Snatched from the Air

Charles Wright
Charles Wright; drawing by David Levine

The fundamental problem addressed by Charles Wright’s poetry is the invisibility of my inner world to you, yours to me. Unless your perceptions and responses are gathered and set down with their nuances intact, I have no way of knowing what today genuinely looks like and feels like to you. Naturalists—Kilvert, Thoreau—have kept famous diaries of their observations and reactions. But for the poet, there is an added requirement that goes beyond perceiving and responding: he must put a sheen on the day that must seem to come from inside the day itself—as though the clouds had something to express, the leaves felt an obscure desire, the sun had a purpose for its rays. Wright is not the first poet to attempt to make the natural world appear to speak and feel for itself in his lines: he acknowledges debts in this respect to Dante, Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Stevens.

But those writers are more explicit than he. Dante attaches an allegorical point to his similes; Dickinson makes nature an active agent in the engendering of thought, asserting that a “Slant of light” on a winter afternoon can create an “internal difference,/Where the Meanings, are”; Hopkins embraces a theology of natural fact; Pound relies on single images rather than syntactically linked ones; and Stevens never abjured the pathetic fallacy by which nature and human emotions are visibly inseparable. Charles Wright is distinguished from his predecessors by the resemblance of his poems to paintings, as has often been said.

But what, in his case, does the familiar comparison mean? Wright’s poems are painterly in their unhurried willingness to rest for some time on the plane of description, where the eye is absorbed in vision, where details are subordinated to a whole scene filling the canvas. Passion is more often implied than stated. There is, needless to say, an accumulating emotional presence to the whole, and Wright’s genius is to let his canvases do their work silently for a period of time before he allows a proposition to break in, often in order to bring closure (as a painter might break his silence to affix a verbal title to his work).

Wright names his new book Littlefoot after one of his Montana horses (Bigfoot, by contrast, is the North Wind). The horses, without reflexive consciousness, can dwell in the day as it is, and be content; and sometimes, freed from his compulsion to transform nature into verbal nature, the poet can do the same thing:

Almost noon, the meadow

Waiting for someone to change it into an other. Not me.

The horses, Monte and Littlefoot,

Like it the way it is.

And this morning, so do I.

Earth-loving in spite of a hunger for the transcendent, Wright’s poems in Littlefoot trace the darkening atmosphere of a man bidding farewell, aware that in age he sees the world less brilliantly illuminated than it was…

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