Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Charles Wright's Hard Freight

I heard Charles Wright read in 1970, when he passed through Iowa for a visit at the Workshop. He left the impression of a very self-contained, careful, measured young Southern fellow, interested in Italy and Italian culture, but with a clear inheritance from the Appalachian country he hailed from. He had a controlled line with flickering images of mystery, regret and jeopardy. In Marvin Bell's Form of Poetry class I offered that I found Mr. Wright's prose poems useful to my own investigations into the form; and one poem of mine, "Far Inland," undoubtedly owes something of its character to Wright's Italian prose poem evocations of Italy--which date I believe from his earliest attempts at writing, while he was still posted in Italy with the US Army.

Wright had just published his first regularly issued book, The Grave of the Right Hand [Wesleyan University Press, 1970]. The works which Wright would publish three years later, in the collection Hard Freight [Wesleyan, 1973], however, are different. Written in what I would term is his first period style--lyrical and declamatory, much devoted to an explication of his roots, rural Tennessee; but again, the aspects of jeopardy, decay, subtly menacing qualities rising to the surface, seem to dominate.

Going over Wright's work recently in Country Music: Selected Early Poems [Wesleyan University Press, 1982], I was struck by the hypnotic, incantatory quality of the some of best poems, selected from Hard Freight, particularly the piece from which the title is taken (in the third section)--

Dog Creek Mainline

Dog creek: cat track and bird splay,
Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;
Odor of muscadine, the blue creep
Of kingsnake and copperhead;
Nightweed; from spit and floating heart,
Backwash and snag pool: Dog Creek

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:

Its sky, old empty valise,
Stands open, departure in mind; its three streets,
Y-shaped and brown,
Go up the hills like a fever;
Its houses link and depl0y
--This ointment, false flesh in another color.


Five cutouts, five silhouettes
Against the American twilight; the year
Is 1941; remembered names
--Rosendale, Perry and Smith--
Rise like dust in the deaf air;
The tops spin, the poison swells in the arm:

The trees in their jade death-suits,
the birds with their opal feet,
Shimmer and weave on the shoreline;
The moths, like forget-me-nots, blow
Up from the earth, their wet teeth
Breaking the dark, the raw grain;

The lake in its cradle hums
The old songs: out of its ooze, their heads
Like tomahawks, the turtles ascend
And settle back, leaving their chill breath
In blisters along the bank;
Locked in their wide drawer, the pike lie still as knives.


Hard freight. It's hard freight
From Ducktown to Copper Hill, from Six
To Piled High: Dog Creek is on this line,
Indigent spur; cross-tie by cross-tie it takes
You back, the red wind
Caught at your neck like a prize:

(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.)

The things I quibble with in this poem--to which I am much attracted--are primarily how some of the details seem slightly wrong or misconceived: "Go up the hills like a fever" makes little sense to me; "The moths...their wet teeth/Breaking the dark...raw grain" is an inaccurate description of the mouth parts of a moth. But these are minor distractions. Overall the poem moves with considerable propulsion or inertia to its ultimate section, which I find eloquent and fine, especially the last stanza--its image the metaphor for the speaking voice of the poem, in love with its own descant, descriptive music. I'm also fond of "indigent spur" for a railroad track--which sounds to me as good as a line out of Welty or Capote. The poem's rhythm "starts" in the second stanza, remembers more details and memories, and moves--"cross-tie by cross-tie"--back towards its source, and ends, somewhat fitfully, in an ambiguous gesture, to the concluding image of water/spit, tongue/light. It's a standard rural evocation, for sure, but there's a serious blue cast about it, like a John Fahey blues. Wright the man is steeped in Southern mythology, something he carries around inside him, no matter where he is. As he described it once in an interview, America is his fatherland, while Italy is his motherland--the two worlds within which his poetry and mind move.

Later, Wright's work changed. His lines became longer, and they often dropped down a line, at the caesura. The mood was quieter, like muted impressionist canvases. He's stuck to that, and has won many readers and prizes along the way. But I still like "Dog Creek Mainline". It was his own Look Homeward, Angel introduction to his own inspiration, still flowing down out of the Appalachian mountains 40 years later.


Kirby Olson said...

4th line says cooperhead. Copperhead?

James Wright and Charles Wright. Is there any relationship? I've never sorted them out. Did one of them write a book called Time and Money?

Curtis Faville said...

Snake corrected.

J said...

.... maybe if did a spoken word with like a John Fahey accompanying him...then, add a bassline, traps and maybe Joey DeFrancesco on B-3.

Nature poetry seems pretty limited, IMHE. Adding a train doesn't help much--=--though I still read Thoreau's meditations on the iron horse or whatever Henry called it, like when one wants to understand the futility of literature. The American medusa has railroads for hair (and freeways and millions of autos now).

Kirby Olson said...

"The American Medusa has railroads for hair."

Firs really wondrous line from J, EVER. Very very good.

Keep it in a notebook somewhere. It's really wonderful.

Curtis Faville said...

He was inspired by John Fahey.

Now we know his weakness.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Charles Wright and James Wright are not related, although both have won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (James Wright in 1972, Charles Wright in 1998).

Franz Wright (Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2004) is James Wright’s son. They are the only father and son to have won the Pulitzer.

Curtis Faville said...

There's also a Jay Wright. And C.D. Wright--she's quite good, from Kentucky I believe. And in her way, not unlike Charles Wright.

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, this isn't related but in today's WSJ there is a lengthy bit about W.S. Merwin's Hawaiian home. It just seemed like something you'd want to read and treasure. Friday's edition. Pop out and grab the ish.

It's a terrific little read.