Read an Excerpt
By Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1995 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn
Three years ago, in the afternoons,
I used to sit back here and try
To answer the simple arithmetic of my life,
But never could figure it —
This object and that object
Never contained the landscape
nor all of its implications,
This tree and that shrub
Never completely satisfied the sum or quotient
I took from or carried to,
nor do they do so now,
Though I'm back here again, looking to calculate,
Looking to see what adds up.
Everything comes from something,
only something comes from nothing,
Lao Tzu says, more or less.
Eminently sensible, I say,
Rubbing this tiny snail shell between my thumb and two fingers.
Delicate as an earring,
it carries its emptiness like a child
It would be rid of.
I rub it clockwise and counterclockwise, hoping for anything
Resplendent in its vocabulary or disguise —
But one and one make nothing, he adds,
endless and everywhere,
The shadow that everything casts.
Lines After Rereading T. S. Eliot
The orchard is fading out.
All nine of the fruit trees
Diminish and dull back in the late Sunday sunlight.
The dead script of vines
Over the arbor vitae.
A cricket, a little black luck charm,
stops at my feet
On his singular pathway
Across the wasteland between the brown
Apricot leaf and the hedge.
Hello, good luck, goodbye.
* * *
Whatever happened to the dark sublime,
sin of the third eye,
Cross-gap between flesh and abstraction?
Pain, the old standby, is what calls us,
A life between the rocks,
the desert's sweet syllable.
We cannot forgive ourselves.
When our ears sing our guiltless blood,
we cannot forgive ourselves.
We know hell in our bones —
outside time, outside comprehension,
We know it in our bones.
* * *
Ambition is such a small thing.
Like a late pear in the autumn sun,
Hard, green, indigestible,
It hangs in front of our eyes.
It hangs there and grows dark
As the light of Indian summer seeps away at our backs.
Illustrious and unknown
is what we should wish for ourselves,
Fading the way this landscape fades
Into its anonymity
and various selves,
So indefinable, so dumb.
Reading Lao Tzu Again in the New Year
Snub end of a dismal year,
deep in the dwarf orchard,
The sky with its undercoat of blackwash and point stars,
I stand in the dark and answer to
My life, this shirt I want to take off,
which is on fire ...
Old year, new year, old song, new song,
nothing will change hands
Each time we change heart, each time
Like a hard cloud that has drifted all day through the sky
Toward the night's shrugged shoulder
with its epaulet of stars.
* * *
Prosodies rise and fall.
Structures rise in the mind and fall.
Failure reseeds the old ground.
Does the grass, with its inches in two worlds, love the dirt?
Does the snowflake the raindrop?
I've heard that those who know will never tell us,
That those who tell us will never know.
Words are wrong.
Structures are wrong.
Even the questions are compromise.
Desire discriminates and language discriminates:
They form no part of the essence of all things:
Is a failure, each object
We name and place
leads us another step away from the light.
Loss is its own gain.
Its secret is emptiness.
Our images lie in the flat pools of their dark selves
Like bodies of water the tide moves.
They move as the tide moves.
Its secret is emptiness.
* * *
Four days into January,
the grass grows tiny, tiny
Under the peach trees.
Wind from the Blue Ridge tumbles the hat
Of daylight farther and farther
into the eastern counties.
Sunlight spray on the ash limbs.
Whistle at something unseen, one black note and one interval.
We're placed between now and not-now,
held by affection,
Large rock balanced upon a small rock.
Under the Nine Trees in January
Last night's stars and last night's wind
Are west of the mountains now, and east of the river.
Here, under the branches of the nine trees,
how small the world seems.
Should we lament, in winter, our shadow's solitude,
Our names spelled out like snowflakes?
Where is it written, the season's decrease diminishes me?
Should we long for stillness,
a hush for the trivial body
Washed in the colors of paradise,
Dirt-colored water-colored match-flame-and-wind-colored?
As one who has never understood the void,
Give counsel to the darkness, honor the condor's wing?
Should we keep on bowing to
an inch of this and an inch of that?
The world is a handkerchief.
Today I spread it across my knees.
Tomorrow they'll fold it into my breast pocket,
white on my dark suit.
After Reading Wang Wei, I Go Outside to the Full Moon
Back here, old snow like lace cakes,
Candescent and brittle now and then through the tall grass.
Remorse, remorse, the dark drones.
The body's the affliction,
No resting place in the black pews of the winter trees,
No resting place in the clouds.
Mercy upon us, old man,
You in the China dust, I this side of my past life,
Salt in the light of heaven.
Isolate landscape. World's grip.
The absolute, as small as a poker chip, moves off,
Bright moon shining between pines.
March is the month of slow fire,
new grasses stung with rain,
Druidic crocus circles appear
Overnight, morose in their purple habits,
Glistening in the cut sun.
* * *
Instinct will end us.
The force that measles the peach tree
will divest and undo us.
The power that kicks on
the cells in the lilac bush
Will tumble us down and down.
Under the quince tree, purple cross points, and that's all right
For the time being,
the willow across the back fence
Menacing in its green caul.
When the full moon comes
gunning under the cloud's cassock
Later tonight, the stations
Will start to break forth like stars, their numbers flashing and then some.
Belief is a paltry thing
and will betray us, soul's load scotched
Against the invisible:
We are what we've always thought we were —
Peeling the membrane back,
amazed, like the jonquil's yellow head
Butting the nothingness —
in the wrong place, in the wrong body.
The definer of all things
cannot be spoken of.
It is not knowledge or truth.
We get no closer than next-to-it.
Beyond wisdom, beyond denial,
it asks us for nothing,
According to Pseudo-Dionysus, which sounds good to me.
* * *
Nubbly with enzymes,
The hardwoods gurgle and boil in their leathery sheaths.
Flame flicks the peony's fuse.
Out of the caves of their locked beings,
Roll the darkness aside as they rise to enter the real world.
Reading Rorty and Paul Celan One Morning in Early June
In the skylight it's Sunday,
A little aura between the slats of the Venetian blinds.
Outside the front window,
a mockingbird balances
Gingerly on a spruce branch.
At the Munch house across the street,
Rebecca reads through the paper, then stares at her knees
On the front porch.
Church bell. Weed-eater's cough and spin.
From here, the color of mountains both is and is not,
Beginning of June,
Haze like a nesting bird in the trees,
The Blue Ridge partial,
then not partial,
Between the staff lines of the telephone wires and pine tips
That sizzle like E.T.'s finger.
Mid-nineties, and summer officially still three weeks away.
* * *
If truth is made and not found,
what an amazing world
We live in, more secret than ever
And beautiful of access.
Goodbye, old exits, goodbye, old entrances, the way
Out is the way in at last,
Two-hearted sorrow of middle age,
Benevolent anarchy to tan and grow old with.
If sentences constitute
everything we believe,
Our inability to measure and get it right,
And languages don't exist.
That's one theory. Here's another:
Something weighs on our shoulders
And settles itself like black light
invisibly in our hair ...
* * *
Pool table. Zebra rug.
Three chairs in a half circle.
Buck horns and Ca' Paruta.
Gouache of the Clinchfield station in Kingsport, Tennessee.
High tide on the Grand Canal,
San Zeno in late spring
Taken by "Ponti" back in the nineteenth century.
I see the unknown photographer
under his dark cloth. Magnesium flash.
Silence. I hear what he has to say.
June 3rd, heat like Scotch tape on the skin,
Mountains the color of nothing again,
then something through mist.
In Tuscany, on the Sette Ponti, Gròpina dead-ends
Above the plain and the Arno's marauding cities,
Columns eaten by darkness,
Cathedral unsentenced and plugged in
windows of alabaster, windows of flame.
After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard
East of me, west of me, full summer.
How deeper than elsewhere the dusk is in your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth across the lawn
looking for home
As night drifts up like a little boat.
Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.
The sky dogs are whimpering.
Fireflies are dragging the hush of evening
up from the damp grass.
Into the world's tumult, into the chaos of every day,
Go quietly, quietly.
Thinking of David Summers at the Beginning of Winter
December, five days till Christmas,
In the low twenties, glass throat
Holding the afternoon half-hindered
And out of luck.
Goodbye to my last poem, "Autumn Thoughts."
Two electric wall heaters
thermostat on and off,
Ice one-hearted and firm in the mouth of the downspout
Outside, snow stiff as a wedding dress
Carelessly left unkempt
all week in another room.
Everything we desire is somewhere else,
day too short,
Night too short, light snuffed and then relit,
Road salted and sanded down,
Sky rolling the white of its eye back
into its head.
Reinvention is what we're after,
Living in history without living in the past
Is what the task is,
Quartering our desire,
making what isn't as if it were.
All morning I've walked about,
opening books and closing books,
Sitting in this chair and that chair.
Steady drip on the skylight,
steady hum of regret.
Who listens to anyone?
Across the room, bookcases,
across the street, summer trees.
Hear what the book says:
This earthly light
Is a seasoning, tempting and sweet and dangerous.
Resist the allurements of the eye.
Feet still caught in the toils of this world's beauty,
The gratifications of the eye.
Excerpted from Chickamauga by Charles Wright. Copyright © 1995 Charles Wright. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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