Appalachia: Poems

Appalachia: Poems

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by Charles Wright

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Almost thirty years ago, Charles Wright (who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Poetry) began a poetic project of astonishing scope--a series of three trilogies. The first trilogy was collected in Country Music, the second in The World of the Ten Thousand Things,


Almost thirty years ago, Charles Wright (who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Poetry) began a poetic project of astonishing scope--a series of three trilogies. The first trilogy was collected in Country Music, the second in The World of the Ten Thousand Things, and the third began with Chickamauga and continued with Black Zodiac. Appalachia is the last book in the final trilogy of this pathbreaking and majestic series.

If Country Music traced "Wright's journey from the soil to the stars" and The World of the Ten Thousand Things "lovingly detailed" our world and made "a visionary map of the world beyond" (James Longenbach, The Nation), this final book in Wright's great work reveals a master's confrontation with his own mortality and his stunning ability to discover transcendence in the most beautifully ordinary of landscapes.

Editorial Reviews

Adam Kirsch
...The on "God...the fire my feet are held to"; on the torment of wanting to believe and finding nothing that can secure belief...
The New York Times Book Review
Boston Review
Wright's . . . 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 (James Longenbach, Boston Review).
Library Journal
Last year, Wright won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac (LJ 4/15/97). His new work wasn't quite so lucky, but it did live up to expectations. In language that can be at once meditative and wickedly inventive, Wright explores the surreal landscape he's been mapping throughout his career in new and exciting ways. (LJ 10/1/98)
James Longenbach
Wright's . . . 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.
Boston Review
Kirkus Reviews
The latest volume by the much-celebrated University of Virginia professor is the third part of Wright's third trilogy, begun with the recent Chickamauga and Black Zodiac, for which he won last year's Pulitzer Prize-and though it stands alone, this characteristic book links with the others thematically, and stylistically, as much as you can call Wright's prose phrasings a style. If not much happens musically in his watered-down Poundian collages, he does play to academic critics with his oft-stated concerns: landscape, God, and language, though he seems to have little faith in any of these. He worries about an afterlife with a dead God; finds language "our common enemy"; and is always seeking a "secret landscape behind the landscape." Many of his poems have a where and when (i.e., a place and a month), and find their way to a gee-whiz insight, a sententious pearl that's often borrowed from his readings in Asian poetry or European lite philosophers. After all these years, we come closer to Wright's simple aesthetic, but it's not in "Ars Poetic II," where he affirms his belief in a God who holds his feet to the fire. Rather, it's in the poem "What Do You Write About, Where Do Your Ideas Come From," which simply repeats his trio of subjects and adds, in Wright's faux modest style: "The Big Empty is also a subject of note." Wright continually fails to distance himself from his trite thoughts and phrases ("keep on keeping on," "cut us some slack," and the entire "After Reading Robert Graves, I Go Outside to Get My Head Together").

From the Publisher
"Has any other American poet been writing as beautifully and daringly over the past twenty-five years as Charles Wright? Possibly. But I cannot imagine who it would be. . . . [Wright] plumbs our deepest relationships with nature, time, love, death, creation."—Philip Levine, American Poet citation for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize

"In an age of casual faithlessness, Wright successfully reconstitutes the provocative tension between belief and materialism."—Albert Mobilio, The Village Voice

"A significant and true reflection of our time."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Times Book Review

"A culmination of his career. . . . Appalachia shows again why Wright is generally considered one of America's leading poets."—Harold Branam, Magill's Literary Annual

"Wright, recipient of numerous prestigious literary prizes, is a philosopher-poet with a gift for gloriously whimsical imagery and a keen sense of the ephemeral. His inquisitive poems reside at the crux of faith and art. . . . In bright leaping lines reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a kindred spirit also enthralled by nature yet keenly aware of our isolation from it, Wright tries to connect with the spiritual by conjuring the ancient beaming of stars, winter's starkness, and the valor of flowers. Finally, in sweet, bemused surrender, he acknowledges both the impossibility of certainty, and our insatiable hunger for it."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

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By Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1998 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7746-7


    Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat

    East of town, the countryside unwrinkles and smooths out
    Unctuously toward the tidewater and gruff Atlantic.
    A love of landscape's a true affection for regret, I've found,
    Forever joined, forever apart,
    outside us yet ourselves.

    Renunciation, it's hard to learn, is now our ecstasy.
    However, if God were still around,
    he'd swallow our sighs in his nothingness.

    The dregs of the absolute are slow sift in my blood,
    Dead branches down after high winds, dead yard grass and undergrowth —
    The sure accumulation of all that's not revealed
    Rises like snow in my bare places,
    cross-whipped and openmouthed.

    Our lives can't be lived in flames.
    Our lives can't be lit like saints' hearts,
    seared between heaven and earth.

    February, old head-turner, cut us some slack, grind of bone
    On bone, such melancholy music.
    Lift up that far corner of landscape,
    there, toward the west.
    Let some of the deep light in, the arterial kind.

    Stray Paragraphs in April, Year of the Rat

    Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
    I wish I were a mole in the ground,
    eyes that see in the dark.

    Attentive without an object of attentiveness,
    Unhappy without an object of unhappiness —
    Desire in its highest form,
    dog prayer, diminishment ...

    If we were to walk for a hundred years, we could never take
    One step toward heaven —
    you have to wait to be gathered.

    Two cardinals, two blood clots,
    Cast loose in the cold, invisible arteries of the air.
    If they ever stop, the sky will stop.

    Affliction's a gift, Simone Weil thought —
    The world becomes more abundant in severest light.

    April, old courtesan, high-styler of months, dampen our mouths.

    The dense and moist and cold and dark come together here.

    The soul is air, and it maintains us.

    Basic Dialogue

    The transformation of objects in space,
    or objects in time,
    To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise ...
    It's always the same problem —
    Nothing's more abstract, more unreal,
    than what we actually see.
    The job is to make it otherwise.

    Two dead crepe-myrtle bushes,
    tulips petal-splayed and swan-stemmed,
    All blossoms gone from the blossoming trees — the new loss
    Is not like old loss,
    Winter-kill, a jubilant revelation, an artificial thing
    Linked and lifted by pure description into the other world.

    Self-oblivion, sacred information, God's nudge —
    I think I'll piddle around by the lemon tree, thorns
    Sharp as angel's teeth.
    I think
    I'll lie down in the dandelions, the purple and white violets.
    I think I'll keep on lying there, one eye cocked toward heaven.

    April eats from my fingers,
    nibble of dogwood, nip of pine.
    Now is the time, Lord.
    Syllables scatter across the new grass, in search of their words.
    Such minor Armageddons.
    Beside the waters of disremembering,
    I lay me down.

    Star Turn

    Nothing is quite as secretive as the way the stars
    Take off their bandages and stare out
    At the night,
    that dark rehearsal hall,
    And whisper their little songs,
    The alpha and beta ones, the ones from the great fire.

    Nothing is quite as gun shy,
    the invalid, broken pieces
    Drifting and rootless, rising and falling, forever
    Deeper into the darkness.
    Nightly they give us their dumb show, nightly they flash us
    Their message and melody,
    frost-sealed, our lidless companions.

    A Bad Memory Makes You a Metaphysician, a Good One Makes You a Saint

    This is our world, high privet hedge on two sides,
    half-circle of arborvitae,
    Small strip of sloped lawn,
    Last of the spring tulips and off-purple garlic heads
    Snug in the cutting border,
    Dwarf orchard down deep at the bottom of things,
    God's crucible,
    Bat-swoop and grab, grackle yawp, back yard ...

    This is our landscape,
    Bourgeois, heartbreakingly suburban;
    these are the ashes we rise from.
    As night goes down, we watch it darken and disappear.
    We push our glasses back on our foreheads,
    look hard, and it disappears.

    In another life, the sun shines and the clouds are motionless.
    There, too, the would-be-saints are slipping their hair shirts on.
    But only the light souls can be saved;
    Only the ones whose weight
    will not snap the angel's wings.
    Too many things are not left unsaid.
    If you want what the syllables want, just do your job.

    Thinking about the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May

    Rainy Saturday, Larry dead
    almost three weeks now,
    Rain starting to pool in the low spots
    And creases along the drive.
    Between showers, the saying goes,
    Roses and rhododendron wax glint
    Through dogwood and locust leaves,
    Flesh-colored, flesh-destined, spring in false flower, goodbye.

    The world was born when the devil yawned,
    the legend goes,
    And who's to say it's not true,
    Color of flesh, some inner and hidden bloom of flesh.
    Rain back again, then back off,
    Sunlight suffused like a chest pain across the tree limbs.
    God, the gathering night, assumes it.

    We haven't a clue as to what counts
    In the secret landscape behind the landscape we look at here.
    We just don't know what matters,
    May dull and death-distanced,
    Sky half-lit and grackle-ganged —
    It's all the same dark, it's all the same absence of dark.
    Part of the rain has now fallen, the rest still to fall.

    In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man Is King

    It's all so pitiful, really, the little photographs
    Around the room of places I've been,
    And me in them, the half-read books, the fetishes, this
    Tiny arithmetic against the dark undazzle.
    Who do we think we're kidding?

    Certainly not our selves, those hardy perennials
    We take such care of, and feed, who keep on keeping on
    Each year, their knotty egos like bulbs
    Safe in the damp and dreamy soil of their self-regard.
    No way we bamboozle them with these

    Shrines to the woebegone, ex votos and reliquary sites
    One comes in on one's knees to,
    The country of what was, the country of what we pretended to be,
    Cruxes and intersections of all we'd thought was fixed.
    There is no guilt like the love of guilt.

    Passing the Morning under the Serenissima

    Noon sun big as a knuckle,
    tight over Ponte S. Polo,
    Unlike the sighting of Heraclitus the Obscure,
    Who said it's the width of a man's foot.
    Unable to take the full
    "clarity" of his fellow man,
    He took to the mountains and ate grasses and wild greens,
    Aldo Buzzi retells us.

    Sick, dropsical, he returned to the city and stretched out on the ground
    And covered his body with manure
    To dry himself out.
    After two days of cure, he died,
    Having lost all semblance of humanity, and was devoured by dogs.
    Known as "the weeping philosopher," he said one time,
    The living and the dead, the waked and the sleeping, are the same.

    Thus do we entertain ourselves on hot days, Aldo Buzzi,
    Cees Nooteboom, Gustave Flaubert,
    The flies and nameless little insects
    circling like God's angels
    Over the candy dish and worn rug.
    The sun, no longer knuckle or foot,
    strays behind June's flat clouds.
    Boats bring their wild greens and bottled water down the
    Republic's shade-splotched canals.

    Venetian Dog

    Bad day in Bellini country, Venetian dog high-stepper
    Out of Carpaccio and down the street,
    tail like a crozier
    Over his ivory back.
    A Baron Corvo bad day, you mutter, under your short breath.

    Listen, my friend, everything works to our disregard.
    Language, our common enemy, moves like the tide against us,
    Fortune's heel upwind
    over Dogana's golden universe
    High in the cloud-scratched and distant sky.

    Six p.m. Sunday church bells
    Flurry and circle and disappear like pigeon flocks,
    Lost in the sunlight's fizzle and fall.
    The stars move as well against us.
    From pity, it sometimes seems.

    So what's the body to do,
    caught in its web of spidered flesh?
    Venetian dog has figured his out, and stands his ground,
    Bristled and hogbacked,
    Barking in cadence at something that you and I can't see.

    For us, what indeed, lying like S. Lorenzo late at night
    On his brazier, lit from above by a hole in the sky,
    From below by coals,
    his arm thrown up,
    In Titian's great altarpiece, in supplication, what indeed?

    In the Valley of the Magra

    In June, above Pontrèmoli, high in the Lunigiana,
    The pollen-colored chestnut blooms
    sweep like a long cloth
    Snapped open over the bunched treetops
    And up the mountain as far as the almost-Alpine meadows.
    At dusk, in the half-light, they appear
    Like stars come through the roots of the great trees from another sky.
    Or tears, with my glasses off.
    Sometimes they seem like that
    Just as the light fades and the darkness darkens for good.

    Or that's the way I remember it when the afternoon thunderstorms
    Tumble out of the Blue Ridge,
    And distant bombardments muscle in
    across the line
    Like God's solitude or God's shadow,
    The loose consistency of mortar and river stone
    Under my fingers where I leaned out
    Over it all,
    isolate farm lights
    Starting to take the color on, the way I remember it ...

    Returned to the Yaak Cabin, I Overhear an Old Greek Song

    Back at the west window, Basin Creek
    Stumbling its mantra out in a slurred, midsummer monotone,
    Sunshine in planes and clean sheets
    Over the yarrow and lodgepole pine —
    We spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave,
    Pine squirrels and butterflies at work in a deep dither,
    Bumblebee likewise, wind with a slight hitch in its get-along.

    Dead heads on the lilac bush, daisies
    Long-legged forest of stalks in a white throw across the field
    Above the ford and deer path,
    Candor of marble, candor of bone —
    We spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave,
    The head of Orpheus bobbing in the slatch, his song
    Still beckoning from his still-bloody lips, bright as a bee's heart.

    Ars Poetica II

    I find, after all these years, I am a believer —
    I believe what the thunder and lightning have to say;
    I believe that dreams are real,
    and that death has two reprisals;
    I believe that dead leaves and black water fill my heart.

    I shall die like a cloud, beautiful, white, full of nothingness.

    The night sky is an ideogram,
    a code card punched with holes.
    It thinks it's the word of what's-to-come.
    It thinks this, but it's only The Library of Last Resort,
    The reflected light of The Great Misunderstanding.

    God is the fire my feet are held to.

    Cicada Blue

    I wonder what Spanish poets would say about this,
    Bloodless, mid-August meridian,
    Afternoon like a sucked-out, transparent insect shell,
    Diffused, and tough to the touch.
    Something about a labial, probably,
    something about the blue.

    St. John of the Cross, say, or St. Teresa of Avila.
    Or even St. Thomas Aquinas,
    Who said, according to some,
    "All I have written seems like straw
    Compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."
    Not Spanish, but close enough,
    something about the blue.

    Blue, I love you, blue, one of them said once in a different color,
    The edged and endless
    Expanse of nowhere and nothingness
    hemmed as a handkerchief from here,
    Cicada shell of hard light
    Just under it, blue, I love you, blue ...

    We've tried to press God in our hearts the way we'd press a leaf in a book,
    Afternoon memoried now,
    sepia into brown,
    Night coming on with its white snails and its ghost of the Spanish poet,
    Poet of shadows and death.
    Let's press him firm in our hearts, O blue, I love you, blue.


Excerpted from Appalachia by Charles Wright. Copyright © 1998 Charles Wright. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles Wright was awarded the National Book Award in Poetry in 1983 for Country Music and the 1995 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for Chickamauga. He teaches at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Charles Wright is the United States Poet Laureate. His poetry collections include Country Music, Black Zodiac, Chickamauga, Bye-and-Bye: Selected Later Poems, Sestets, and Caribou. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the 2013 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee in 1935, he currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Appalachia 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many poems in the collection are profound meditations on "Landscape, of course, the idea of God and language/ Itself, that pure grace/ which is invisible and sure and clear" ("What Do You Write About,/ Where Do Your Ideas Come From?"); but again and again the poems escape any neat summary and astonish us by confronting us with existence.