Ascetic aesthetic

[Black Zodiac cover]What gets me about Gerard Manley Hopkins right now, and the reason I read his bio and reread some of his poems this month, isn’t Hopkins but what Charles Wright can do with him. As far as I can see, Wright loves Hopkins’s repetition and his invented compound nouns and adjectives, but he achieves something different with them. The poet Richard Watson Dixon wrote Hopkins that he agreed with Robert Bridges’s assessment: Hopkins’s poems “more carried him out of himself than those of any one.”  I feel the same way about Hopkins’s poems; there’s something pure and other about them that allows me to connect with him. But Wright takes me not out of myself but into a space within, a void – a sometimes-scary one – a void that feels like contemplation is coming.  For me, then, Wright is pure mirror: all knowing, unknowable, discoverable only as I slowly discover myself.  So he’s kind of like the therapist I had years ago, soft spoken but professional, the tribe’s shaman who always pointed me to an abyss.

I started reading Wright’s Black Zodiac a couple of months ago because I thought he could help me with my writing.  I loved how he makes presence or absence out of uncanny associations, and I’ve always wanted to do that.  Plus, my own poetry has become so crabbed and suffocating that I was drawn to Wright’s open spaces, both his physical white spaces and his inviting, spiritual space that draws me to stay in his poems.  My sentimental favorite, and my first Wright dwelling-place, is a single-page poem, “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” of which I’ll quote the beginning:

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Khan too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch out our hands and gather them in?

My brother slides through the blue zones in enormous planes.
My sister’s cartilage, ash and bone.
My parents rock in their blackened boats,
back and forth, back and forth.
Above the ornamental cherries, the sky is a box and glaze.
Well, yes, a box and a glaze.

He’s got that Hopkins thing going on, and he has a wisdom-writing syntax applied over a kind of dreamscape of deft reverie.  Sort of an Eliot-like playfulness, too; I hear Burnt Norton in the ornamental cherries in the middle of that pseudo-theory (“Other echoes / Inhabit the garden.  Shall we follow?”). In other words, everything I’ve most loved in modern poetry.  Aesthetically, Wright has been a dream come true.

“Thinking of Winter” looked so easy to write that I tried on several occasions to get a similar effect from what I could pick out about the tone, the syntax, the diction, the repetition, the spacing, the associations . . . but I couldn’t come close.  The longer I kept trying, though, the closer I read and the more I felt drawn into the poetry’s considerable space, a space that has made room for (I’ll admit) some of my own poem-like fragments.

It turns out to be a tough space, not graceless but tough like Zen masters and Levantine monks are supposed to be tough.  Quiet and tough.  There’s an ascetic in his aesthetic that I can’t quite pinpoint.  Wright likes religious imagery and themes, and certainly he tries to relate a metaphysical world he finds, a la Hopkins, in nature – even a suburban nature; I’ve lived near and walked down the Charlottesville streets he’s written about. Yet none of this but only the demanding, empty space makes Black Zodiac the most religious poetry I can remember reading.  I blinked my eyes a few times taking in Harold Bloom’s blurb on the book’s back cover, but I agree with him now, to the extent I understand him: “Some of the poems achieve an authentic gnosis in a rapt mode of negative transcendence.”

These lines aren’t typical – they’re rather direct – but they state Wright’s vision, I think, and are spoken in that most masculine voice of his:

Interstices.  We live in the cracks.
Under Ezekiel and his prophecies,
under the wheel.

Poetry’s what’s left between the lines –
a strange speech and a hard language,
It’s all in the unwritten, it’s all in the unsaid . . .
And that’s a comfort, I think,
for our lack and our inarticulation.

Here’s some of his tough stuff (from the last section of “Meditation of Song and Structure”):

Medieval, prelatic, why
Does the male cardinal sing that song, omit, omit,
From the eminence of the gum tree?
What is it he knows,
silence, omit, omit, silence,
The afternoon breaking away in little pieces,
Siren’s equal from the bypass,
The void’s tattoo, Nothing Matters,
mottoed across our white hearts?

One of the book’s finest poems is about Hopkins, a typically unsentimental one-pager called “Jesuit Graves,” written, it appears, after Wright visited his grave in Dublin.  The poem ends:

P. Gerardus Hopkins, 28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889, Age 44.
And then the next name.  And then the next,
Soldiers of misfortune, lock-step into a star-colored tight dissolve,
History’s hand-me-ons.  But you, Father Candescence,
You, Father Fire?
Whatever rises comes together, they say.  They say.

What a tribute.  (Not the poem.)


Posted February 25, 2010.