February 2005

Wendy Anderson

poetry

Buffalo Yoga by Charles Wright

I am tempted to limit my review of Charles Wright’s book Buffalo Yoga to a list of arresting lines -- although that would hardly be limiting. Let me share a few.

“The sun has set behind the Blue Ridge,/And evening with its blotting paper/lifts off the light.”

“The blue flowers of summer/Turn toward us on their stiff stalks their sinister faces.”

“All afternoon the leaves have scuttled/Across the sidewalk and driveway, clicking their clattery claws.”

“The summer seeped to its end,/The sweet smoke of the past like bandages/on all our imagined wounds.”

“We’re all born with a one-way ticket, of course,/Thus do we take our deaths up on our shoulders and walk and walk and/walk,/Trying to get back.”

That’s pretty amazing stuff.

I could also focus my review on the fourteen-page title poem, to be taken in bites and savored. “Everything’s more essential in northern light,” it begins. “Everything’s more severe... Everything seems immediate/Like splinters of the divine/Suddenly flecked in our fingertips...” Before long the piece offers a striking description of the creator:

God’s ghost taps once on the world’s window,
then taps again
And drags his chains through the evergreens.
Weather is where he came from, and to weather returns,
His backside black on the southern sky,
Mumbling and muttering, distance like doomsday loose in his
hands.

Two of the poems in the collection speak so keenly to me of two of my brothers that I have made copies to send along to them. To a brother full of his own wondrous childhood stories and preoccupied, of late, with aging, goes “Arriverderci Kingsport.” It beautifully conjures growing up in the forties and fifties, in a place made special simply because it’s the place where one grew up; and the poem gives us the pangs so many of us feel to see a homeplace change, to know it exists now mostly in memory, and that we are no longer young. At one point, Wright exclaims:

Jesus, it’s all still a fist of mist
That keeps on cleaning my clock,
tick-tock, my youth, tick-tock, my youth,
Everything going away again and again toward the light.

“My Own Little Civil War” goes to another brother, who is a writer and an historian. The account of kinfolk who served in the Confederate army, with fragments of letters from that time, ends on this poignant note:

That’s it, my own little Civil War –
a lock of hair,
A dozen unreadable letters,
An obit or two,
And half the weight and half-life
of a half-healed and hurting world.

Wright, born in Tennessee and a teacher at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, won the Pulitizer Prize for Black Zodiac and has authored fifteen poetry books, among other works. His many honors include the PEN Translation Prize, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for Chickamauga. Poet Philip Levine, a judge for the latter award, said of Wright: “Has any other American poet been writing as beautifully and daringly over the past twenty-five years as Charles Wright? ... In poem after poem he plumbs our deepest relationships with nature, time, love, death, creation.”

And so he continues to do in Buffalo Yoga. Nature, time, love, death, creation remain big themes. Loss and tragedy, looking back, silence. Sunshine is warming or rendered thus: “The sadness of sunlight lies like fine dust on the evergreens,/Even the wind can’t move it... The slow sleep and sad shine of sunlight.” There are horses (sometimes of the Apocalypse) and God, jack snipe and crows, lupine and cornflower, weather and wind, moon, grass, horizons, and always, in one form or another, death, “a raven with its bright eye on me,” or the “descent of fiery wheels.” He asks Time, for once, to walk behind him “along the corridor, the endless one/That leads to the place I have to go.”

Wright’s evocative images of a Southern countryside land me so heavily back in my own hometown in northern Maine, where the Appalachian Trail literally dips into its final hundred-mile-woods run, that I have nearly cried my hunger for that place. His poems put me in touch with where I want to be.

To put it another way, I first started to read Buffalo Yoga on the train into the city to work, and I was so taken with it that I failed to realize we had arrived at the station and had to scramble to gather my belongings and scoot. On my walk to the office I felt especially assaulted -- the loud grumble of the el train, a screeching siren, two men yelling as they unloaded a van, the blast of a car radio; then I was almost hit by a truck while I was in the crosswalk, so close that I whacked its side with my umbrella. That whole experience reminded me why I need Charles Wright. We all do. His words keep us human, in the perfect, natural sense. He keeps us in our interior landscapes, full of remembrances and longing and possibility, and he keeps us in tune with the natural world. And yes, with those who have died and our own immortality.

Let me end with a fragment of the poem “Buffalo Yoga,” where he describes the stars as “streetlights left on to comfort the dead”:

Past midnight’s the other side,
north and south, down-ladder to dawn.
In the slick, cold corridors of the end, it is not our friend.
It’s where echoes reside.
It’s what we have to pass through,
re-hearing each word we’ve ever uttered,
Listening one last time to the star-stung sound of our little voices.

Wright’s voice, in this book and, I suspect, anywhere, is never little. It is large and lustrous enough to fill us and make us shine.

Buffalo Yoga by Charles Wright
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
ISBN 0374117284
76 pages