Luminous new poems from the author of "The Appalachian Book of the Dead"
Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.
Don't just do something, sit there.
And so I have, so I have,
the seasons curling around me like smoke,
Gone to the end of the earth and back without a sound.
-"Body and Soul II"
This is Charles Wright's first collection of verse since the completion of his Appalachian Book of the Dead, the trilogy of trilogies hailed as one "among the great long poems of the century" (James Longenbach, Boston Review). Wright speaks in these poems with characteristic charm, restlessness, and wit, writing again and again, "I sit where I always sit," only to reveal himself in a new setting every time. In A Short History of the Shadow Wright's return to the landscapes of his early work finds his art resilient in a world haunted by death and the dead.
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A Short History of the Shadow
By Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2002 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
* * *
I sit where I always sit, in back of the Buddha,
Red leather wing chair, pony skin trunk
under my feet,
Skylight above me, Chinese and Indian rugs on the floor.
I March, 1998, where to begin again?
Over there's the ur-photograph,
Giorgio Morandi, glasses pushed up on his forehead,
Looking hard at four objects —
Two olive oil tins, one wine bottle, one flower vase,
A universe of form and structure,
The universe constricting in front of his eyes,
And applications scraped down
To paint on an easel stand, some in the frame, some not.
Bologna, my friend, Bologna, world's bite and world's end.
* * *
It's only in darkness you can see the light, only
From emptiness that things start to fill,
I read once in a dream, I read in a book
under the pink
Redundancies of the spring peach trees.
Old fires, old geographies.
In that case, make it old, I say, make it singular
In its next resurrection,
White violets like photographs on the tombstone of the yard.
Each year it happens this way, each year
Something dead comes back and lifts up its arms,
puts down its luggage
And says — in the same costume, down-at-heels, badly sewn —
I bring you good news from the other world.
* * *
One hand on the sun, one hand on the moon, both feet bare,
God of the late
Breaststrokes across the heavens.
Easter, and all who've been otherwised peek from their shells,
Thunderheads gathering at the rear
abyss of things,
Lightning, quick swizzle sticks, troubling the dark in-between.
You're everything that I'm not, they think,
I'll fly away, Lord, I'll fly away.
April's agnostic and nickel-plated and skin deep,
Glitter and bead-spangle, haute couture,
The world its runway, slink-step and glide.
Roll the stone slowly as it vogues and turns,
roll the stone slowly.
* * *
Well, that was a month ago. May now,
What's sure to arrive has since arrived and been replaced,
Snick-snack, lock and load, grey heart's bull's-eye,
A little noon music out of the trees,
a sonatina in green.
Spring passes. Across the room, on the opposite wall,
A 19th-century photograph
Of the Roman arena in Verona. Inside,
stone tiers and stone gate.
Over the outer portico, the ghost of Catullus at sky's end.
The morning and evening stars never meet,
nor summer and spring:
Beauty has been my misfortune,
hard journey, uncomfortable resting place.
Whatever it is I have looked for
Is tiny, so tiny it can dance in the palm of my hand.
* * *
This is the moment of our disregard —
just after supper,
Unseasonable hail in huddles across the porch,
The dogs whimpering,
thunder and lightning eddying off toward the east,
Nothing to answer back to, nothing to dress us down.
Thus do we slide into our disbelief
Caught in the weeds and understory of our own lives,
Bad weather, bad dreams.
Proper attention is our refuge now, our perch and our praise.
So? So. The moon has its rain-ring auraed around it —
The more that we think we understand, the less we see,
Back yard becoming an obelisk
Of darkness into the sky,
no hieroglyphs, no words to the wise.
LOOKING AROUND II
Pale sky and one star, pale star,
Twilight twisting down like a slow screw
Into the balsa wood of Saturday afternoon,
Late Saturday afternoon,
a solitary plane
Eating its way like a moth across the bolt of dusk
Hung like cheesecloth above us.
Ugo would love this, Ugo Foscolo,
Crepuscular, still undewed,
Ugo, it's said, who never uttered a commonplace,
His soul transfixed by a cypress tree,
The twilight twisted into his heart,
Ugo, immortal, unleavened, when death gave him fame and rest.
* * *
Tonight, however's, a different story,
flat, uninterrupted sky,
Rain off, then back again, a
Second-hand light, dishcloth light, wrung out and almost gone.
Lightning bugs, three of them, in my neighbor's yard,
leaping beyond the hedge.
What can I possibly see back here I haven't seen before?
Is landscape, like God, a Heraclitean river?
Is language a night flight and sea-change?
My father was born Victorian,
knee-pants and red ringlets,
Sepia photographs and desk drawers
Vanishing under my ghostly touch.
* * *
I sit where I always sit,
knockoff Brown Jordan plastic chair,
East-facing, lingering late spring dusk,
Virginia privet and honeysuckle in full-blown bloom and too sweet,
Sky with its glazed look, and half-lidded.
And here's my bat back,
The world resettled and familiar, a self-wrung sigh.
César Vallejo, on nights like this,
His mind in a crash dive from Paris to South America,
Would look from the Luxembourg
Gardens or some rooftop
For the crack, the tiny crack,
In the east that separates one world from the next,
this one from
That one I look for it too.
* * *
Now into June, cloverheads tight, Seurating the yard,
This land-washed jatte fireflied and Corgied.
How sweet familiarity is,
With its known bird songs,
its known smudges.
Today, as Machado said, is every day and all days.
A little wind from the southwest, a little wind in the apple tree.
And dusk descending, or dusk rising,
Sky flat as a sheet, smooth as bedclothes on a dead woman's bed.
It's always this way at 9 p.m.,
Half moon like a cleaved ox wheel
Machado smooth as a night bird half-asleep in the gum tree.
* * *
Crepuscularum. The back yard etched in and scored by
Lack of light.
What's dark gets darker against the shrinking, twilit sky,
Hedgerow and hemlock and maple tree.
A couple of lightning bugs.
Dog bark and summer smell.
Mosquitos. The evening star.
Been rode hard and put up wet, someone said to me once
In Kalispell, meaning,
I hope I'm being used for a higher good,
Or one I'm not aware of.
Dino Campana could have said that.
Said it and meant, Lord, that's it. And please turn off the light.
And he did.
LOOKING AROUND III
August. Cloud-forest Chinese Ming screen
Beyond the south meadow and up the attendant feeder hills.
No wind and a steady rain.
Raven squawk and swallow bank,
screen shift at meadow mouth.
I find I have nothing to say to any of this.
Northwest Montana under the summer's backlash and wet watch.
The tall marsh grass kneels to their bidding.
The waters of Basin Creek pucker their tiny lips,
their thousand tiny lips.
The clouds shatter and the clouds re-form.
I find I have nothing to say to any of this.
* * *
Osip Mandelstam, toward the end of his short, word-fiery life,
Said heaven was whole, and that flowers live forever.
He also said what's ahead of us is only someone's word —
We were born to escort the dead, and be escorted ourselves.
Down by the creek bank, the sound that the water makes is almost human.
Down by the creek bank, the water sound
Is almost like singing, a song in praise of itself.
The light, like a water spider, stretches across the backwash.
Under the big spruce at the channel's bend,
someone's name and dates
Mirror the sky, whose way, like Mandelstam's, was lost in the sky.
* * *
Last night like spider light webbed and still in the tall grass,
Twin fawns and a doe at the salt lick,
Hail-battered marigolds and delphinium against the cabin wall,
Coyote about to trot out
Behind the diversion ditch and head for his breakfast.
I don't understand how white clouds can cover the earth.
I don't understand how a line of verse can fall from the sky.
I don't understand how the meadow mouth
opens and closes.
I don't understand why the water keeps saying yes, O, yes.
I don't understand the black lake that pools in my heart.
* * *
Late afternoon and long shadows across the deer ford,
Mt. Henry volcanic and hushed against the west sky and cloud clot.
Dante, according to Mandelstam,
Was not descriptive, was never descriptive, his similes
Exposing the inner image of the structure's force —
Birds were a pilgrimage, for instance, rivers political.
Cloud and cloud-flow having their way,
cloud-rags and cloud-rugs
Inching across the upper meadow, now the lower.
Inside the image inside the image is the image, he might have added,
Crystalline, pristine. But he didn't.
* * *
I sit where I always sit,
northwest window on Basin Creek,
A homestead cabin from 1912,
Pine table knocked together some 30 years ago,
Indian saddle blanket, Peruvian bedspread
And Mykonos woven rug
nailed up on the log walls.
Whose childhood is this in little rectangles over the chair?
Two kids with a stringer of sunfish,
Two kids in their bathing suits,
the short shadows of evergreens?
Under the meadow's summer coat, forgotten bones have turned black.
O, not again, goes the sour song of the just resurrected.
* * *
To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it,
Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace.
For over 30 years I've looked at this meadow and mountain landscape
Till it's become iconic and small
And sits, like a medieval traveller's triptych,
radiant in its disregard.
All morning the donors have knelt, in profile, where the creeks meet,
The thin spruce have listened to what the rustle is, and nodded —
Like coyote's ears, they're split in the wind.
Tonight, after 10 p.m., the moon will varnish everything
With a brilliance worthy, wherever that is, of Paradise.
* * *
Moonlight blank newsprint across the lawn,
Three-quarters moon, give or take,
empty notebook, no wind.
When it's over it's over,
Cloud crossing moon, half-clear sky, then
Well, that's a couple of miles down the road,
he said to himself,
Watching the moonlight lacquer and mat.
Surely a mile and then some,
Watching the clouds come and the clouds go.
Citronella against the tiny ones, the biters,
Sky pewter-colored and suddenly indistinct now —
Sweet smell of citronella
beautiful, endless youth.
The book of moonlight has two pages and this one's the first one.
Forsake me not utterly,
and make me marvellous in your eyes.
IF THIS IS WHERE GOD'S AT, WHY IS THAT FISH DEAD?
If God is the one and infinite,
If God is the clear-cut and cloudless sky,
If God is a bed and a held breath,
You have a reason, my friend, to be inquisitive.
The morning smells like Milan, autumnal Milan, fog
And a fine rain in the trees,
huge plane leaves stuck on the sidewalks
Throughout the Sforza gardens,
Villa Guastalla calm as a ship
through the part-brown park and the mist.
The Japanese say we live in twelve pictures thrown from the floating world,
Where sin is a ladder to heaven.
Or has been. Or can be.
First light in the east last light in the west and us in between,
Lives marginal at best
and marginally brought to bear.
But that's okay, given the star-struck alternative.
Remember us in the ghost hour remember us in our need.
The late September night is a train of thought, a wound
That doesn't bleed, dead grass that's still green,
No off-shoots, no elegance,
the late September night,
Deprived of adjectives, abstraction's utmost and gleam.
It has been said there is an end to the giving out of names.
It has been said that everything that's written has grown hollow.
It has been said that scorpions dance where language falters and gives way.
It has been said that something shines out from every darkness,
that something shines out.
Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
Alphabetized across the back yard,
That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.
Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
Morning arrives and that's it.
Sunlight darkens the earth.
IT'S DRY FOR SURE, DRY ENOUGH TO SPIT COTTON
Afternoon, summer half-gone, autumn half-here, strange day,
Most of the grass dead, blue-grey cloud shelf
Thickening down from the west,
Like the inside of a diving bell not yet in deep water.
The afternoon's got our number.
If only the rain
Would come and wash it off our foreheads.
If only the rain would come, unstrung through the hard weeds,
And wash us — sprung syllables, little eternities,
The rain with its thick fingers, the rain which will fill us
As slowly as hair grows, as slowly as fingernails —
Immaculate as the Jordan, Lord, Giovanni Battista
Out of the hills, hands faith-faint,
huge as all nothingness.
Where the sky disappears, the horizon spurts like a needle.
We all have death's birthmark on our faces,
sometimes red, sometimes unseeable.
Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2002 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.
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Table of Contents
Looking Around II,
Looking Around III,
If This Is Where God's At, Why Is That Fish Dead?,
It's Dry for Sure, Dry Enough to Spit Cotton,
If My Glasses Were Better, I Could See Where I'm Headed For,
On Heaven Considered as What Will Cover Us and Stony Comforter,
Mildly Depressed, Far from Home, I Go Outside for a While,
The Secret of Poetry,
In Praise of Thomas Hardy,
A Short History of the Shadow,
Thinking of Wallace Stevens at the Beginning of Spring,
Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture,
Nine-Panel Yaak River Screen,
The Wind Is Calm and Comes from Another World,
Thinking of Marsilio Ficino at the First Hint of Autumn,
Ars Poetica III,
BODY AND SOUL,
Body and Soul,
Body and Soul II,
About the Author,
Also by Charles Wright,
What People are Saying About This
There are precious few poets in whose work I find as much sheer wisdom as in Wright's....The whole world seems to orbit in a kind of meditative, slow circle around Wright's grave influence.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After the completion Charles Wright's 'trilogy of trilogies,' it's tempting to read this volume as a mere epilogue. But, as those familiar with Wright's career know, he really began to come into his own in the recent Negative Blue trilogy. In _A Short History of the Shadow_, we are given one of our time's most important poets at his most luminous, his most capable, his most daring. Especially wonderful are 'Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture,' the two 'Body and Soul' poems, and 'Via Negativa.' If you're not familiar with Wright's work, though, you should probably read some of the earlier work (The World of the Ten Thousand Things or Negative Blue) first -- it will heighten your appreciation of this book.