APRIL 2, 2020
I GREW UP in the kind of place that seems unlikely ever to have produced a poet. It’s not that there wasn’t anything to write about in Kingsport, a small city in the very pretty northeast corner of Tennessee. It was just that poetry, in general, was unthinkable in an Appalachian town whose professional class was mostly scientists — my dad among them — who worked for the chemical company that kept the place going and gave the air a permanent rotten-banana smell. There were no coffee shops, no bookstores, no counterculture. There was church on Wednesdays and Sundays, Friday night football games, general malaise the other nights. The closest I came to poetry was when I was cast as Mary in the Christmas pageant the year a new youth minister from a fancy seminary replaced the usual script with W. H. Auden’s version.
When I discovered, my first year in college, that poetry was a thing written by dead people and some living ones, imagine my surprise when, in a used copy of J. D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, I found one Charles Wright, born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee. Imagine my surprise when I learned that he’d grown up in Kingsport — my surprise at the fact that I’d attended the same public high school as a real poet, someone whose work my college professors were really reading. Even now, making my way through the 700-and-change pages of Wright’s new volume of selected poems, Oblivion Banjo, I was surprised to encounter places, roads, and even last names I know. I get a shock unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in reading poetry (is this how people from New York City feel all the time?) when I read:
Every other building a church,
Each side of the road,
Orebank half a mile long
Under the hill until the last curve
Down to the highway, left to Kingsport, right to Bristol,
East toward the rising sun, west toward home.
If you keep going straight across that highway, take a left after a quarter mile or so, then follow the road into the subdivision, across a creek and up the hill. The house where I grew up is on the left.
I’ve never written much about Tennessee, partly because I feel like an Appalachian interloper, a fake. I wasn’t born there, and then I left. I’ve never had the kind of Southern Appalachian accent I might’ve had, nor the authenticity I’ve sometimes felt this accent might convey. But what’s in Charles Wright’s work is — among other things — a deeper and more complex way of understanding a person’s relationship to place. What draws me to Wright’s poems is more than that shock of recognition. In their richness, their ebullience, and the consistency of their preoccupations over time, these poems speak with an unmistakable, singular accent. In them, accent becomes the trace of a place in a body. An accent is something kept, kept and held like a posture or a treasure. An accent is a way of looking, an ethics, a disposition of the senses and the soul toward the world at hand.
It’s no accident that this book, like Wright’s first selected (Country Music, 1982), has a musical title. A Charles Wright poem sounds like a Charles Wright poem and no one else’s. Even when Wright is remembering an Italian piazza from his four years stationed in Verona (1957–1961) or a line by Li Po, he sounds a little country. It’s this folksy-highbrow combination that I think baffles some of Wright’s readers: how can he shift so quickly from a gee-whiz American nature boy to an earnest student of Zen and metaphysics, preoccupied with time and its end, epistemologies, ontologies, the nature of things, and the things of nature? The answer is that this yoking-together of unlikely subjects in the same voice is just part of having an accent. For example, from the book Appalachia:
Only perfection is sufficient, Simone Weil says.
Not even mercy or consolation can qualify.
Good thing I’ve got this early leaf bristle in my hand.
Good thing the cloud shadows keep on keeping on, east-by-northeast.
Approaching philosophy in a down-home tone is a stretch only if you’re not accustomed to thinking about philosophy in your own down-home tone. You can be self-aware and wry about it, but it’s still your own tone. Another example: “The definer of all things,” Wright writes,
cannot be spoken of.
It is not knowledge or truth.
We get no closer than next-to-it.
Beyond wisdom, beyond denial,
it asks us for nothing.
According to Pseudo-Dionysus, which sounds good to me.
I love these country exclamations and interjections because they’re where Wright sounds the most like my father. But they’re only part of Wright’s signature music. Here’s some more of it, first from very early in Wright’s career, from Hard Freight (his second collection, 1973):
Leaf over leaf, the green sky:
Sycamore, black gum, oak, ash;
Wind-scythe at work in the far fields;
In the near, plum-flame of larkspur:
Whatever has been, remains —
Fox fire, pale semaphore in the skull’s night.
Or from later, from Black Zodiac (his 12th, 1997):
Brightness to brightness where I sit
on the back brink of my sixth decade,
Virginia moon in the cloud-ragged, cloud-scuttled sky,
Bat bug-drawn and swallow-crossed, God’s wash.
The poets Wright names tend toward the Italian and the Chinese with the occasional mentions of John Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it’s the latter I hear the most — and before Hopkins, the cadences of Anglo-Saxon verse with its kennings, alliterations, and double hard stresses: “[T]he cloud-ragged, cloud-scutted sky,” the “wind-scythe at work in the far fields.” Wright’s language in such passages is concrete in both noun and in sound. When he turns to description, as he does so often, the music that comes in is harder, older, and eminently satisfying — an accentual accent, so to speak.
As these passages suggest, another layer of Wright’s accent is his attunement to landscape, to the natural world. Most of the time, it’s the Blue Ridge Mountains he looks toward, in Kingsport, or seen from Charlottesville, Virginia, where he taught at the University of Virginia (from which I received my PhD, so another place whose ridgelines and humidities I know well). Reading through the volume during my first winter living in Colorado, I got terribly, terribly homesick for those mountains, for the suburban foliage and little creeks around them, for the crows and the turkey vultures and low-hanging clouds in their skies.
There are other places, too — the California coast, Italian cities and countrysides, and Montana, where Wright spends summers. They are all beautiful places, even sublime ones. Wright’s constant concern with describing them also reminds me of Hopkins’s obsessive prose. But there’s a big difference. Whereas you can sense Hopkins, especially in his journals, trying to fit his language as close as possible to the surfaces of the natural world, and to describe exact shapes and sizes, colors and shifts, Wright takes a different tack. As he writes:
— The language of nature, we know, is mathematics.
The language of landscape is landscape,
Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor,
all down the line.
This knack for the descriptive metaphor is another part of Wright’s unmistakable accent, and in a way that is part and parcel with his Tennessee exclamations. Across Oblivion Banjo, metaphors are so painstakingly ordinary that they become unforgettable, drawing on the stuff of the utmost everyday to make these landscapes completely seeable. An afternoon sky that might be some clever variety of gray or red in another poet’s hands is, instead, “the color of Cream of Wheat”; a sunset is red Jell-O, an oceanside path winds like an Ace bandage along the coast. And from a poem called “January II”:
The month is abandoned.
Volvos go wandering to and fro
Like lost polar bears.
Here it is again, that wry, voicey humor, as inseparable from looking as it is from thinking.
What’s remarkable across Wright’s career, and underscored by the publication of this new selected volume, is how consistent this accent — sound, senses, relation to place, metaphor-making imaginary — remains over time. Certainly Wright’s later work is more overtly nostalgic and more concerned with the poet’s mortality than work written over 50 years prior to it. But to read through Oblivion Banjo is less to follow any arc of poetic development or change than it is to get a sense of the continuity of the observer’s presence in the face of the ongoingness of the world. Unlike Adrienne Rich’s “will to change” or Wallace Stevens’s “it must change” or even Ezra Pound’s “make it new,” Wright’s poetics does not necessarily have to do with human innovation, which I suspect to him would seem more like human hubris. Wright even has his own inverse formulation of the latter injunction: “[M]ake it old.” Or to put it another way: as human beings move linearly through time, and as the natural world cycles over time, Wright’s disposition toward the world remains the same. “Well, here I am, I guess — again” is an unspoken refrain.
In consequence, Oblivion Banjo leaves the reader, or left me, with a dizzying sense of the vastness and multiplicity of the world Wright observes. Even from the same position — a backyard or front porch, say — there are endless observations to be made, endless gradations of sky color or bird noise. Especially in some of Wright’s longer sequences, with sections that read like journal entries, accumulating over days and months, the sheer inexhaustibility of days, weather, and light starts to seem amazing: Sunday again, February again, morning again, evening again and again and again.
Finally, there’s an ethics, if not a politics, to conceiving of accent as bodily stance, unique music, and sustained attention over time. First, Wright’s work shows that what it’s like to carry a place with you doesn’t always look or sound like the hallmark regional mannerisms or intonations we might expect — relation to place runs deeper than that. This rings true to me. I spent some time this fall listening to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America. In it, there’s an episode in which college students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, reflect on their accents, which some of them have deliberately shed to avoid stereotyping. This is heartbreaking; it’s also common, I think, in Appalachia and beyond. But the flipside, as Wright’s poems show, is that there’s an accent that’s deeper than accent — there’s the indelible mark of place or the heritage that we carry in our bodies and senses for as long as we have bodies and senses.
There’s also an ethics in the integrity of this hard looking at the inexhaustibility of the world. I hesitate to characterize Wright’s resistance to change as anything like a willed untrendiness — he has, after all, received his share of recognition. But shifting the focus from originality or innovation or earnest philosophizing, Wright’s work in its fullness shows that the poet’s work is one of steadfastness, or even duty, toward the past and the present in all of its detail. As Wright puts it, in one of his plainspoken moments of beauty and — despite himself — truth:
The unexamined life’s no different from
the examined life —
Unanswerable questions, small talk,
Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments —
You’ve got to write it all down.
Landscape or waterscape, light-length on evergreen, dark sidebar
you’ve got to write it down.