Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books by Charles Wright and Mary Szybist

By Lisa Russ SpaarMarch 12, 2013

Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books by Charles Wright and Mary Szybist

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist
Hard Freight by Charles Wright

I HAVE HEARD Charles Wright say that it is a poet’s third book that signals the arrival of his or her voice and which merits the special attention of any reader interested in the promise and trajectory of a writer’s progress. This is perhaps not a surprising remark from a God-hungry pilgrim (Wright has called himself “a God-fearing agnostic”) obsessed with the triptych, the trilogy, the three-in-one. Yet Wright himself has also conceded that his poem “Dog Creek Mainline” (1972), which falls a little over halfway through his second full-length book, Hard Freight, marks the beginning of his distinctive style, a style characterized over a long and quietly dazzling career by poems of homage, questing, intertextuality, wit, metaphysical moxie, layering, landscape, spiritual and word hunger, and a “sidereal jones” for light and its Dickinsonian “Heavenly Hurt.” For this and a host of other reasons, revisiting this important early book by the eminent poet of his, or of any, generation is in itself an act of homage, pilgrimage, and epiphany.

In The Early Poetry of Charles Wright (McFarland & Co, Inc., 2009), Robert D. Denham writes: “[‘Dog Creek Mainline’ in Hard Freight] marks Wright’s movement away from primarily technical exercises toward what developed into his distinctive subject matter, style, and voice. Writing the poem during the fall of 1971, he came to realize that the story he had to tell came from his own experience”—his family, the landscapes of and yearnings originating in his own past. In response to a query from J. D. McClatchy about this signature “Wright” style in a Paris Review interview (“The Art of Poetry,” No. 41, 1989), Wright says:

It’s a concentration of the particular, I suppose, despite the gravity of the general. Transcendence inside its own skin. In other words, it tends to be not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it. I feel about style the way Heidegger felt about being. It’s inside, not outside. All those things you mention, sound and look and—what was it, pacing?—and ambition, all have to come from an inner necessity, a ‘thereness,’ a haeccitas, that makes you write as you do. Jazz, for example, may be all style, but it’s all soul as well. Everything that we see comes from something that we don’t see. Duende or dharma or dasein, it all comes down to the same thing, you are what you are, and what you are in that secret place is what you write. Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it, and I haven’t expressed myself very well. Clarity. Faith, hope, and clarity. Some things are more difficult to clarify than others, aren’t they? Great clarity is great style, however hard it may be.

One great gift of Hard Freight is its clear lesson that even (or perhaps especially) great poets apprentice. As someone who has seriously considered asking a student to check my master’s thesis out of the library and burn it, I am consoled by the work in Hard Freight, particularly the pieces that precede “Dog Creek Mainline” that feel like student poems, the études of someone trying out a wide range of modes and approaches, and sampling a gospel of voices, many of them derived from poets, philosophers, and others (Kafka, Wilde, Pound, Stevens, the Tang poets, Rimbaud) whose texts are important to Wright’s journey. Of course one always wants to be experimenting, apprenticing; and another example this crucial second book offers perhaps young poets, especially, is its long gestation and coming-into-being. In a period in which young poets are often pressed and rush to publish, it is enlightening to note that Wright’s first full-length book, The Grave of the Right Hand, was published by Wesleyan in 1970, when the poet was 35. Hard Freight appeared two years later, when Wright turned 38.

As Hard Freight makes its way toward its epiphanic, Road-to-Damascus “Dog Creek Mainline,” it offers a panoply of “practice” pieces — definition poems, surreal shards, homages, color experiments, all in tonal scales and registers that are nonetheless branded with what we would now recognize as vintage Wright wine — a preference for threes (genitive link metaphors, stanzas, parts, sections), sampling from other writers (Wright is a reading poet who has always understood that poetry begets poetry), a strong leaning toward serial and sequential approaches (“Slides of Verona,” “Negatives,” the six-part “Firstborn”), and Wright’s inimitable ear, apparent in these lines from “Nocturne”:

Florence, abyss of enfolding light:
The tram-lines, like wings of fire—
Their long, retreating sparks, their susurrant cries:
The Arno, glittering snake, touches
The white cloisters of flame, easing
Its burden the chill of its scales…

In the book’s sixth poem, “Portrait of the Poet in Abraham Von Werdt’s Dream,” an oneiric, anachronistic scenario narrated by 17th-century printmaker Von Werdt (“Inside, it’s the Renaissance, / The men in hose”), the poet (Wright himself?) seems to sidle sideways into the engraving Von Werdt is describing, a “sixth man” with an uncertain but decided awareness of his inheritance, his gifts, and of waiting to come into his own:

Alone in an alcove, a sixth man, unnoticed
And unfamiliar, his strange clothes
Centuries out of date, is writing, his back turned
To what I tried to record.
The lines, a spidery darkness, move
Across the page. Now
He looks this way. And now he rises
—XYZ, his mouth says, XYZ—,
Thrusting the paper into my hands.
These words are the words he has written.

“Dog Creek Mainline” might well have been the words on that paper. It is suffused with a sense of authentic speech, of a poet putting his trust in words and in the land, if in nothing else, and in the ability of language and landscape to exchange their secrets, however imperfectly. The poem moves with the authority of a native speaker placing faith in watching, in mouthing what one sees directly, out of what Wright will later call the “ostinato and drone” of voice and memory: 

Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,
Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;
Odor of muscadine, the blue creep
Of kingsnake and copperhead;
Nightweed; frog spit and floating heart,
Backwash and snag pool: Dog Creek

Starts in the leaf reach and shoal run of the blood;
Starts in the falling light just back
Of the fingertips; starts
Forever in the black throat
You ask redemption of, in wants
You waken to, the odd door: 

Its sky, old empty valise,
Stands open, departure in mind; its three streets,
Y-shaped and brown,
Go up the hills like a fever;
Its houses link and deploy
— This ointment, false flesh in another color.

Lengthen some of these lines, drop a few down, and this poem could be from Wright’s most recent collection Bye-and-Bye. Here is not only the terrain we inhabit, but the turf that inhabits us, that gets into our soma, our bloodlines. And that local habitation is charged through with a Vitamin W negative blue, ecstatic melancholy, a subtext of wondering about what, if anything, lies upriver (“Dog Creek”/“God Creek” — coincidence?), and a rich mix of oracular wonderment (“shoal run of the blood”) and quotidian grit (“the blue creep / Of kingsnake” and “frog spit and floating heart, / Backwash and snag pool”).

Hard Freight takes its title from the third section of “Dog Creek Mainline,” which reads, in a way, like the ars poetica of an emerging poet “spurred” by his “indigent” epiphany to take up the hard road of recording his own life: 

Hard freight. It’s hard freight
From Ducktown to Copper Hill, from Six
To Piled High: Dog Creek is on this line,
Indigent spur; cross-tie by cross-tie it takes
You back, the red wind
Caught at your neck like a prize: 

(The heart is a hieroglyph;
The fingers, like praying mantises, poise
Over what they have once loved;
The ear, cold cave, is an absence,
Tapping its own thin wires;
The eye turns in on itself. 

The tongue is a white water.
In its slick ceremonies the light
Gathers, and is refracted, and moves
Outward, over the lips,
Over the dry skin of the world.
The tongue is a white water.) 

Transcendence inside its own skin. Not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it. It’s all here. What is perhaps most important to say about Hard Freight is how it not only helped Wright find his material, his subject, and his style, but also opened him up to future work, and in particular to his work in trilogies of books (interestingly, this second book became the first book in Wright’s first trilogy of books). In an interview with Victor Suarez and Amy Verner in Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets (University of Missouri Press, 1999), Wright says: 

I can’t say that at that moment, in the fall of 1971, when I wrote “Dog Creek Mainline,” I knew I was going to write a series of trilogies, nine books plus a couple of codas and an introduction that the first one had. But I did know that I was starting on something that was not going to be finished for a while. I knew that it was not going to be a narrative journey; therefore, it can’t be like Piers Plowman or The Divine Comedy or something like that. It was going to have to be separate books where I hoped eventually I would see what form I was working toward, and then when once I saw that it would start to coalesce. And that is what happened after I finished the first group of books, Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace, which became Country Music. And I said, “Oh, this is a trilogy. It moves from here to here. Now I wonder if I can write another one and then a third one, so that I can get a series of pyramids that basically have the same structure but would be, instead of next to each other, superimposed, one on top of the other.” And so, that’s what I set out to do. 

That Wright has continued to “set out,” to travel this generative, continually refreshed road into his eighth decade is further reason to revisit its incipient sources with gratitude and abiding admiration.


Ten years have passed since Mary Szybist’s first collection of poems, Granted, winner of the Beatrice Hawley Prize and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was published by Alice James Books. Like her many other devoted readers, I have eagerly awaited this second volume even as the poems in Granted — a remarkably original and substantial collection for a first book — continue to sustain me with their temporal beauty and beatitude: their quirky vision and their worship of holy mysteries both carnal and spiritual. “Granted,” Szybist writes in “Mutatis Mutandis,” “this is not a world that keeps us. // Granted, there are some sadnesses / in which I do not long for God.” 

Incarnadine [French incarnadin, from Italian incarnadino, variant of incarnatino, diminutive of incarnato: in-, in (from Latin) + carne, flesh] takes up many of the themes and subjects of Granted, obsessions Szybist shares with Wright: God-hunger, a nostalgia for something prior to consciousness, and a concern with the limits of language to articulate our physical yearnings, and vice versa (in the last poem of Granted, Szybist writes: “When I am tired of only touching, / I have my mouth to try to tell you / what, in your arms, is not erased.”). But whereas Wright locates and directs his somatic longing into landscape, Szybist situates her heaven-hurt in the body.

In particular, the new book foregrounds and focuses, in a loose series that moves throughout the book, on a subject which struck a subtle blue note in Granted: the phenomenon of the annunciation — its depictions in art, its manifestations in an array of anachronistic and identity-vexed settings, its experience of the movement of the Divine into Time, and its relation to motherhood: as experience, as icon, as symbol, and as longed-for (and, for many of the poems’ speakers, elusive) condition.

It is little wonder that so many artists and poets have been captivated by the notion of annunciation, with its conjuring of the predicament of being impregnated, of being utterly changed, in an instant, of being visited by a unearthly messenger bearing tidings, an “announcement,” of incarnation. In my last Second Acts column, in fact, I explored Carol Ann Davis’s preoccupation with annunciation as a kind of formal trope in her second book, Atlas Hour. What is language but the flesh made word? But Szybist contributes to the conversation her unique tincture of humility, odd humor, and prodigious imagining. “Annunciation (from the grass beneath them),” for instance, gives an account of the angelic visitation from the point of view of the lawn (“how many moments did it hover before we felt / it was like nothing else, it was not bird / light as a mosquito, the aroma of walnut husks / while the girl’s knees pressed into us / every spear of us rising, sunlit and coarse”). She explores what it might mean for any young girl to be misled or misrepresented in poems like “Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr,” which talks back to and samples language from Nabokov’s Lolita and The Starr Report. “Annunciation under Erasure” transforms, through processes of elision, the text from a Biblical recounting of Mary’s encounter:

And he came to her and said
                        The Lord is

       in     mind 

                   be afraid Mary
the Holy
                 will overshadow you


         nothing      be impossible 

And Mary said 

And the angel departed from her

Especially articulate and haunting in this poem is our not having access to what Mary says! 

In “Long after the Desert and Donkey” (which shares a title with a poem from Granted), Gabriel speaks to Mary (“There were so many things I wanted to tell you. / Or rather, / I wished to have things that I wanted to tell you. // what a thing, to be with you and have / no words for it. What a thing, / to be outcast like that”), an act of imagination complicated and illuminated by yet another poem in which the speaker speaks to a literal female friend, Gabriela, who is visiting a donkey sanctuary in Spain (“I am afraid I have become one of those childless women who reads too much about the deaths of children and you have become one of those childless women who flies off to save the donkeys” and, later, “What I want is what I have always wanted. What I want is to be changed”). Neither is Szybist afraid to address directly her own personal investment in her subject. “Update on Mary,” for instance, is a wonderfully meta poem in which a narrator who might be close to a poet named Mary is conflated in a provocative way with the blessed Mother: 

Mary secretly thinks she is pretty and therefore deserves to be loved. 

Mary tells herself that if only she could have a child she could carry around like an extra lung, the emptiness inside her would stop gnawing.

It’s hard to tell if she believes this.

Smart, unflinching, beautiful, the poems in Incarnadine embrace the paradoxes of love: love of being beheld, of being beholden, of being “done unto,” and of what it means to care for what we make of what we are given, or not given, of what it means to “see annunciations everywhere,” in disasters, tragedies, moments of grace and miracle. The epigraph to Hard Freight is Pound’s translation of the Chinese poet Li Po: “What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking — / There is no end of things in the heart.” In “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” Szybist writes, “It’s not enough to say the heart wants what it wants.” Maybe not. But readers can be grateful to Wright and Szybist (two “solitaries…calling”) for believing that the world, with its hard news, its complicated incarnations, is nonetheless “made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals.” Among that “more” is the work of these two important and soul-nourishing poets.


LARB Contributor

Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


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