The poetry of Charles Wright achieves a rare feat: it’s high art disguised as plain speech. It’s a poetry that quietly contemplates a world beyond the self, the ordinary, and the daily, while somehow remaining immersed in all of those things. Oblivion Banjo, a generous selection drawn from his whole career, demonstrates Wright’s unswerving dedication both to questions of purpose and to his unique form of composition. Sadly, it may be his final statement; in a 2016 interview he told Lisa Russ Spaar that he has retired from writing.
From his early beginnings as a writer, Wright’s concerns have been nature, place, mortality, memory, history, and God. In fact, all his poems can be seen as part of a single lifelong project, one continuous sequence made up of other sequences (in a collection titled Appalachia, he began referring to his poems collectively as the “Appalachian Book of the Dead”).
His earliest books, Hard Freight and Bloodlines, show a writer at play in modes and forms that don’t often appear in his later work. “The New Poem” feels like an exercise: an attempt to define poetry that seems borrowed from an early modern tradition, perhaps Pound or Williams. (Wright served in the military and was stationed in Italy; his time there resonates through all his work—it’s where he discovered Pound.) Other early poems echo Whitman’s phrasing. Some offer personal narratives (“Virgo Descending”), which Wright mostly avoids in later work. “Tattoos” has twenty sections, and provides endnotes for each. Wright’s later work dispenses with notes and trusts the reader to deal with everything from Italian phrases to Chinese poetry. One uncharacteristic poem records Wright’s being molested by a school janitor in kindergarten. Wright is the last poet I’d expect to address such a subject; his poetry is so reliably lyrical that this confessional mode feels like an odd-sized shoe he’s trying on. He is customarily reflective about it, though: “And if that hand, like loosed lumber, fell / From grace, and stayed there? We give, / And we take it back. We give again…”
It isn’t that his poetry is impersonal—it’s just that it doesn’t usually rely on narrative, and Wright rarely says “I” because we’re already right there with him, sharing his perceptions. Images and reflections are juxtaposed in surprising ways, and the things of this world ignite questions, philosophies, and ideas. In China Trace, Wright begins for the first time to push his indented lines halfway across the page. In “Reunion,” he asserts “I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace.” The poems in this collection juxtapose the language of religion with the strangeness of the ordinary world. Wright’s Episcopal education, and especially the Book of Common Prayer, underlie his spiritual quest. “Give me a sign,” he pleads in “T’Ang Notebook” from The Other Side of the River; “show me the blessing pierced in my side.” But his faith is eclectic and unorthodox. In “A Journal of English Days,” from Zone Journals, he writes that “God is an abstract noun.” In the same poem, he invokes the Buddha and seems to inhabit his body. In Italy, Wright meditates so frequently on the Madonna that one might take him for a Catholic; he frequently uses reliquaries as similes. But Wright’s main concern is not so much with religion itself as with the divine. In “Ars Poetica II” from Appalachia, he writes, “God is the fire my feet are held to.”