur everyday and often go unrecorded.

Sometimes, when the formal feeling comes after an encounter with the void, after, as Nietzsche would say, we look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into us, we reach out, then, for something that will console us honestly, something that goes beyond apologies for what’s newly missing, beyond the assertion that the person lost has gone to a better place, or that the relationship ruined was all for the best, the easy crutches tossed off at times of loss that actually perplex and paralyze thought.  Wright consoles us for the losses of this world honestly and almost cruelly frank at times—“We live on Orphan Mountain, / each of us, and that’s how it is”—and at other times darkly funny in the language’s colloquial tone.  “We haven’t heard from the void lately,” he writes.  And it’s implied that it’s just a matter of time until we do hear from it again.  And that’s how it is.

And around the workshop table, we listened as Charles went on, reading Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”  “We need not fear these silences,” he read, “—we may love them.”  This, for those of us in the workshop who felt that we didn’t deserve to be there and still had to turn in each week mediocre poem after mediocre poem, was incredibly consoling to hear Wright say.  And it is something many of us from the workshop, I’m sure, still go back to, just as, I think, Wright must also do during the inevitable silences.

After a loss, there is always a particular kind of silence.  I finished 2010 reading and rereading Sestets using sympathy cards, whose consolations always come up short, as bookmarks.  “Twilight of the Dogs,” a poem almost dead center of the book, begins, “Death is the mother of nothing. / This is a fact of life, / And exponentially sad. / All these years—a lifetime, really—thinking it might be otherwise.”  We get the sense that Wright uses writing as a way of filling the void, of making his way down Via Negativa trying to reconcile his hope of what might be otherwise with what simply is.

John Cage writes, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”  And we get the sense that Wright’s work comes from a place of urgency, a personal need to be consoled by language, even as it is arranged by him.  And we too need these poems, because, as Wright tells us early on in Sestets, “If you can’t delight in the everyday, / you have no future here. / And if you can, no future either.”  And I’d assert that we need these poems especially in the dead of winter, after what was for many of us a rough year, and at the beginning of a new year whose occurrences remain hidden from where we now stand.  We need these poems especially when “Everything is what it seems to be and a little less.”

Sestets is what it seems to be and a lot more: a small book of small poems that resurrect what they can from the nothingness.  Sestets is Charles Wright at his best, yet again.  Read it with a sympathy card as a bookmark.

We live in the paradox that life is change, but that change taken to the ultimate is death.  Early signs of the great alteration shape our expanding or contracting limbs and are inscribed expressly on the face.  When the young woman of twenty-five notices faint lines around the mouth or tiny crowsfeet at the corner of her eyes, something even more intimate than vanity makes her stop to reflect.  The script for her very own mortality play, written on the finest parchment, has begun to develop, nor does she need any special clairvoyance to divine the final act from the first.

La Rochefoucauld says that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.  That’s the reason we avoid long or frequent exposure to the black rays of the mirror—unless we have the temperament of those medieval monks who kept brightly polished skulls in their cells as a handy memento mori, large enough not to escape notice but smaller than the coffins that still more ascetic contemplatives used to sleep in each night.  Some of the first group, striking a hopeful note, planted a candle on top of death’s head, meaningless to his blind sockets but not to the eyes of the living.

Looking at early photographs of yourself is not exactly a lark.  The person represented is recognizable, and you may even discover, among several patronizing attitudes and self-deflating commentaries, something like parental affection for that inexperienced youth being examined.  Considering all the roads to take and ways of cutting one’s hair current in that era, perhaps his weren’t the worst, just as maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash aren’t so bad, really.  To revive an earlier phase isn’t possible, though, or, more to the point, finally desirable.  For, in a sense, the photographed subject is our elder, and the present moment—fresh, breathing, more up to date—“younger” than any from the dim decades of yore.

We’ve changed; and we don’t care to be so passé as the ridiculously dressed person in the picture.  Does that also mean we must accept change even when raised to the highest power?  Apparently.  Preferring the present visual or verbal record implies that I will also prefer to it the next and the next and the next, until, finally, icon and identity plunge beyond the reach of pictures, in fact, beyond time and change altogether.  A photograph is, granted, a kind of death-mask, with the difference that it has been molded on a living face. The apple owes part of its sweetness to our knowledge that it gives the pleasure of its taste only when we consume it. In fact, we cannot enjoy anything unless, in the process, time consumes us as well. Mortality, expressed in the first-person, present-perfect tense, is summarized in a mere three words: I have lived.

A poem is also by analogy a photograph of the author. Rereading our first published apprentice work, we will feel many of the same emotions described above re looking at old photographs of ourselves. The self-portrait genre in poetry isn’t as common as in painting, though John Ashbery and Charles Wright have produced admired examples. The point is, even poems not designated as such are self-portraits, of mind rather than of body, and to just that degree, more intimate. We were hardly conscious in those days of all that could be thought or said about us. We know more now than we did then, and what we were is part of what we know.  If we can allow ourselves to approach objectivity (if only as a limit, in the mathematical sense), we may also allow that, despite the clumsiness and inexperience, despite the glaring failures of skill and hollow bravado, those early self-portraits have a vitality and authenticity that deserves some sort of acknowledgment.  They belong in the Department of Records that each life builds up in its life-span.

You’ve guessed it.  I’m preparing a new selected poems.

(Disclaimer:  Ok, yes.  This is a post about pens.  But bear with me—I actually do have an idea here.)

I found my favorite pen at home—my mother’s house in Northern Virginia.  The townhouse is a small one, and is filled with thirteen years worth of the kind of stuff a family with an inclination toward a breed of boredom that stems from a general suspicion that life is meaningless accumulates when it stays in one place for long enough:

Construction paper, watercolor paper, canvases, palettes, coloring books, markers, crayons, colored pencils, pastels, gauche, acrylics, water-soluble oils, oils.  A flute, a piccolo, three recorders, an Irish penny whistle, a Jew’s harp, a harmonica, a kazoo or two, an old guitar.  Knitting projects, beading projects, thread, needles, needlepoint, thimbles, embroidery floss of all colors, clay.  Two chessboards, Scrabble, Perquacky, Yahtzee, Sorry, Past Lives, Life.

The house is also full of exhausted pens.  It usually takes three or four trial runs on scrap paper to find a pen that still contains some ink.  (Maybe throwing away an empty pen, for my family, seems a gesture rife with symbolism, a gesture of giving up?)  The working pen I happened to find and accidentally adopt, tossing it in my bag on one of my visits there before heading back to New York, reads in white lettering on a translucent dark green casing: ADAMS-GREEN FUNERAL HOME AND CREMATORY, with an address, phone number and website.

It’s only held favorite status recently.  I’d reach into my bottomless tote, scrounging as always, and pull any one of the writing implements out, but I started to notice that when I’d pull out this pen, with the translucent green casing and the silver tip, something in me would exclaim, “You!” and I’d find myself grinning.  And then again, I’d reach in, and, “Ah ha!  There you are!”  And, “Bonjour! Adams-Green!”  And, “A.G.!  You little vixen, you!”

I like it because it reminds me:  Write something down because you are going to die.

This might seem like an unnecessary amount of pressure to put on oneself, especially if the writing implement is being used to write something like—I’m reaching for the nearest mini post-it pad as we speak—“Bob wanted to play Yahtzee & eat oatmeal cookies.”  But this note matters.  I don’t know how or why just yet, but I feel it does.

In “Body and Soul,” from A Short History of the Shadow, Charles Wright writes, “Write as though you had in hand the last pencil on earth.”  Right.  Right?  Right.

It’s important not to lose sight of this:  That what is written, even if no one reads it, is important, that there isn’t really any time to waste, that if you have something to say—even if it’s “Bob wanted to play Yahtzee and eat oatmeal cookies”—say what you came here to say, and try to be honest.