Charles Wright 1997
Many readers find Charles Wright’s poetry difficult to understand or even inaccessible. Readers often assume that Wright’s work is going to tell a story or be a neat, precise account that makes sense. This poet’s work is, instead, like a loosely woven rug with threads of images, ideas, and descriptions winding in and out of one another, sometimes correlating, sometimes not. “Black Zodiac” is a typical meandering poem full of stark imagery and common themes that appear in the majority of Wright’s poetry. A poem in the follow-up collection to Black Zodiac, Appalachia, illustrates what Wright’s poems are usually about.
In “What Do You Write About, Where Do Your Ideas Come From?” the first two lines of the poem answer the questions: “Landscape, of course, the idea of God and language / itself, that pure grace.” Indeed, these are the principles addressed in “Black Zodiac” “landscape, God (and death), and language” with each one standing alone as a theme, but also blending into one another, creating a mesh of nature, religious thought, and the ability to express ourselves. While it would be misleading, as well as futile, to analyze “Black Zodiac” in terms of what it tells us from beginning to end we can examine it in light of its pieces; the glimpses of lucid description and the obscure strings of images and broken thoughts. What this poem is about, then, is one man’s attempt to express what he essentially feels is inexpressible and to describe that attempt through discourse on landscape, God, and language itself.
Charles Wright was born in Hardin County, Tennessee, in 1935. He spent most of his childhood in this Appalachian region, primarily in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. After graduating from Davidson College in 1957, he served in the army’s Intelligence Service for four years, spending most of that time in Verona, Italy. Until this point in his life, Wright had not written poetry, but in Italy he discovered Ezra Pound’s Italian Cantos and became engrossed in both reading and writing verse. The lush natural surroundings of Verona were a major impetus on his landscape descriptions. Upon returning to the United States, he attended the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, graduating with an M.F.A. degree in 1963. Afterwards, he returned to Italy as a Fulbright Scholar to teach at the University of Rome. During his stay there, he also began translating the works of Italian poets whose style of poetry would find its way into Wright’s own work as he crafted his poems.
The influence of growing up in the rural South is also evident in much of Wright’s work, especially in the typical southern concern for the past and its power over present day life. The ideas of irrepressible memory, a sense of fatality, and personal salvation are concepts throughout many of his poems, including “Black Zodiac.” While the collection Black Zodiac was written in the 1990s— three decades after his preliminary publications— much of the style and themes found in this recent book are only a continuation of those begun many years ago in his early material. Wright attributes his influences not only to Pound and various Italian poets, but also to his writing teachers, particularly fellow poet Donald Justice. While in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, Wright learned not only the history of poetry and poetics, but also the importance of a poem’s sound, or its “music” as Justice noted. Wright eventually began to connect his love of landscape with his love for language— like Pound, Justice, and others—and, after mixing in his own religious beliefs, doubts, and longings, he would arrive at the three themes most prevalent in his poetry.
Wright taught at the University of California, Irvine, from 1966 to 1983, then moved back to the South to take a position at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In 1992, Wright briefly returned to Italy, serving as a distinguished visiting professor in Florence.
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The first stanza of “Black Zodiac” introduces us to the importance of memory. Memories, in fact,
- In 1991, fellow poet J.D. McClatchy interviewed Charles Wright for the Modern Poetry Association’s “Poets in Person” series. Although Wright has done several published interviews, they were rarely recorded. Students may inquire about this tape by contacting the MPA in Chicago.
are compared to “the masters,” but who the masters are is not certain. Given the title and the fact that they are “Darkened by time,” perhaps there is a celestial reference, as in the figures that represent the 12 constellations in our solar system and which are best viewed at night. But whether these masters are considered in a religious sense or in the form of master poets or master philosophers, the connotation of the word itself is basically the same. Both memories and masters are at once elusive and yet very real. They “mix / and mismatch,” the way our recollections often do and, on one hand, are “like air in its clear nothingness.” Since Wright is known to compose many of his poems while sitting in his own back yard, the reference to lawn furniture is not uncommon. In fact, it brings the realness to memories and masters, giving them human characteristics as they “settle about our lawn furniture” and “ruffle our hair.” Line 6 reveals the overall theme of this opening stanza, asking a rhetorical question about memories and masters for which there is no answer: “How can they be so dark and so clear at the same time?” Here, the word “clear” can be interpreted in two different ways. Set against the idea of entities that are “dark,” the word “clear” may indicate that their reason or meaning is still very evident in spite of the fact that they are difficult to grasp and are so elusive. But “clear” may also imply transparency or invisibility, indicating no evident meaning or reason at all.
The second half of the first stanza brings nature and landscape into the poem in a more immediate sense. Wright details leaves, trees, wind, flies, heat, and sky, and the heat is apparently oppressive. The poet’s description of the scene makes it easy to visualize, and the repetition of the line “The flies come back” helps paint the picture of a hot, stifling summer day. Wright uses the device of anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects) frequently in his work, and, here, the “afternoon” itself takes human form. As though it can’t decide whether to expose its lush green summery side or wilt under the burn of its temperature, it “Teeters a bit on its green edges, / then settles like dead weight / Next to our memories, and the pale hems of the masters’ gowns.”
The second stanza of the poem introduces fundamental religious beliefs in relation to death and the human reaction to it. Beginning with a biblical saying and including other religious imagery (“dust and ashes,” “gates of mercy,” “aura,” and “speaking in tongues”), this stanza exposes the narrator as somewhat of a bystander in the events he describes, speaking mostly in third person and offering little personal judgment or concern. The first eight lines depict a variety of entrances into heaven from those who will “cry out in praise” to those who will “go wordlessly,” to those who will “revile [curse or use abusive language] him out of love / and deep disdain.” In line 19, Wright uses an astronomical allusion to describe the “gates of mercy,” saying they are “like an eclipse” and serve to “darken our undersides.” In other words, the sins which must be accounted for while standing at the entrance to heaven will appear even worse, or darker, at the moment of reckoning.
Lines 20-24 appear to take place in a cemetery where the dead are rising to enter into heaven, as recorded in various Christian doctrines. Wright reminds us again of the summer heat (“August humidity / Bright as auras around our bodies”) and then continues to describe the reaction of the people facing a first-hand encounter with divinity: “And some will utter the words,/ speaking in fear and tongues.” They hate their clothing that is “splotched by the flesh” because at this point the flesh is no longer necessary, nor even wanted, for it only serves to mask or hide the true beauty of the soul. The dead are “twice-erased” since they left the earth when they died, and are now leaving again with the second coming of Christ.
In these eight lines, Wright shifts away from religious fundamentalism toward “sidereal” allusions, or, descriptions relating to stars and the constellations. A “sidereal roadmap,” for instance, is one based on the movement of the stars on a daily basis. Alighieri Dante, an Italian poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, and Saint John Chrysostom, born in what is now Turkey and noted for his eloquent speaking ability, are mentioned because of their associations with religious pilgrimages. Here, though, Wright suggests that they may find the afternoon sky a map for a pilgrimage, of sorts. In line 27, Wright addresses the reader directly, saying “You might too” find the “afternoon a sidereal roadmap.”
Other references to the sky include the “prejaundiced [not yet yellow] outline of the quarter moon” and the “Clouds skulling [propelling] down-sky.” At this point, Wright brings the idea of language into the poem, the specifics of narrative and of words themselves. The clouds streaming across the sky are “like a narrative for whatever comes,” and “What hasn’t happened to happen yet” is “Still lurking behind the stars.” It’s as though the speaker is analyzing astrological objects in literary terms, with the clouds and moon following a sequence as would a novel or short story.
The last half of the third stanza presents a series of images connecting landscape, death, and memory. The mention of insects is a return to the flies pointed out in the first stanza, and the “space graffiti” implies the stars, moon, and sun splattered about the sky like words on a wall. Once again, the poet uses a reference to language itself (graffiti) to describe heavenly bodies. Wright calls the stars “white holes / In the landscape” and claims that they “lead to dust” in other words, to death and the biblical heaven in the sky. While we may feel pain or fear death, these “avenues” to our demise “handle our hurt with ease.” Line 35 (“waters above the earth”) is a striking metaphor for the sky, comparing its blue to the blue of the oceans. The stanza ends with another unanswerable rhetorical question, asserting that our memories are always better than present thought. In asking why the “great stories always exist in the past,” Wright implies that we tend to recall events and experiences with undue intensity and romanticize or inflate those happenings through memory.
The fourth stanza of “Black Zodiac” takes a philosophical turn, beginning with a reference to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who stated that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Wright’s sentiment flies in the face of Socrates by claiming that there is no difference in the unexamined life and the examined one. He lists some of the methods of philosophically examining a life’s “Unanswerable questions, small talk,/ Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments” and presenting them in a cynical, mocking tone. He then offers his own idea of how to study and attempt to understand life: “You’ve got to write it all down.” Whether examining such tangibles or visuals as “Landscape or waterscape,” the sunlight on evergreen trees, or the evening itself, it is best to express ourselves on paper. Just as students are told to take good notes and to write down questions and comments on a subject, the poet contends that written language is the key to self-examination. This is a point he will return to at the end of the poem.
Wright ends the fourth stanza with strings of images that exemplify the poet’s notion of examination through written expression. He lists natural, physical objects—the moon, spiders, hedges, birds, toads, and tree frogs—in an effort to describe as much of his surrounding as possible, thereby making it more comprehensible. He complements the attempt to understand, or examine, these aspects of living by embellishing the nouns with descriptive words. Depicting the moon as “half-full” or “half-empty” is an allusion to the philosophical adage regarding optimism and pessimism: if you’re an optimist, your glass is half full; if you’re a pessimist, your glass is half empty. Wright calls the night “starless and egoless,” meaning that without its bright, shiny adornments, it has nothing to gloat about. He further emphasizes the darkness by describing it as “blood-black and prayer-black.” Religious imagery is never far away in a Wright poem.
The fifth stanza centers once again on death and employs celestial imagery, noting that when we die, we are like “star charts demagnetized.” The first two lines imply a shortcoming or incompleteness in life. We take “secondary affections” and “second-hand satisfaction” to our graves, ending our lives only “half-souled.” The speaker assures us, however, that though our bodies may be “cold and untouchable” we’re well dressed and do not harbor any bad feelings or resentment over dying. Wright even jests about death in a playful tone, saying “we’re out of here, and sweet meat.”
The last half of the fifth stanza continues the discussion of death, but also incorporates the metaphor of language down to its individual letters and words. Once we die, we become “calligraphers of the disembodied,” protecting the sacredness of language as though we are “God’s word-wards.” Like constellations, our souls light up the night sky in the shape of letters. To emphasize the vast emptiness and expansion of the universe, Wright calls the atmosphere “The nothing that’s nowhere” and implies that it simply waits there for us to “illuminate” against it. Eventually, our “letters undarken and come forth.” The term “undarken”—while not found in a dictionary—is more appropriate than the term “lighten” would be, for it indicates a general progression from something that has been there all along, though too dark to see. In other words, we all have letters in the sky waiting for our deaths to illuminate.
The first six lines of the final stanza return to religious imagery intertwined with the idea of memory and natural surroundings. Recall that in the first stanza the speaker questioned how memory could be “so dark and so clear at the same time,” and here in the last verse, he begins with “Eluders of memory”—implying yet again the mysteries of recollection. The mention of the greenhouse simply interjects a concrete noun within the layers of wordplay and theological discourse, the “Spirit of slides and silences.” Since the phrase “Invisible Hand” is capitalized, we may assume it refers to God whom the speaker is asking to “Witness and walk on.” The “lords” in line 64 may refer back to the “masters” in the first stanza, and the speaker is asking that his own shifting and discontinuity be succored (relieved) and that he be saved by the lords of such.
The blending of the tangible and the intangible continues through to the end of “Black Zodiac.” Not only is it raining “in the gardens and dwarf orchard,” but also “in the mind,” implying sadness or a gloomy outlook. Lines 68-70 reemphasize the need to find the right language for adequate expression and that the speaker has spent all afternoon trying to describe his environment by thinking of it as a dictionary—the “lexicon of late summer” which is also “Under the rain.” Finally, the speaker acknowledges that “Autumn’s upon us” and that the “rain fills our narrow beds,” meaning garden plots, literally, but, figuratively, our homes and our beds may be cheerless and gray, as though they are being rained on. Finally, the speaker reaches a conclusion, finding what he has been looking for throughout the entire afternoon (and the entire poem). What he has found is “the word”— the language that captures the vitality of expression. Wright italicized line 72 to stress its significance. He tells us that “Description’s an element,” meaning that the act of expressing ourselves and the use of language is as important to human life as are “air or water.” The three words that end the poem (line 73) are like an exclamation point on the entire work. And the poet has reached “that pure grace,” which is language itself as he refers to it in the later collection, Appalachia.
Religion and Death
Charles Wright’s personal religious views play a significant role in much of his work, and they are obviously flavored with the fundamentalism of southern denominations. But admitting a basic belief in a supreme being does not tell the entire story of one of this poet’s common themes. In “Black Zodiac,” as in all his work, there is a tension kindled by his faith in God, almost a love-hate relationship that often occurs when strong and fervent feelings come into play. From the outset of the poem, the religious references, the “master’s,” in the first stanza, are described as elusive and difficult to understand. They “mix / And mismatch” and are “like air / Without a meaning.” The second stanza brings religion and death together and contains biblical citations as well as language associated with fire-and-brimstone doctrines: “dust and ashes,” “revile him,” and “speaking in fear and tongues.” Wright seldom mentions religion without incorporating some relation to death and, therefore, a direct meeting with God. He acknowledges that some people will be happy with that encounter, some will be angry, and some will be fearful. Regardless of the emotion, however, eventually “we’re out of here.” In this poem, Wright appears ambivalent in his own feelings. On one hand, he expresses old-fashioned sentiments of a religiously fundamental nature, and on the other hand he intellectualizes the idea of God, thinking in more abstract terms. He blends heaven and the constellations, eternity and astrological signs, the afterlife and a zodiac of letters. Our souls become calligraphers and “word-wards” for God, all of which
Topics for Further Study
- This assignment has two parts. First, write a brief essay describing a natural setting that you see on a regular basis, perhaps your own backyard. Write the essay from memory. Next, go to the place you have described and write a second brief essay about the landscape as you are observing it. Notice how the two writings differ and how they are alike.
- Read a collection of poetry by a southern poet (other than Charles Wright) and write an essay discussing any southern influences that are evident in the work.
- The connection and disconnection between God and the physical universe has been debated for centuries. Write an essay describing your own feelings on the subject.
- Pretend you live in a time and place in which written language has not yet developed. Describe what your typical day may be like, what your activities may be and how you “communicate” with other people in the community.
- If you wrote a poem leading up to the final line, “That’s the word,” what would your “word” be and why would it be worth writing a poem about?
sharply contrasts to—and yet mixes with—the biblical notion of crying out in praise and of speaking in tongues. “Black Zodiac” leaves room for both evangelical and philosophical thought on religion, but death goes hand in hand with whichever side we fall.
Poets do not often get so much inspirational mileage out of their own back yards, but Wright’s entire Black Zodiac collection is full of imagery, allusion, and description based upon Sunday observations from a lawn chair. In the poem “Black Zodiac,” he includes several landscape reflections, but is even more extensive in describing “skyscape.” He moves through the afternoon into evening, from oppressive heat to a late summer rain shower, philosophizing on religion, death, and memory, but always including a layer of nature— what color the sky is, what the wildlife is doing, how hot it is, etc. This is because human beings are inseparable from the natural environment. We depend on it, and it depends on us. Rather than ignore that fact, Wright is a poet who incorporates, blends, and layers landscape, waterscape, and skyscape into nearly everything he writes. He compares abstractions such as “masters” and “memories” to a summer breeze: “They ruffle our hair, / they ruffle the leaves of the August trees. / Then stop, abruptly as wind.” In this poem, insects have an afterlife and stars are “space graffiti, white holes / In the landscape.” The poet insists that we write down our observations or else we’ll forget them or memory will distort them. Given this, he sometimes simply records what he sees and hears: “Spider at work between the hedges, / Last bird call, / toad in a damp place, tree frog in a dry.” As evening comes on and daylight fades, the stars begin to appear, some of them perhaps the souls of the “disembodied”: “Above us, the great constellations sidle and wince, / The letters undarken and come forth.” “Black Zodiac” ends with yet another blend of the abstract and the concrete. The notion of “description” is likened to the very real and very natural elements of air and water. Regardless of the theological or philosophical twists and turns that a Wright poem takes, one sure foundation is the presence of nature.
Language and Expression
Perhaps the most dominant theme in “Black Zodiac” is that of language itself. While it may be obvious that any writer, regardless of genre, is concerned about creative, interesting, or accurate expression, Wright goes an extra step in turning that concern into a quest. He is constantly in pursuit of the “right” phrase or the “right” word. Sometimes he finds it and does not hesitate to point it out. In “Black Zodiac” the word is “element,” and the last line says so. Ironically, in this poem the search for the right description involves looking for a way to describe description itself. But long before the end of the poem, Wright displays his language crusade with remarkable, unlikely imagery. The hot summer afternoon “Teeters a bit on its green edges” and the “gates of mercy, like an eclipse, darken our undersides.” Instead of portraying the outline of an early evening moon as pale or vague, he calls it “prejaundiced,” not yet bright and yellow in the sky. The clouds are not simply moving across the heavens, nor racing, nor drifting—they are “sculling downsky.” A scull is a long oar used to propel a boat through water, so, here Wright employs a nautical term and a play on the word “downstream.” Considering the poem ends with rain moving in, this line is a forecast for what is to come. Another example of the poet not settling for common verbiage is his description of the emerging constellation as the stars and planets become visible. The heavenly bodies do not merely twinkle— they “sidle and wince.” Clearly, Wright’s search for unique expression is often rewarded, and he proves over and over the essential connection between language and all that we do, all that we think, and all that exists.
At first glance, Wright’s poetry may appear highly unstructured, composed of long meandering lines that are sometimes complete sentences and sometimes just strings of phrases. While long lines and phrase groups are certainly present in his poems, a close look also reveals a very carefully constructed work, even mathematical in some instances. Wright’s typical “divisor” is three. “Black Zodiac” is made up of 73 lines—six stanzas with 12 lines each. Even entire collections are grouped into what Wright calls “triptychs,” a term more often used in the art world to describe three painted or carved panels that are hinged together. In literature, three books in a series is considered a “trilogy.” To date, Wright has composed three triptychs, the most recent consisting of Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia. The style of poetry in these three books is very similar, as are the themes, most notably God, landscape, and language.
Language, of course, has already been heavily discussed in this article, but its use and its results are at the very core of the poem’s style as well as its themes. In Wright’s collection of “improvisations and interviews” called Halflife, he has this to say about expressing himself on paper: “Mostly I like the sound of words. The sound, the feel, the paint, the color of them. I like to hear what they can do with each other. I like layers of paint on the canvas.” In regard to the structure of entire lines, Wright mentions that, “a well-known poet once said to me, ‘I don’t worry about the ends of my lines. I feel if the beginnings are good, the ends will take care of themselves.’ Wrong. They will not. Things have ends as well as beginnings. The
Compare & Contrast
- 1993: In Waco, Texas, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire Arms raided the compound of the Branch Davidians religious cult under charges of child abuse and other law violations. Eighty cult members died when the compound went up in flames.
1996: An Israeli Internet access company began delivering e-mailed messages to God to Jerusalem’s Western Wall for people who cannot get there in person. The messages are printed out and stuffed into cracks in the wall.
1996: The Oakland, California, school system voted unanimously to recognize “Ebonics” as the primary language of its African American students. The decision brought fierce protests from both black and white communities and the government denied federal funding for teaching the new “language.”
1998: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope revealed a glimpse of previously unseen galaxies 12 billion light years away. The “Deep Field South” image is a long-exposure view of the constellation Tucana, visible only from the Southern Hemisphere.
1999: President Bill Clinton made a stop in Hazard, Kentucky, on a four-day tour aimed at bringing business to the poorer regions of Appalachia.
line must be strong all the way through and not finish in a dying fall.” Wright resorts to art terms often in his discourse on poetry, from calling his collections “triptychs” to talking about the “paint” and the “color” of words. Keeping the poet’s philosophy about language and lines in mind, we can see how “Black Zodiac” came to be filled with such colorful imagery and word-paint, and with lines that remain “active” to their very ends.
Since 1983, Charles Wright has lived and taught in Charlottesville, Virginia. While he spent several years in both Europe and California, his roots are in the American South, and that is where he has returned. Some of his earlier poetry was obviously influenced by his visits to Italy (and Ezra Pound), but even while there on military assignment, most of his writing focused on the lush Verona landscape and on the poet’s own contemplation about life, death, and God, not war, the human condition, poverty, and other topical issues. “Black Zodiac” could have been written in any time period and in any back yard. Because Wright does not generally call attention to social or political events, human rights issues, or “causes” throughout the world, it is difficult to pin down an exact historical or cultural perspective on his work. Even though he writes exhaustingly about nature, we cannot call him an “environmental” poet because social responsibility, economics, and politics do not come into play. What we can say is that this poet puts more creative effort into the metaphysical than the cultural and deals with history more in the personal sense than the universal, concentrating on the inevitability of memory and our distortions of it. The influence of growing up in the South is evident in his allusions to the past and its powers, but he avoids direct references to specific historical occurrences. Rather, he abstractly asks, “Why do the great stories always exist in the past?” This line, however, is more a comment on the tricks that memory plays instead of an observation on any particular “great” story.
In his article “Between Soil and Stars,” teacher and critic James Longenbach states that, “by his own admission, Wright has focused on three subjects for the last thirty years: language, landscape, and the idea of God. Black Zodiac is the synthesis of Wright’s contrary drives toward waywardness and compression, the soil and the stars.” This tendency toward “waywardness and compression”— or freedom and restriction—may be the strongest evidence of cultural influence on Wright and his work, from the beginnings of his life through the writing of the poem and ever since. Brought up in the “Bible belt” and remaining there until after college graduation, Wright must have felt the common tug between strict, religious conservatism and the temptations of secular curiosity and desire. The poem “Black Zodiac” demonstrates both the longing to be wayward, or free, with thoughts and actions, as well as the compressing, or restricted, tendencies that seem inescapable. The speaker offers a religiously charged quote: “Those who look for the Lord will cry out in praise of him”—and then immediately interjects his own opinion: “Perhaps. And perhaps not.” He flirts with the idea of an astrological afterlife in which our souls light up as letters in the constellation, and yet God is not out of the picture—as star-letters, we become his “word-wards.” Beyond the southern influence any further attempt to date and place “Black Zodiac” would be superfluous and far-reaching. Considering the intellectual and creative intricacies of the bulk of Wright’s work, we cannot find fault with an indeterminate setting.
Wright’s poetry has been highly praised from early publications on. His second book Hard Freight was nominated for a National Book Award and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards. Most critics have given a thumbs up for Wright’s style, pointing to the layering of fragmented images and the shifting/blending of dominant themes as very interesting to “watch” as well as just read. Black Zodiac, in particular, has drawn favorable attention, as much for its intriguing subject matter as for its striking language. In a review of the collection in America, critic Robert Ellis Hosmer Jr. addresses the speaker who presents a consistent voice throughout the book: “[t]he voice we become accustomed to hearing often expresses hesitation, ambivalence, contradiction and doubt. At the same time, the narrator acknowledges that there is “great radiance.” Every single notated element in these poems has no importance greater than pointing beyond.” Many other critics picked up on the “looking beyond” aspect of Black Zodiac, comparing it to the tendency to “look backward” in the previous collection Chickamauga.
Wright’s technique of piling up images, however, is not praised by all critics. Some have complained that the poet tries so hard to find the “right” language that he ends up sacrificing quality for quantity. Because many of his poems contain themes that wind in and out of one another, some readers find him confusing at best, boring at worst. In spite of these charges, however, Wright is one of the nation’s most prolific poets, and his positive critics far outnumber the negative.
Barnhisel holds a Ph.D in American literature. In this essay, he examines how Charles Wright responds, in “Black Zodiac,” to the question of what relationship a poet should have to the material world, especially the world of nature. He also discusses how Wright, in answering that question, enters into a conversation with such predecessor poets as Wordsworth, Keats, and Wallace Stevens about these topics.
In her 1988 book The Music of What Happens, the eminent critic Helen Vendler writes of Charles Wright that “Wright’s poetry reproduces the circling and deepening concentration that aims at either obliteration or transcendence, blankness or mysticism. But Wright stops short of either polarity because he remains bound to the materiality and temporal rhythm of language, whereas both Eastern nothingness and Western transcendence, at their utmost point, renounce as meaningless both materiality and time.” For Vendler, Wright’s poetry attempts to come to a resting-place between the desire for nothingness, for obliteration, and the desire to transcend or go beyond the material world. Wright ends up accepting and even embracing the material world, but without the uncritical admiration characteristic of such poets as Wordsworth. “Black Zodiac,” the title poem of his 1997 collection, illustrates and describes the answers that Wright comes up with to the poetic dilemma of obliteration or transcendence.
Probably at no point have poets’ attitudes toward nature and toward artistic representation of nature changed so much as during the Romantic period of approximately 1760-1830. A long tradition of nature poetry existed, of course, before the Romantics; the Greek pastoral elegy, for instance, survived the Greeks to become popular among the
“In this poem, the motions of the stars provide him with the raw material for his meditations on “the masters,” both poetic and religious.”
Romans and to endure to the Renaissance, Milton, and Tennyson. Virgil, Rome’s most important poet, wrote so-called “bucolic” poetry in praise of the country life. But in the Romantic period, and especially in the poetry of William Wordsworth, Nature became all. Wordsworth saw the poet as the servant of Nature, and for both Wordsworth and his close friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the experience of the “sublime” was the most powerful sensation a human could have. The sublime, a popular philosophical concept of the eighteenth century, was the sense of the overwhelming, a feeling of being dwarfed. Experience of the sublime was an experience of awe. For Wordsworth, only nature could provide an experience of the sublime, for nothing human-created (such as art) could convey the sense of infinity, power, and divinity that nature (being a direct creation of God) has.
John Keats, another important poet of the Romantic era, used these ideas of Wordsworth’s but changed them slightly. Keats was in awe of nature, but unlike Wordsworth, Keats counted his experiences of art as the most important and powerful in his life. Where Wordsworth wrote of rambling in England’s Lake Country and of climbing Mount Snowdon, many of Keats’ most famous poems recount his experiences with artworks such as a translation of Homer or a Greek amphora. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” perhaps Keats’ best-known poem, he describes a scene on a Greek amphora. He is transfixed not just by the nature portrayed on the urn, but by the question of representation. In art, Keats feels, natural beauty cannot fade. Time and its ravages have no effect on art, and in this sense Keats feels the sublime gazing upon the urn. Keats’ reaction is to aestheticize: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’” the urn tells him, and he responds: “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The Romantics, therefore, questioned the relative power of art and of nature, and these conflicting ideas have influenced every poet who has written on nature since. A third poet, though, Wallace Stevens, took his questioning even further. Stevens was concerned, for his entire poetic career, about whether the outside world really has an objective existence or whether it is simply a projection of the mind. He wavered between the two principles; in poems like “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” or “The Snow Man” he seems to feel that the world is only a projection of the mind, whereas in others—“Debris of Life and Mind,” for instance—he sides strongly with the idea that the world does have an objective existence. And in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Stevens adopts a Picasso-like approach and examines this question from thirteen different angles, coming up with thirteen different ideas about the outside world.
Charles Wright has always been a poet deeply concerned with the outside world and especially with nature, but at the same time he (like almost every other American poet of his generation) carries with him the deep influence of Stevens. In “Black Zodiac,” he addresses questions of the existence of nature and of how poets can or should represent nature. In Wright’s early poetry (much of which is collected in the volume Country Music), Wright concentrated on the description of nature and seemed to be taking the middle ground between Wordsworth and Keats. But as with Keats, the poet does not call attention to his own place in the perception of nature—he seems to assume that all people would perceive and understand nature in the same way. Vendler, in an earlier essay on Wright, complains that he claims, “like all poets, a return to original nature: the refusal to particularize his individual existence implies his utterance of universal experience, predicable of everyone.”
In “Black Zodiac,” though, as in much of his later verse, Wright has gotten beyond his youthful tendency to generalize his impressions of nature. In this poem, the motions of the stars provide him with the raw material for his meditations on “the masters,” both poetic and religious. The poem begins, as do so many of his, in his yard. The August heat and humidity hang about him in their palpable “clear nothingness,” and this invisible omnipresence reminds Wright of these “masters,” who in this first stanza remain unnamed.
But the next stanza begins with a hint of who these “masters” are: “Those who look for the Lord will cry out in praise of him.” The stanza begins, and we understand that these masters are the masters of theology as well as the masters of poetry. This stanza muses on humans’ relationship with God: is it painful and agonizing? Is the cry one of joy, or is it from “where pain puts them, an inch-and-a-half above the floor”? What is unclear in this stanza is how nature fits in—it was introduced in such strong and permeating terms in the first stanza, but it almost disappears in the second, replaced by a discussion of holy men.
The third stanza begins to bring the two terms together in its use of the figures of Dante and St. John Chrysostom. Dante, of course, was the 14th century Italian poet whose Divine Comedy attempted to construct an architectural model of the temporal and spiritual worlds, linking the two partially astronomically, while St. John Chrysostom is one of the Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed,” and St. John Chrysostom was famed as one of the great orators of the early church, a man who became the Patriarch of the city of Constantinople and attacked the material excesses of the Empress Eudoxia. In this stanza Wright starts drawing together his themes—nature, astronomy, God, and poetry—in a carefully-constructed web. In the first line, he links Dante, a poet who encompassed religion, the stars, and art, with St. John Chrysostom, whose fame was also due to his use of language. Both of these men might / find this afternoon a sidereal roadmap, / A pilgrim’s way... /
Wright’s use of the term “sidereal,” or having to do with the stars, again brings us back to the notion of astronomy, as well as the humid air, representing nature. “The afterlife of insects, space graffiti, white holes / In the landscape, / such things, such avenues, lead to dust / And handle our hurt with ease.” Wright compares the dust and ashes that are the inevitable final states of any living creature with the dust that forms planets and stars as well as filling the void of space.
Much of the rest of the poem develops this theme, in quite abstract and cosmic terms, but in the final stanza we return to homely, quite terrestrial nature. We have returned from space and are back in Wright’s yard, by the greenhouse, and he is still questioning the process by which the mind understands and represents nature. The “lexicon of late summer,” both the poetry that Wright is responding to and the lexicon of nature (heat, insects, humidity), is “abstracting the necessary word,” causing the poet to think in these broad, abstract, cosmic terms. But it is to the particular that Wright must return. “Autumn’s upon us,” he notes, “the rain fills our narrow beds.” These “beds” recall the graves that Wright has discussed earlier, in the previous stanza when he talks about human death, and death, to Wright, is not a particularly important event: “we’re out of here, and sweet meat.”
So what is the enduring part of human existence, if we turn to nothing but dust and “sweet meat”? The answer comes in the final lines: “Description’s an element, like air and water. / That’s the word.” Wright’s stance on the relative places of the poet, of poetry, and of nature, then, comes somewhere between Wordsworth’s and Keats’. Art is immortal: it is “an element, like air and water.” In this, the poem seems an affirmation of Keats’ “Grecian Urn” ode. However, this poem, and human existence, are buffeted by and in a sense determined by nature. If art does end up being as enduring as (or even more so than) nature, as Keats would have it, the artist is not entirely in control, as in Keats. Rather, nature must determine the subject matter of poetry, which achieves immortality in that it depicts of nature. Artists, destined to be dust or “sweet meat” in the grave, simply record the atmosphere of the thirty-first of August, 1995, or the zodiac, the motions of the stars themselves.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
David Caplan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, writing a dissertation on contemporary poetry. In this essay, he places “Black Zodiac” in the context of Charles Wright’s poetic career.
An air of almost pure meditation distinguishes Charles Wright’s poetry. Characters rarely inhabit its landscapes. Extremely few actions occur; the poems never tell stories. More often than not, they direct their gazes inward, meditating upon the nature of poetry. Again and again Wright’s verse returns to the basic questions one might ask of this art. How is it written? What inspires it? What does it accomplish? What, if any, consolations does poetry bring?
The answers Wright provides might strike some as intolerably bleak. During the Vietnam War, many poets and readers wanted politically committed writing. Art, the argument went, could help stimulate opposition to an unjust war. It could raise consciousness and protect a nation from its worse impulses. Wright viewed these claims with
“... a writer claims originality not by composing a wholly unprecedented poem but by bringing together a unique combination of influences.”
characteristic skepticism. His widely noticed poem, “The New Poem,” categorically rebuts these hopes:
It will not attend our sorrow.
It will not console our children.
It will not be able to help us.
As this stanza suggests, “The New Poem” presents a series of negative propositions, an austerity that extends to its nearly monotonous cadences. Though extremely bracing, such poetry does not remain “new” for very long.
Wright published Black Zodiac in 1997, a time when Americans enjoyed peace, not endured a divisive war. Black Zodiac expresses a less severe pessimism. The difference can be heard in the poem’s lush rhythms. While “The New Poem” presents a dirge-like monody, “Black Zodiac” avails itself of a much wider variety of cadences. The writer of “The New Poem” is a young man, laying down prohibitions. In “Black Zodiac,” Wright asks a series of questions directed toward himself and his art. The questions include:
What can we say to either of them?
How can they be so dark and so clear at the same
The flies come back, and the heat—what can we
say to them?
Why do the great stories always exist in the past?
Appropriately for such a self-questioning poem, “Black Zodiac” opens with a tone of humility. Meditating upon the poet’s relationship to his precursors, the great poets who preceded him, the speaker pays homage to “the masters,” a term suggestive of a great humbleness, an almost religious deference to these artists’ authority. Like a supplicant, the speaker stands at the level of “the pale hems” of their gowns. Yet these “masters” also form the poet’s inspiration and his audience. The poem starts:
Darkened by time, the masters, like our memories,
And mismatch, And settle about our lawn furniture,
Without a meaning, like air in its clear nothingness.
In the terms of contemporary literary criticism, this passage considers the nature of poetic influence: that is, the nature of a poet’s relation with earlier writers. Some scholars characterize this relationship as essentially competitive, as poets fight each other for a chance at poetic immortality. Wright, though, describes a different dynamic. The “masters” gather as the poet writes. The act of creation summons them because poet starts to “mix / And mismatch” his great influences as he writes. In other words, a writer claims originality not by composing a wholly unprecedented poem but by bringing together a unique combination of influences.
Wright’s notes for this poem confirm this strategy of eclectic influence. The mere presence of these notes in the back of Black Zodiac suggests a certain meticulousness; Wright does not try to hide the fact that previous works inspired his poem. Instead, his notes acknowledge that his poem borrows phrases and ideas from sources as diverse as the posthumously published work of the twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens, a translation of the German poet Paul Celan, and the journals of St. Augustine, a leading figure in early Christianity.
Mixing and re-mixing these god-like influences, the poet faces the challenge of drawing sustenance from “the masters” without being mastered by them. He twice distills this problem to its crux, asking, “What can we say to them?” In the presence of these “masters,” the poet experiences a tongue-tied sense of awe. They reduce him to acting like a child, letting them tussle his hair.
Of course the poet is not actually tongue-tied; he remains articulate about his inability to craft a response worthy of the visiting spirits:
They ruffle our hair, they ruffle the leaves of the
They stop, abruptly as wind.
The flies come back, and the heat—what can we
say to them?
Several characteristics mark these lines as Wright’s. As in much of his work, this passage uses a split line as a means to control the tempo and cadence. For example, the first line features a caesura, a comma that forces the reader to pause, after the word, “hair.” Wright then splits the line, leaving it unbalanced, as the first part remains shorter than the second. The next line features a caesura after its second word, “stop,” and the fifth word, “wind.” All of these lines move toward an iambic meter, an arrangement of the syllables into a pattern where an unstressed syllable precedes a stressed one. Yet the lines do not quite adhere to this pattern. For example, in the following line I have italicized each syllable that I read as stressed:
The flies come back, and the heat—
What can we say to them?
Mixing the lines’ cadences and arrangements of stessed and unstressed syllable, Wright produces this distinctive rhythm.
“Black Zodiac” comes closest to articulating a solution to the question, “What can we say to them?” in its third section. “You’ve got to write it down,” the poet tells himself three times:
Memory’s handkerchief, death’s dream and
God’s sleep, you’ve still got to write it down,
Moon half-empty, night half-full,
Night starless and egoless, night blood-black and
Spider at work between the hedges,
Last bird call, toad in a damp place, tree frog in a
This passage’s details remain mysterious; they more evoke a state of mind than describe an experience. Memory takes a sorrowful form, a handkerchief to wipe away tears. While the poet enters death’s “dream,” God moves into a deeper distance. God sleeps while death fills the poet’s consciousness. A darkness surrounds him. In the poem’s opening section, “the masters” humble the poet in their presence. In this section, he achieves a state of grace, entering the “starless and egoless” landscape. “The unexamined life’s no different from / the examined life,” he declares. Humbled as in his encounter with “the masters,” the poet realizes that, though poetry brings no consolation, he must continue to pursue its examinations.
Source: David Caplan, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Dean Rader has published widely in the field of twentieth-century poetry. Here, he offers a comparative reading of Charles Wright’s “Black Zodiac” and Wallace Stevens’s poetry.
“Description is an element, like air or water” writes Wallace Stevens in his “Adagia,” a collection of adages and aphorisms that appear in Opus Posthumous (1957), a collection of ideas, poems
“You’ve got to write it all down. Landscape or waterscape, light—length on evergreen, dark sidebar Of evening, you’ve got to write it down.”
and plays published a few years after Stevens’ death. This passage also appears in the second-to-the-last line in Charles Wright’s enigmatic poem “Black Zodiac”: Description’s an element, like air or water. / That’s the word.” And that’s the poem. It ends right there. One wonders what, precisely, Wright refers to with the word “it.” Possibly air, possibly water, but most likely he is suggesting that description is the word in question. In fact, the entire poem is a description, not so much of the external landscape but of the landscape within. For Wright, as for Stevens, there is a fuzzy (if even detectable) border between the self and nature, or better put between interior and exterior spaces. At times, both spaces are imbued and altered by the perspective of the poet. Thus, the poem “Black Zodiac” and the book of the same title see the poetic process as descriptions of the ways in which the individual positions himself and his ideas against the backdrop of this utterly complex and inhibiting world.
Wright’s final line, “That’s the word,” recalls the first line of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God.” However, in Wright’s universe, the word is not God but description. Such a configuration means a decidedly different role for the poet. It’s not so much God that speaks the world into being or even defines the world but the individual capable of description. That leaves the poet in a pretty good place. Indeed, in Stevens’ wonderful poem “Description without Place,” he begins section four with an aphorism worthy of Wright, one that brings home the idea that description carries an element of apotheosis: “Description is revelation.” Like most of Stevens’ assertions, this one proffers multiple meanings. On one hand, Stevens suggests that description is not a fixed endeavor, that it reveals itself over time. On the other hand, Stevens endows
What Do I Read Next?
- Editors Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora explore both the changing and the traditional values of the American South in Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South (1994). The book includes critical comments and personal glimpses of 50 southern writers and provides an excellent overview of the nuances of “southern” writing.
- Diane Jarvenpa’s 1996 publication entitled Divining the Landscape: Poems is a splendid collection of poems reflecting this Finnish-American’s love for the Minnesota landscape. She brings a remarkable sensibility to everyday subjects and also deals heavily with mother-daughter ties.
- Australian theologian Peter Jensen provides a unique Christian perspective in understanding man’s place and purpose in the universe in At the Heart of the Universe: The Eternal Plan of God (1997). The book is written in an easy-to-understand literary style without a great deal of heavy-handed theological doctrine.
- Under the fun and provocative title On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (1993) author Adam Phillips presents a collection of essays focusing on issues rearely discussed in the field of psychoanalysis: kissing, worrying, risk, etc. He debunks the Socratic notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, asserting that good mental health depends on maintaining aspects of life that resist interpretation.
- Christianity in Appalachia: Profiles in Regional Pluralism (edited by Bill Leonard, 1999) brings together articles on the many religions represented by the “hill-folk” of the Appalachians. While many publications portray people from this region as simple and unsophisticated, this collection presents them as genuine, sincere believers in God who do not always fit the mold that the rest of society has created for them.
the act of description with a palpable holiness by linking it with God himself—a revealed deity. Thus, for both Stevens and Wright, the poetic act is a sacred act, one that turns the mundane into the divine.
For Wright and Stevens, the divine may not exist in heaven but on earth, which is to say that some may seek the divine not for purposes of praise but simply to engage it. It would seem, then, that for both poets, the first step toward this engagement is to desire it. Wright begins section two of “Black Zodiac” with a passage from St. Augustine:
Those who look for the Lord will cry out in praise
Perhaps. And perhaps not—dust and ashes though
Some will go wordlessly ...
Wright suggests that we each look for divine out of different motivations. For him, looking does not equal praise. But, that’s not a problem, for both Stevens and Wright, finding is not as important as looking. Indeed, both poets locate the divine in the act of desire itself. In “Description without Place,” Stevens claims that description “is an expectation, a desire” and in “Primitive Like an Orb,” he says that “The Lover, the believer and the poet. / Their words are chosen out of their desire.” In the final moment, we may never actually find God, we may never experience the grand revelation. Thus, when we cannot count on the celestial, we can count on the terrestrial. We can count on language. Language, the ability to articulate, the description of the processes of life remains our most reliable avenue toward making sense of a senseless world. As Wright writes in “Black Zodiac.”
The unexamined life’s no different from the
Unanswerable questions, small talk,
Unprovable theorems, long abandoned arguments—
You’ve got to write it all down.
Landscape or waterscape, light—length on
evergreen, dark sidebar
Of evening, you’ve got to write it down.
Simply thinking about the world is not enough. Our memories, our moments of insight and understanding, slip away from us like minutes and hours, like sunlight. Writing down the world, describing the internal landscape fixes your perception of the world in a medium we all share—language. Stevens would agree. It’s all about articulation:
That’s it. The lover writes, the believer hears,
The poet mumbles and the painter sees ...
As a part, but part, but tenacious particle,
Of the skeleton of the ether, the total
Of letters, prophecies, perceptions, clods
Of color, the giant of nothingness, each one
And the giant ever changing, living in change.
This idea of change haunts Wright as well. Elsewhere in “Black Zodiac,” he writes, “Mine is a brief voice, a still, brief voice / Unsubject to change or the will to change.” According to James Longenbach, one of the best readers of twentieth-century American poetry, Wright’s poetic style, his means of expression, put him in touch with both tangible and intangible experiences: “The possibility of change depends on what Wright calls ‘celestial similes’ or ‘the slow dream of metaphor’: Wright’s style is the arc of his own salvation.” Longenbach adroitly notes that Wright creates his mode of salvation through the poetic process; he understands that Wright changes the landscape from one of emptiness to one of possibility. To combat the “giant of nothingness,” as Stevens would say, one must construct somethingness; one must call attention to the somethingness that is there as opposed to the nothingness that is not there. In section five of “Black Zodiac,” Wright invokes Stevens’ famous poem “The Snow Man” to underscore his system of belief-description: “Calligraphers of the disembodied, God’s word-wards, / What letters will we illuminate? / Above us the atmosphere, / The nothing that’s nowhere, signs on, and waits for our beck and call.” For Stevens and Wright, there is little evidence that God resides in the atmosphere above us. For the modern and postmodern writer, God is an absence, but language, words, poems are a presence. They sustain us. Wright’s question is a provocative one. In a world in which there are no monks creating illuminated manuscripts of sacred texts, we must make our own sacred text out of the world around us, the world mediated through language.
That we make not only the sacredness of the world but the world itself is the ultimate theme of both “Black Zodiac” and “Description without Place.” How do we make these things? Out of words:
It is the theory of the word for those
For whom the word is the making of the world,
The buzzing world and lisping firmament.
It is a world of words to the end of it
In which nothing solid is its solid self
As, men make themselves their speech: the hard
Lives in the mountains character of his speech;
According to Stevens, the word is the only solid thing in the world. What’s more, the world issues forth from the word. We are nothing more than our speech. What we say of the world is part of what the world becomes. For Wright, the words desire us as much as we desire the words: “The letters undarken and come forth, / Your X and my X. / The letters undarken and come forth.” The revelation that Stevens speaks of translates into letters for Wright. Instead of God revealing himself in a burning bush or in a flame in a cave, the divine comes to us in symbols, in letters, that we translate, through our own language, into the world itself.
Stevens and Wright are both difficult poets. There is no easy interpretation for “Black Zodiac,” or, for that matter, for “Description without Place.” In his poem, Stevens, more overtly than Wright, argues that the poet has the ability to do anything through description; he can even bring about “the invention of a nation in a phrase.” To speak is to reveal. It is to utter the holy. For Wright, to speak is to make sense of the world. Without language, the world, our heads, the past, the future are a junkpile of words, a dark map with no markings. So connected to the external world is the poetic process, that both Wright and Stevens accord it elemental status: “Description is an element, like air or water.” For the reader, the philosopher, the poet, the lover, and the believer, words are part and parcel of our world. They connect us not only with each other but with the divine and the idea of the divine. In fact, without them, the divine would not be the divine, merely the “nothing that’s nowhere,” waiting “for our beck and call” to reveal the divine and our world to each other.
Source: Dean Rader, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Amazon, www.amazon.com (March 28, 2000).
CNN News, www.cnn.com (March 28, 2000).
The History Channel, www.historychannel.com (March 28, 2000).
Hosmer, Robert Ellis, Jr., Review of Black Zodiac, in America, Vol. 177, No. 20, December 20-27, 1997, p. 24.
Longenbach, James, “Between Soil and Stars,” in Nation, April 14, 1997, pp. 27-30.
———, Review of Black Zodiac, in The Nation, April 14, 1997, pp. 27-31.
Stevens, Wallace, Opus Posthumous, Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
———, Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems, Random House, 1982.
Vendler, Helen, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Harvard University Press, 1988.
———, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press, 1980.
Wright, Charles, Appalachia, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.
———, Black Zodiac, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
———, Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977–87, University of Michigan Press, 1988.
Stitt, Peter, Uncertainty and Plenitude: Five Contemporary Poets, University of Iowa Press, 1997.
Stitt is a noted critic and editor of the Gettysburg Review. In this book, he presents a very poignant study of five contemporary American poets: John Ashbery, Stephen Dobyns, Charles Simic, Gerald Stern, and Charles Wright. He concentrates on the poets’ writing strategies, subject matter, cultural issues, and artistic strengths and weaknesses.
Wright, Charles, Chickamauga, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.
This is the first book in the “triptych” which contains Black Zodiac. In it, Wright sets the stage for the issues he ponders in the subsequent two collections, concluding that what he has learned in the 30 years since he began writing is “not communicable.”
———, The Grave of the Right Hand, Wesleyan University Press, 1970.
The is Wright’s first full-length collection of poetry, and it demonstrates an early attention to the “architecture” of a book. The poems are shorter and more precise than those in his later work, but there is still an emphasis placed on overall structure and connections between the poems included.