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Back-yard blues
Charles Wright’s lawn-chair poems

A Short History of the Shadow
By Charles Wright. Farrar Straus Giroux, 89 pages, $20.

Over the course of 15 books of poetry and numerous prestigious awards (including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for 1998’s Black Zodiac), Charles Wright has never left his back yard. His new volume is no exception, as he casually clarifies in the first line (and reiterates in the following two poems): " I sit where I always sit . . .  " He displays his characteristic wit through the typically understated stunt of placing himself in a slightly different relation to the back yard upon each repetition of the phrase. Initially, in " Looking Around, " he’s sitting indoors during a thunderstorm, watching the " Back yard becoming an obelisk/Of darkness. " In " Looking Around II, " however, he’s in the yard itself, asking " What can I possibly see back here I haven’t seen before? " as he confronts " the world resettled and familiar, " in the midst of " its known bird songs,/its known smudges. "

And if Wright retains his backyard lawn-chair throne here, he also preserves other aspects of his recent writing, from his unassuageable obsession with landscape to his deadly accurate use of figurative language ( " And the heart,/That legless bird, circling and circling, " in "  ’54 Chevy " ) to the elastic and meditative musical line he has made his own. A Short History of the Shadow is populated with the presence of ghostly and shadowy masters — Mandelstam, Catullus, Cézanne, García Lorca, Wang Wei — and again he enlists himself as their disciple, saying in " Looking Around III " that " We were born to escort the dead, and be escorted ourselves. "

As an escort and one being escorted, Wright posits himself as Dante, pointing out in " A Short History of the Shadow " that " Only Dante, in Purgatory, casts a shadow,/L’ombra della carne, the shadow of flesh —/everyone else is one. " " Nothing down here in the underworld but vague shapes and black holes, " he reports, and indeed, much of this volume is written as if by underworld half-light. Its images are in flux, the boundaries of time and place are indistinct, the syntax itself alternates mistily between sentences and enormous passages of verbless riff, and the seemingly stable things of the world alternately blur and sharpen their outlines, like the tiny blue dragonflies of " Polaroids " : " the stems, the phosphorescent,/Rising and falling like drowned playthings./They come and they disappear. They come back and they disappear. " It is in this state of " underwater slant-shine/Of sunlight and cloud shadow " ( " Body and Soul " ) that the dazzle that permeates the book exists: " the half hour, half-light, half-dark,/when everything starts to shine out. " ( " Body and Soul II " )

In these crepuscular, " dusk-damaged " realms, Wright pays meticulous attention to the gradations of light staining each of his images. In his metaphor of the balancing of light and shadow over the bodies that populate the landscapes, fluctuation, an active equilibrium, defines existence. In " A Short History of the Shadow, " he observes that " The light from the stars makes the shadow equal to the body, " then adds, " Light from fire makes it greater, " identifying the gravest threat as whatever finalizes, like the firelight whose brightness generates a shadow capable of toppling the delicate balance of in-between and causing a definite arrival, an arrival that Wright equates with death. " Nostalgia " concludes, " The time will come, they say, when the weight of nostalgia,/. . . outweighs/Whatever living existence we drop on the scales/May it never arrive, Lord, may it never arrive. "

For Wright, A Short History of the Shadow is itself only the latest installment in a long line of failures to arrive, to capture in description his beloved landscape. " Night Rider " explains, " As one absorbed in looking around,/each time I’ve looked, each time it’s new —/Each time I said it, I got it wrong./. . . If I could do what I thought I could do, I would leave no trace. " Instead, his words accumulate like a cloud of data points on the page, approximating in their shape and shadow the subject — a kind of Heisenberg principle of poetics, in which observation itself distorts.

As he quipped in Halflife (1988), " Poetry is just the shadow of the dog . . . The dog is elsewhere, and constantly on the move. " Until his own fluctuation matches that of his subject and they become indistinguishable from each other, until he finds the word he’s looking for, " A word I don’t know yet, a little word, containing infinity " ( " A Short History of the Shadow " ), we can count on Charles Wright to sit tight in the backyard and approximate. " Don’t just do something, sit there./And so I have, so I have, " he acknowledges toward the end of " Body and Soul II, " the book’s final poem. And we can continue to be grateful for the residue of his attempts, his gorgeous, tired, lonely lines, full of grace and heartrending redundancy, cast as a shadow on a few pages of bound paper.

Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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