Sestets by Charles Wright
Charles Wright has said in interviews that after working for compression in his first few books, he “wanted to let the line and poems expand as far as they could toward prose, without becoming prose” (The Carolina Quarterly, March 22, 2004). Wright’s new book, Sestets, looks like a return to his earlier ideal of compactness. As he did in his youthful work, the poet strictly limits the length of his poems, in this case to six lines each. Yet these 70 poems feel spacious rather than condensed. Part of this effect comes from the fact that there the latest poems literally take up more space on the page, even though they are very short. Here, for comparison, is an older poem, from Hard Freight (1973):
"The New Poem"
It will not resemble the sea.
It will not have dirt on its thick hands.
It will not be part of the weather.
It will not reveal its name.
It will not have dreams you can count on.
It will not be photogenic.
It will not attend our sorrow.
It will not console our children.
It will not be able to help us.
And here is “Future Tense” from Sestets:
All things in the end are bittersweet—
An empty gaze, a little way station just beyond silence.
If you can’t delight in the everyday,
you have no future here.
And if you can, no future either.
And time, black dog, will sniff you out,
and lick your lean cheeks,
And lie down beside you—warm, real close—and will not move.
Both poems are mostly bitter rather than bittersweet, but the voice in the second one is more relaxed and open. Wright has learned to make expansiveness fit comfortably into little rooms, as neat a trick as you can find in poetry, old or new. He’s willing to expend the whole first line of a six-line poem on this:
Little Richard in full gear—
And then he makes good on the risk, because the poem (“Tutti Fruitti”) is about how God and the Devil are both in the details, and there really couldn’t be a more economical way of evoking Little Richard in detail than this opening line.
Another technique from his mature work that Wright has carried over to these sestets is line splitting. The second half of many of the longer lines is dropped and indented, enhancing that sense of space-on-the-page and also mental spaciousness, often with mental revision as part of the message. This is what happens in “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
some sway, some don’t sway.
This thought would be different if it were expressed in two short lines instead of one split one. It would be more strongly contradictory or less resigned to contradiction. There is a recurrent note of resignation in the Sestets, and this also ties them to the tone of Wright’s later work. He has always been a poet concerned with grand ideas -- or rather he has always been sorry that he no longer believes in grand ideas. When he was younger however, announcing that the New Poem would not be able to help us, he was angry about it. Nowadays, he’s less angry. In Sestets, Wright sees as clearly as ever that poems won’t help, and neither will God. In place of the soul moving toward eternal light, he offers only a “lost, impermanent light / The soul is pulled toward, and longs for, deep in its cave,” (“Yellow Wings”). Throughout his career, Wright has invested a great deal of significance in detailed descriptions of the natural world, and yet he casually calls one of his sestets “Description’s the Art of Something or Other.” As he admits in “Sundown Blues,” transcendence through description, like a lot of other grand ideas, has failed him:
No one is able to describe this gold to bronze to charcoal, no one.
So move along, boy, just move along.
Neither Wright’s anger nor his resignation would make as much difference if he didn’t express them in the characteristically musical language he has developed over the years. The poems in this book remind me of songs, not just because they’re short and sonnet-like, although they are, but because they’re sorrowful and tuneful and colloquial like American songs. (The one they remind me of most often is “Shenandoah,” with its mixture of traditional homesickness and moving on -- “I long to hear you,” but “I’m bound away.”) Often the poems are not only musical but also about music: the music of Little Richard or Etta James or just the everyday human music that hums along down here on earth while things are falling apart for the “grand architect of the universe.” Sometimes Wright evokes music by taking his titles from songs, “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” “No Direction Home,” Well Get Up Rounder, Let a Working Man Lay Down.” In “Music for Midsummer’s Eve,” time is an “untuned harmonium / That Muzaks our nights and days.”
Time, for Wright, is also a “Graceless Enemy," a “Dark Clock,” a “black dog,” and even a “Child-Biting Dog,” offering no future and an unreliable past. Just as poems will not console our children, our memories won’t console us, even though we can’t stop reaching back to them for consolation. In “Like the New Moon, My mother Drifts Through the Night Sky,” the poet sees a vision of his mother from his back yard.
She knows what I’m looking for,
partially what she comes back not to tell me.
We don’t really want to know there’s no help for us, or at least we don’t want to know it all the time. With his sad, contradictory music, Wright contrives to let us -- and himself -- off the hook once in a while. These poems are not grand: they’re only six lines long. But they can seem grand. They do not have dreams you can count on, but sometimes they appear to have such dreams, anyway. In the final sestet, “Little Ending,” Wright promises us “Bowls will receive us”:
It won’t matter where we have become.
Unburdened by prayer, unburdened by any supplication,
Someone will take our hand,
someone will give us refuge,
Circling left or circling right.
Sestets by Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and Giroux