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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.