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,
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
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
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
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.