April 6, 2014

Poet’s latest collection is born of ‘the stepchild hour’

“Caribou: Poems” by Charles Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pages, $23)

“Caribou: Poems” by Charles Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pages, $23)

Cloud mountains rise over mountain range.

Silence and quietness,

sky bright as water, sky bright as lake water.

Grace is the instinct for knowing when to stop. And where.

Haunted by what he has and has not said, Charles Wright pens a poetry of urgent expectation.

His verse moves effortlessly from image to emotion to gnomic maxims about life and death. In them, he traces the lineaments of transcendence with delicacy and desire, humility and regret.

Wright’s is an elegiac yearning born of the “stepchild hour, / belonging to neither the light nor dark, / The hour of disappearing things.”

Winner of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize and many other honors, Wright has carefully crafted “Caribou,” his 21st collection, around the tension of unbelief – reaching for an eternity that may not be there, ever watchful, always trusting, never sure.

Our history is the history of the City of God.

What’s-to-Come is anybody’s guess.

Whatever has given you comfort,

Whatever has rested you,

Whatever untwisted your heart

is what you will leave behind.

The interplay of the ephemeral and the everlasting fuels Wright’s plain-spoken poetics. He addresses the reader with quiet meditations that insinuate some secret; revelation looms in his laconic, winsome voice.

There’s an old Buddhist saying I think I read one time:

Before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

After Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

The ducks, who neither carry nor chop,

Understand this, as I never will,

Their little feet propelling them, under the water,

Serene and stabilized,

from the far side of the pond

Back to the marsh grasses and cattails.

As a visionary, Wright remains infatuated with the ancient Chinese poets Li Po and Han Shan, aka Cold Mountain. Thus, his own poems tend to emerge as ideograms – nature veering toward the metaphysical.

Whatever, we inhabit the quotidian, as we must,

While somewhere behind our backs,

waterfalls tumble and keep on going

Into the deep desire of distance.

So much restless searching suffuses these poems that what is needed, Wright says in “Heaven’s Eel,” is Something we can’t see that controls all the things that we do see.

That is, something to trump the transience of everyday life.

With Wright on the brink of his 80s, and mortality breathing down his neck, much of “Caribou” resonates as “an old man’s poetry / written by someone who’s spent his life / Looking for one truth. / Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.”

Like all prophetic poets, Wright has to fight hard against preachiness, against steering away from the strict catechism of the image:

Time is your enemy,

time and its fail-safe disgrace.

Open your arms, boys, take off your shirts.

At their best, Wright’s poems spur us toward epiphany, invoking as much as they evoke, yet rooted firmly in the earth.

What happened is what happens to all of us: we walked

On the earth, we threw a couple of handfuls of dirt

Into the air, and when it came down it covered us.

No one else writes quite like Wright, with his intensity of purpose, his attunement to the spheres, his keen eye on creation. With each new book, he breeds our expectation to find an ecstatic opening to the other world. Even as we make our home in this one.

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