by James Longenbach
Charles Wright's last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Black Zodiac, ended with the admission that Wright was still "starting out on a long journey." With the publication of Appalachia, the journey has come to an end. Following Chickamauga and Black Zodiac, Appalachia completes not only a trilogy of books but a trilogy of trilogies--a Dantean cosmology that Wright has been pondering for thirty years. These days, when open-ended process has out-moded the well-wrought urn, Wright stands apart as a poet who insists that "what's at the road's end" is more important than the road. But since Wright is no slouch when it comes to openness (his World of the Ten Thousand Things is an aleatory poetic journal) the compulsion to find the end--the absolute, the source--feels earned. Appalachia drives head-long into the end of things and does not shy away from the beauty it finds there.
Wright's first trilogy of books, later winnowed and collected in Country Music (1982), offers a highly compressed autobiography, tracing Wright's spiritual journey from the soil to the stars. In the next three books, gathered with a coda in The World of the Ten Thousand Things (1990), Wright adopts more wayward structures, his long lines reaching in countless directions at once. The trilogy which Appalachia concludes feels like a synthesis of the first two. Like Country Music it is dominated by short, often gnomic poems rather than sequences, but like The World of the Ten Thousand Things it feels expansive, journal-like. This complex effect is most fully achieved in Appalachia, whose 45 poems are organized both temporally (unfolding in time) and spatially (following a predetermined pattern). While the poems appear in chronological order, tracing one soul's progress from February 1996 to August 1997, they are also divided into three sections--a trilogy in microcosm--each of which concludes with a poem called "Opus Posthumous." If we focus on the linear unfolding of the poems, Appalachia reads like a record of existential vicissitude, a traversing of the territory between spiritual plenitude and despair. If we focus on the book's tripartite structure, the book reads like a record of a pattern beneath experience, a foretelling that our lives will be made meaningful by the end towards which they move. "Hold on, old skeletal life," Wright intones in the first "Opus Posthumous," "there's more to come, if I hear right."
Wright was able to begin his life's work only when he glimpsed its end. "Light in the earth," he wrote long ago in an elegy for his mother, "the dead are brought / Back to us, piece by piece- / Under the sponged log, inside the stump." For thirty years Wright's subject has been the ghostly presences animating landscape, and now, at the end of the journey, he has named the landscape "appalachia"--a word that denotes simultaneously a particular place and a state of mind. Most of the poems of Appalachia take place in Wright's back yard in Charlottesville, Virginia: "This is our world. High privet hedge on two sides, half circle of arborvitae." But even when the poems stray to Venice or Montana, they nonetheless constitute a page in what Wright calls "The Appalachian Book of the Dead." More precisely, the landscape itself is the page--riven with memories, arrested by metaphor. At times, this secret language stands beyond Wright's power of comprehension. More often, Wright recognizes that he himself is responsible for imagining the ghostly presences that elude him:
I came to my senses with a pencil in my handWright literally comes "to his senses"--comes to know the world--through the act of writing. And even if Wright does not assume that the power of metaphor necessarily provides him with a knowledge of destiny ("Still, who knows where the soul goes, / Up or down, after the light switch is turned off, who knows?"), there is no American poet who can match Wright's double-barrel mastery of visual description and aural delight. In lines like these, the back yard becomes a universe of possibility:
Wick-end of August, wicked once-weight of summer's sink and sigh.Each of these single lines constitutes a stanza in itself. Throughout his third trilogy Wright has written exclusively in self-contained stanzas of two to six lines, and in Appalachia this discipline is pushed to the extreme verge of possibility. Appalachia is Wright's least garrulous book since China Trace (the final book in the first trilogy), and renunciation is its key-note: "Abolish me, make me light." While Wright has often linked a fear of repeating himself to a dread of routine--the dailiness of work and the decay of the sexual body--all complaint has been banished from Appalachia. Wright's ascetic impulse is at times almost giddily austere: "The dream of reclusive life, a strict, essential solitude, / Is a younger hermit's dream." But the impulse infuses even the darkest moments of Appalachia with a quiet patience, a willingness to savor the beauty of each day's "minor Armageddon":
Jerusalem, I say quietly. Jerusalem,As Wright's metaphors suggest, one sunset prepares us for each more harrowing Armageddon to come--the end of the season, the life, the work. The conclusion of thirty years of writing necessitates a confrontation with mortality and a perhaps even more harrowing appraisal of technique: "I cannot make it cohere," said Ezra Pound as the Cantos petered out. Given Wright's great strength--his ability to spin a universe of metaphor out of one small patch of grass--his greatest danger has been self-parody. But like Wallace Stevens more than any other modernist predecessor, Wright succeeds because he recognizes that repetition is both his curse and his salvation. His most beautiful poems exist on the hair-raising cusp between mastery and mannerism, between wholeness of vision and predictability of vision.
On the simplest level, repetition is described thematically in Appalachia: "love sees what the eye sees / Repeatedly." More profound are the intricate and manifold ways in which repetition determines the linguistic texture of the poems. Words are repeated within lines: "Green leaves. Clouds and sky. Green leaves. Clouds. Sky." Lines begin insistently with the same word: "Elsewhere . . . Elsewhere . . . Elsewhere." In "What Do You Write About, Where Do Your Ideas Come From" Wright repeats the phrase "never again," suggesting that what happens "never again" has been one of his lifelong preoccupations. But as the phrase recurs, the "never again" paradoxically recedes infinitely into the future. Each passing second of existence becomes a tiny apocalypse: "heart beat, / Never again and never again." And finally, only the "never again" itself is "never again" to be seen: "Everything up and running hard, everything under way, / Never again never again."
This variety of strategic repetitions transforms the possibility of dull routine into a ritualized metaphysical drama. While Wright notices with some impatience that "Children are playing their silly games / Behind the back yard," he discovers near the end of Appalachia that he loves "the sound of children's voices in unknown games." Routine becomes ritual when Wright sees himself--his own silly game--in the compulsively repeated games of childhood:
These things will come known to you,Listening and listening again, Wright discovers that the games we repeat, the poems we rewrite, are rehearsals for the final crossing: Red Rover, Red Rover, let Charles come over.
Wright seems at every moment surprised to be alive. However haunted, however elegiac, the work is buoyed by childlike wonder, and even Wright's grandest effects are enabled by humility: the back yard becomes heaven on earth but never stops being "heartbreakingly suburban." Coleridge defined the imagination as "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." And in the most touching moment in Appalachia, Wright reverses this formulation, suggesting that the creation of the infinite world is a repetition of the finite mind's act of metaphor-making:
Wind lull, midmorning, tonight's skyWright's simile for the poppies ("Like lip prints") precedes and makes possible the metaphor for the afterlife of Hildegarde Wright, to whose memory Appalachia is dedicated.
She "lived there all her life," says Wright in the dedication, and no matter how far he has traveled, so has Wright himself. Wright has been mourning the dead for thirty years, surveying their landscape, wearing their clothes, and his life's work is a record of possibility discovered within persistence, of human limitation raised to the highest power. Charles Wright's trilogy of trilogies--call it "The Appalachian Book of the Dead"--is sure to be counted among the great long poems of the century.