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Rambling on My Mind.

Charles Wright's The Other Side of the River (1984), which consists of twenty poems divided into four sections, is one of his most radiant, narrative, and human-centered works. It is a book of passages, a slender volume with a long reach. In my mid thirties, I identified so strongly with its motives and strategies, its spiritual longings, that my copy practically fell apart from over-reading. I still like to ramble around with it. The book is notably situated at the edges of the known world, on this side of the river, but the speaker repeatedly looks off with tremendous yearning toward "the other side":
 I want to sit by the bank of the river,
 in the shade of the evergreen tree,
 And look in the face of whatever,
 the whatever that's waiting for me.
 ("The Other Side of the
River"
) 


The longing for enlightenment, for something absolutely essential, "the whatever," is balanced, if not entirely negated, by a dark grief over the loss of any sustaining faith in the absolute. Wright's work is God-haunted, God-hungry, but the reality of an outmoded faith that can no longer provide or console informs these poems, whether the poet is thinking about his heritage in the Christian South:
 When Jesus walked on the night grass
 they say not even the dew trembled.
 Such intricate catechisms of desire.
 Such golden cars down the wrong side of the sky.
 ("Arkansas Traveller"
) 


or speaking from California, the far side of the country, where he was living at the time:
 I have nothing to say about the way the sky tilts
 Toward the absolute,
 or why I live at the edge
 Of the black boundary,
 a continent where the waves
 Counsel my coming in and my going out.
 I have nothing to say about the brightness and drear
 Of any of that, or the vanity
 of our separate consolations.
 ("Three Poems for the New Year"
) 


The individual poems in The Other Side of the River are all variations on a theme. In each case, the title acts as a frame for what then follows. Such titles as "Lost Bodies" or "Lost Souls," for example, or "Italian Days" and "To Giacomo Leopardi in the Sky" don't delimit a subject, as in traditional poetry, so much as key and create a narrative space for it. They are structured, to use Wright's own word, synaptically, one image sparking another. Anecdotes are enfolded into these associational structures, adding up to a group of under-stories, the shadow of one storyline. Here the poet adds a number of vignettes to the method of "The Southern Cross," wherein he spliced moments from the past, landscapes in time, with the romantic terminology of awe that he has subsequently made so much his own. So, too, he relies on the staggered line that has become his signature. The line itself has a lineage that extends from Walt Whitman through Ezra Pound and Charles Olson. This dropped line is a long declarative unit with a lower rider, an additional rhythmic kick. It's a way of packing the iambic line, extending its reach while isolating and identifying a phrase at the end, effectively underlining it. This is a horizontal strategy of syntactical modification--it uses more of the entire page--and it creates a powerful, progressive music:
 It's linkage I'm talking about,
 and harmonies and structures
 And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.
 Something infinite behind everything appears,
 and then disappears.
 ("The Other Side of the River"
) 


One of the finest poems, "Lonesome Pine Special," is essentially a catalogue of favorite roads and highways where the poet has admired the view. The roads open up and deliver the landscapes. The poem itself is a luminous ramble, a collection of views, each lovingly summoned and reconstructed from a drive in the past. The title comes from a song the Carter family recorded in Memphis in 1930. It provides a ground note for the country music of the poet's journeys past:
 I was walking out this morning with rambling on my mind
 I am going to catch that special train for Lonesome Pine
 You can hear the whistle blowing as she's coming down the line
 That's the train I'll catch this morning just to ease my
troubling mind 


In Wright's poem, the roads intersect with, and lead to, a number of stories, some personal and anecdotal, some akin to tall tales: about a mysterious figure from the poet's childhood, a golf hustler named Old Lone; about seeing the house in Idaho where Pound was born ("It was all so American"); about a place in Montana where a man named Doagie Duncan "killed three men some seventy years ago"; about spinning out on a slick patch in Sam's Gap, North Carolina, and almost going over a mountainside in 1955. These disparate stories leave their traces in places where they wait to be rediscovered--remembered, re-imagined. The last section invokes an imaginary logging road the speaker would like to discover in Henderson Country, North Carolina. He fantasizes it near the Sky Valley School, which he attended in the fifties. In the end, the landscapes are all interiorized. They become territories of the mind. "What is it about a known landscape // that tends to undo us / That shuffles and picks us out / For terminal demarcation" he asks--
 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? 


Wright writes as if salvation can only be found in the natural world. He asserts that "Radiance comes through the eye // and lodges like cut glass in the mind" ("Cryopexy") and alleges that "what gifts there are are all here, in this world" ("Italian Days"). In Wright's romantic thematic, "Death is the mother of beauty" (Wallace Stevens), and the world is loved most when it is threatened with extinction. What fades needs to be cherished, and sensuous beauty exists most strongly in fugitive moments of transfiguration. As he explains in "Lonesome Pine Special," borrowing a maxim from Yoshida Kenko's Essays in Idleness:
 It's true, I think, as Kenko says in his Idleness
,
 That all beauty depends upon disappearance,
 The bitten edges of things,
 the gradual sliding away
 Into tissue and memory,
 the uncertainty
 And dazzling impermanence of days we beg our meanings from,
 And their frayed loveliness. 


The gifts may all be here in this world, Wright suggests, but salvation is momentary in the mind. For him the finite world must always bear traces and inscriptions of the infinite. He is a seeker on a mystic quest. In "Looking at Pictures," the poet describes his assembled collection of photographs and reproductions "of all I've thought most beautiful / In the natural world." He asserts the primacy of the natural world, but the postcards he catalogues all turn out to be religious: St. Francis, for example, "who saw the fire in the pig's mouth," and "the last half-page of the Verse of Light in Arabic // torn from the Koran," and an agonized Adam and Eve "ushered out through the stone gates of Paradise." In Wright's cosmology, Adam and Eve exist on this side of the river--partly on shore, partly in water--but they long to find their way home to the light.

Charles Wright is a poet who has also sought to find his way home to the light. He lacks a consoling belief. Thus he places his faith not so much in salvation itself as in the difficult, thwarted quest for a salvation denied him. Nothing is permanent. Everything falls away and is forgotten, he suggests, except what is written down and inscribed. The Other Side of the River beautifully invokes and describes a series of landscapes, which it rescues from oblivion, but it also inscribes a quest for the beyond. It is a visionary contribution to American poetry, a record of memories and longings, but also a spiritual testament, a luminous dream book. Hence the conclusion to the final poem in the book, "California Dreaming":
 Piece by small piece the world falls away from us like spores
 From a milkweed pod,
 and everything we have known,
 And everyone we have known,
 Is taken away by the wind to forgetfulness,
 Somebody 'always humming,
 California dreaming... 
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Author:Hirsch, Edward (American poet)
Publication:Northwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1578
Previous Article:Improvisations on Charles Wright.
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