The stories in Charles Wyatt’s collection, Swan of Tuonela (Hanging Loose Press, 120 pp., $15),read a lot like autobiography. It’s hard to know how closely Wyatt models his recurrent protagonist, James, on himself, or whether the characters who weave in and out of James’ life resemble the people in Wyatt’s life. He surely has borrowed heavily, however. Many of the stories are set in Philadelphia, where Wyatt trained at the Curtis Institute and studied flute with William Kincaid; or in Nashville, where he was principal flutist in the Nashville Symphony until 10 years ago, and where he still lives between appointments as a visiting writer—just like James. If James isn’t exactly Wyatt, the writing still comes very much out of intensely experienced life.
The stories are linked by overlapping characters, settings and themes: in most of them, James is teaching and/or playing flute, and most involve a more or less casual sexual encounter. More significantly, Wyatt tends to layer time and place and perspective in his stories, drifting in and out of dreams and memories as the plot, such as it is, moves forward in the present. In “John Gardiner’s Ghost,” for example, James is a visiting writer in Binghamton, N.Y., teaching fiction and interacting with an emeritus poet and a libidinous student, considering the sickness of an old friend back in Philadelphia, coping with his rental house and student housemate, all interspersed with local scenes. The writing sometimes lays description on thickly, as in this passage from “The Winepress”: “We’re moving about the city, disembodied—we see scrubbed stone steps scooped with wear, boarded and broken windows, ailanthus-studded lots, the very weeds seeming to wilt under the sun’s inching onslaught, the Delaware and the Schuylkill, hypnotic, authentic, nursing coils of iridescence in eddies and, in the open basement of a burned out house, something like a blackened handle with a threaded shaft, necessary artifact, almost hidden in a clump of thistles.” Wyatt is obviously a poet too, at his best with images, atmosphere and suggestion.
In 1995, Wyatt published another set of stories, Listening to Mozart, that use the same people and places and fill in other parts of James’ life. His short novel, Falling Stones: the Spirit Autobiography of S. M. Jones, appeared in 2002. Since his career evolution in the mid-1990s, he has taught writing at Binghamton University, Oberlin College, Purdue University and Denison University.