Proud Flesh 

A Tennessee poet makes music from the scars of “lost loves and the love of loss”

Charles Wright, one of the most illustrious poets to emerge from the South since James Dickey, confesses that he’s the only Southerner he knows who can’t tell a story.
Charles Wright, one of the most illustrious poets to emerge from the South since James Dickey, confesses multiple times in Quarter Notes and Halflife, his already classic books of interviews and “improvisations” published by the University of Michigan Press, that he’s the only Southerner he knows who can’t tell a story. Keeping in mind Wright’s theological obsessions, the best response seems to be “Thank God.” So much has been written about narrative as the archetypal characteristic of Southern writing it’s possible to imagine that not even the poets of Wright’s generation, now in their 60s, ever turned on the radio or sang in the church choir. Surely, in the wake of Katrina, many are more cognizant now of the South’s musical or lyrical contributions to American culture. The effect of blues, bluegrass, Dixieland, gospel, jazz, Western swing and traditional country has inarguably been as strong an influence on Southern poetry for the past 50 years as what has been absorbed, say, from Nashville’s high-culture poetic troika of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. These men wrote at the time when the Delta blues was reaching its apogee, a poetic influence that now seems incontrovertibly greater than the Fugitives’. Furthermore, it’s not as though the King James Bible, so often cited as the major influence on all Southern writing, was ever solely, or even primarily, a narrative influence. The Fugitives’ fellow traveler, St. Louis native T. S. Eliot (whose adoration for the raunchy English music hall is evident in the 20th century’s most important poem, The Waste Land) implied that all religious texts are finally lyric in their lasting effects because they are meant to be recited or chanted. Wright’s most typical poems circle between his native East Tennessee; coastal California, where he taught for many years; middle Virginia, where he has lived and held a professorship for two decades in Charlottesville; and Italy, where he worked for military intelligence and fell in love with the people and landscape and food and wine—and the integration of these and Roman Catholicism. He nonetheless remained “a God-fearing agnostic,” much like his greatest literary influence, the Italophile Ezra Pound. From Pound, Wright took a gorgeously melodic and highly variable free verse, purged it of wacko political and economic ideas and created some of the most indelible lines and phrases of contemporary verse: the light of the setting sun appearing “like slit wrists,” is just one mordantly lingering gem from Scar Tissue. Wright also adopted Pound’s reverence for Chinese poets, like Li Po, who teach a stoic removal from life’s dull and daily sorrows. The Tao and its poets have dominated, arguably, Wright’s most recent collections (see The World of the Ten Thousand Things and Buffalo Yoga), but as Scar Tissue makes clear, Wright has returned to the strength of earlier books like Country Music and Southern Cross, which were typified by more engagement with the physical world than by abstractions concerning it. Scar Tissue’s power derives from the constant, rapid-fire juxtaposition between those airy habitations and local names among which Wright has long lived and the everyday vocabulary of postmodern existence, including “Weed-Eaters.” While Wright has used broken lines whose units are separated by white space for most of his career, never have they seemed a more perfect and fitting embodiment of his subject matter, which is presented in triumphant, if sometimes valedictory, terms in Scar Tissue. Furthermore, this truncation by blankness of almost unbearably gorgeous sonic phrasings is reminiscent of another aspect of Southern life and literature that nearly no one mentions: the alternation between easy, mellifluous music and tense, nerve-ridden or downright hostile silence. “Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique,” Wright says in “The Minor Art of Self-Defense,” continuing, I stole its silences, I stepped to its hue and cry. Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God The ghost that over my little world Hovered, my mouthpiece for meaning, my claw and bright beak.... And this language of claw and beak leaves ample scar tissue—or “proud flesh,” as we say in Tennessee—all its own.

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