Black Zodiac

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

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"
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

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Black Zodiac

By Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1997 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7741-2



    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.
    April. 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, Cézanne, it's all about lonesomeness.
    And Rothko. Especially Rothko.
    Separation from what heals us
    beyond painting, beyond art.

    Words 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-dark, 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 peony 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 25 years —
    The Boulevard Montparnasse,
    La Coupole, the Select, you know, the Dôme, 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 elsewhere,
    — 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.

    * * *

    Overcast afternoon, then weak sun, then overcast 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.


    June is a migraine above the eyes,
    Strict auras and yellow blots,
    green screen and tunnel vision,
    Slow ripples of otherworldliness,

    Humidity's painfall drop by drop.
    Next door, high whine of the pest exterminator's blunt machine.
    Down the street, tide-slap of hammer-and-nail,
    hammer-and-nail from a neighbor's roof.

    I've had these for forty years,
    light-prints and shifting screed,
    Feckless illuminations.
    St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, lead me home.

    * * *

    It's good to know certain things:
    What's departed, in order to know what's left to come;
    That water's immeasurable and incomprehensible

    And blows in the air
    Where all that's fallen and silent becomes invisible;
    That fire's the light our names are carved in.

    That shame is a garment of sorrow;
    That time is the Adversary, and stays sleepless and wants for nothing;
    That clouds are unequal and words are.

    * * *

    I sense a certain uncertainty in the pine trees,
    Seasonal discontent,
    quotidian surliness,
    Pre-solstice jitters, that threatens to rattle our equilibrium.

    My friend has lost his larynx,
    My friend who in the old days, with a sentence or two,
    Would easily set things right,

    His glasses light-blanks as he quoted a stanza from Stevens or Yeats
    Behind his cigarette smoke.
    Life's hard, our mutual third friend says ... It is. It is.

    * * *

    Sundays define me.
    Born on a back-lit Sunday, like today,
    But later, in August,
    And elsewhere, in Tennessee, Sundays dismantle me.

    There is a solitude about Sunday afternoons
    In small towns, surrounded by all that's familiar
    And of necessity dear,

    That chills us on hot days, like today, unto the grave,
    When the sun is a tongued wafer behind the clouds, out of sight,
    And wind chords work through the loose-roofed yard sheds,
    a celestial music ...

    * * *

    There is forgetfulness in me which makes me descend
    Into a great ignorance,
    And makes me to walk in mud, though what I remember remains.

    Some of the things I have forgotten:
    Who the Illuminator is, and what he illuminates;
    Who will have pity on what needs have pity on it.

    What I remember redeems me,
    strips me and brings me to rest,
    An end to what has begun,
    A beginning to what is about to be ended.

    * * *

    What are the determining moments of our lives?
    How do we know them?
    Are they ends of things or beginnings?
    Are we more or less of ourselves once they've come and gone?

    I think this is one of mine tonight,
    The Turkish moon and its one star
    crisp as a new flag
    Over my hometown street with its dark trash cans looming along the curb.

    Surely this must be one. And what of me afterwards
    When the moon and her sanguine consort
    Have slipped the horizon? What will become of me then?

    * * *

    Some names are everywhere — they are above and they are below,
    They are concealed and they are revealed.
    We call them wise, for the wisdom of death is called the little wisdom.
    And my name? And your name?
    Where will we find them, in what pocket?
    Wherever it is, better to keep them there not known —
    Words speak for themselves, anonymity speaks for itself.

    The Unknown Master of the Pure Poem walks nightly among his roses,
    The very garden his son laid out.
    Every so often he sits down. Every so often he stands back up ...

    * * *

    Heavy, heavy, heavy hangs over our heads. June heat.
    How many lives does it take to fabricate this one?
    Aluminum pie pan bird frightener
    dazzles and feints in a desultory breeze

    Across the road, vegetable garden mojo, evil eye.
    That's one life I know for sure.
    Others, like insects in amber,
    lie golden and lurking and hidden from us.

    Ninety-four in the shade, humidity huge and inseparable,
    Noon sun like a laser disk.
    The grackle waddles forth in his suit of lights,
    the crucifixion on his back.

    * * *

    Affection's the absolute
    everything rises to,
    Devotion's detail, the sum of all our scatterings,
    Bright imprint our lives unshadow on.

    Easy enough to say that now, the hush of late spring
    Hung like an after-echo
    Over the neighborhood,
    devolving and disappearing.

    Easy enough, perhaps, but still true,
    Honeysuckle and poison ivy jumbling out of the hedge,
    Magnolia beak and white tongue, landscape's off-load, love's lisp.


Excerpted from Black Zodiac by Charles Wright. Copyright © 1997 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 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.

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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