from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 19 June 2014

charles wright, US laureate

Back in 1996, my friend, collaborator, poet and publisher Rupert Loydell sent me a book. With its pleasing cover, I knew instantly that this book would become a close friend, and it has: read and reread, giving up more of itself, as good poetry should, each time I read it.

Since then, I've devoured as much of this quiet reflective poet's work as I can find.

Wright is, I think, a unique voice in poetry. He's nothing like as well known as he ought to be in Britain (Zone Journals includes some of his poems written in England and Italy as well as America). And he's the new US Poet Laureate.

He's an interesting choice. Although his work is very sensual, very image-based, and not 'difficult', he's not as immediately accessible as, say, Billy Collins, a previous laureate. It's mostly not the language he uses – perfectly-chosen diction, balanced and honed – but the fact that a great deal of knowledge and wisdom, some of it esoteric and arcane, some of it literary and allusive, resonates behind his work. There is also a 'sacred' quality to his writing that suggests an interest in Buddhism as much as in Christianity (but there is no thrusting of 'faith' in your face).

Wright walks the edge of the literal and the metaphoric, the concrete and the allegorical, so easily that his work fluidly moves between the dimensions of being. He is also not afraid to incorporate the abstract, but, for my taste, in perfect proportion (many poets get the concrete/abstract balance out of synch, in my view), and always interwoven with sublimely-recorded notes on the natural world.

Sometimes his images are startling, like this:

                               '...The world is an ampersand
And I lie in sweet clover,
                                         bees like golden earrings
Dangling and locked fast to its white heads,
Watching the clouds move and the constellations of of light move
Through the trees, as they both will
When the wind weathers them on their way,
When the wind weathers them to that point
                                                                     where all things meet.'

 (from A Journal of the Year of the Ox)

As I look through Zone Journals everything is quotable.

I learned from his easy languid style in this book, undeniably a collection of poems but very much in the style of a journal, the joy of long lines (these might be abbreviated by Blogger when I post this) that unfold and sentences that don't end for a page or more, and the discipline of making every word count.

Always he brings a lightness of touch to the big subjects: life, death, how we might live in a way that brings meaning. And none of his work is didactic: he prefers to question.

Like W S Merwin, a contemporary and another of my favourites, the natural world is his resting place. I learned too from him how to shift between the awareness of human frailty and the perfect unquestioning transience that other species seem simply to embody.

Here's another section from the same long poem:

'Last night, in the second yard, salmon-smoke in the west
Back-vaulting the bats
                                    who plunged and swooped like wrong angels
Hooking their slipped souls in the twilight,
The quattrocento landscape
                                            turning to air beneath my feet...

                                             ... and knew that everything was a shining...

That anything I could feel,
                                           anything I could put my hand on –
That damasked mimosa leaf,
The stone ball on the gate post, the snail shell in its still turning –
Would burst into brilliance at my touch,
But I sat still, and I touched nothing,
                                                          afraid that something might change
And change me beyond my knowing,
That everything I had hoped for, all I had ever wanted,
Might actually happen.
                                     So I sat still and touched nothing.'

There's an example of the beauty of some of his more obviously poem-poems, from one of his early Selecteds, here:

So what difference will the Laureateship make – what will he do? He says he doesn't know what's expected of him, but he doesn't have a 'programme'. 'I'll probably stay at home and be quiet,' he says.

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