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Philip Levine on Charles Wright's Chickamauga

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Philip Levine
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Year

2004
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Charles Wright was the winner of the 1996 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his eleventh collection of poems, Chickamauga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995). The judges for the award were Yusef Komunyakaa, Laurie Sheck, and Philip Levine, who wrote the following essay.


The year 1995 was the richest year for American poetry that I can recall, the richest in my fifty years of concern for our poetry. When I consider the books I read this past summer, books that failed to win a nomination for the Lenore Marshall Prize, I'm stunned both by their strengths and the fact of their exclusion, but the task of the committee was to choose five finalists and no more. Thus new volumes by such fine poets as Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Gerald Stern, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Carl Phillips, Daniel Hoffman, Michael Harper, Donald Justice, Charlie Smith, Louise Glück, and Stanley Kunitz are not on the list of finalists although the judges were cognizant of their merits.

I trust this fact will give you some idea of how highly the three of us valued the five collections we settled on. For sheer enjoyment it would be hard to equal Billy Collins's The Art of Drowning: laughing and moaning I read it from cover to cover and read it again. The uniquely Western voice that Robert Wrigley has found in his In the Bank of the Beautiful Sins is encompassing and passionate, large enough to speak of the landscapes he memorializes. The wit, the charm, the bite, and the intensity of Ruth Stone's Simplicity reminded me of just how long she has been giving us poetry of the first order. As for William Matthews' remarkably intelligent and moving collection Time & Money, it lost out by the smallest possible margin to the eventual winner, Charles Wright's Chickamauga. Has any other American poet been writing as beautifully and daringly over the past twenty-five years as Charles Wright? Possibly. But I cannot imagine who it would be.

Mockingbird, sing me a song.
Back here, where the windfall apples
    rot to the bee's joy,
Where the peach sheaths and pear
    sheaths piebald and brindle,
Where each year the orchard unlearns
         everything it's been taught.

How many of us have been trying for decades and failing to create passages of such mastery and fullness, such sheer physical wholeness? I would hate to have to count us. The book bristles with the sense of mortality, noted my fellow judge Laurie Sheck, and she went on to write of the "tensions in the book between presence and absence, attachment and detachment, visible and the invisible." "Part of the ambition of the book," she wrote," is that like Keats it can live without irritable reaching after fact or reason.'" I think the key word here is "irritable," for Chickamauga is a book that depicts a single never-to-be-resolved search; Wright has a hunk of the ineffable in his teeth and he won't let go. In poem after poem he plumbs our deepest relationships with nature, time, love, death, creation. Wright's search breaks all the barriers of time, space, action, for its dramatic narrative simply refuses to acknowledge the usual unities, as though all time were this time, all places this place, and all actions one. The poet is in Monterey, California, writing a "journal of over a hundred pages"; he is a boy of ten trekking through the snow with his brother on U.S. 11 West; he is in Verona at age twenty-three caught "in the glow of all things golden"; he is in Charlottesville watching the equinox arrive in September of 1992; on a Saturday night in the summer of 1963 he's watching Sordi and Gassman in a WWI movie; all moments in a journey without beginning or end. There is a motive behind all this voyaging. As he tells us and himself in the poem " Not everyone can see the truth, but he can be it'": "How imperceptibly we become ourselves . . . Take off your traveling clothes and / lay down your luggage, / Pilgrim, shed your nakedness." As Ms. Sheck shrewdly noted, the book is carefully (though almost invisibly) unified as it moves back and forth across the seasons, across landscapes present and remembered, and in and out of the poet's orchard and the sky above with their timeless lessons and their simple but invaluable gifts. And often his old masters are there as guides: Lí Po, Wang Wei, Morandi, Tu Fu, García Lorca, Mondrian, Miles Davis, Elizabeth Bishop. Why make the journey alone when there's such good company? At the core of this half-restless, half-fulfilled journey across the day and night skies and the past and the present and the variety of vistas sight grants us is the single urgent question concerning the nature of our being. What astonished me most of all is that the question does not go unanswered, for the camera of Charles Wright's poetics catches the visible world at that endless moment before it trails into eternity.

THERE IS NO SHELTER

Each evening, the sins of the whole world
    collect here like a dew.
In the morning, little galaxies, they flash out
And flame,
          their charred, invisible residue etching

The edges our lives take and the course
    of things, filling
The shadows in,
    an aftertrace, through the discards of the
    broken world,
Like the long, slow burn of a struck match.

If this seems like a miracle it's because it is.

A great admirer of Charles Wright's poetry told me last year after he'd read Chickamauga in one enchanted sitting that he thought the book ended too modestly. I went back and reread the book and thought otherwise. In the final poem, the poet at that day's chore of yard work thinks of Sappho: "Her words caught / Between the tongue's tip and the first edge of the invisible." He hopes that she was right, for he feels himself caught "Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute." Then he gets back to the daily business at hand, the yard work, and the poem and the book close as follows: "I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there." If Blake--one of his masters--and Charles Wright are correct and "Eternity is in love with the production of time," then we have just witnessed another miracle.