blackbirdonline journalFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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A Reading by Charles Wright
captured February 15, 2018
Poems are transcribed as read and may vary from the published versions used as references for form.

Henry Hart: I’m going to begin with some thank yous. First, many thanks to Charles Wright for coming to Williamsburg from Charlottesville to read his poems tonight. Thank all of you for coming out on this warm, spring-like night. And I feel obligated to thank our benefactor, Patrick Hayes, who has made our writing series possible for the last twenty-six, twenty-seven years or so. For many of you, Charles Wright probably doesn’t need an introduction. As you know he’s been living in Virginia for a long time. You probably have met him before. He taught at UVA from 1983 to 2011. He still lives in Charlottesville. And I know many of you have read his poems in anthologies and also in his books. Charles Wright is one of America’s most distinguished poets. He’s won most of the major awards—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, and others too. Several years ago, he was made the US Poet Laureate.

I’ve always wondered what makes a poet a poet, and it seems to me there’s often an experience early on in a person’s life that convinces that person to get off the main road and to take a side road that leads to poetry—the road less traveled, as Robert Frost called it. I think Charles Wright would agree that he took that side road to poetry when he was working in northern Italy a couple of years after he graduated from Davidson College. He actually took a road trip to a beautiful place, to Lake Garda, which is west of Verona, near the mountains. And he went to a ruined villa that supposedly belonged to the ancient Roman poet Catullus. Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway had also visited the lake, and Pound had written a poem about the area that described it as a paradise. I’ve never been there, but a few days ago I did a Google search and it does look like a paradise. It was during his trip to Lake Garda that Charles Wright had a visit from the muse. He once wrote an account of the experience, and I thought I’d read it to you because it’s written so beautifully, and it’s indicative of the sort of beautiful writing that would come. Charles Wright said about this spring day by the lake in the ruined villa: “The late March sun was pouring through the olive trees, reflecting off their silver and quicksilver turns in the lake wind, the lake itself stretched out below me and into the distance, the pre-Alps cloud-shouldered and cloud-shadowed, the whole weight of history and literature suddenly dropping through the roof of my world in one of those epiphanic flashes that one is fortunate enough to have in one’s lifetime now and then if one is ready. I was ready.” What I’ve always admired about Charles Wright’s poetry is his visual and musical beauty, and the way he combines descriptions of the world’s splendors with startling reflections on the world’s history and mystery. I’m sure you’ll notice some of that tonight when he reads his poems. So, without further ado, let’s give Charles Wright a very warm welcome.


Charles Wright: I don’t know if you’ll hear any of that stuff tonight because that’s all landscape. And most of my poems are all landscape, which is fine by me, but they’re not very audience-friendly, I don’t think. And so I can’t get away from it, but I tried to find some poems that have other things in them, other than the olive trees, although they are really nice, I’ll tell you that. Anyhow, let’s see what we got here. Very happy to be in Williamsburg again. Henry told me it was twenty-five years since I was last. Okay, this poem is called “Ars Poetica.” You know that means “the art of poetry.” It starts out “I like it back here” and “back here” is behind my house in California in the back of the garage where they cut out a little hole, and that was where I had no windows or anything, that’s where I tried to write. The first four poems I’m going to read are California poems, a place I left in 1983, so you’ll know that they’re not very recent, but they still vibrate with life, I’ll tell you that.

Ars Poetica

I like it back here

Under the green swatch of the pepper tree and the aloe vera.
I like it because the wind strips down the leaves without a word.
I like it because the wind repeats itself,
and the leaves do.

I like it because I’m better here than I am there,

Surrounded by fetishes and figures of speech:
Dog’s tooth and whale’s tooth, my father’s shoe, the dead weight
Of winter, the inarticulation of joy  . . .

The spirits are everywhere.

And once I have them called down from the sky, and spinning and dancing in
the palm of my hand,
What will it satisfy?
I’ll still have

The voices rising out of the ground,
The fallen star my blood feeds,
this business I waste my heart on.

And nothing stops that.

Until you hit 375, and then it stops. I lived in a town called Laguna Beach in Orange County. I guess they had the Wives of Laguna Beach or something like that on television, didn’t they? The Real Wives of? This is called “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night.”

Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night

I’ve always liked the view from my mother-in-law’s house at night,
Oil rigs off Long Beach
Like floating lanterns out in the smog-dark Pacific,
Stars in the eucalyptus,
Lights of airplanes arriving from Asia, and town lights
Littered like broken glass around the bay and back up the hill.

In summer, dance music is borne up
On the sea winds from the hotel’s beach deck far below,
“Twist and Shout,” or “Begin the Beguine.”
It’s nice to think that somewhere someone is having a good time,
And pleasant to picture them down there
Turned out, tipsy and flushed, in their white shorts and their turquoise shirts.

Later, I like to sit and look up
At the mythic history of Western civilization,
Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac.
I’d like to be able to name them, say what’s what and how who got where,
Curry the physics of metamorphosis and its endgame,
But I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.

This is called “Laguna Blues.”

Laguna Blues

It’s Saturday afternoon at the edge of the world.
White pages lift in the wind and fall.
Dust threads, cut loose from the heart, float up and fall.
Something’s off-key in my mind.
Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.

It’s hot, and the wind blows on what I have had to say.
I’m dancing a little dance.
The crows pick up a thermal that angles away from the sea.
I’m singing a little song.
Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.

It’s Saturday afternoon and the crows glide down,
Black pages that lift and fall.
The castor beans and the pepper plant trundle their weary heads.
Something’s off-key and unkind.
Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.

This poem, of course, is called “California Dreaming,” and it’s the last poem I wrote before I left California—I think. It was a song, of course, by The Mamas and the Papas in the 1960s, and it was very popular.

California Dreaming

We are not born yet, and everything’s crystal under our feet.
We are not brethren, we are not underlings.
We are another nation,
living by voices that you will never hear,
Caught in the net of splendor
of time-to-come on the earth.
We shine in our distant chambers, we are golden.


Midsummer, and Darvon dustfall off the Pacific
Stuns us to ecstasy,
October sun
Stuck like a tack on the eastern drift of the sky,
The idea of God on the other,
body by body
Rinsed in the Sunday prayer-light, draining away
Into the undercoating of the slow sparks of the west,
which is our solitude and our joy.

That was supposed to be midmorning not midsummer because we find out what time it is as this goes on.

I’ve looked at this ridge of lights for six years now
and still don’t like it,
Strung out like Good Friday along a cliff
That Easters down to the ocean,
A dark wing with ruffled feathers as far out as Catalina
Fallen from some sky,
ruffled and laid back by the wind,
Santa Anathat lisps its hot breath
on the neck of everything.


What if indeed the soul is outside the body,
a little rainfall of light
Moistening our every step, prismatic, apotheosizic?
What if inside the body another shape is waiting to come out,
White as a quilt, loose as a fever,
and sways in the easy tides there?
What other anagoge in this life but the self?
What other ladder to Paradise
but the smooth handholds of the rib cage?
High in the palm tree the orioles twitter and grieve.
We twitter and grieve, the spider twirls the honey bee,
Who twitters and grieves, around in her net,
then draws it by one leg
Up to the fishbone fern leaves inside the pepper tree
swaddled in silk
And turns it again and again until it is shining.


Some nights, when the rock-and-roll band next door has quit playing,
And the last helicopter has thwonked back to the Marine base,
And the dark lets all its weight down
to within a half inch of the ground,
I sit outside in the gold lamé of the moon
as the town sleeps and the country sleeps
Like flung confetti around me,
And wonder just what in the hell I’m doing out here
So many thousands of miles away from what I know best.
And what I know best
has nothing to do with Point Conception
And Avalon and the long erasure of ocean
Out there where the landscape ends.
What I know best is a little thing.
It sits on the far side of the simile,
the like that’s like the like.


Today is sweet stuff on the tongue.
The question of how we should live our lives in this world
Will find no answer from us
this morning,
Sunflick, the ocean humping its back
Beneath us, shivering out
wave after wave we fall from
And cut through in a white scar of healed waters,
Our wet suits glossed slick as seals,
our boards grown sharp as cries.
We rise and fall like the sun.


Ghost of the Muse and her dogsbody
Suspended above the beach, November 25th,
Sun like a Valium disc, smog like rust in the trees.
White-hooded and friar-backed,
a gull choir eyeballs the wave reach.
Invisibly pistoned, the sea keeps it up,
plunges and draws back,
Yesterday hung like a porcelain cup behind the eyes,
Sonorous valves, insistent extremities,
the worm creeping out of the heart . . .


Who are these people we pretend to be,
untouched by the setting sun?
They stand less stiffly than we do, and handsomer,
First on the left foot, then the right.
Just for a moment we see ourselves inside them,
peering out,
And then they go their own way and we go ours,
Back to the window seat above the driveway,
Christmas lights in the pepper tree,
black Madonna
Gazing out from the ailanthus.
Chalk eyes downcast, heavy with weeping and bitterness,
Her time has come round again.


Piece by small piece the world falls away from us like spores
From a milkweed pod,
and everything we have known,
And everyone we have known,
Is taken away by the wind to forgetfulness,
Somebody always humming,
California dreaming . . .

This is a poem called “Relics.” There was an Italian writer by the name of Aldo Buzzi, who wrote a book called Journey to the Land of the Flies about Sicily. It’s a marvelous book if you ever get the chance to read it. I steal a line from here—from him, and I also use his name. He wrote this poem, actually, come to think of it. [audience laughs] It’s called “Relics.”


After a time, Hoss, it makes such little difference
What anyone writes—
Relics, it seems, of the thing
are always stronger than the thing itself.
Palimpsest and pentimento, for instance, saint’s bones
Or saint’s blood,
Transcendent architecture of what was possible, say,
once upon a time.

The dogwoods bloom, the pink ones and the white ones, in blots
And splotches across the dusk.
Like clouds, perhaps. Mock clouds
In a mock heaven,
The faint odor of something unworldly, or otherworldly,
Lingering in the darkness, then not.
As though some saint had passed by the side yard,
the odor of Paradise,

As Aldo Buzzi has it,
Odor of Heaven, the faithful say.
And what is this odor like? someone who’d smelled it was asked once.
He had no answer, and said,
“It doesn’t resemble any flower or any bloom or spice on this earth.
I wouldn’t know how to describe it.”
Lingering as the dark comes on.

St. Gaspare Del Bufalo was one of these fragrant saints,
Buzzi continues,
St. Gaspare, who walked in the rain without an umbrella and still stayed dry.
Miraculous gift.
He knew, he added, one of the saint’s relatives, a pianist,
who served him an osso buco once
In a penthouse in Milan.

Let’s see. A cold spring in Charlottesville,
End of April, 2000—
If you can’t say what you’ve got to say in three lines,
better change your style.
Nobody’s born redeemed, nobody’s moonlight, golden fuse in the deadly trees.
White wind through black wires,
humming a speech we do not speak.
Listen for us in the dark hours, listen for us in our need.

The port referred to in this poem is called “Cicada Blue.” As Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet, who’s everybody’s favorite Spanish poet—he said, “I love you, green.” I say, “I love you, blue. What can you do?”

Cicada Blue

I wonder what Spanish poets would say about this,
Bloodless, mid-August meridian,
Afternoon like a sucked-out, transparent insect shell,
Diffused, and tough to the touch.
Something about a labial, probably,
something about the blue.

St. John of the Cross, say, or St. Teresa of Avila.
Or even St. Thomas Aquinas,
Who said, according to some,
“All I have written seems like straw
Compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
Not Spanish, but close enough,
something about the blue.

Blue, I love you, blue, one of them said once in a different color,
The edged and endless
Expanse of nowhere and nothingness
hemmed as a handkerchief from here,
Cicada shell of hard light
Just under it, blue, I love you, blue . . .

We’ve tried to press God in our hearts the way we’d press a leaf in a book,
Afternoon memoried now,
sepia into brown,
Night coming on with its white snails and its ghost of the Spanish poet,
Poet of shadows and death.
Let’s press him firm in our hearts, O blue, I love you, blue.

This is called “The Appalachian Book of the Dead IV,” which pre-supposes one to three and, actually, past-supposes five and six, but this is number four. There’s a quote here from a country song called “Let’s All Go Down to the River,” and I first heard it by Mac Wiseman back in the late 1940s. I never forgot it.

The Appalachian Book of the Dead IV

High-fiving in Charlottesville.
Sunset heaped up, as close to us as a barrel fire.
Let’s all go down to the river,
there’s a man there that’s walking on the water,
On the slow, red Rivanna,
He can make the lame walk, he can make the dumb talk,
and open up the eyes of the blind.
That dry-shod, over-the-water walk.

Harbor him in your mind’s eye, snub him snug to your hearts.

They’ll have to sing louder than that.
They’ll have to dig deeper into the earbone
For this one to get across.
They’ll have to whisper a lot about the radiant body.
Murmur of river run, murmur of women’s voices.
Raised up, without rhyme,
the murmur of women’s voices.
Good luck was all we could think to say.

Dogwood electrified and lit from within by April afternoon late-light.

This is the lesson for today—
narrative, narrative, narrative . . .
Tomorrow the sun comes back.
Tomorrow the tailings and slush piles will turn to gold
When everyone’s down at the river.
The muscadines will bring forth,
The mountain laurel and jack-in-heaven,
when everyone’s down at the river.

I have no fear of these at all. This is called “Sentences II,” and I can’t remember what “Sentences I” was, [audience laughs] but I know it’s there somewhere, in the back part of my wallet, anyhow.

Sentences II

Last chapter, last verse—
everything’s brown now in the golden fields.
The threshing floor of the past is past.
The Overmountain men of the future
lie cusped in their little boxes.
The sun backs down, over the ridgeline, at 5 after 7.

The landscape puts on its black mask
and settles into its sleeplessness.
The fish will transpose it,
half for themselves, half for the water
Ten thousand miles away, at the end of the darkening stream.
To live a pure life, to live a true life,
is to live the life of an insect.

I mean that as a good thing. This is called “Heaven’s Eel.”

Heaven’s Eel

A slight wrinkle on the pond.
A small wind.
The small wind and the rumpled clouds’ reflection.
Houm . . . What’s needed is something under the pond’s skin,
Something we can’t see that controls all the things that we do see.
Something long and slithery,
something we can’t begin to comprehend,
A future we’re all engendered for, sharp teeth, Lord, such sharp teeth.
Heaven’s eel.
Heaven’s eel, long and slick,
Full moon gone, with nothing in its place.

A doe is nibbling away at the long stalks of the natural world
Across the creek.
It’s good to be here.
It’s good to be where the world’s quiescent, and reminiscent.
No wind blows from the far sky.
Beware of prosperity, friend, and seek affection.
The eel’s world is not your world,
but will be soon enough.

I got to a point where I said, “I’ve got to write about something instead of just that being what I look at.” Course, I look at these things too—not heaven’s eel, but toadstools I look at. This is called “Toadstools.”


The toadstools are starting to come up,
circular and dry.
Nothing will touch them,
Gophers or chipmunks, wasps or swallows.
They glow in the twilight like rooted will-o’-the-wisps.
Nothing will touch them.
As though little roundabouts from the bunched unburiable,
Powers, dominions,
As though orphans rode herd in the short grass,
as though they had heard the call.
They will always be with us,
transcenders of the world.
Someone will try to stick his beak into their otherworldly styrofoam.
Someone may try to taste a forever.
For some it’s a refuge, for some a shady place to fall down.
Grief is a floating barge-boat,
who knows where it’s going to moor?

This is called “Shadow and Smoke.” You’re going to be sorry; the good stuff is just starting. [presumably spoken to an audience member leaving]

Shadow and Smoke

Live your life as though you were already dead,
Che Guevara declared.

That’s what they say, but sounds like a 2000-year-old Japanese coin to me, but I don’t know. Che Guevara is supposed to have said it.

Live your life as though you were already dead,
Che Guevara declared.
Okay, let’s see how that works.
Not much difference, as far as I can see,
the earth the same Paradise
It’s always wanted to be,
Heaven as far away as before,
The clouds the same old movable gates since time began.

There is no circle, there is no sentiment to be broken.
There are only the songs of young men,
and the songs of old men,
Hoping for something elsewise.
Disabuse them in their ignorance,
tell them the shadows are already gone, the smoke
Already cleared,
tell them that light is never a metaphor.

This is called “Grace II.” I actually happen to remember “Grace I.” It was about a place in the tall grass where a deer had spent the night and all the grasses were flattened out. [audience laughs] I don’t know what he meant, and I don’t know what I said—but what can I tell you.

Grace II

It’s true, the aspirations of youth burn down to char strips with the years.
Tonight, only memories are my company and my grace.
How nice if they could outlive us.
But they can’t. Or won’t.
No Indian summer for us. It’s rough and it’s growing dark,
The sunset pulling the full moon up by its long fingernails.
It’s better this way.
The unforgiven are pure, as are the unremembered.

Nothing to say about this. It’s called “Road Warriors.”

Road Warriors

My traveling clothes light up the noon.
I’ve been on my way for a long time
back to the past,
That concilable city.
Everyone wants to join me, it seems, and I let them.
Roadside flowers drive me to distraction,
Hover like lapis lazuli, there, just out of reach.

Narrow road, wide road, all of us on it, unhappy,
Unsettled, seven yards short of immortality
And a yard short of not long to live.
Better to sit down in the tall grass
and watch the clouds,
To lift our faces up to the sky,
Considering—for most of us—our lives have been one constant mistake.

This is called ““I’m Going to Take a Trip in That Old Gospel Ship”” which is an old country hymn. “The Hunter Gracchus” is a story by Franz Kafka. W.G. Sebald, Max Sebald, wrote a story about this ship on which the Hunter Gracchus was being carried around the world, coming to light on Lake Garda. Pretty interesting story—you should read it.

“I’m Going to Take a Trip in That Old Gospel Ship”

Did the great ship with the bier of the Hunter Gracchus
Pass by this year? Or is it just late?
Or did it finally find the seam,
the crack between this world and the other,
And slip through, sails furled?
And drifts now, as it was meant to drift,
on pure, unpestilent waters,
Still circling the globe, and out of its cage forever?
Hard to know, George, hard to know,
Its left-behinds still vibrant,
its wake still ripply in the evening sun.

So difficult to belay the myth,
so difficult to hold
Hard to transmutation of narrative and imagination.
The real world has its hand and feet in the other one,
Though its head’s here, and its heart is here.
The clouds, as they always do, present us the option:
Dig down, brother, dig down deep,
or keep on walking fast.

This poem is called “Everything Passes, but Is It Time?” It has a quotation from something that Gerry Mulligan, the great bass saxophone player, once said.

Everything Passes, but Is It Time?

Sunset same color as maple tree
In my neighbor’s yard—
Nature and nature head-butt,
Golden persimmon.
And if the stairs to paradise
Are that color, who wouldn’t put his old Reeboks down?
Gently, however, O so gently.
The membrane of metaphor is weak,
and has no second step.

“Don’t play too long, don’t play too loud, and don’t play the melody.”
Nature’s deaf to this beautiful injunction.
And that’s okay.
One should live one’s life as an acolyte walking into the temple,
Oblivious, the heavens exploding around you,
Your heart conflicted, your footfalls sure.
Time is your enemy,
time and its fail-safe disgrace.
Open your arms, boys, take off your shirts.

This one’s called ““Just a Closer Walk with Thee”” which, of course, is a hymn.

“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”

But not too close, man, just not too close.
Between the divine and the divine
lies a lavish shadow.
Do we avoid it or stand in it?
Do we gather the darkness around us,
or do we let it slide by?
Better to take it into our hearts,
Better to let us have it.
Better to let us be what we should be.

Tonight, the sexual energy of the evergreens
removes us
From any such attitude.
At least for a momentary intake.
And then it’s
Back in its natural self,
Between the It and the It.
The fly that won’t leave the corpse will end up in the grave.

This is called “With Horace, Sitting on the Platform, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.”

With Horace, Sitting on the Platform Waiting for the Robert E. Lee

Seventy years, and what’s left?
Or better still, what’s gone before?
A couple of lines, a day or two out in the cold?
And all those books, those half-baked books,
sweet yeast for the yellow dust?

What say, Orazio? Like you, I’m sane and live at the edge of things,
Countryside flooded with light,
the chaos of future mornings just over the ridge, but not here yet.

You will—if you’ve been listening very intently—you will realize that my titles have nothing to do with the poems. [audience laughs] I thought that was cool at one time, so I just kept on doing it. This one, unfortunately, does have to do with the poem. It’s an elegy for my brother-in-law, Tim McIntire, who died at the age of forty-two. The funniest guy I ever knew, but also one of the most talented. He was an actor, a musician, a—he just did everything. He was also an alcoholic and a cocaine addict, which eventually killed him. This starts out up in Montana, where we were when this started happening. Luke is my son.

Sun-Saddled, Coke-Copping, Bad-Boozing Blues

Front porch of the first cabin, with Luke.
July, most likely, and damp, both of us wearing rubber boots.
Just out of the photograph, behind the toe of my left foot,
The railing where Tim and I, one afternoon,
carved our poor initials
While working on verses for his song, “Stockman’s Bar Again, Boys.”
Both singer and song are gone now, and the railing too.

We all sang in the chorus
back in L.A., in the recording studio,
Holly and I and Bill Myers and Kelly and Johnny Rubinstein.
Such joyful music, so long ago,
before the coke crash and the whiskey blows.
Sun-soured Montana daydreams,
Los Angeles and its dark snood so soft on the neck.
Lie still I’m working on it lie still.

Billy Mitchell’s just come by, somebody stole his tools,
Leland Driggs has shot an elk and broke the county’s rules.
Sweet Dan Kelly’s on his Cat, watch out and back away,
Snuffy Bruns is feeding squirrels and Crash is bucking hay.
Big John Phelan’s got outside a half a fifth of gin,
We’ve all gone and gotten drunk in Stockman’s Bar again.

Dead frequency, Slick, over and out.
It’s mostly a matter of what kind of noise you make.
American Hot Wax, for instance, and “Stand by Your Man”—
George Jones, type-casting for sure.
And music, always music—keyboard and guitar, violin,
Anything with a string.
Your band was called Fun Zone, you up front,
Poncher on drums, Wolfie on bass, and Johnny R. at the piano.

And others. Until the lights went out.
Renaissance boy,
With coke up your nose and marijuana in your eye,
We loved you the best we could, but nobody loved you enough.
Except Miss Whiskey.
You roll in your sweet baby’s arms now, as once you said you would,
And lay your body down,
in your meadow, in the mountains, all alone.

And this I can’t help reading—it’s a little sentimental poem about my hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee, where I grew up. It’s called “Arrivederci Kingsport.” It’s got a bunch of names in here of people who you don’t know, but you know people just like them from your junior high and high school days.

Arrivederci Kingsport

It’s all Interstate anymore,
the sedge fields Ted Glynn and I
Would shoot doves on. Or underwater.
The Country Music Highway, out of the hollers and backwash
Of southeastern Kentucky, old U.S. 23,
Has carried the boys to a different demarcation,
Their voices like field mice in the 21st-century wind.

Goodbye to that stuff,
The late ’40s and early ’50s and adolescence,
Dolores Urquiza and Clara Hall
—memory’s music just out of tune—
Drifting in their 7th-grade frocks across the Civic Auditorium floor.
Goodbye to Sundays, and band practice,
the backseats of cars,
Goodbye to WKPT and everybody’s song.

Jesus, it’s all still a fist of mist
That keeps on cleaning my clock,
tick-tock, my youth, tick-tock, my youth,
Everything going away again and again toward the light.
Who will remember Christina Marsh and Bobby Step,
now that I’m gone?
Who will remember the frog famine,
Now that the nameless roads
have carried us all from town?

Midsummer in 1951,
the censer gone,
The call-and-response both gone, how far away is that?
A life unremarkable, but one which was remarked,
It turns out. Without consolation, it seemed,
The summer seeped to its end,
The sweet smoke of the past like bandages
on all our imagined wounds.

And once upon a time, in the long afternoons of autumn,
The boys and girls would lay them down
in the bitter weeds
And watch the hidden meanderings
Of stars in their luminous disguise,
that ill-invested blue.
Is there reprieve for this act?
Is there reprieve for such regard?
Not in this life, and not in the next.

Well, yes, but beside the point.
And what is the point?
The point is the drawn-out landfall
From Chestnut Ridge to Moccasin Gap.
The point is U.S. 11W disappearing
In front of us and behind our backs,
the winter winds
And the clouds that dog our footsteps, out west and back east.

And so the dance continues,
Boots Duke and Jackie Imray,
Bevo and Kay Churchill,
Jim Churchill and Nancy Sims,
Name after name dropping into the dark waters of day-before-yesterday.
Champe Bachelder and Karen Beall,
Bill Ring and Sarah Lou,
Slow dance, the music coming up again.

Goodnight, sweetheart, well, it’s time to go.
Ta-ta-ta-ta-tum, Goodnight, sweetheart, well, it’s time to go,
the soft-aired, Tennessee night
Gathers its children in its cupped hands.
Time has its covenant, and who’s to say it is unjust.
We make our sad arrangements.
The sky clears, the sun sets.
No matter the words, we never forget our own song.

That “goodnight, sweetheart” thing was always played at the end of every dance when I was a child. I’m from Appalachia, as you can gather. This is called “Appalachian Farewell.” Kingsport was “The Queen’s City” of Appalachia, which will tell you what kind of cities they had in Appalachia.

Appalachian Farewell

Sunset in Appalachia, bituminous bulwark
Against the western skydrop.
An Advent of gold and greens, an Easter of ashes.

If night is our last address,
This is the place we moved from,
Backs on fire, our futures hard-edged and sure to arrive.

These are the towns our lives abandoned,
Wind in our faces,
The idea of incident like a box beside us on the Trailways seat.

And where were we headed for?
The country of Narrative, that dark territory
Which spells out our stories in sentences, which gives them an end
and beginning . . .

Goddess of Bad Roads and Inclement Weather, take down
Our names, remember us in the drip
And thaw of the wintry mix, remember us when the light cools.

Help us never to get above our raising, help us
To hold hard to what was there,
Orebank and Reedy Creek, Surgoinsville down the line.

I’ve always loved that word, “Surgoinsville.” It’s a little town outside of Kingsport. If you’ve never been there, don’t bother. [audience laughs]. It’s a great name, you know? Surgoinsville. I wonder who Surgoins was? This is called “College Days,” and I read it only because we’re at a college, and you might have had some of the same [intelligible] as I did. This is Davidson College in North Carolina, about twenty miles outside of Charlotte, and Mooresville, North Carolina, is about eight miles from Davidson. When I was at Davidson ’53–’57, you could not drink on campus. You had to be at least a mile away from campus before you could have a drink, a beer. So I always went to Norfolk, where else? “College Days.”

College Days

Mooresville, North Carolina, September 1953.
Hearts made of stone, doodly wop, doodly wop, will never break . . .
Should have paid more attention, doodly wop, doodly wop,
To the words and not just the music.
Stonestreet’s Cafe,
the beginning of what might be loosely called
My life of learning and post-adolescent heartbreak-without-borders.
All I remember now is four years of Pabst Blue Ribbon,
A novel or two, and the myth of Dylan Thomas—
American lay by, the academic chapel and parking lot.
O, yes, and my laundry number, 597.

What does it say about me that what I recall best
Is a laundry number—
that only reality endures?
Hardly. Still, it’s lovely to hope so,
That speculation looms like an every-approaching event
Darkly on the horizon,
and bids us take shelter,
Though, like Cavafy’s barbarians, does not arrive.
That’s wishful thinking, Miguel,
But proper, I guess,
to small rooms and early morning hours,
Where juke joints and clean clothes come in as a second best.
Is sin, as I once said, more tactile than a tree?

Some things move in and dig down
whether you want them to or not.
Like pieces of small glass your body subsumes them when you are young,
They exit transformed and easy-edged
Many years later, in middle age, when you least expect them,
And shine like Lot’s redemption.
College is like this, a vast, exact,
window of stained glass
That shatters without sound as you pass,
Year after year disappearing, unnoticed and breaking off.
Gone, you think, when you are gone, thank God. But look again.
Already the glass is under your skin,
already the journey’s on.

There is some sadness involved, but not much.
Nostalgia, too, but not much.
Those years are the landscape of their own occasions, nothing lost,
It turns out, the solemn sentences metabolized
Into the truths and tacky place mats
We lay out
when custom demands it.
That world becomes its own image, for better or worse
—the raven caws, the Weed-Eater drones—
And has no objective correlative to muscle it down.
It floats in the aether of its own content,
whose grass we lie on,
Listening to nothing. And to its pale half brother, the nothingness.

I wonder about my speech. Oh, “Bedtime Story.” “Bedtime Story.” Oh, [laughs], there’s the phrase “ding an sich” in here—German—in Kingsport we used to call it “ding an’ such,” and then we learned better, or some of us did. They probably still say it in Kingsport—“ding an’ such.”

Bedtime Story

The generator hums like a distant ding an sich.
It’s early evening, and time, like the dog it is,
is hungry for food,
And will be fed, don’t doubt it, will be fed, my small one.
The forest begins to gather its silences in.
The meadow regroups and hunkers down
for its cleft feet.

Someone is wringing the rag of sunlight
inexorably out and hanging.
Something is making the reeds bend and cover their heads.
Something is licking the shadows up,
And stringing the blank spaces along, filling them in.
Something is inching its way into our hearts,
scratching its blue nails against the walls there.

Should we let it in?
Should we greet it as it deserves,
Hands on our ears, mouths open?
Or should we bring it a chair to sit on, and offer it meat?
Should we turn on the radio,
should we clap our hands and dance
The Something Dance, the welcoming Something Dance?
I think we should, love, I think we should.

This one is called “Time Will— ” it understands that I’m not speaking well tonight, and it’s trying to bite me. [audience laughter] This is called “Time Will Tell.”

Time Will Tell

Time was when time was not,
and the world an uncut lawn
Ready for sizing. We looked, and took the job in hand.
Birds burst from our fingers, cities appeared, and small towns
In the interim.
We loved them all.
In distant countries, tides nibbled our two feet on pebbly shores
With their soft teeth and languorous tongues.
Words formed and flew from our fingers.
We listened and loved them all.

Now finitude looms like antimatter, not this and not that,
And everywhere, like a presence one bumps into,
Oblivious, unwittingly,
Excuse me, I beg your pardon.
But time has no pardon to beg, and no excuses.

The wind in the meadow grasses,
the wind through the rocks,
Bends and breaks whatever it touches.
It’s never the same wind in the same spot, but it’s still the wind,
And blows in its one direction,
northwest to southeast,
An ointment upon the skin, a little saliva,
Time with its murderous gums and pale, windowless throat,
Its mouth pressed to our mouths,
pushing the breath in, pulling it out.

Well, I’ve got to read “Ducks” because it’s another one of my “thing” poems that I wrote one summer in Montana.


Gasoline smell on my hands, perfume
From the generator’s toothless mouth,
Opening swallow from the green hose,
Sweet odor from the actual world.

There’s an old Buddhist saying I think I read one time:
Before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
After Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
The ducks, who neither chop nor carry,

Understand this, as I never will,
Their little feet propelling them, under the water,
Serene and stabilized,
from the far side of the pond
Back to the marsh grasses and cattails.

I watch them every night they’re there.
Serenitas. I watch them.
Acceptance of what supports you, acceptance of what’s
Above your body,
invisible carry and chop,

Dark understory of desire
Where we should live,
not in the thrashing, dusk-tipped branches—
Desire is anonymous,
Motoring hard, unswaying in the unseeable.



I’ve said what I had to say
As melodiously as it was given to me.

I’ve said what I had to say
As far down as I could go.
I’ve been everywhere

I’ve wanted to but Jerusalem,
Which doesn’t exist, so I guess it’s time to depart,

Time to go,
Time to meet those you’ve never met,
time to say goodnight.

Grant us silence, grant us no reply,
Grant us shadows and their cohorts
stealth across the sky.

Thank you very much for putting up with me. [applause] Thank you very much. Thank you—I had a great time. [applause] Wait till you hear me next time. [audience laughs] If you’re ever so unlucky as to hear me next time.

HH: Does anyone have a question? We can also go out for the reception and the book sale, the book signing. But if anybody has a question, I think you have to shout because the ventilation system is working now.

Audience Member 1: I’ve been reading through Half-Light lately, and I was just wondering if you have any advice or words on process as to how you move quotations that you love into drafts of your poems. Do you let it happen organically?

CW: Do I let it what?

AM1: Do you— [laughs] When you’re putting quotations from other people into your own poetry, do you always let it happen organically, or are you sometimes searching for the words and then find them and insert them?

CW: Geez, I don’t know. I just—when I see something nice, I steal it and stick it in my poems. [audience laughs]

AM1: Yeah, but do you hold onto it for a long time—do you steal it and keep it in your notebook and then use it later?

CW: No, I don’t do it in my notebook. I don’t have a notebook.

AM1: Okay.

CW: I don’t have a desk to write on. I don’t have a chair. I don’t have anything, you know? Well, well, I don’t have a notebook, and I don’t—I correct as I go along.

AM1: Yeah.

CW: I don’t write drafts. I used to when I was younger, and I said, “Oh, that’s silly. I’m just going to erase it, and go on, erase it, and go on.” So if anyone ever wanted to see what I did before the final thing, they’d never find it because it’s all erased.

AM1: Yeah, I know. I was looking through your papers at Emory, and I couldn’t find them. [laughs]

CW: What are they doing at Emory?

AM1: They just have a few of your drafts from books.

CW: I’ll be damned. [audience laughs] They called me up. Now, Emory’s a great place for your papers to be—Emory University Collection. They called me up exactly a year after I had given my papers to UVA, which I’m glad I did. But Emory had a bunch of money, you know? What are you going to do? And, I think—what’s his name? Young?

AM1: Kevin.

CW: Kevin Young got a couple of things, somehow.

AM1: He got a couple small things.

CW: He’s a smart dude. Anyhow, so I don’t know what to say.

AM1: No, that answers my question.

CW: I’d like to say it arises organically, particularly the things about the Hunter Gracchus, which I’ve used over and over again because I’m up in Montana in the summer, and I always think about it coming around. And once I read that story I was able—it made a lot of sense to me. It made a lot of sense to my nonsense, that’s what I meant.

AM1: Thank you.

CW: Okay. Oh, yeah?

Audience Member 2: Maybe more a comment, but I—see I’m stumbling too—I really don’t think that the ten words you mixed up diminish the value of the thousands or so you wove together.

CW: Well, you’ll find if you’re my student you’ll get an A. [audience laughs] Thank you for saying that. I never do that, you know? I’m really pretty good about speaking, enunciating quite clearly. Unless, of course, I’m drunk, but I’m never drunk when I read, so I don’t know what to say. But thank you.

AM2: You can set your expectations as high as you want, but—

CW: What?

AM2: You can set your expectations, like, infinitely high, but—

CW: Well, it’s just that I—every damn poem I kept missing a word or missing a line. It’s alright.

Audience Member 3: This is just kind of a question about process. So, like, I know a lot of your poems are about nature, so do you find yourself, like, going on walks often in nature deliberately with the intention of writing, or are most of your nature poems just, like, reflections on memories of past nature walks or experiences, or is it a combination?

CW: Well, I don’t like to think of them as nature walks, but I write out of what I see. I’m not a very inventive poet, as you all have figured out. So I have to look at stuff and write it down, and then I try to jazz it up a little bit, of course. But I don’t know how I got into landscape. Landscape has always been so important to me. I think it started when I was in east Tennessee. I grew up in east Tennessee, and I kept seeing it there, and then I was in Italy and it just overwhelmed me—landscape, landscape—and I kept trying to get it right, you know, to say what I thought about it. And then, as always, what’s always behind everything I write—unfortunately, I was raised an Episcopalian and was a “dead-on guy” until the age of sixteen, and that always has stayed with me. I don’t know what to say. You know these are the sorts of things where you say, “Don’t anybody ask me any questions about my poems because I don’t know how to explain them.” I don’t even know how they were written, you know? Basically. But as I always say, my soundbite is “landscape, language, and the idea of God.” And the idea of God keeps coming through all this stuff. Language I get very caught up in, and it’s become a subject matter for a while and so is landscape. So I don’t usually go out in the woods anymore—of course, I’m too scared. I never took a nature walk—what do you mean? [audience laughs] I used to hang out in the woods a lot, yeah, that’s true.

HH: Well, why don’t we take a walk out to the reception and the book signing? And thanks again for coming, and thank you, Charles Wright.


From Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). Reprinted with permission from Charles Wright and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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