Appalachia, by Charles Wright

Appalachia cover
Again I marveled at how easy it was to read, this difficult book. The language is beautiful, the syntax natural, and a smattering of vernacular expressions put the reader at ease, despite all the wrestling with big questions. This time I came with a small question of my own: Why “Appalachia”? And I read the dedication, which I probably skipped last time: “In memory of my sister, Hildegarde Wright,/ who lived there all her life.” That’s probably a sufficient explanation in itself, given how many poems address mortality. (Note that he says “there” rather than “here,” though.) Five poems describe sections of an apocryphal Appalachian Book of the Dead, which is also referenced in other poems.

Appalachia is a potent cultural landscape, one as often idealized as it is scorned. For Wright, it seems to represent both ordinariness and transcendence, both his suburban backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia at the edge of the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge on the horizon to the west. It serves as a synecdoche of sorts for landscape in general, landscape being a central theme from the opening lines:

East of town, the countryside unwrinkles and smooths out
Unctuously toward the tidewater and gruff Atlantic.
A love of landscape’s a true affection for regret, I’ve found,
Forever joined, forever apart,
outside us yet ourselves.

Otherwise, the book is not specifically about Appalachia. But given how many negative connotations the toponymn has, I love the fact that Wright chose it for the final title in his 9-volume master work, a trilogy of trilogies about life, the universe, and everything, and filled it with references to Italian painters, European mystics, and Spanish and Chinese poets. Since this is a lot of the same intellectual terrain I like to wander through myself, naturally I can’t help feeling that in some way Wright has really captured the soul of this weird, wild, and abused region. (Of course, it’s equally likely that we’re both out to lunch.)

Wright has a gift for aphorisms, and some of them did strike me as somewhat Appalachian in their fatalism or Calvinism:

  • Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
  • If we were to walk for a hundred years, we could never take
    One step toward heaven—
    you have to wait to be gathered.
  • If you want what the syllables want, just do your job.
  • Listen, my friend, everything works to our disregard.
  • All forms of landscape are autobiographical.
  • Even the brightest angel is darkened by time.
  • Our mouths are incapable, white violets cover the earth.

I don’t know that Wright is generally classed as a nature poet, but his poems are almost always explicitly situated in time and space, and in this book we cycle through the seasons one and half times, beginning in February and ending in August. Possibly this was so he could include poems from two Appalachian springs (each one is different).

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,
while everyone’s down at the river.

Some of the poems spoke to me in my own situation as a typically Appalachian homebody and loner. “We spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave,” he writes from the cabin in Montana where he spends the summers. In “Reply to Wang Wei,” he says, “The dream of the reclusive life, a strict, essential solitude,/ Is a younger hermit’s dream.” Yep. On a poem about Valentine’s Day called “Half February,” he notes how out-of-tune with the season the “heart-wrung/ And sappy” holiday is, then declares:

All of us, more or less, are unfaithful to something.
Solitude bears us away,
Approaches us in the form of a crescent, like love,
And bears us away
Into its icy comforting, our pain and our happiness.

Oh hell yeah, buddy! And then when I read,

I sit in my plastic stack chair,
unearthly and dispossessed,
My eyes on the turning stars,

I almost started to feel like I was being watched. I laid down for a nap and had a vivid image of my body stretched out in a pine box, and heard the first heavy clumps of clay hitting the lid.

We disappear as stars do, soundless, without a trace.

Nevertheless, let’s settle and hedge the bet.

That’s as Appalachian a sentiment as you’ll ever find.

My friend Peter has also been blogging about Charles Wright at Slow Reads — check it out.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

7 Replies to “Appalachia, by Charles Wright”

  1. Responses, unrelated to one another:

    How fun to see you react to a volume by a poet I’m a little familiar with! Because of that, your post has the feel of that virtual book club I’ve dreamed of.

    Maybe there are other reasons you have the feeling of being watched: for starters, Wright, like you, couldn’t care less about personal publicity. He just wants his poems read.

    I’m not sure if Wright is a nature poet, either, but if he is, then there’s less reason for us suburbanites to see ourselves as prima facie disqualified from writing about nature.

    Thank you for the kind plug!

    As for his cycling through six seasons of Appalachia, perhaps Wright has read those four books by your mother, each concerning a different Appalachian season!

    1. Well, I suppose it’s possible.

      You know, the idea of a bloggers’ book club for poetry does have a certain appeal. In a sense, it already exists, with the virtual book tours set up by Read Write Poem.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Interesting. Where “he says ‘there’, not ‘here'” — living in Charlottesville, I don’t feel like I’m living in Appalachia as such… I go hiking there, but it’s definitely a visit. Once, there were a fair number of people living in what’s now the Shenandoah National Park. I don’t know how much of that culture settled in this university town, but it’s certainly not prominent.

    Nowadays, of course, the hiking trails are interwoven with roads, and the mountains dotted with antenna farms and the like….

    1. Oh that’s right! I knew I knew someone Charlottesville.

      Although the book is titled Appalachia, most of the time Wright seems to mean more the physical geography — the Appalachians. Of which the Piedmont is more or less a part. But then as I mentioned some poems are set in Montana, too, so I suppose you could say it’s more a state of mind than anything.

      1. Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique,
        A method of measure,
        a scaffold for structuring.
        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 . . .

        “The Minor Art of Self-defense” by Charles Wright

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