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Black Zodiac
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Black Zodiac

by Charles Wright

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award

Black Zodiac offers poems suffused with spiritual longing—lyrical meditations on faith, religion, heritage, and morality. The poems also explore aging and mortality with restless grace. Approaching his vast subjects by way of small moments, Wright magnifies details to reveal


Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award

Black Zodiac offers poems suffused with spiritual longing—lyrical meditations on faith, religion, heritage, and morality. The poems also explore aging and mortality with restless grace. Approaching his vast subjects by way of small moments, Wright magnifies details to reveal truths much larger than the quotidian happenings that engendered them. His is an astonishing, flexible, domestic-yet-universal verse. As the critic Helen Vendler has observed, Wright is a poet who "sounds like nobody else."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Black Zodiac concentrates on Charles Wright's considerable poetic endowment into a new poignance that has to be termed religious. Some of the poems achieve an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence.” —Harold Bloom

Black Zodiac occupies the position in Wright's career that The Auroras of Autumn holds in Wallace Stevens's: Having long since mastered his characteristic voice, the poet has passed through the terrifying moment when mastery threatens to become mannerism, and he has emerged as a poet whose every line seems completely recognizable and at the same time utterly fresh.” —James Longenbach, The Nation

“Combines an impeccable musical and prosaic sense with the kind of humility possessed by the masters.” —Carol Muske, The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Out of any two thoughts I have, one is devoted to death," proclaims Wright in this ominous collection of new work. Perhaps because these poems were written around his 60th birthday or perhaps because an imperative moves all good Southern writers to flirt with dissolution, Wright has begun to consider the end that nears. On these pages he creates and explores an almost surreal present purgatory built from varying amounts of Zen Buddhism, memories, paradox and pastoral opulence. Gertrude Stein, Sappho, his physician and a golf buddy all cast their influence. The language is lilting and pacific even as its embedded imagery disturbs: "Honeysuckle and poison ivy jumbling out of the hedge,/ Magnolia beak and white tongue, landscape's off-load, love's lisp" ("Apologia pro Vita Sua, III"). Attachment to the things of the world tightens: "Swallows darting like fish through the alabaster air,/ Cleansing the cleanliness, feeding on seen and the unseen./ To come back as one of them!" ("Meditation on Song and Structure"). On the page, as always, Wright's passages refuse to cohere into peaceful stanzas. Scattered and making a break for the right-hand margin, the lines add to the unease that haunts the book, magnifying a nagging sense of disorder and mortality amid an effort at resignation. (Apr.)
Library Journal
In the magisterial opening poem, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," 1983 National Book Awrd winner Wright claims, "Journal and landscape/ Discredited form, discredited subject matter/ I tried to resuscitate them both, breath and blood,/ making them whole again." It's an apt description of his poetry, which reads like a slightly mad, language-drenched tour of a variety of odd but tantalizingly familiar landscapes (the word comes up constantly): "Midsummer. Irish overcast. Oatmeal-colored sky"; "shank of the afternoon, wan weight-light"; "these few sad stains/ Stuck to the landscape/ December dark"; "Nothing is flat-lit and tabula rasaed in Charlotteville"; and, finally, "Milton paints purple trees. Avery./ And Wolf Kahn too./ I've liked their landscapes." It feels like cheating to write a review that's half quotations, but Wright's luscious jumble of language simply must be experienced first-hand. Along the way he admonishes: "Before you bear witness/ Be sure you have something that calls for a witnessing." These poems bear witness to a rich and contradictory world (told, as it should be, at a slant), and they must be witnessed themselves. Highly recommended.Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Black Zodiac by Charles Wright. Copyright © 1998 by Charles Wright. To be published in March, 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.



How soon we come to road's end—

Failure, our two-dimensional side-kick, flat dream-light,

Won't jump-start or burn us in,

Dogwood insidious in its constellations of part-charred cross points,

Spring's via Dolorosa flashed out in a dread profusion,

Nowhere to go but up, nowhere to turn, dead world-weight,

They've gone and done it again,


Spring's sap-crippled, arthritic, winter-weathered, myth limb,

Whose roots are my mother's hair.

Landscape's a lever of transcendence—

jack-wedge it here,

Or here, and step back,

Heave, and a light, a little light, will nimbus your going forth:

The dew bead, terminal bead, opens out onto a great radiance,

Sun's square on magnolia leaf

Offers us entrance—

who among us will step forward,

Camellia brown boutonnieres

Under his feet, plum branches under his feet, white sky, white noon,

Church bells like monk's mouths tonguing the hymn?

Journal and landscape

—Discredited form, discredited subject matter—

I tried to resuscitate both, breath and blood,

making them whole again

Through language, strict attention—

Verona mi fe', disfecemi Verona, the song goes.

I've hummed it, I've bridged the break

To no avail.

0April. The year begins beyond words,

Beyond myself and the image of myself, beyond

Moon's ice and summer's thunder. All that.

The meat of the sacrament is invisible meat and a ghostly substance.

I'll say.

Like any visible thing,

I'm always attracted downward, and soon to be killed and assimilated.

Vessel of life, it's said, vessel of life, brought to naught,

Then gathered back to what's visible.

That's it, fragrance of spring like lust in the blossom-starred orchard,

The shapeless shape of darkness starting to seep through and emerge,

The seen world starting to tilt,

Where I sit the still, unwavering point under that world's waves.

How like the past the clouds are,

Building and disappearing along the horizon,

Inflecting the mountains,

laying their shadows under our feet

For us to cross over on.

Out of their insides fire falls, ice falls,

What we remember that still remembers us, earth and air fall.

Neither, however, can resurrect or redeem us,

Moving, as both must, ever away toward opposite corners.

Neither has been where we're going,

bereft of an attitude.

Amethyst, crystal transparency,

Maya and Pharaoh ring,

Malocchio, set against witchcraft,

Lightning and hailstorm, birthstone, savior from drunkenness.

Purple, color of insight, clear sight,

Color of memory—

violet, that's for remembering,

Star-crystals scattered across the penumbra, hard stars.

Who can distinguish darkness from the dark, light from light,

Subject matter from story line,

the part from the whole

When whole is part of the part and part is all of it?

Lonesomeness. Morandi, Cezanne, it's all about lonesomeness.

And Rothko. Especially Rothko.

Separation from what heals us beyond painting, beyond art.arWords and paint, black notes, white notes.

Music and landscape; music, landscape and sentences.

Gestures for which there is no balm, no intercession.

Two tone fields, horizon a line between abysses,

Generally white, always speechless.

Rothko could choose either one to disappear into. And did.

Perch'io no spero di tornar giammai, ballatetta, in Toscana,

Not as we were the first time,

not as we'll ever be again.

Such snowflakes of memory, they fall nowhere but there.

Absorbed in remembering, we cannot remember—

Exile's anthem, O stiff heart,

Thingless we came into the world and thingless we leave,

Every important act is wordless—

to slip from the right way,

To fail, still accomplishes something.

Even a good thing remembered, however, is not as good as not remembering at all.

Time is the source of all good,

time the engenderer

Of entropy and decay,

Time the destroyer, our only-begetter and advocate.

For instance, my fingernail,

so pink, so amplified.

In the half-clerk, for instance,

These force-fed dogwood blossoms, green-leafed, defused,

limp on their long branches.

St. Stone, say a little prayer for me,

grackles and jay in the black gum,

Drowse of the poetry head,

Dandelion globes luminous in the last light, more work to be done...


Something will get you, the doctor said,

don't worry about that.

Melancholia's got me,

Pains in the abdomen, pains down the left leg and crotch.

Slurry of coal dust behind the eyes,

Massive weight in the musculature, dark blood, dark blood.

I'm sick and tired of my own complaints,

This quick flick like a compass foot through the testicle,

Deep drag and hurt through the groin—

Melancholia, black dog,

everyone's had enough.

Dew-dangled, fresh-cut lawn grass will always smell like a golf course

Fairway to me, Saturday morning, Chuck Ross and I

Already fudging our scores down,

happy as mockingbirds in deep weeds,

The South Fork of the Holston River

Slick as a nickel before its confluence behind our backs

At Rotherwood with the North Fork's distant, blurred thunder,

Our rounds in the seventies always including mulligans,

Nudged lies, "found" lost balls, some extraordinary shots

And that never-again-to-be-repeated teen-age false sense of attainment.

One summer, aged 16, I watched—each night, it seemed—my roommate,

A college guy, gather his blanket up, and flashlight,

And leave for his rendezvous with the camp cook—

he never came back before dawn

Some 40 years later I saw him again for the first time

Since then, in a grocery store, in the checkout line,

A cleric from Lexington, shrunken and small. Bearded even.

And all these years I'd thought of him, if at all, as huge

And encompassing,

Not rabbit-eyed, not fumbling a half-filled brown sack,

dry-lipped, apologetic.

In 1990 we dragged Paris

—back on the gut again after 26 years—

The Boulevard Montparnasse

La Coupole, the Select, you know, the Dome, the Closerie de Lilas,

Up and down and back and forth.

Each night a Japanese girl would take a bath at 4 a.m.

In the room above ours,

each night someone beat his wife

In a room above the garage outside our window.

It rained all day for ten days.

Sleeplessness, hallucination, O City of Light ...

What sane, impossible reason could Percy Heath have made up

To talk to me, drunk, white and awe-struck,

—And tone-deaf to boot—

that night at the Carmel Mission?

But talk he did, uncondescending, feigning interest,

As Milt Jackson walked by and John Lewis walked by,

Gerry Mulligan

Slouched in one corner, Paul Desmond cool in an opposite one.

October, 1958, Monterey Jazz Festival,

First advisors starting to leave the Army Language School for

South Vietnam,

The Pacific's dark eyelid beginning to stir, ready to rise and roll back ...

During World War II, we lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee,

Badges and gates, checkpoints, government housing, government rules.

One house we lived in was next door to a two-star admiral.

I learned a couple of things in the three-plus years we lived in

Oak Ridge,

One from my first (and only) paper route, the second

After my first (and only) breaking-and-entering.

One thing I learned, however, I didn't know what to do with:

Death is into the water, life is the coming out.

I still don't, though nothing else matters but that, it seems,

nothing even comes close.

Elm Grove, Pine Valley and Cedar Hill,

what detritus one remembers—

The one-armed soldier we spied on making out in the sedge grass

With his red-haired girl friend behind the Elm Grove playground,

For instance, in 1944 ... I was nine, the fourth grade ...

I remember telling Brooklyn, my best friend,

my dick was stiff all night.

Nine years old! My dick! All night!

We talked about it for days,

Oak Ridge abstracted and elswhere,

—D-Day and Normandy come and gone—

All eyes on the new world's sun king,

its rising up and its going down.

It's Wednesday afternoon, and Carter and I are on the road

For the Sullivan County National Bank Loan Department,

1957, Gate City and Southwest Virginia.

We're after deadbeats, delinquent note payers, in Carter's words.

Cemetery plots—ten dollars a month until you die or pay up.

In four months I'll enter the Army, right now I'm Dr. Death,

Riding shotgun for Carter, bringing more misery to the miserable.

Up-hollow and down-creek, shack after unelectrified shack—

The worst job in the world, and we're the two worst people in it.

0Overeast afternoon, then weak sun, then overeast again,

A little wind whiffles across the back yard like a squall line

In miniature, thumping the clover heads, startling the grass.

My parents' 60th wedding anniversary

Were they still alive,

5th of June, 1994.

It's hard to imagine, I think, your own children grown older than you ever were, I can't.

I sit in one of the knock-off Brown-Jordan deck chairs we brought from California.

Next to the bearded grandson my mother never saw.

Some afternoon, or noon, it will all be over. Not this one.

Meet the Author

Charles Wright has won, among other honors, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Academy of American Poets' 1996 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

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