Watching this PBS NewsHour special on Charles Wright reignited an interest in me in the work of one of my longstanding poet spirit guides: First contact for me came in 2009. Twelve years ago! I don’t know if it was his fire specifically or a more general fire for poetry that spread to me and caught and hasn’t really ever stopped burning since fall, 2009. The creative writing poetry class I’d enrolled in at Calvin College was taught by Lew Klatt (L.S. Klatt) and he had assigned Negative Blue alongside along collection or two beside his weekly handouts. This sort of selected poems of Wright’s has remained to my possession to this day because I lost it before returning to China after graduation in 2010 and found it again (among my mother’s books, I think) a while after Lili and I came from Beijing to visit summer 2014 when I had the seizure that incinerated any future I’d planned for us in China.
I can remember one night stepping out the lower back door of the house which I rented in 2009 with a few other guys to smoke a Turkish Camel and savor those first ecstatic rushes of my own poems coming at last, the release of those pent up energies, and “poet” a name for what I was already, what I already knew I was, but the moon above me was Wright’s squid, I think, or was it the eye of an octopus? I wrote an ecstatic email to Professor Klatt. He replied: “Fire in the belly is good, but …” you have to follow through, put in the work, labor in the field, or something to that effect.
I can still identify with Wright’s statement in his interview where he calls poetry his “reason for living.” That my acquaintanceship with his work is the same age as his Sestets which close out the big collected Oblivion Banjo gives me a personal sense of profound connection, even import. I wanted Oblivion Banjo badly as soon as I discovered it on Wikipedia and Lili tolerantly ordered me a copy for my 34th birthday. So I’ve been working my way through this last section of six-liners:
Something about this one encapsulates Wright for me: “but that was then, when our hearts were meat on a grill.” How vulnerable we are. As a boy I often said I wasn’t good at anything and felt down on myself. Sports are hard to excel at without lots of practice and growing up homeschooled without brothers I didn’t have much and I never excelled in sports despite trying baseball, basketball, soccer …. Then in the area of music I did only a little better but it wasn’t until age 16 that I showed any interest in learning an instrument.
“The past is dark.” I remember Wright in another interview describing a locked chest of early writings he was afraid to open and I suspect we all have a chest somewhere who have pushed through those early awkward stages of apprenticeship. What a turn in the poem, though, are those shoes and that flashlight! The abstract suddenly realized. Concretized. With “But what shoes!” achieves the Wright tone of awestruck wonder that is one of poetry’s greatest treasures. THEN, as if that we not enough, read the rest of the line, that devilishly broken line.