Here is a small book of images, artfully constructed and melancholy, with only one story to tell, but a story with two parts: the end is coming, life goes on.
As the title indicates, each poem in this, the 19th volume from Charles Wright, contains six lines, but six lines visually attenuated (always) by his characteristic use of the dropped line, or more precisely the dropped portion of a line. The effect is a more balanced page, a greater use of the right-hand side of things. The lines are metered out in syllables, usually an odd number, usually between 9 and 17 per line, but contracting or expanding to as few as 5, as many as 21. These strategies are not new; they are what readers of Wright expect. This particular voice and style and look were achieved as early as 1981 in the lucidly musical and highly visual volume, The Southern Cross. The poems in Sestets are smaller moments of such vividness.
The theme is the end of what we know. The theme is the ache at recognizing now what will be taken from us then. Wright, who is 73, has always eagerly directed us to see the numinous light shining in the most ordinary of natural sights—clouds, water, snow, sunlight, starlight, maple leaf, grass-blade—but now he nudges us to recognize that after we are gone, such light will continue
We won’t meet again. So what?
The rust will remain in the trees,
and pine needles stretch their
necks,Their tiny necks, and sunlight will
snore in the limp grass.
We are of, say these poems, all that is—either made through our consciousness of ourselves with(in) the world or through the mere matter of matter. The grief at the prospect of parting is the recognition of ourselves in every thing. Wright’s verse is haunted by the longing articulated in the lonesome sound of the Carter Family, and his particular sensibility toward “what has past/ Or is about to pass” (echoing Yeats) is the drone of A. P. Carter’s baritone in such forward-looking sorrows as “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree.” Death will come, the willow will remain, it will become me.
The titles of these poems often carry the quality of Chinese ideograms: “On the Night of the First Snow, Thinking About Tennessee.” Or this: “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky.” The titles serve as a seventh line, a bonus, or they function like the titles of abstract paintings (Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist”), which invite our minds to drift in a certain direction and set up tension between the language of image and the language of syntax. In Wright’s case, the tension exists between the “call” that comes from the title and the “response” that comes from the sestet.
To talk effectively about what Wright is doing in any particular poem requires what Clifford Geertz labeled “thick description”; one must come at the poem alert to all the oblique instructions that Wright provides. This approach seems especially necessary with these six-line stanzas, which seem more fragmentary than much of Wright’s earlier work. In the 1980s and 90s he explored a “journal” form, long poems that mixed baroque finesse with Whitmanesque possibilities of expansion (as if Bach had composed with no sense of closed structure). But these new poems, while being quick breaths, are not exactly gnomic or puzzling. Instead, they seem more like slender brushstrokes, snatches of an overheard aria, prayers of imprecise and unspecified trust in the whatever-will-be, as in the final lines of the final poem, “Little Ending” (a slanted allusion to Eliot’s “Little Gidding”?): “Someone will take our hand,/ someone will give us refuge,/ Circling left or circling right.”
Many poems seem on a first reading to be no more (or less) than landscape poems with a familiar (though apparently inappropriate) title. “Return of the Prodigal,” for example, begins, “Now comes summer, water clear, clouds heavy with weeping.” The final lines refer to astrology: “Zodiac pinwheels across the heavens,/ bat-feint under Gemini.” There is no direct reference anywhere in the poem to prodigality or to return. But the “notes” about the poem at the close of the book suggest, cryptically, another sort of back-story: “Template of something vaguely remembered in Ezra Pound some forty years ago, a Chinese calendar. Actually about the return of my son from England, June 2006, after twelve years abroad. Second day of summer, June 22, also involved.” What is it exactly that is vaguely remembered from Pound? Many readers will catch the echo from the first canto: “Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also/ Heavy with weeping....” But that phrase is neither template nor Chinese calendar (perhaps he has in mind Canto 85), so just what role Pound plays here is not clear.
That Wright’s son has returned from abroad might satisfy the notion of a prodigal son, and we recall that the 22nd of June would be at or near the summer solstice and so suggest the notion of a prodigal sun, and we recognize that the astrological signs remind us of the great wheeling circle of the year and of life and so on. The delicate attention to detail—“Tall grasses are silver-veined” or “Lupine and paintbrush stoic in ditch weed”—mixed with biblical and astrological and Poundian allusion—expand the simple poem into a melody about the largest wheel of all, the turning of life from this to that, from here to not here. Will the sun come back? Will the son? Will the Son? Will I? What do all these signs tell us?
Wright has never ceased to sing about our mortality and the mysteries that attend it. As he has said many times in many places, his interest is in the “quotidian,” the daily world mediated through consciousness. These sestets, the smaller, bottom half of the Petrarchan sonnet, continue that mediation. The poet keeps his eye focused on “beautiful, untalkbackable wise things.” The verse returns us line by line by line by line to just such things.