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A Short History of the Shadow

A Short History of the Shadow

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by Charles Wright

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Luminous new poems from the author of "The Appalachian Book of the Dead"

Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.

Don't just do something, sit there.

And so I have, so I have,

the seasons curling around me like smoke,

Gone to the end of the earth and back without a sound.


Luminous new poems from the author of "The Appalachian Book of the Dead"

Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.

Don't just do something, sit there.

And so I have, so I have,

the seasons curling around me like smoke,

Gone to the end of the earth and back without a sound.

-"Body and Soul II"

This is Charles Wright's first collection of verse since the completion of his Appalachian Book of the Dead, the trilogy of trilogies hailed as one "among the great long poems of the century" (James Longenbach, Boston Review). Wright speaks in these poems with characteristic charm, restlessness, and wit, writing again and again, "I sit where I always sit," only to reveal himself in a new setting every time. In A Short History of the Shadow Wright's return to the landscapes of his early work finds his art resilient in a world haunted by death and the dead.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There are precious few poets in whose work I find as much sheer wisdom as in Wright's ... The whole world seems to orbit in a kind of meditative, slow circle around Wright's grave influence." -David Baker, Poetry

Publishers Weekly
No attentive reader would ever mistake Wright's evocative, sprawling poems for poems by anyone else; many readers, however, find it hard to tell his mature works apart. Wright (who won the Pulitzer for 1997's Black Zodiac) follows up Negative Blue (2000) with a moody, winning collection that plays to his long-recognized strengths: balanced and lengthy musical lines; ambling meditation; beautiful Blue Ridge landscapes; nods to American, Italian and Chinese poets; and a self-aware, pragmatist-cum-Taoist resignation to the fleetingness of all things. "Caught in the weeds and understory of our own lives," Wright says in the opening poem, "proper attention is our refuge now, our perch and our praise." That attention migrates through his evocative collocations of phrase and detail. Two striking suites of short poems with long titles use anaphora and prayer to explore mortality and the night sky: "The late September night is a train of thought, a wound That doesn't bleed"; "O Something, be with me, time is short." Another suite, "Relics," swerves from a similar plan into distractingly elaborate allusions to Wallace Stevens. The concluding set of poems, called "Body and Soul," lists "Nightmemories, night outsourcings," deciding that "Ephemera's what moves us." Few readers will see much departure from Wright's work of the 1980s and 1990s; many, however, will be fine with that. (Apr.) Forecast: Besides his 1997 Pulitzer, Wright (who teaches at the University of Virginia) has racked up almost every other major award, including the National Book Award (1983) and the Academy of American Poets' Lenore Marshall Prize (1995). Those accolades may not translate into attention to this new volume, pubbed during a busy poetry month and closely following Wright's last, larger book. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Wright's latest is a collection of typically loose-limbed meditations whose long lines drape languorously across the page. Equally relaxed, the poet centers himself in the domestic confines of his study or yard, observing the incremental motions of a world nearly on hold: "how the days move, one at a time,/ always at night, and always in my direction." Wright's universe encompasses late afternoon and evening obscurities, seasons past their peak biding time till the next one arrives. All are rendered in his signature style: the slow pace and passive imagery ("Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves"), the free but hardly exuberant association prompted by consideration of what's readily seen ("The landscape that goes/ no deeper than the eye"), and the casual allusions to European writers and locales. This observational state, of course, becomes a metaphor for late middle age, its diminished assessments of what lies ahead and what has been accomplished ("I've made a small hole in the silence, a tiny one,/ Just big enough for a word"). Gravely wistful, these poems by the National Book Critics Circle Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Wright are best read in the day's waning moments. Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.56(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.59(d)

Read an Excerpt


I sit where I always sit, in back of the Buddha,
Red leather wing chair, pony skin trunk

under my feet,

Skylight above me, Chinese and Indian rugs on the floor.

I March, 1998, where to begin again?

Over there's the ur-photograph,
Giorgio Morandi, glasses pushed up on his forehead,

Looking hard at four objects—

Two olive oil tins, one wine bottle, one flower vase,

A universe of form and structure,

The universe constricting in front of his eyes,
angelic orders

And applications scraped down

To paint on an easel stand, some in the frame, some not.

Bologna, my friend, Bologna, world's bite and world's end.


It's only in darkness you can see the light, only
From emptiness that things start to fill,

I read once in a dream, I read in a book

under the pink

Redundancies of the spring peach trees.

Old fires, old geographies.
In that case, make it old, I say, make it singular

In its next resurrection,

White violets like photographs on the tombstone of the yard.

Each year it happens this way, each year
Something dead comes back and lifts up its arms,

puts down its luggage

And says — in the same costume, down-at-heels, badly sewn —

I bring you good news from the other world.


One hand on the sun, one hand on the moon, both feet bare,
God of the late

Mediterranean Renaissance

Breaststrokes across the heavens.

Easter, and all who've been otherwised peek from their shells,

Thunderheads gathering at the rear
abyss of things,

Lightning, quick swizzle sticks, troubling the dark in-between.

You're everything that I'm not, they think,

I'll fly away, Lord, I'll fly away.

April's agnostic and nickel-plated and skin deep,
Glitter and bead-spangle, haute couture,

The world its runway, slink-step and glide.

Roll the stone slowly as it vogues and turns,

roll the stone slowly.


Well, that was a month ago. May now,
What's sure to arrive has since arrived and been replaced,

Snick-snack, lock and load, grey heart's bull's-eye,

A little noon music out of the trees,

a sonatina in green.

Spring passes. Across the room, on the opposite wall,
A 19th-century photograph

Of the Roman arena in Verona. Inside,

stone tiers and stone gate.

Over the outer portico, the ghost of Catullus at sky's end.

The morning and evening stars never meet,
nor summer and spring: Beauty has been my misfortune,

hard journey, uncomfortable resting place. Whatever it is I have looked for

Is tiny, so tiny it can dance in the palm of my hand.


This is the moment of our disregard —
just after supper,

Unseasonable hail in huddles across the porch,

The dogs whimpering,

thunder and lightning eddying off toward the east,

Nothing to answer back to, nothing to dress us down.

Thus do we slide into our disbelief
and disaffection,

Caught in the weeds and understory of our own lives,

Bad weather, bad dreams.

Proper attention is our refuge now, our perch and our praise.

So? So. The moon has its rain-ring auraed around it —
The more that we think we understand, the less we see,

Back yard becoming an obelisk

Of darkness into the sky,

no hieroglyphs, no words to the wise.


Pale sky and one star, pale star,
Twilight twisting down like a slow screw

Into the balsa wood of Saturday afternoon, Late Saturday afternoon,

a solitary plane

Eating its way like a moth across the bolt of dusk

Hung like cheesecloth above us.

Ugo would love this, Ugo Foscolo,
everything outline,

Crepuscular, still undewed,

Ugo, it's said, who never uttered a commonplace,

His soul transfixed by a cypress tree,

The twilight twisted into his heart,

Ugo, immortal, unleavened, when death gave him fame and rest.


Tonight, however's, a different story,
flat, uninterrupted sky,

Memorial Day,

Rain off, then back again, a

Second-hand light, dishcloth light, wrung out and almost gone.

9:30 p.m.,

Lightning bugs, three of them, in my neighbor's yard,

leaping beyond the hedge.

What can I possibly see back here I haven't seen before?
Is landscape, like God, a Heraclitean river?

Is language a night flight and sea-change?

My father was born Victorian,
knee-pants and red ringlets,

Sepia photographs and desk drawers

Vanishing under my ghostly touch.


I sit where I always sit,
knockoff Brown Jordan plastic chair,

East-facing, lingering late spring dusk,

Virginia privet and honeysuckle in full-blown bloom and too sweet,

Sky with its glazed look, and half-lidded.

And here's my bat back,

The world resettled and familiar, a self-wrung sigh.

César Vallejo, on nights like this,
His mind in a crash dive from Paris to South America,

Would look from the Luxembourg

Gardens or some rooftop

For the crack, the tiny crack,

in the east that separates one world from the next,

this one from

That one I look for it too.

Copyright (c) 2002 Charles Wright

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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Short History of the Shadow 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After the completion Charles Wright's 'trilogy of trilogies,' it's tempting to read this volume as a mere epilogue. But, as those familiar with Wright's career know, he really began to come into his own in the recent Negative Blue trilogy. In _A Short History of the Shadow_, we are given one of our time's most important poets at his most luminous, his most capable, his most daring. Especially wonderful are 'Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture,' the two 'Body and Soul' poems, and 'Via Negativa.' If you're not familiar with Wright's work, though, you should probably read some of the earlier work (The World of the Ten Thousand Things or Negative Blue) first -- it will heighten your appreciation of this book.