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‘La Poesia è Scala a Dio’On Reading Charles Wright

The metaphor that poets are angels, priests or prophets first became literary, then quaint, but has never fallen completely out of favour. Long ago Socrates told us that ‘a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy’, and the image survives the turbulence of the high Romantics more or less intact.1 In 1823 when Pushkin wrote of ‘freeing a bird’ and not muttering ‘Against God’s providence’ he may not have been thinking of the poet as ‘God’s bird’ yet many of his readers assumed he was.2 Later, in 1844, when Emerson ruminated on the grand triumphs of the imagination he concluded that ‘The poets are thus liberating gods’.3 But he would have been the first to admit the final word was a trope. Later still, in 1916, a line like Vicente Huidobro’s ‘The poet is a little God’ cannot avoid appearing somewhat facile.4 What has happened? A steady loss of belief in religious transcendence has drained energy from one side of the metaphor, while the vague hope that art would replace religion was never able to sustain the other side. Yet the metaphor did not vanish altogether; it was recast this way and that and has enjoyed a remarkable new life in poetry and criticism.

Two of the most intense witnesses of our modernity’s advent, Nietzsche and Hölderlin, offer diverging testimonies of what occured. God is dead, says the one. God has withdrawn, says the other. Nietzsche did not say what role the poet was to play after the divine internment, and if we look at poets who respond deeply to it – Brecht, Larkin and Stevens, say – the very idea of there being a ‘role’ seems implausible. Perhaps the same is true of those poets who display an affinity with Hölderlin, writers as unmatchable as Char, Duncan and George. Yet people have discerned a role for the poet in Hölderlin’s remarks on Oedipus.5 In a world where God has withdrawn from humans and humans have turned away from God, the poet must maintain a space between the two infidelities while awaiting another revelation. On this understanding the poet would serve neither the old myths nor the new demythologising; the one tempts us with nostalgia, the other with reductionism. Rather, poetry would maintain a space where the unknowable would be remembered and made welcome.

This space has been called the impossible, the open and the sacred. It has been colonised by writers who have read deeply in Hölderlin and by people who have never heard of ‘Germanien’, ‘Der Rhein’ or ‘Wie wenn am Feiertage. . .’; it has been taken up by ‘new pagan’ and ‘new age’ sensibilities, by fascist orators and radical theologians, by poets and critics. If we put to one side vicious and weak appropriations of this space, we can begin to discern some contemporary writers whose verse is meditative or spiritual, but who subscribe to no confession and hold no hope of personal salvation. An expression like ‘post-Christian’ or, from the other direction, ‘post-secular’ is alluring, as is ‘religion without religion’. So too is ‘religious pluralism’, especially when Tao or Zen is in the air, as it usually is in these situations. Sometimes one might wish to speak of ‘limit experiences’ or, in a different register, the sublime. But none of these expressions will take us very far by itself. We can get further more quickly by pondering a central question many of these people face. In a reality held to be radically finite what sense, if any, can be made of transcendence?

An existential awareness of mortality, an assent to cosmic relativity: these only touch what ‘finitude’ signifies here. Martin Heidegger brings us closer when speaking of the ‘finitude of being’, by which he means not the containment of being in space and time but the judgement that being conceals itself in the very process of unconcealing itself. This judgement does not in itself preclude a religious vocabulary; far from it. In his meditations on Hölderlin, Heidegger resets the poet’s sense of the holy. Indeed, he calls the poet (in general) a ‘demigod’, and valiantly tries to redirect the old metaphor.6 Of course, there are accounts of finitude in which the spiritual is put out of play, out of focus, or out of shape, and some of these derive from Heidegger. Maurice Blanchot comes to mind.7 And so do these words: ‘Finitude does not mean that we are non-infinite – small, ephemeral beings within a grand, universal and continuous being – but it means that we are infinitely finite, infinitely exposed to the otherness of our own ‘being’ (or: being is exposed in us to its own otherness)’.8

I quote from Jean-Luc Nancy because he, better than anyone I know, brings a conceptual precision, if not always a sharp verbal clarity, to an atheistic apprehension of human finitude. The sentence I have cited makes two claims. First, we are existences without essences: human being is ‘être singulier pluriel’.9 And second, our being cannot be rendered present to ourselves or to others. The otherness of being evoked here is most certainly not a soul or pneuma; it arises from an awareness of being unable to possess the beginning or end of life.10 Nancy is quick to deny religious transcendence, a little too quick perhaps, for testimonies of religious experiences, from the prayer of quiet to divine union, are often more nuanced and more self-aware than he allows.11 Does religious experience necessarily presume an ontologically grounded opposition between immanence and transcendence? Could it be that God gives himself perpetually though not in the theatres of ontology or presence? (The paths that would lead me to say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively are not ones I can retrace here.) Suffice it to say that the only transcendence that Nancy will admit is a finite one, a ‘resistance to immanence’.12

It is hard to say exactly what Hölderlin had in mind when he wrote of the poet keeping open a space between the withdrawal of God and the turning away of human beings from the divine. There are doubtless many ways in which such a thing can be understood and achieved, and different degrees of awareness and commitment in doing it. If Geoffrey Hill explores one direction in Tenebrae, Edmond Jabès looks elsewhere in Le Livre des questions. The possibilities broached by A. R. Ammons in ‘Hymn’ are not the same as those risked by Tomas Tranströmer in ‘Schubertiana’. It is tempting to see all these poets exploring a finite transcendence, or, if you like, a post-romantic sublime. But before succumbing to temptation it is worth our while to reflect what the expression ‘finite transcendence’ means in different contexts. Consider three writers, one poet and two philosophers, none of whom is committed to an ontological gulf between immanence and transcendence. Yves Bonnefoy prizes the transcendence of ordinary things in the natural world. Emmanuel Levinas finds in Blanchot’s L’Attente l’oubli a ‘language of pure transcendence without correlative’. And Jacques Derrida reminds us of an irrepressible moment of transcendence in any reading of a literary text.13

Both philosophers were schooled in phenomenology, and a Husserlian sense of transcendence as the infinitude of a noematic correlate is never far from their minds. The objective character of some intuitions can never be reached, we are told in the first volume of Ideas, and only an idea of such a character can be summoned.14 For Derrida, at least when thinking of literature, ‘transcendence’ signals a passage from interest in language and form to considerations of meaning and reference. Yet there will never be a simple ‘step beyond’ either language or form, since meaning and reference are themselves entangled in textuality. Levinas approaches the word from another direction. Transcendence properly occurs only in ethics, not epistemology or ontology: infinity is not outside the subject, it is already in consciousness and only needs to be awakened. He says this with a backward glance to Heidegger (who construes human being as transcendence: a being which is always ahead of itself) and to those theologies that try to frame God ontologically, as the first being, the highest being or the ground of being. On Levinas’s understanding, God appears only within the dimension of responsibility, and as a consequence it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate his ethics and his theology. Notice that the two French philosophers regard transcendence as a structure: for Derrida it is what enables intelligibility, while for Levinas it forms the basis of responsibility. In both cases the structure can be thematised, and this raises other issues that each addresses in his own way. For Bonnefoy, however, transcendence is not a structure but a theme, and when he speaks of the ‘higher reality’ to be found in poetry we have passed, far less equivocally than with Levinas, from a phenomenological to a religious sense of transcendence.

These are not the only precautions and reflections needed to introduce the poetry of Charles Wright. I have said nothing of the American sublime as a recoding of the transcendent, or of Wright extending the Wordsworthian tradition of a poetry about subjectivity and memory, although from now on they will always be in the background of what I have to say. Wright’s is a poetry that, as he says, is centred on ‘language, landscape, and the idea of God’ (QN, 123). And poetry, he thinks, has a ‘true purpose and result’, namely ‘a contemplation of the divine and its attendant mysteries’ (H, 5). He goes so far as to observe that ‘all my poems are prayers and songs. Hymns’, while saying of God that ‘I don’t think He exists other than in a harmony, the geometry and physics of whatever it is that holds the universe together’ (H, 130,109). All of which is beautifully condensed in a recent poem, ‘Belief in transcendence,/ belief in something beyond belief’ (BZ, 51). Wright’s poetry abides in the ambiguity of ‘beyond belief’: it distrusts dogma while remaining open to the impossible. It is not the poetry of an angel or a prophet but of a pilgrim.

I would like to approach Charles Wright’s poetry by way of a lyric he translated from the Italian in the early 1960s. ‘Siria’, or ‘Syria’, is taken from Eugenio Montale’s third and finest collection, La bufera e altro (1956):

Dicevano gli antichi che la poesia
è scala a Dio. Forse non è così
se mi leggi. Ma il giorno io lo seppi
che ritovai per te la voce, sciolto
in un gregge di nuvoli e di capre
dirompenti da un greppo a brucar bave
di pruno e di falasco, e i voltri scarni
della luna e del sole si fondevano,
il motore era guasto ed una freccia
di sangue su un macigno segnalava
la via di Aleppo.
The ancients said that poetry
is a stairway to God. Maybe it isn’t so
if you read me. But I knew it the day
that I found the voice for you again, loosed
in a flock of clouds and goats
bursting out of a ravine to browse the slaver
of thorn and bulrush; the lean faces
of the moon and sun became one face,
the car was broken down and an arrow
of blood on a boulder pointed
the way to Aleppo.  (S, 84)

This terse, dramatic poem comes from the fourth section of La bufera e altro, which Montale eventually entitled ‘‘Flashes’ e dediche’ (‘Flashes and Dedications’). In glossing these poems scholars usually distinguish two female figures. There is Clizia – by turns angel and goddess, woman and light – who shimmers behind so many of Montale’s major poems and subtly links them to Ovid (through Clytie) and Dante (through Beatrice). And there is la Volpe, the Vixen, whose carnality and spirituality play a more totemic role for the poet and whose presence informs ‘‘Flashes’ et dediche’ and ‘Madrigali privati’. In ‘Syria’ the Vixen helps the poet regain his voice, overcome false divisions, and reclaim life at a higher level. The poet is stranded; only in the wilderness can one hear a prophetic voice. An arrow of blood points the way to Aleppo (said to derive from the Semitic word for milk); only through suffering is spiritual nourishment possible. Such are the interpretive gestures familiar to scholars of Montale.

Let us see how Wright improvises on the same poem. The point he wishes to make is ‘that Montale is a religious poet of a unique sort’:

‘The ancients said that poetry is a stairway to God.’ Some of us still say that. I do. (I think Montale does.) The poem is allusive and aphoristic. Allusive. The way we think of real things, the poet as pick-pocket and pilgrim. . .When the voice is found, then the right words are in the right order, the ladder descends and the steps are there. . .The voice here comes from the wilderness, the lights come together and are one light, they become one face, today is broken down and useless and the blood of history, the blood of the way things are, becomes directional and points to The City. . .(H, 43-44)

Just before making these remarks Wright alludes to Clizia yet makes no mention of the Vixen. What intrigues him is not so much the female presence in the poem, or even the predicament of the speaker, as the spirituality the lyric elaborates. For Wright, the closing lines – ’an arrow/of blood on a boulder pointed/ the way to Aleppo’ – become an image of being directed not simply to Aleppo but to a transfigured place, ‘The City’, which because of the capital letters seems to be the City of God. Now at a stretch, and in the midst of reservations, this could happen in a poem informed by Clizia. But in a poem attuned to the Vixen the poet is more likely to be guided back to a world of sights and smells. I am not suggesting that Wright is imposing an Alexandrianism or a gnosticism on Montale, only indicating the kind of religious perception that comes almost instinctively to the American. In Wright’s words: ‘What first drew me to these poems was their strong, and strange, religious overtones. This was rare in Montale’s work and, even here, it is not ‘religion’ per se, but rather a peculiar sort of mysticism, little apocalypses, immense journeys in tight and loaded little packets. . .there sometimes appear certain perceptions (lampi) that carry almost metaphysical overtones of faith’ (QN, 34).

In later editions of La bufera e altro Montale changed the title of this group of lyrics from ‘Lampi e dediche’ to ‘‘Flashes’ and dediche’ partly to set these poems apart from others devoted to Clizia and partly to evoke the flash of cameras: these lyrics are concerned with preserving intensely personal moments of journeys. It is telling that Wright recalls the earlier title, for his own poetic practice is more a matter of lampi, lightning flashes, than camera flashes. Photography enters his world, to be sure, although when it does (as in ‘Bar Giamaica, 1959-60’ and ‘Lines on Seeing a Photograph for the First Time in Thirty Years’) there is more rumination on memory than registration of detail. In hindsight, and with the risk of its distortions, one can see Wright deepening and ramifying two aspects of Montale’s lyrics: their literary status as both poems and journal entries, and their metaphysical status as images. I will take these one at a time.

It is important to notice that Montale carefully places each of the ‘‘Flashes’ and dediche’ poems, sometimes in a title (Siena, the Greve, Finistère, the Llobregat, Syria), sometimes underneath a title (Reading, London, Ely, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Damascus), and sometimes within a poem (Sesto Calende, Palmyra). These lyrics are journal entries as much as snapshots, each marking and commemorating a singular event.15 A characteristic move is Montale’s presentation of a quotidian detail which is transfigured and thereby registers religious transcendence as a possibility. Or since we are being guided by the figure of ‘la scala a Dio’ perhaps we should speak of trans-ascendence, a bursting out of immanence toward the heights.16 Perhaps: yet we need to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a simple ascent in Montale. Where there is a ‘spark/which rose’ there is also someone who finds new life at the price of being ‘burned to ashes’ (S, 86).

Much of Wright’s early work, now gathered together in Country Music, can be as dense and as singular as Montale’s verse. A sequence like ‘Tattoos’, for example, actually incorporates a line from the Italian poet, yet it maintains an independent stance with respect to journals and transcendence alike. Hauntings and commemorations rather than diary entries, ‘Tattoos’ none the less insists on particular dates: a year follows each lyric – 1973, 1972, 1951, 1968, 1946 – though the sequence does not progress in either a backward or a forward linear manner. Consider the final stanza of this lyric that looks back to 1946:

Now I am something else, smooth,
Unrooted, with no veins and no hair, washed
In the waters of nothingness;
Anticoronal, released. . .
And then I am risen, the cup, new sun, at my lips.  (CM, 60)

The stanza presents the thoughts and feelings of an acolyte who faints while serving at altar; the boy has an experience of transcendence or, more accurately, of trans-ascendence. This yearning for rising above the world is put under increasing pressure as Wright enters more and more fully into his vision. There is a sense in which, as the years go by, Wright moves from serving at the altar to giving homilies at the lectern. He can be more of a kakangelist than an evangelist, preaching the bad news that there is no trans-ascendence. And his texts are more likely to be from artists and mystics than scripture:

When you die, you fall down,
                                                     you don’t rise up
Like a scrap of burnt paper into the everlasting.
Each morning we learn this painfully,
               pulling our bodies up by the roots from their deep sleep.
(WTTT, 61)

Inevitably we remember the lines, ‘Mercy upon us,/we who have learned to preach but not to pray’ (WTTT, 35). But even Wright’s homilies include a good deal of prayer, and are closer to wisdom literature than to sermons.

By the time we get to Chickamauga the poetry gains its peculiar pathos by regarding transcendence as a resistance to immanence rather than an escape from it. If it is to occur, the epiphany must be here, in our rootedness, not in a state of being unrooted. Consider ‘East of the Blue Ridge, Our Tombs are in the Dove’s Throat’. Late on a Sunday in Charlottesville, ‘We cross our arms like effigies, look up at the sky/ And wait for a sign of salvation  – ’, but none is forthcoming. It is a poet and not a prophet who provides the appropriate teaching, and in Wright’s world there can be little distinction between them: ‘as Lorca has taught us to say,/ Two and two never make four down here,/ They always make two and two’. This is how the meditation concludes:

But the numbers don’t add up.
Besides, a piece of jar glass
                                               burns like a star at the street’s edge,
The elbows and knuckled limb joints of winter trees,
Shellacked by the sunset, flash and fuse,
Windows blaze
               and the earthly splendor roots our names to the ground.
(C, 61)

I would like to linger over these lines by making two comments about them.

The first confirms what we have already seen about Wright’s spirituality as disclosed in his impromptu remarks on Montale’s ‘Syria’. Lorca’s observation occurs in a short prose piece, ‘Historia de Este Gallo’. In Granada, he writes, ‘the day has only one immense hour, and that hour is spent drinking water, revolving on the axis of one’s cane, and looking at the landscape. . .Two and two are never four in Granada. They are always two and two.’17 When quoting from Lorca’s prose Wright could easily have made a link between the lassitude of Charlottesville and Granada in high summer, or allowed his aesthetic to mingle with Lorca’s ‘aesthetics of the diminutive’. Instead, the pressure of his own concerns makes the Spanish poet appear to deliver a spiritual – Alexandrian, almost gnostic – statement about things not adding up ‘down here’ when Lorca is simply remarking the inability of people in Granada to make anything happen.

The second observation is no more than a gloss on ‘Besides’: the word acts as a hinge around which the poem turns. ‘There is no transcendence’, it says (meaning trans-ascendence is merely an illusion, like late sunlight burnishing a piece of glass so that it appears to be a star) while also suggesting, ‘There is a finite transcendence, an awareness of the other in the same’. Either way, there is an epiphany, as in Montale, but a lampo and not a flaring of magnesium. And as in the ‘‘Flashes’ and dediche’ group, there is transcendence as illumination of what is rather than as ascendence to what may be. Wright may be drawn to a Clizia but his true muse remains a Volpe.

And so Wright must find his own way back to Dante and Ovid, and in an unusual move he does so through the writing of journals, notebooks and meditations. For these open-ended forms give him the opportunity to brood on metamorphoses of all kinds, and to transform Dante from the celestial poet of otherworldliness to the exemplary poet of everyday life. ‘Thinking of Dante is thinking about the other side’, he writes, ‘And the other side of the other side./It’s thinking about the noon noise and the daily light’ (WTTT, 45). If the expansive contemplation that characterises The World of the Ten Thousand Things keeps faith with Montale’s lampi by prizing radiant moments it also works with, beside and around another modern Italian poet, the Dino Compana of ‘La Verna (diary)’ (OS, 51-62). Like Campana’s, Wright’s journals are notations of a pilgrim, though the American exploits the ambiguity of the journal – as a way of guaging spiritual advancement and as a saving record of the quotidian – in a more thoroughgoing manner than the Italian does. Wright may be drawn to the scala perfectionis but he doubts that it leads out of the world. Consider the pilgrim of his book-length poem China Trace who sets out in childhood only to remain sorrowful at the end of his journey, caught in the ‘flat black of the northern Pacific sky’ (CM, 156). Is this because his reservations about the scala keep him at the threshhold of transcendence? Or is it because this is all the transcendence that is available to a pilgrim?

Only poetry, whose each line Wright says, ‘should be a station of the cross’ (H, 5), offers a path he can trust. And perhaps this is why, in the later volumes especially, we find Wright appealing to then gently undercutting spiritual authorities:

Everything comes from something,
                                             only something comes from nothing,
Lao Tzu says, more or less.
Eminently sensible, I say. . . (C, 3)

And here too there is a last-minute swerve from the Eliot of Four Quartets:

The definer of all things
                                          cannot be spoken of.
It is not knowledge or truth.
We get no closer than next-to-it.
Beyond wisdom, beyond denial,
                                                        it asks us for nothing,
According to Pseudo-Dionysus, which sounds good to me.
(C, 11)

Yet ironising a relationship with the masters is not the whole story. Wright may have written a homage to Rimbaud, and may honour the surrealist image, but he knows full well that of themselves words offer no hope of transcendence, and may well deflect one from the true path. Thus the closing lines of ‘Night Journal’:

 – Words, like all things, are caught in their finitude.
They start here, they finish there
No matter how high they rise  –
                                                          my judgement is that I know this
And never love anything hard enough
That would stamp me
                                        and sink me suddenly into bliss. (WTTT, 149)

I pause simply to admire the fine economy of ‘my judgement’, its compression of the subjective and the objective. For it indicates both the speaker’s darkest estimation of how he has lived and the sentence he has received: to know he has foregone bliss because he has believed poetry rather than love to be a ladder to God. When he calls poetry ‘this business I waste my heart on’ (WTTT, 38), he is not merely making an elegant bow to an eminent rhetorical figure but acknowledging having followed a seductive and fatal path in life. And it is with this thought in mind that we notice that his relations with spiritual masters are not always ironised. He may not be a Christian but Wright can still say, with feeling, ‘St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, lead me home’ (BZ, 13). When we recall that both mystics believe God to abide within the soul –  ‘for in vs is his haymelyeste hame’, Julian writes, while John adds, ‘The soul’s center is God’ 18 – we can see that going home for Wright is venturing so deeply into his subjectivity that he passes beyond it. To go home is to transcend oneself.

I suggested earlier that Wright learned about the metaphysical status of images from Montale. What he gathered from il maestro was perhaps no more than a sense of the image as lampo, and which he was ready to learn because he had already read Ezra Pound. Wright is at least as interested in the image for its spiritual possibilities as for its cleansing of poetic technique. In a page written in 1994 for his graduate students, he tries to distinguish image from metaphor, and to do so in an even-handed fashion:

If it is true (and I think it is) that an image is, as Pound put it, an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, and if the ‘logic of metaphor’ is, as Crane put it, constructed on a series of associational meanings and thought-extension, then the narrative of image and the narrative of metaphor are different. . .The narrative (or logic) of metaphor will be more of a time-release agent, giving the reader a slower, longer contemplation; more time to think about the associations. The poem is perhaps more susceptible to a flow-through story line inside the poem. The narrative (logic) of image, on the other hand, is more explosive, gives the reader less time to ruminate, opens itself to impressionistic perceptions. The flow, such as it is, is intermittent, interrupted, and tends to exist outside the poem, as though a series of things glimpsed quickly, but indelibly, from a fast train. . . (QN, 57-8)

For those of us who know Wright’s later work, it is evident that he is quietly electing image over metaphor, and is doing so as part of an oblique defence of his meditative style, sottonarrativa or undernarrative, in which the story runs under the surface of the poem, appearing only now and then, like a train disappearing into and emerging from many tunnels.19

‘The Image is Zen, Metaphor is Christian’ (QN, 59). So Wright tries to tell Charles Simic in a flyting which ensued after he sent his friend a copy of the page I have just quoted. Simic will have none of it, and if truth be told speculative philosophy is not Wright’s strongest suit. Putting his metaphysics of the image to one side it is worth recognising that for Wright the image’s power ‘is otherworldly and ultimately apophatic’ (QN, 59). It is memorably put in ‘Chinese Journal’:

In 1935, the year I was born,
                                                    Giorgio Morandi
Penciled these bottles in by leaving them out, letting
The presence of what surrounds them increase the presence
Of what is missing,
                           keeping its distance and measure. (WTTT, 199)

Just as the Pseudo-Dionysius insists that apophatic theology precede positive theology, so Wright proposes the priority of a negative poetics. In the end his theology and his poetics are yoked together: ‘Shorten your poems and listen to what the darkness says’ (C, 28).

We have already noted that for Jean-Luc Nancy finitude means being ‘infinitely exposed to the otherness of our own ‘being’’. Understanding this concretely would involve establishing how I mark my plurality in a singular manner and how I form a singular contract with these pluralities. It would involve us passing from the human subject to a community without subjects. Now there are phenomenal and transcendental communities in Wright’s poems (the army, family, the South; poets, thinkers and their readers), and both exert pressures on the verse from time to time though not as steadily as unpeopled landscapes. That said, people and landscape tend to appear under the one sign, the past:

There is an otherness inside us
We never touch,
                             no matter how far down our hands reach.
It is the past,
                       with its good looks and Anytime, Anywhere. . .
Our prayers go out to it, our arms go out to it
Year after year
But who can ever remember enough? (WTTT, 48)

Wright tells us that insofar as it genuinely touches the past, memory is an act of finite transcendence. He can rightly say ‘What I remember redeems me’ (BZ, 15), for recollection is a species of resurrection. Yet such a redemption is at best partial not only because ‘I can’t remember enough’ (WTTT, 52) but also because ‘Absorbed in remembering, we cannot remember’ (BZ, 6). One can recover ‘other time’ in this way though not of course ‘time as other’: states of insomnia, fascination or suffering when the present excuses itself from its duties of retention and protention and lets time wander in, around and behind consciousness. Yet the melancholy one comes to associate with Wright’s rhythms and tones has little to do with a dialogue with time as other, and much to do with finitude. It is because humans are mortal and things are transient that we keep them in memory, and a poetry like Wright’s that is informed by memory at every level is inevitably marked, not only by mourning who or what has passed, but also by a foretaste of mourning who or what is still here, including the poet himself. One of the vital tensions in Wright’s work is between a longing for detachment, which he finds in Christian mystics and Eastern sages, and an intense attachment to who or what has passed and will pass.

Living in a world held to be radically finite, people seek transcendence while knowing it is bound to be overtaken by immanence: an ascent above the world is momentary, at best. Like the ascetic, the poet subtracts from the visible in order to reveal the invisible (which is what Wright’s poetry often says); but unlike the ascetic, the poet must continually be sidetracked from this via negativa (which is what Wright’s poetry often does). This theme and practice occur time and again from Country Music to Black Zodiac, although seldom more strikingly than in ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’:

Landscape’s a lever of transcendence  –
                                                                        jack-wedge it here,
Or here, and step back,
Heave, and a light, a little light, will nimbus your going forth:

The dew bead, terminal bead, opens out
                                                                          onto a great radiance,
Sun’s square on magnolia leaf
Offers us entrance  –
                                       who among us will step forward,
Camellia brown boutonnieres
Under his feet, plum branches under his feet, white sky, white
Church bells like monk’s mouths tonguing the hymn?  (BZ, 3-4)

The question is addressed as much to the poet as to the reader, not only because any pilgrimage, any experience, has the potential to be dangerous, but also because trans-ascendence is the greatest possible risk for a poet. To transcend the world is to leave language behind. In ecstasy one does not encounter the silence that gives words their contours and weights but the silence that dissolves words. Better to transcend transcendence, as Jean Wahl hinted, and so return to immanence although without losing the memory and the value of the experience.20 Better to return to the world, naming its landscapes and responding to ‘ripples of otherworldliness’ (BZ, 13). And better to remain with the simple words of earth, and to trust that clarity is the best conductor of mystery.

For poetry is not an affair of the impossible. It is a placing in relation of the possible and the impossible.

The collections of Wright’s verse discussed in this essay are as follows:  Black Zodiac (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), henceforth BZ; Chickamauga (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995) – C; The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) – WTTT; Country Music: Selected Early Poems, 2nd ed. (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991) – CM. The collections of prose: Halflife: Improvisions and Interviews, 1977-87 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1988) – H; and Quarter Notes: Improvisions and Interviews (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995) – QN. The collections of translations: The Storm and Other Poems by Eugenio Montale, (Oberlin College: Field Translation Series, 1978) – S; and Orphic Songs by Dino Campana (Oberlin College: Field Translation Series, 1984) – OS.

1 Plato, The Collected Dialogues, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (Princeton, 1961), Ion, 534b.
2 Walter Arndt, trans., Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic, and Ribald Verse (New York, 1972), 12. See Osip Mandelstam’s remarks on the poet as ‘God’s bird’ in ‘On the Addressee’ in his Collected Critical Prose and Letters, ed. Jane Gary Harris (London, 1991), 67.
3 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3: Essays: Second Series (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 18.
4 David M. Guss, ed., The Selected Poetry of Vicente Huidobro (New York, 1981), 3.
5 Friedrich Hölderlin, Essays and Letters on Theory, trans. and ed. Thomas Pfau (Albany, 1988), 101-8. In connection with these comments see Maurice Blanchot’s remarks in ‘Hölderlin’s Itinerary’ in The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, 1982).
6 Martin Heidegger, Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung (Frankfort, 1951), 98.
7 It is possible to see Blanchot trying out each position over the years. I discuss this at length in a work in progress, The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and Friends.
8 Jean-Luc Nancy, La Communauté désoeuvrée, nouvelle édition revue et augmentée (Paris, 1990), 259. All translations from the French are mine unless otherwise noted. Cf Nancy, Une Pensée finie (Paris, 1990), 9-53, esp. 48.
9 See Nancy, Être singulier pluriel (Paris, 1996). The book explores the ambiguity of the title.
10 The point was first made, and memorably so, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. See his Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London, 1962), 215.
11  See Nancy, Des Lieux divins (Mauvezin, 1987). One finds Nancy saying that ‘from now on community occupies the place of the sacred’ but it is a ‘sacred stripped of the sacred’, La Communauté désouvrée, 86. For his account of art in this place, see Les Muses (Paris, 1994).
12 Nancy, La Communauté désouvrée, 88.
13 See Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, trans. Jean Stewart (Paris, 1991), 176; Emmanuel Levinas, Sur Maurice Blanchot (Montpellier, 1975), 40; Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (London, 1992), 45.
14 See Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson (London, 1962), §144.
15 Montale returned to a highly literary inflection of diary writing later in life with Diario del ’71 et del ’72 (1973).
16 I take the expression ‘trans-ascendence’ from Jean Wahl, Existence humaine et transcendence (Neuchâtel, 1944), 113. Wahl also speaks of ‘trans-descendence’. I cannot enter here into a discussion of the ethical and ontological dimensions of his vocabulary.
17 Wright takes the passage from Federico García Lorca, Collected Poems, ed. and introd. Christopher Maurer (New York, 1991), xv. The passage in question may be found in Lorca’s Obras completas, 3 vols, ed. Arturo de Hoyo (Madrid, 1986), III, 385-86.
18 Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, ed., A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, 2 vols (Toronto, 1978), I, 268. Kieran Kavanagh and Otilio Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St John of the Cross (Washington, DC, 1979), 583.
19 See Quarter Notes, 117-18, and also see Wright’s amusing manifesto for ‘Titleism’ in the same collection of essays.
20 See Wahl, Traité de métaphysique (Paris, 1953), 721.

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