IN THE LATE SPRING OF 1981, the skies were always a light azure blue in Southern California, cypresses camphored out their scent around the apartment house swimming pool below my living room window, and the soft green prisms of aspen leaves would spin and quake on the small trees beside the walkways. I was a graduate student at UC Irvine, living with my girlfriend Cynthia in a two-bedroom upstairs unit in Costa Mesa – yellow shag carpet, stacked orange crates for bookshelves and room dividers, a gaudy sectional sofa I found at a swap-meet, a huge hand-me-down Panasonic TV, avocado green Melmac plates and yard sale tableware, my parents’ old Formica kitchen table, and a king size mattress on the bedroom floor. The neighborhood around me was nondescript California suburban – mixed ranch homes and gigantic apartment complexes, a ball field behind a windbreak of eucalyptus trees near the thoroughfare, burrito stand behind home plate, and a strip mall on the main drag that led to the 405 and Costa Mesa freeways. You could smell the Pacific sometimes, as Newport Beach was just down the bluff, and you could hear commercial jets roaring overhead, on the landing and takeoff paths of the John Wayne Airport about five miles away. Nights, heavy dual-rotor, schoolbus-sized Chinook CH-47 helicopters from El Toro Marine Base thwocked across the skies as the stars glowed only faintly, drowned in a luminous ambience from all the city lights.
One day, Charles Wright, recently my teacher, telephoned to ask if I would house-sit his place in Laguna Beach while he and his wife Holly and son Luke went to their cabin in Montana for the summer. They’d be gone about eight weeks, he said. I got my MFA from Irvine in 1980, but I’d stayed on to enter its Ph.D. Program in Critical Theory. When Charles called me, I was just finishing up my first year, buffeted by the mental tumult of colliding theories and poetics – Longinus, Kant, Burke, and Jacques Derrida. Charles asked if I’d come for dinner to seal the deal and bring Cynthia.
Charles was an extremely private person, seeing us students in class and maybe at afternoon poetry readings and the brief wine and cheese receptions on campus. I’d occasionally spot him loping across campus in that easy gait of his or see him in my rearview pulling up behind me in his blue VW bug. Slim, a bit under 6 feet, with wavy brown hair he wore fashionably longish, just over the ears, he looked a bit like Peter Fonda in photo-gray glasses and a brown sports coat over a dress shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Ever casual, he was also distant if not remote. It seemed to me that, most of the time, Charles was in a world all his own and that he liked it.
Laguna Beach was part of what’s called “the California Riviera.” I’d been there before, but never to the “Top of the World,” Charles’s ridgeline neighborhood, up a long incline that wound above the town. Charles’s place was just below the top, on a dead-end street along a short shelf bulldozed into the earth, a gigantic pepper tree drooping over the asphalt driveway as we pulled up. Holly called from behind an opened window where she stooped over the kitchen sink, rinsing salad greens. Cynthia and I got out of my battered Toyota Corolla and stepped across the drive, the litter of pepper pods snapping and grinding under our feet.
Behind some shrubs and a hanging pot of purple and pink fuchsias, Charles was out on the front deck, waving at us, standing over the half-globe of a Weber barbecue, grilling kebobs of veggies and sliced sausages, smoke and sizzle rising in the billows of air around him. Holly came out and set the table, saying we’d be eating outside, al fresco, the first time I’d heard the phrase I think. The deck furniture was of a kind I’d seen in movies – “knockoff Brown-Jordan” Charles calls it in a poem – and there was a parasol awning drawn shut in the far corner of the deck. You could see the Pacific, like a blue-green sheet with embroideries of white combers stretching out below us. A shush of sprinklers doused the vines of ivy, vinca blossoms, and pumpkin blooms surrounding the deck, sitting like a raft in a sea of botanicals. Another world.
After dinner, Charles and Holly took us through the house, showing us the whats and wheres, urging us to use everything “except the VW, which I’d appreciate if you’d start up now and again,” and to “drink as much as you like.” He showed us the leather-bound, two-volumeJohnson’s Dictionary stacked on a secretary in the living room, and pulled out a few books he recommended I read – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The White Hotel among them. He said to “just mail the mail” in SASEs he’d prepared and that he’d appreciate my paying the utility bills and he’d pay me back right away. Except for him being my teacher and the place having its elegant touches, it all seemed pretty normal and straightforward. Cynthia and I would be caretakers of a kind, I realized, and we’d enjoy the spaciousness, the huge quiet I felt up here, the bucolic surroundings. And maybe I’d finally get some poems written after the long year as a Ph.D. student having written none.
I applied to Irvine because I’d wanted to study with Charles Wright. I’d just read China Trace, his fourth book and one I thought understood the deep spiritualism in the Chinese practice of landscape poetry. I’d been introduced to poems of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907, A.D.) through the translations of Kenneth Rexroth and a class in Chinese literature I took as an undergraduate at Pomona College. I’d even written my own imitations of Chinese poems. But Wright’s were of a different order altogether. They had the snap and surface roughness of the contemporary, yet connected at the core with a great, still voice of calm that I associated with T’ang mysticism and dignity. And they were as beautiful as the River of Stars.
Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky.
Moon-fingers lay down their same routine.
On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the
Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.
I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.
And the wind says “What?” to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say
“What?” to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.
— in China Trace
When I got a call from Charles, inviting me to come to study in the MFA Program at Irvine, I could hardly believe my luck. It was early spring in Seattle and the cherries were just starting to bloom, their blossoms sometimes skittering in the wind amidst the light flurries of snowflakes that looked just like them. Charles on the phone sounded like Southern Comfort tasted – smooth, slow, and sweet – like the voices of country singers I’d heard on TV. Even when they spoke, they seemed to warble. I hadn’t expected him to sound so Tennessee.
In workshops, Charles was taciturn, presiding while others held forth. Ever gentle, he’d make a small suggestion here and there, saying wise and pithy things like “The short line depends on the image, the long line on rhythmic integrity;” “This poem of yours ends before it ends, you know;” and “Many are chosen, few are called.” He raised his voice only once. In a poem, I’d described pears ripening on the kitchen windowsill as having “smooth, wide hips / freckled like a woman’s” or some such extravagance, and a fellow student was excoriating me for sentimentality, accusing me of derivative surrealism. The young man ended his rant by saying, “C’mon! Pears don’t have hips!” Charles roared back, “Oh, YES they do!” His vehemence, completely uncharacteristic, ended the critique, and the group moved on. I’ve loved him ever since.
In the house that first night, we walked around as though we were in a museum, padding softly from room to room. Without Charles, Holly, and Luke there, the place seemed a relic of their living – the rooms so uninhabited, the Victorian wing chairs in the living room vacant of their bodies, the wood-paneled walls and ceiling of the hallway between the bedrooms so close and claustrophobic. There were too many picture frames hanging on the walls and propped up on tables, dressers, and nightstands. The sepia people in them seemed so ancient, handsome, and unlike us. Strangers to this house and not of its family, feeling their rawboned stares boring in on us, we blessed them and turned each one over. A moth danced through an open window (there were no screens, as Charles and Holly would have nothing interfere with a view) and fluttered through the dining room and kitchen. A pyramid of light from a brass lamp lit half a corner of the living room and the moth found it, rattling and tapping itself to tatters, while wraiths rose from the floorboards and floated by the sugar chest.
The dead are waiting for us in our rooms,
Little globules of light
In one of the far corners, and close to the ceiling, hovering,
thinking our thoughts.
Often they’ll reach a hand down,
Or offer a word, and ease us out of our bodies to join them in theirs.
We look back at our selves on the bed.
— from “Homage to Paul Cezanne” in The Southern Cross
We fell asleep in Charles and Holly’s bed, lying down where they had lain down, in our own nightclothes but within the narrow shadows of their bodies enfolding us through the cool night.
I awakened and sat bolt upright in bed, staring into the dark, hearing the chorus of crickets and frogs outside, the shush of a car’s tires on the winding road down the hill, and the kind of thing I might have called a voice if had to put a name to it. It was like a ghost, tasking me – or the not-me:
Hand that lifted me once, lift me again,
Sort me and flesh me out, fix my eyes.
From the mulch and the undergrowth, protect me and pass me on.
From my own words and my certainties,
From the rose and the easy cheek, deliver me, pass me on.
— from “Self-Portrait” in The Southern Cross
I fell back asleep, sensing the shadows that rocked in the backyard by the oak tree, that sailed overhead huge in the night sky, turning with the zodiac, bestowing their unction upon the baskets of silk in the corners of the borrowed bedroom.
Begins with the ooo ooo of a mourning dove
In the pepper tree, crack
Of blue and a flayed light on the hills,
Myself past the pumpkin blooms and out in the disked field,
Blake’s children still hunched in sleep, dollops
Of bad dreams and an afterlife,
Canticles rise in spate from the bleeding heart.
Cathedrals assemble and disappear in the water beads.
I scuff at the slick adobe, one eye
On the stalk and one on the aftermath.
— from The Southern Cross
The cooing of mourning doves in the eaves outside the bedroom window woke me, and I roused myself that first morning, feeling half inside a netherworld, pulling myself up by the roots. Charles’s poem for William Blake, the visionary Romantic who wrote Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience flashed through me like a ladderlight. It was damn weird. I was inside one of my teacher’s poems. I threw on some jeans and a T-shirt and walked out into the living room, hoping Cynthia would have put the coffee on.
She had, but was already outside on the deck, laying out toast and jellies, fruit, and coffee – a miracle for breakfast! – on the outdoor table. The deck was littered with fuchsia blossoms that I kicked and crushed as I walked over. I saw a gray light glinting off the Pacific, tufts of fog creeping up the vacant lot on the hillside next to the property, and heard a strange hush covering everything except the tinkle of glasses and a cup set down on a saucer. Cynthia hummed a melody from Brahms as she poured me coffee. A mockingbird twittered and piped from some tree across the driveway.
The hawk realigns herself.
Splatter of mockingbird notes, a brief trill from the jay.
The fog starts in, breaking its various tufts loose.
Everything smudges and glows,
Cactus, the mustard plants and the corn […]
Surf sounds in the palm tree,
Sussurations, the wind
making a big move from the west,
The children asleep again, their second selves
Beginning to stir […]
From under the billowing dead, from their wet hands and a saving grace,
The children begin to move, an angle of phosphorescence
Along the ridge line.
— from “Holy Thursday”
All around me were Charles’s lines and his poems-his deck, the shrubs and flowers, the weather and hillside, and the Pacific below were all characters and figures in his own lyric dramas.
Sun like an orange mousse through the trees,
A snowfall of trumpet bells on the oleander;
Craning out of the new wisteria; fruit smears in the west …
DeStael knifes a sail on the bay;
A wing brushes my left hand,
but it’s not my wing.
— from “Dog Day Vespers” in The Southern Cross
Laguna Beach was the stage for Charles’s post-Romantic epic, albeit a skeptical one, of salvation and redemption. I’d stumbled straight into his Paradiso, each scene surrounding me an illustrative panel of his somber and sometimes wacky devotion to pursuing spiritual questions in our time. What could I find in the images around me to capture and make due service for my own poems? I sensed a tough summer ahead.
Giving up, I worked on an essay about poetry instead of trying to write it, a pedestrian piece of literary appreciation on Derek Walcott, the grand poet from the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean.
And here’s a line of brown ants cleaning a possum’s skull,
And here’s another, come from the opposite side.
— from “Dead Color” in The Other Side of the River
Ants were everywhere. They marched in a thick, writhing line from the deck, over the transom of the front door, and into the living room, over the Chinese rug and up onto a lamp stand to a box covered in butcher paper that had come in the mail. It was from the poet Mark Jarman, addressed to Charles, and stamped FRAGILE and DO NOT FORWARD. The ants were streaming under its tightly creased folds and swarming to something they liked inside of it.
Mark had been a teacher of mine in the Irvine program too. His early poems, published in the most thrilling litmags of our time while we were still undergraduates – kayak, Anteaus, and evenPoetry – had titles like “Making Out with the Ghosts of Old Girlfriends” and chronicled prom nights and cruising Pacific Coast Highway on Friday nights, mentioned surfing and football, and mocked the angry, protective father (of a girl he’d French kissed) who flung a handful of gravel on the roof of his car while he sped away, cackling like the Fonz leaning into the wheel of his ’57 Chevy.
The ants were marching into the house and munching on something inside of that package. It was popcorn, used as packing for a framed photograph, a boxful of ant-bearded puffs protecting a picture of a series of photographed butterfly wings. The ornate patterns corresponded to letters and spelled out a line from a poem of Theodore Roethke’s: All finite things reveal infinitude.
My parents and brother came down from Gardena one Sunday afternoon. “Your teacher must be a fuss-budget,” my mother finally proclaimed, with annoyance, after we’d all finished eating. She held her purse tightly-it was still in her lap. “His place looks fussy.”
Are counting cadence, their skeletal songs
What the hymns say, the first page and the last.
— from “Holy Thursday”
Two classmates from college came over another night. We talked up a storm, them telling me of their escapades as graduate students – one at Berkeley, another at UCSD – sleeping with other students, sleeping with profs, picking up sailors in a bar and sleeping with them on the beach. There was an affair with a famous critic one of them had, who would not admit he was gay. And so on. They had both just come out and, I think, wanted to shock me. But I knew who they were – sweet, short, lower middle class SoCal boys who were scared just like me we wouldn’t make it as legit literati. We consumed a couple bottles of Charles’s Santa Margherita – he had told me not to replace them – and the two six-packs of generic beer they’d brought. The fog was thick outside when they left. I could hear their car with its rattling muffler clattering down the hillside, its gears grinding like teeth in a worried man’s sleep.
[…] the stars flash their gang codes,
And the fog slides in cautiously as a bride […]
— from “Italian Days” in The Other Side of the River
I was being guided through the poemscape of Charles Wright’s visionary world. I had to relinquish will, renounce my own plans, and accept this journey I was being taken on, each item around me – every leaf, every flower, every birdcall and shine of light in the trees, every cymbal splash and gut-thunk from the kick drum of the rock and roll band practicing in a garage down the street was curated, each an exhibit in the Charles Wright Museum and Gardens.
Some nights, when the rock-and-roll band next door has quit playing,
And the last helicopter has thwonked back to the Marine base,
And the dark lets all its weight down
to within a half inch of the ground,
I sit outside in the gold lamé of the moon
as the town sleeps and the country sleeps
Like flung confetti around me,
And wonder just what in the hell I’m doing out here
So many thousands of miles away from what I know best.
And what I know best
has nothing to do with Point Conception
And Avalon and the long erasure of ocean
Out there where the landscape ends.
What I know best is a little thing.
It sits on the far side of the simile,
the like that’s like the like.
— from “California Dreaming” in The Other Side of the River
Those first weeks in Charles’s house, as the quiet and bucolics got hold of me, as a willow tree let down its spiny green lattices before my eyes, his poems were like dragon’s teeth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Strewn over seemingly vacant ground, they rose up like soft skeletal cages, closing me in, trapping me as I tried to fight against them with the broad swords of my of own strophes.Wu-wei, I thought, trying to practice the Chinese Taoist principle of “letting be.” His poems unfurled for me, their images like small pellets of colored paper that, if placed in a bowl of water, bloomed into lavish flowers of artifice and imagination. The “Darvon dustfall off the Pacific” that Charles described was a stunning gateway into his memories – of childhood and adolescence in Tennessee, driving winding country roads across the country line to fetch a bottle of gin with his brother; sitting on bricks of a walkway in Venice, letting his legs dandle and watching the ochre reflections of a palazzo glint, wither, and resurrect on the crepuscular surface of a canal’s lapping waters; laughing with army buddies in a Florentine bar; witnessing the “spiked marimbas of dawn rattling their amulets” on a Dantescan hillside in Hawai’i. And then each of these turned to a deeper, more esoteric and ephemeral meditation – the product of his observations and abundant quietudes, as Charles says, “the far side of the simile / the like that’s like the like.” The poems are reflections not only of the earth and its properties, the mind and its acts of affectionate and somber memory, but conclusions and speculations regarding insubstantial things – the ghosts and frail gods interfused in an infinite, trans-substantial music that were the actual subjects of the man’s work. Inside his poems, living as I was in a museum and attached botanical gardens of his words, I traveled with him through the creation around me, to memory and its attendant regrets and joys, to minute and everlasting confrontations with the Absolute.