Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems

Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems

by Charles Wright
     
 

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The culmination of the cycle that won Wright the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award

Time will append us like suit coats left out overnight
On a deck chair, loose change dead weight in the right pocket,
Silk handkerchief limp with dew,
sleeves in a slow dance with the wind.
And love will kill

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Overview

The culmination of the cycle that won Wright the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award

Time will append us like suit coats left out overnight
On a deck chair, loose change dead weight in the right pocket,
Silk handkerchief limp with dew,
sleeves in a slow dance with the wind.
And love will kill us--
Love, and the winds from under the earth
that grind us to grain-out.
--from "Still Life with Spring and Time to Burn"

When Charles Wright published Appalachia in 1998, it marked the completion of a nine-volume project, of which James Longenbach wrote in the Boston Review, "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."

The first two of those trilogies were collected in Country Music (1982) and The World of the Ten Thousand Things (1990). Here Wright adds to his third trilogy (Chickamauga [1995], Black Zodiac [1997], and Appalachia [1998]) a section of new poems that suggest new directions in the work of this sensuous, spirit-haunted poet.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“There are precious few contemporary poets in whose work I find as much sheer wisdom as in Wright's. . . . His ascetic discipline is an instruction and an aesthetic. The whole world seems to orbit in a kind of meditative, slow circle around Wright's grave influence.” —David Baker, Poetry

“Truly an event. One of our national treasures has been watching us and listening to us for decades, and [Negative Blue] is proof that he's watched and listened well. . . . One of the remarkable things about Wright is precisely what happens in the back yard, on the front lawn, or at a cafe. His poems are visions of things ethereal, but even with all their luminescence and otherworldly shades, they remain within earshot of a lawn mower starting up or cicadas announcing the hour.” —Dionisio D. Martinez, Miami Herald

“[Wright is] a master craftsman who if asked would humbly call himself a journeyman, for the mastery of an art form, as Pound said, is the work of a lifetime.” —Eric Pankey, Verse

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

bn.com

It is the sign of a mature poet to admit that he has been talking about one thing for 30 years and then to confess, with childlike wonder, what that thing is: "Wind like big sticks in the trees..." However, it is precisely this dispersion of expectation that Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Wright has developed into a lifelong song of what cannot be said. Negative Blue tracks ten years of the Appalachian poet's descriptions of the incommunicable with selected poems from his final "trilogy of trilogies," along with new poems that push further into the "unseen and nightlong."

There is a thick musicality in Wright's poems that urges you to ruminate on the sounds of the words before even considering their meaning. The constant beats and switchbacks of soft and hard sounds accumulate on your tongue. The subjects of the poems, when there is a discernible, traditional subject, dissipate under the weight of heavy descriptions. His liberal use of hyphens and the repetition of sounds produce a tight clacking of sound images that conjure up the sound of small drums as much as any visual counterpoint:

      Spring's sap-crippled, arthritic, winter-weathered, myth limb,
      Whose roots are my mother's hair.

The poems in Negative Blue are remarkable for their sharpness of language. Wright is a master at fingering through the spectrum of language to secure that rare, particular word that both fits perfectly and at the same time unhinges the reader with its unfamiliarity. His modernist upbringing in the footsteps of Pound and Eliot has imbued his poetry with a strong sense of the disordering of the world still struggling with the endless attempt to get at the ultimate sense of things through words.

This inherent brokenness of the world comes through in both form and meaning in Wright's poetry. Narrative fragments, prayer, meditation, homage to other poets, humor, and the loose repetition of sounds gather in force to emphasize the entropic play of life. Yet, the poet is too aware of falling into a cheap description of the chaos of the world and continually intertwines a polished beauty of possible meaning into his verses. He is indebted to such Chinese poets as Tu Fu and Li Po with their strong convictions of the relativity of things and the impenetrable nature of the world. In "After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard" he writes:

      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.

In both Wright's literary inspirations and his personal style, there is a struggle between the attempt to mentally dissect life and an urge to surrender to its sheer happening. He is certainly on the side of the academic buttress, working from the wealth of both East and West and of literature and art, to further this fight with himself. Yet, the many allusions and provocations he draws from old books and sharp thoughts become quickly extraneous when he falls back into the rhythm of the natural world.

The poet's acute awareness of the movement and lessons of nature, and of humans within this world, is certainly the most potent element to his verses. Wright's involvement in the intricate presence of the "inside-out of the winter gum trees" and the "dead lemon leaves" really frees the reader from the mental hammering that often turns his poetry into heavy aphorisms. The rich, kaleidoscopic detail is truly alive when the rough beat-beat of his voice submits to what it is describing:

      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.

Wright is an autobiographical poet, and this new collection is the culmination of 30 years of his spiritual rummaging through the books and hills of the earth. He is a poet of the old order, the rare breed who is sensitive to every movement around him and within him. From his childhood in rural Tennessee to the distant piazzas of Italy and the wisdom of the T'ang dynasty, Negative Blue confirms that his journey has led ever further and deeper into himself.

—Justin Frimmer

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The widely esteemed Virginia-based poet collects a decade's worth of striking description and laid-back meditation in this sample of work from his last three books: the energetic Chickamauga, the introspective (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) Black Zodiac and the elegiac Appalachia. Leaping and skating among apothegms and visual intricacies, Wright's skeins of beautiful lines offer the shifting emotional textures of his day-to-day thought and experience: "Into the world tumult," he advises his poems, "into the chaos of every day,/ Go quietly, quietly." "Landscape's a lever of transcendence," he writes, though elsewhere he insists he's just setting down impressions--"Journal and landscape I tried to resuscitate both." Wright's "verbal amulets" chronicle the world's imperviousness to our words for it, and our stubborn and lambent need to find those words--one description of the Blue Ridge or the Adriatic claims to respond to an ancient Chinese poet, the next to a contemporary philosopher. Wright's power lies less in whole poems than in lines within them: those linear strengths owe something to Ezra Pound, and something more to the antiphonal balances of the Psalms. Wright ends the volume with seven new short poems: sometimes lugubrious, sometimes rapturous, they focus more than ever on aging and loss--"time, the true dissolver, eats away at our fingertips." "I've talked about one thing for thirty years,/ and said it time and again," another new poem declares; in an important sense all Wright's recent career makes up one poem, a continual, often compelling exploration of seeing, thinking and the dialectic between them--at one moment Wright is declaring "Whatever has been will be again,/ unaltered, ever returning"; at the next he's drawn to the "Serenity of the rhododendrons, pink and white." (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374527730
Publisher:
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux-3pl
Publication date:
10/04/2000
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Negative Blue

Selected Later Poems


By Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2000 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7750-4



CHAPTER 1

CHICKAMAUGA


    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.


    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,
    and heard
    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:
    each word
    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.
    Two birds
    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,
    should I
    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.


    EASTER 1989

    March is the month of slow fire,
    new grasses stung with rain,
    Cold-shouldered, white-lipped.
    Druidic crocus circles appear
    Overnight, morose in their purple habits,
    wet cowls
    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,
    fluorescent shapes
    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,
    substanceless blue,
    Benevolent anarchy to tan and grow old with.
    If sentences constitute
    everything we believe,
    Vocabularies retool
    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
    To what's-not-there,
    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,
    mercury red-lined
    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,
    Pliny's outline,
    Living in history without living in the past
    Is what the task is,
    Quartering our desire,
    making what isn't as if it were.


    CICADA

    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,
    resist
    The gratifications of the eye.


    * * *

    Noon in the early September rain.
    A cicada whines,
    his voice
    Starting to drown through the rainy world,
    No ripple of wind,
    no sound but his song of black wings,
    No song but the song of his black wings.

    Such emptiness at the heart,
    such emptiness at the heart of being,
    Fills us in ways we can't lay claim to,
    Ways immense and without names,
    husk burning like amber
    On tree bark, cicada wind-bodied,
    Leaves beginning to rustle now
    in the dark tree of the self.

    * * *

    If time is water, appearing and disappearing
    In one heliotropic cycle,
    this rain
    That sluices as through an hourglass
    Outside the window into the gutter and downspout,
    Measures our nature
    and moves the body to music.

    The book says, however,
    time is not body's movement
    But memory of body's movement.
    Time is not water but the memory of water:
    We measure what isn't there.
    We measure the silence.
    We measure the emptiness.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Negative Blue by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2000 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.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"There are precious few contemporary poets in whose work I find as much sheer wisdom as in Wright's. . . . His ascetic discipline is an instruction and an aesthetic. The whole world seems to orbit in a kind of meditative, slow circle around Wright's grave influence."—David Baker, Poetry

"Truly an event. One of our national treasures has been watching us and listening to us for decades, and [Negative Blue] is proof that he's watched and listened well. . . . One of the remarkable things about Wright is precisely what happens in the back yard, on the front lawn, or at a cafe. His poems are visions of things ethereal, but even with all their luminescence and otherworldly shades, they remain within earshot of a lawn mower starting up or cicadas announcing the hour."—Dionisio D. Martinez, Miami Herald

"[Wright is] a master craftsman who if asked would humbly call himself a journeyman, for the mastery of an art form, as Pound said, is the work of a lifetime."—Eric Pankey, Verse

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

Read More

Meet the Author

Charles Wright received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1983 for Country Music, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1995 for Chickamauga, and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998 for Black Zodiac.

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