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Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems

Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems

by Charles Wright

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Negative Blue is 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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466877504
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/29/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 331 KB

About the Author

Charles Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935. His work has most recently been collected in The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990 (FSG, 1990). 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.

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




    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.

    * * *

    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.


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.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Black Zodiac,
North American Bear,
Also by Charles Wright,

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