Review of Caribou by Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014

by James Crews

On a long flight years ago, the woman next to me kept interrupting my reading of Charles Wright’s Negative Blue: New and Selected Poems (2001) to make polite small talk. Eventually, she came to the inevitable question: “What do you do?” When I confessed I was a graduate student in creative writing, she leaned back in her seat with a smile that said her world made sense again: “I was wondering why a man would be reading poetry on a plane!”

Her assumptions about what I was reading while 35,000 feet in the air are more than a little insulting to men and women and poets alike. I suspect that Charles Wright might be amused by the fact that this older woman had no idea who he was or what kind of poetry he writes. He is, in fact, not a poet for the faint of heart. He offers neither certainties nor quaint images culled from nature, even if the natural world does provide much of his triggering subject matter. Instead, Wright demands of himself and his readers a relentless interrogation of our place and purpose as humans on this planet. But now that he has been named the 20th U.S. Poet Laureate, readers all over the country will be picking up his books, especially his latest collection, Caribou. They will see that Charles Wright is “looking for the one truth,” never once shying away from a close examination of our mortality. Consider the question that opens “Plain Song,” for instance:

Where is the crack, the small crack

Where the dead come out

       and go back in?

Only the dead know that, the speechless and shifting dead.

Or the lines that close out “Toadstools”:

Grief is a floating barge-boat,

who knows where it’s going to moor?

Wright’s questions here and elsewhere in Caribou seem less than rhetorical; one gets the sense that he actually does want to speak to the dead, to know what death will be like when it comes. He wants, like most of us, to know (impossible though it may be) when he can expect grief “to moor” in him so he can be prepared for it.

Wright began writing poetry while in the army, stationed in Italy. He says he came across Ezra Pound’s poem, “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula,” and something clicked for him in that instant. “I can’t tell a story,” Wright admits in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. “A narrative is very elusive for me. [Pound's poem] wasn’t really narrative. This was a lyric poem that builds up in imagistic layers. And I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try that.’ And I’ve been trying ever since.” His strategy is not a rejection of storytelling, then, but an allegiance to the only way his poems can come to him. “Trying,” though, seems a humble word for a poet who’s won almost every major literary award, including a Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac (1997) and a National Book Award for Country Music (1982), but it is not surprising that Wright would characterize his egoless, unpretentious poetry as simply the attempt to capture something transitory and ineffable, as Pound did in his own little-known poem.

He examines the fleeting nature of pleasure and peace in “Lost Highways”:

Sunset is black magic,

and transubstantiational even, if

It touches the right thing at the suddenly right time.

Somewhere under the mixed sky is a vacant tranquility.

Transubstantiation is, of course, the change whereby wine and bread become the literal body of Christ. By invoking the Eucharist here, Wright seems to suggest a deep distrust of any comfort we might derive from either nature or religion. A sunset may transfer a feeling of “tranquility” to the watcher of it, but that is not true peace, he asserts. One cannot help but think Wright is also challenging Wordsworth’s famous claim that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Though Wright certainly speaks from a place of stillness (or from “the still point of the turning world,” as T.S. Eliot once put it), any idea of earthly tranquility remains “vacant” for him. The striking colors in the sky above are only a result of the mixture of light and air. We cannot, Wright suggests, entirely trust our awe. And perhaps, in this case, the pleasure of taking in a sunset is ultimately empty because we humans attach too much meaning to emotion, whether negative or positive, never wanting to let go of it, and never believing that it will soon enough pass. With utter frankness then, Wright reminds himself as well as readers: “Nothing can hold us, I’ve come to know./Nothing, I say.” We are on our own. Or perhaps he means that the idea of “nothing,” as many Buddhists posit, can actually hold us. The Heart Sutra, one of the most quoted and well-known Buddhist scriptures does, after all, claim: “This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.” The world is both full and empty at the same time.

Wright’s poems urge readers to abide with the stillness and uncertainty that can help us to pay deeper attention, to look behind and beyond the “phenomenal world,” as it appears to us. And that is one of the strangest things about this poet’s work: He acknowledges and even seeks out “the beyond,” but does so often only by closely examining clouds and birds and trees, the very subject matter many young poets have been trained to put to rest. But Wright uses the natural world to get at the larger truths, as in “Another Night in the Purcells”:

Whatever we do see starts and ends out of nowhere,

A place we’re familiar with

As we try to look beyond what emendates our lives.

We look for another heaven,

we look for another earth.

These poems sing in the easygoing yet authoritative voice that could only be Wright’s, loosely invoking a faith whose language is still alive and well in his own (“when the stars appear/face down, O Lord, then what a hush”). Yet as in the work of Kay Ryan, another Poet Laureate, the particulars of his life seldom show up in the poems. In a 1989 interview with J.D. McClatchy for the Paris Review, Wright touches on this deletion of the self from his work, asserting that one’s ego and ambition should never be a driving force: “The problem with all of us as we get older is that we begin writing as though we were somebody. One should always write as if one were nobody, for that’s what we are. In the giant shadow of Dante’s wing, for instance, we are nobody and should never forget it. So we should always write out of our ignorance and desire and ambition, never out of some sense of false well-being, some tinge of success. There is no success in poetry, there is only the next inch, the next handhold out of the pit.” In Wright’s poetry, a kind of personal history begins to emerge only through his immersion in the landscapes of Appalachia, Italy and northwestern Montana, where he has spent every summer in an off-the-grid cabin for the last fifteen years.

Perhaps this annual seclusion is why Wright’s poems often exist on the sidelines of life, looking on as the rest of the “turning world’s” dramas unfold. Or why his meditations are often spoken with ambivalence, a curious mix of both acceptance and detachment. In “Chinoiserie V,” toward the end of the book, he expresses his preference for doing nothing, or next-to-nothing, at least:

Better to watch the light come and the light go through the window.

Better to hear the thunder turn and then return.

Renown is a half-full glass.

Clearly, Wright has never sought “renown,” or even an ounce of fame, and he has confessed in interviews that, if he had his druthers, his name would never be attached to his work. The following passage from “Road Warriors,” however, best summarizes what each of his poems is still “trying” to get at:

Narrow road, wide road, all of us on it, unhappy,

Unsettled, seven yards short of immortality

And a yard short of not long to live.

Better to sit down in the tall grass

         and watch the clouds,

To lift our faces up to the sky,

Considering–for most of us–our lives have been one constant mistake.

No matter what road we find ourselves following, Wright implies throughout Caribou, we are bound to be “unhappy” and “unsettled” at some point on the journey, believing that some other path might suit us better, might be smoother or safer, with fewer sharp turns. At the same time, he also suggests that it might better to leave the road altogether for a while, to lie back instead “in the tall grass/and watch the clouds,” as he so often does in his poems. The phrase, “Life is one continuous mistake” is usually credited to Dogen, a Japanese Zen master, and it shows up again and again in Buddhist writings. Wright invokes it here to keep himself and “most of us” from thinking that we can ever “succeed” in having all the answers. He knows that life is a series of ongoing blunders as we stumble from grief to joy, from pleasure to disappointment, stepping out occasionally on those few islands of calm in between the storms. But why else are we here, he asks, if not “to lift our faces up to the sky”?