Caribou by Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
96 pages – Amazon
Some poets you can recognize just from the form of their poems, their shape on the page. In Wright’s case it’s his large sections of enjambed sentences indented almost back to the original line break, such that his poems have on the one hand sort of a ‘broken’ look, as if the poems were falling down the page in chunks, under its own weight. And on the other hand these long indents create long space, which our eyes, and brains, register and read, meaning that there is some meaning, some words, some idea(s) that might not be (able to be?) said with the words in the main sentence/idea.
And/or that his poems are like a Jenga puzzle at the point of peak Jenga-ness, where to pull any more lines out would mean the collapse of meaning? That they’re balancing on the edge of meaning? Space = both what is unnecessary to say, stripped down to essentials, and what is unsaid or unsayable.
Some—critics, other poets, the rare readers of poetry—question (finally and justifiably) the importance we all (I mean, us in the Poe Biz) continue to give to the Great White Men of The American Poetry Canon, at the expense and exclusion of women and poets-of-color. And that is not without some validity. I too tire of some of the entrenched white voices that pop up in all the anthologies, though my ire tends to be directed at those who seem to have no wisdom to impart, no interesting lives, because they’re comfortable in their middle-class academic-ness, and so therefore seem to be playing with language for its own sake, the clever-meandering variety that is vaguely humorous without being anything else but clever.
But, and yet, some of our male poetry elders are both skillful and wise in their poetry, and though I’m a white male saying (and I guess apologizing for) this. I think they can, and do, speak to everyone, and/or are worth listening to, for their lifetime of word work. For example, Gary Snyder and W.S. Merwin. And, even if you’re rolling your eyes at that, consider (as I have now finally seriously done with his most recent collection, Caribou) recent former American Poet Laureate (2014-2015) Charles Wright, who is not as mythical-spiritual as Snyder, nor quite as formal and dense as Merwin, but who offers a good dose of american pragmatism, by which I mean, no tricks, no gimmicks, no cleverness, only an honest effort to think about big things (life, death, meaning) while grounding his poems in good, solid, basic (Neruda’s elemental) things, like in this excerpt from “Ancient of Days”:
This is an old man’s poetry,
d written by someone who’s spent his life
Looking for one truth.
Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.
Unless, of course, the trees and their blow-down relatives
Are part of it.
d Unless the late-evening armada of clouds
Spanished along the horizon are part of it.
Unless the diminishing pinprick of light
d stunned in the dark forest
Is part of it.
d Unless, O my, whatever the eye makes out,
And send, on its rough-road trace,
To the heart, is part of it,
d then maybe that bright vanishing might be.
This poem is a good example of the thread running throughout Caribou, which is death. With Wright at this point in career and especially age, this should not be surprising, nor is a little looking back at life. Musing on these bigger themes can only be done with patience and eloquence from our elders, regardless of race or gender, though perhaps age is a factor: Our angel-headed hipsters of this generation might roll their eyes at Wright. Maybe not. I hope not. Though I fear I did when younger, preferring poetry with more energy and humor. So I guess I’m getting old.
But Wright can, and does, get his chant on, using repetition to build an energy, along with using some humor, like in this section of the poem “Dude”:
In my mind’s eye I always see
The closed door to eternity.
I think I”ll take it,
d and then I start to think I won’t.
As though I had a choice in the matter.
As though the other side of it
d was something inexorable, something fluxed.
As though the though would never exist.
You almost think that last ‘though’ is a typo, and it really should be ‘thought.’ Which would work too, but I like the idea of a continual ‘though’ in life, a continual devil’s advocate-ness about everything, such that no big continual, eternal Truth is ever possible, because with time and change there are always new possibilities.
Sprinkled throughout Caribou are names of other writers and poets, sometimes within poems, where Wright slips into an address to them, like in “Life Lines,” to a certain ‘Jack’ (Whose last name I’m sure you can guess). And even though the poem gets deflected in a way, to an other ‘you,’ of course we can still take the ‘you’ as us. And/or enjoy the voyeur-ness of hearing literary giants talk amongst themselves.
Sometimes Wright leaves the person’s initials below the poem, like at the end of “October, Mon Amour,” with a “—GS”. Which, to those in the know, kinda only can be Gary Snyder. Not to say that Wright knows Snyder personally, I don’t know for sure though I’d guess probably. Doesn’t matter. In either case it’s a conversation, a dialogue, through writing, or an explicit (and on purpose, by Wright) example of how all writing is a dialogue between writers through the ages.