Everywhere But His Own Country
Three Essays on Charles Wright and the American South
There are many interviews with Charles Wright in print, and one thing we see repeatedly in them is an expression of his desire to be associated with the American south. There can surely be no question that Charles Wright the man is a southerner. His southern roots extend back for several generations. He is the direct descendent on his father’s side of William Savin Fulton, a territorial governor of Arkansas who became one of the state’s first senators, and his mother’s family is from northern Virginia (Quarter Notes 91–91; Suarez 51). He himself grew up in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, and attended Davidson College in North Carolina. Although he spent many years out of the region—serving in the Army in Italy, studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, teaching at University of California-Irvine—for nearly twenty years he has been back in the south, living in Charlottesville and teaching at the University of Virginia. Anyone who has ever heard him speak can testify to his southern accent. In a 1998 interview conducted by Ernest Suarez, Wright says, “Take me as a southern writer, please,” and Suarez asks, “Why is that so important to you?” Wright’s answer is straightforward: he says, “Because I’m from the South.… I grew up a southerner, and I will always be one” (Suarez 51).
Yet it seems not to be that simple, which is why Wright finds himself in the position of having to make such statements. His work has been acclaimed for decades, yet anthologists and critics have often omitted him from the ranks of southern poets. By 1977 Wright had published four books of poems with Wesleyan University Press (one of the most prestigious poetry series in the U.S., and the publisher of the eminently southern James Dickey), yet Louis D. Rubin, Jr.’s 1979 anthology The Literary South includes nothing by him. In 1983 Wright won the National Book Award for poetry for his selected early poems, Country Music, yet The History of Southern Literature, a standard reference work published in 1985 by Louisiana State University Press (one of the foremost publishers of writing about southern literature) contains no mention of him, either in its chapter on post-World War II poetry or in its chapter on notable new writers. By 1995 his poetry had attracted so much critical response, mainly from non-“southernists,” that Oberlin College Press could issue a thick volume reprinting the best of it (The Point Where All Things Meet, ed. Tom Andrews). In 1998 his book Black Zodiac won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize—the same year that W.W. Norton’s anthology Literature of the American South appeared without a single poem by him, despite the fact that half its thousand pages were devoted to writing after World War II. Although Wright is a southerner, and although he is indisputably an important contemporary American poet, apparently there is some question as to whether he is a southern poet.
In trying to account for this, someone might suggest that a southern writer is not merely a writer from the south, but also one whose work addresses the region. Yet by this criterion too it would seem that Wright should earn the label. This is the author of books titled Chickamauga and Appalachia, not to mention The Southern Cross, a title that in his hands evokes Bible Belt spirituality as much as the constellation. This is also the author of plenty of poems with titles like “Virginia Reel,” “Arkansas Traveller,” “A Journal of Southern Rivers,” “Tennessee Line,” and “Christmas East of the Blue Ridge.” A poet from the south whose work invokes southern places—surely this qualifies one as a southern poet? Apparently not.
Suarez, who is one of the few critics thus far to count Wright as a southern writer, speculates that the poet’s ties to Italian culture have hampered widespread recognition of his southern identity (39). References to things Italian do occur fairly often in the poems, and Wright has published two books of translations of Dino Campana and Eugenio Montale. Other contemporary writers accepted as southern, however, have similar interests: some of Elizabeth Spencer’s most memorable fiction is set in Italy, for instance, and Fred Chappell has engaged with French poetry in much the same way that Wright has with Italian. Southern literature appears willing to accept dual citizenship.
Wright himself has accounted for his exclusion from the southern poetic canon by pointing to the absence of narrative in his poems, as narrative is commonly considered a distinguishing aspect of southern poetry (Suarez 49). Yet Ellen Bryant Voigt, another non-narrative poet (one who, moreover, has long lived in New England), is widely admitted to the ranks of southern writers. Think too of the late Allen Tate, a Fugitive and an Agrarian, who is best known for lyric and meditative rather than narrative poems.
A reader unfamiliar with American culture (literary or otherwise) might ask why it matters whether or not Wright has been accepted as a “southern” poet; so, for that matter, might some American readers. Yet it does matter, because the issue foregrounds the arbitrariness and inconsistency with which literary critics construct the authors they study—or ignore. What would we think if Seamus Heaney, perhaps the best-known poet of Wright’s generation, were hailed as a major Irish or British poet, but omitted from anthologies of poets from his native Northern Ireland? We would find it odd that the poet had been rejected—perhaps “ejected” is the word—from the specific culture that had formed him. We would suspect that something must be wrong with the prevailing understanding of what it means to be a Northern Irish writer.
* * *
Certainly Wright is different from many southern writers who have been recognized as such. He rarely deals with southern history: the south’s heritage of defeat and racial division is absent from his oeuvre. Also, a few early poems notwithstanding, he has exhibited little of the concern with family often associated with southern writers. One aspect of his work that could mark his work as “southern” is his aforementioned use of southern settings. Southern landscapes appear often in Wright’s poetry, but his treatment of them evolves in a way that tends to undermine our sense of their distinctiveness. Wright has collected his oeuvre in three books representing the early, middle, and late stages of his career; we can sketch his treatment of southern landscapes over time by examining a characteristic poem from each of those three stages.
One of Wright’s best-known early poems is “Dog Creek Mainline,” first published in 1973’s Hard Freight, and now available in Country Music: Selected Early Poems. Wright has said that this poem came out of his childhood memories of living in Hiwassee Village, in the western tip of North Carolina (Halflife 62; Quarter Notes 146). He has described it as “that type of back wilderness that is very lush and large and that encroaches on you continually” (Halflife 62). Asked in one interview if his memories of Hiwassee are what first gave rise to his interest in landscape, Wright answers in the affirmative, and adds, “Because I was in the middle of a place that was all landscape” (Quarter Notes 147). The poem begins with several fragments of memory:
Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,
Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;
Odor of muscadine, the blue creep
Of kingsnake and copperhead;
Nightweed; frog spit and floating heart,
Backwash and snag pool:
(Country Music 36)
The passage that follows shifts the focus from the place itself to its significance for the poet, who has internalized it and is haunted by it:
Starts in the leaf reach and shoal run of the blood;
Starts in the falling light just back
Of the fingertips; starts
Forever in the black throat
You ask redemption of, in wants
You waken to, the odd door:
Wright then repeats this basic movement. First he evokes the place itself, using imagery verging sometimes on the surreal, as when he writes of the moths having “wet teeth,” and of the pike “locked in their wide drawer,” lying “still as knives.” Then he closes the poem by reflecting again on his internalization of that place. The final two strophes are offered in parentheses:
(The heart is a hieroglyph;
The fingers, like praying mantises, poise
Over what they have once loved;
The ear, cold cave, is an absence,
Tapping its own thin wires;
The eye turns in on itself.
The tongue is a white water.
In its slick ceremonies the light
Gathers, and is refracted, and moves
Outward, over the lips,
Over the dry skin of the world.
The tongue is a white water.).
He hovers over the page, pen in hand, as his ear tries to re-conjure the sounds of the place, and as his eye turns inward to see it. The tongue in the last strophe is a metonym for speech, which is itself here a metaphor for writing, so that the writing of the poem is compared to water in motion, like Dog Creek itself.
Although much of the poem is quite evocative of a southern place, the reflective passages suggest a concern with the internal as much as the external significance of the landscape, and, indeed, of any landscape. Thinking back to Dog Creek, Wright says in one interview, “I was put in a landscape, and I’ve been in one ever since. I don’t know why that made such an impression on me but it did, and Sky Valley [where he went to summer camp, also in western North Carolina] was a continuation of that some years later, and from there it was an easy step into the Italian landscape” (Quarter Notes 147). These western North Carolina landscapes came to be joined by Italian ones, and this was “easy”—because Wright’s true concern came to be with landscape in general, not with the southern landscape in particular. The southern landscape, like the Italian, is just a case in point in a larger argument.
Wright’s middle-period work, now available as The World of the Ten Thousand Things, does include poems that address an explicitly southern landscape. Yet these too demonstrate an impulse to break away from the limitations of particularity. Take “Lonesome Pine Special,” a poem previously collected in Wright’s 1984 book, The Other Side of the River. It offers a number of favorite views along highways, but the long procession of examples (there are ten) has the effect of blurring them together; they aren’t contrasted so much as they’re superimposed on top of one another, producing a kind of landscape palimpsest. This is all the more remarkable given that the scenes alternate pretty consistently between southern and Montana-Idaho settings; all are scenes of wilderness or near-wilderness, and little is offered to distinguish the northwestern wilderness from the southern. The two regions, like the individual landscapes, blur into one another. Near the middle of the poem, after describing the fourth scene (a view off U.S. 52 south of Wytheville, Virginia) Wright shifts to a more general meditation:
What is it about a known landscape
that tends to undo us,
That shuffles and picks us out
For terminal demarcation, the way a field of lupine
Seen in profusion deep in the timber
Suddenly seems to rise like a lavender ground fog
What is it inside the imagination that keeps surprising us
At odd moments
when something is given back
We didn’t know we had had
In solitude, spontaneously, and with great joy?
(The World of the Ten Thousand Things 69)
This is his true subject: how landscape claims us—not necessarily any particular southern landscape, and not southern landscape in general; not necessarily any particular landscape in Idaho and Montana, and not the landscape of that region in general. As he juxtaposes landscapes from the two regions over and over as he does here, he establishes similarities between them and effaces their differences. If he left out the highway and place names, we could easily believe that the poem was set in the same region throughout.
This leads to the third poem, one that appeared in Wright’s 1998 book, Appalachia, and is now collected in his selected later poems, Negative Blue—a poem titled “All Landscape Is Abstract, and Tends to Repeat Itself.” The poem initially says nothing of landscape, but instead expresses a set of anxieties over the fate of the soul and its relation to the divine. Wright asks, “[W]ho knows where the soul goes, / Up or down, ~ after the light switch is turned off, who knows?” (NB 158). He goes on:
The sacred is frightening to the astral body,
As is its absence.
We have to choose which fear is our consolation.
Everything comes ex alto,
We’d like to believe, the origin and the end, or
Non-origin and the non-end,
each distant and inaccessible.
At this point he brings in some notion of place. He writes, “Over the Blue Ridge, the whisperer starts to whisper in tongues.” Presumably this is the Holy Ghost, a representative of the “frightening” sacred, who, as at Pentecost, arrives bearing the gift of tongues. It whispers here over the Blue Ridge, a landscape evoked only by this one naming and not through the least bit of description. Indeed, this particular landscape seems only incidental, hardly essential to the poem—an impression that is of course reinforced by the title. And no sooner does Wright invoke this setting, than he shifts to a meditation on landscape in general. The next—and last—lines of the poem are these:
Remembered landscapes are left in me
The way a bee leaves its sting,
Non-mystical, insoluble in blood, they act as an opposite
To the absolute, whose words are a solitude, and set to music.
All forms of landscape are autobiographical.
As in “Dog Creek Mainline” and “Lonesome Pine Special,” there is the sense of landscape as something mysterious and haunting. But Wright goes further here in telling us that it is also spiritually valuable, thanks to its concreteness and contingency: it becomes a counterbalance against the equally haunting idea of an invisible and absolute Divinity. It is landscape in the abstract—any landscape at all—that is being valued here, not these particular mountains in themselves.
Wright’s effacement of differences among landscapes can hardly have aided his acceptance as a southern writer. A writer given to homogenizing experience is unlikely to be celebrated by regionalists.
* * *
Flannery O’Connor is an extraordinarily quotable essayist, and among her most quotable essays is “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”; there she asserts that “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted” (44). Substitute the more ecumenical word “God” for “Christ,” and you would have a good description of Charles Wright’s poetry. Although the Christianity he grew up with often serves as a reference point for him, Wright has long been recognized as a religious poet without a religion: his meditations on the nature of things inevitably point to a dimension beyond the material world, but that dimension always remains unknowable. And as “All Landscape Is Abstract…” suggests, the possibility that Divinity may be lurking somewhere out there is as often a source of anxiety as of comfort.
Many critics have written about Wright’s struggles with what he likes to call “the idea of God.” These responses are quite varied, and often suggest much about the respondents’ own orientations between faith and doubt. In discussing the appeal of Wright’s poetry, Tom Andrews has explained that he discovered Wright while in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and that the poems helped him “deepen [his] participation in the mysteries of the faith while at the same time articulating [his] uncertainties” (213). On the other hand, in a recent study of what she calls Wright’s “via negativa,” Bonnie Costello has quipped that “There is no God, and Wright is his prophet” (334). One kind of work in this area that remains to be done—one that may be less self-revelatory than interpretive discussion—is empirical analysis. We can say that Wright is a God-haunted poet because God is mentioned in many of his poems; tracking the frequency of those appearances should tell us something valuable about the development and extent of this “haunting,” and about the shape of Wright’s oeuvre in general.
Wright’s early work includes only a few references to God. His first, largely disowned book, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), offers only a moment in the sequence “The Bolivar Letters”; there he asks, “Wasn’t it Eliot who said / The river is like a strong brown god?,” and then notes mysteriously, in an apparent allusion to Christ, that “The Man is at the crossroads, waiting…” (36). The next occurrence (or near-occurrence), and the first among the poems he has preserved in Country Music, originally appeared in his second book, Hard Freight (1973): “Northhanger Ridge” refers to the Sunday preacher at a Bible camp as “Father Dog,” apparently choosing the name “Dog” because it is the word “God” spelled backwards (a reversal Wright also employs in later poems such as “Dog” and “Captain Dog”) (CM 42). Oblique as they are, these are the only two allusions to the Deity in Wright’s first two books. His first direct reference to God, and his first use of the word “God” as a name, has to wait until the sequence “Tattoos,” originally published in his third book, Bloodlines (1975). Of all the poems collected in Country Music, counting numbered sequences as single poems, there are five that use the word “God” with a capital G, in addition to a handful that use epithets of varying transparency (such as “Sweet Medicine” and “Great Wind”). The numbers are roughly the same for the poems collected in The World of the Ten Thousand Things: seven use the word “God” as a proper noun.
Negative Blue, Wright’s latest collected phase, is quite different, though this is not immediately apparent. The first of the three books represented there, Chickamauga (1995), includes out of a total of forty-five poems three in which we find the name “God.” The second, however, Black Zodiac (1997), includes ten—out of only twenty-one poems in all. Furthermore, in some of the longer Black Zodiac poems, either “God” or the word “Lord” (a universally recognized synonym) appears more than once, so that the book suggests a remarkable level of preoccupation with the divine. The third book, Appalachia (1998), offers fifteen out of forty-four poems that use “God” as a name. All told, the number of poems in Negative Blue that make use of the name “God” is twenty-eight—and that is in addition to a few poems evidently referring to God with such epithets as “The definer of all things,” “the Illuminator,” and “the Overseer.” Wright may have long been interested in the idea of God, but as he heads into his sixties we can see that idea become a thematic obsession.
Wright has often expressed his admiration of Dante, and that makes it tempting to liken his oeuvre (or at least his consolidated version of it) to The Divine Comedy. Reviewers have already noted a correspondence between Country Music, The World of the Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue on the one hand and the Florentine’s great trilogy on the other; the dramatic increase in God-references in Wright’s third installment make that correspondence all the more striking, given the parallel with Dante’s heightened awareness of God in the Paradiso. But Wright turns sharply away from his predecessor in the seven new poems that form a coda to Negative Blue, a sequence titled North American Bear. A numerologist might find significance in the number seven, which has long been associated with God, but there is not a single instance of the name “God” in any of these final poems; moreover, they contain no other words or names that clearly refer to the Deity. The last poem in the sequence, “Sky Diving,” concludes the book on a self-deprecating, anti-Dantesque note. The Paradiso ends (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation) with Dante’s vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (303). Wright echoes this in “Sky Diving” when he says that “the one thing” he has written about for three decades is “the form that moves the sun and the other stars,” (NB 201). But then he mocks this allusion, exclaiming, “What a sidereal jones we have!” “Immensity fills us,” he says, but “nothing acquits us,” and the poem ends with the poet urging us to “lie down together,” look up at the stars, and “open our mouths” to the “extra-celestial drowning pools” waiting “[t]o swallow us” (NB 201).
O’Connor suggests that a southerner may be deeply troubled by the divine without paying it allegiance, and Wright’s conclusion testifies to that distinction. He imagines surrendering not to the divine Love of Paradise, but, in effect, to damnation. In that respect his trilogy serves as the photographic negative of Dante’s: an answer to the medieval Italian man of faith by the modern, skeptical American whose southern cast of mind will not release him into pure disbelief.
Alighieri, Dante. Paradiso. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
Andrews, Tom. “Improvisations on Charles Wright’s The World of the Ten Thousand Things.” In The Point Where All Things Meet. Ed. Tom Andrews. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1995. 212–221.
Costello, Bonnie. “Charles Wright’s Via Negativa: Language, Landscape, and the Idea of God.” Contemporary Literature 42 (2001): 325–46.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. 36–50.
Suarez, Ernest. “Charles Wright.” Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1999. 39–61.
Wright, Charles. Country Music: Selected Early Poems. 2nd ed. Hanover, New Hampshire: UP of New England for Wesleyan UP, 1991.
———. The Grave of the Right Hand. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1970.
———. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977–1987. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1988.
———. Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
———. Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995.
———. The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980–1990. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.