Wright Faith

July 25, 1998

wright-1This review of Charles Wright’s Black Zodiac (1998) appeared in an edited form as “Wright Faith: Poetic Redemption” in The Straits Times (25 July 1998).

I am a ruined believer in superstition: that is why I read poetry. In the realm between melodic lines, there are few truths but lots of believing; the leaning is itself as close as one gets to a human fact.

Imagine therefore my initial rage when, in his Pulitzer-winning Black Zodiac, Charles Wright turns to dismantling belief, especially belief constructed through verse or life as verse. The undertaking seems instantly a sell-out but, bearing this in mind, it means as well that it is doomed, on both ends of success, to failure, “our two-dimensional side-kick”. It is like the adventure of a tobacco company orchestrating health surveys; it is a “loose knot in a short rope”, to use Wright’s metaphor.

If Wright has made us believers of form through earlier volumes like The Southern Cross and Zone Journals, he seems to want us now as really bad believers. The axiom declaring that “all considerations are considerations of form” is replaced here by the assertion that, because poetic form imposes, “the slow destruction of form . . . / Is the hard heart of the enterprise”.

If he told us more than a decade ago that there was a limit to searching, that he had “nothing to say about the way the sky tilts/ Toward the absolute”, he tells us now that “Landscape’s a lever of transcendence”: “jack-wedge it here” so that “a light, a little light, will nimbus your going forth”.

What, then, are we to make of this kind of apostasy that verges on quiet deceit? While reviewers in general have praised the new collection, not a few have diagnosed the shift affectionately as a product of age. After a quarter century of writing, Wright has reached, in James Longenbach’s words, that “terrifying moment when mastery threatens to become mannerism”.

The idea sounds agreeable enough, except for the fact that it makes Wright, as poet, precisely the hostage of mortality he is not. Of those who have squared his new development with his old vision, Harold Bloom — dare I invoke the great American say-all? — comes closest to hitting the mark. Bloom observes that, “in a rapt mode of negative transcendence”, Wright’s latest poems have in fact achieved what he celebrates as “an authentic gnosis”.

Gnosis, that spiritual revelation to the personal soul, is contingent on one’s subjective knowledge entering itself empathetically as an universal. It is all-sufficient but continuous, like a processional where, intuitively, “Everything terminal has hooks in eternity”. In the world of gnosis, the black of ink and the white of space are not the loci of truth — “What’s the use of words”, he says — but markers of a deeper “emptiness primed with reds and blues”.

Yet, if Wright has worked into essential reality, he has done so by deviating from traditional gnosis which, to quote Clement of Alexandria, recognizes that “what redeems us is the knowledge of who we were and who we have become”. His is radically different, being a half of those dimensions and a double of that subjectivity, being inadequate but finished: “What I remember redeems me.” In Wright’s gnosis — if it is still gnosis — the eternal estrangement of one’s past is itself the entry-point into spirituality and, therefore, “the happy life is the darkened life”. The controlling reason here is so basic that one wonders how all religious creeds could have neglected it: to paraphrase, you simply can’t see what you can’t see.

Wright’s yearning to be nowhere else is recognized instantly by his devout readers, who will admit that, despite uttered contradictions, nothing has changed technically. The characteristically tight lyricism, the self-governing lines and the words racing for the right-hand margin are all still here, alive and well. Now, at sixty, Wright will tell us why these must be so: to perceive the divine is to hold antitheses in the single vessel of a mind, always balancing thought with thought, line beginning with line ending, presence with history, stars with destiny, and time with light. After all, in the exemplary case of time and light, do we know for sure which measures which?

Therefore, quoting Samuel Beckett quoting St. Augustine — a sign for me of the inadequacy of fixed meaning — Wright reveals that it is never the sense of expression but “the shape that matters”: “shape precludes shapelessness, as God precludes Godlessness.” Shape is the ultimate talisman and the true quality of holiness; through it, all things are glorious that inhere their limitations and celebrate themselves through sacrifice.

If Wright has taken away belief, he returns it doubly strong by dismissing the fixation of will, by distilling existence to an equation of, and not for, the human condition. The missing pieces needed to explain belief have always been all the non-entities — death, silence, absence, twilight, uncertainty and lag — that we, in our shared anxieties, use belief conversely to explain.

How, accordingly, can one disagree with what one cannot deny, if Wright’s gnosis — or is it mine now? — exposes belief as the goal and true enemy of all believers? Refusing the struggles of faithlessness we have actually brought into living as faith, Wright’s redemption lures even me behind the simplest of religious platitudes: “Relax, let what’s taking you take you.”

Gwee Li Sui

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