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On "Homage to Paul Cézanne"

Edward Hirsch

The Southern Cross is a complex gesture to the past bracketed by two complementary long poems, "Homage to Paul Cézanne," a hypnotic, highly figurative litany for the unnamed dead, and the title piece. . . .

"Homage to Paul Cézanne" is an attempt to amplify voices that have become too faint to hear. In eight unnumbered sections, each sixteen lines long and given a separate page, the poem postulates a wide range of things the dead do, refusing to individuate them. "At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts / To stay warm, and litter the fields," it begins. "We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth." In the elusive and cumulative imagery of this poem, the dead are always with us, an ancestral presence--refracted and transfigured, moving and unsettled, fading and returning, evasive, unrecoznizable, nudging "close to the surface of all things." They slip under our feet and twist like stars over our heads. They are mist on the mirror, a gap in the wind, a space we enter in dreams, what we will become. Until then, however, "We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts."

Wright's "Homage" is a nonlinear poem in an oracular mode, an attempt to bring a series of painterly techniques to the poetic sequence. Cézanne is the magnetizing presence and guiding example, especially the sixty paintings of Mont Sante-Victoire that he made between 1882 and 1906. Wright's idea is to treat words like pigment, to build the blocks, by layering lines and stanzas the way Cézanne used color and form. The fourth section recalls Cézanne's commitment to significant form, his determination to seek in nature the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, to penetrate its masses and planes, to use the color blue as a way of defining space, an intercession between earth and heaven:

The dead are a cadmium blue.
We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.

We layer them stroke by stroke
In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.

We choose, and layer them in,
Blue and a blue and a breath,

Circle and smudge, cross-beak and buttonhook,
We layer them in. We squint hard and terrace them line by line.

For Cézanne technique was itself spiritual ("What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint") and there is an exaltation to his work that is sometimes linked to the pantheism of Chinese painting. That's one reason he becomes "The Black Chateau"--the title of one of his greatest paintings--at the end of Wright's fourth self-portrait.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Helen Vendler

Throughout the volume Wright persistently imagines himself dead, dispersed, re-elemented into the natural order. ("And I am not talking about reincarnation at all. At all. At all.") In focusing on earth, in saying that "salvation doesn't exist except through the natural world," Wright approaches Cézanne's reverence for natural forms, geometrical and substantial ones alike. China Trace is meant to have "a journal-like, everyday quality," but its aphorisms resemble pensées more than diary jottings, just as its painters and poets (Morandi, Munch, Trakl, Nerval) represent the arrested, the composed, the final, rather than the provisional, the blurred, or the impressionistic. China Trace is in fact one long poem working its desolation by accretion; it suffers in excerpts. Its mourning echoes need to be heard like the complaint of doves--endless, reiterative, familiar, a twilight sound:

There is no light for us at the end of the light.
No one redeems the grass our shadows lie on.

Each night, in its handful of sleep, the mimosa blooms.
Each night the future forgives.
inside us, albino roots are starting to take hold.

. . .

If China Trace can be criticized for an unrelenting elegiac fixity, nonetheless its consistency gives it incremental power. its deliberateness, its care in motion, its slow placing of stone on stone, dictate our reading it as construction rather than as speech. It is not surprising that as a model Wright has chosen Cézanne, that most architectural of painters. . . .

Wright's eight-poem sequence "Homage to Cézanne" builds up, line by line, a sense of the omnipresent dead. Wright's unit here is the line rather than the stanza, and the resulting poem sounds rather like the antiphonal chanting of psalms: one can imagine faint opposing choruses singing the melismatic lines:

The dead fall around us like rain.

They come down from the last clouds in the late light for the last time

And slip through the sod.


They lean uphill and face north.

Like grass,

They bend toward the sea, they break toward the setting sun.

Wright does this poetry of the declarative sentence very well, but many poets have learned this studied simplicity, even this poetry of the common noun. What is unusual in Wright is his oddity of imagery within the almost too-familiar conventions of quiet, depth, and profundity. As he layers on his elemental squares and blocks of color, the surprising shadow or interrupting boulder emerge as they might in a Cézanne:

High in the night sky the mirror is hauled up and unsheeted.
In it we twist like stars.

To Wright, death is as often ascent as burial; we become stars, like Romeo, after death, as often as roses. . . .Everyone's dead are ubiquitous: we all "sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts." On the other hand, the oracular mode sacrifices the conversational, and Wright evanesces under the touch in his wish to be dead (or saved), to enlarge the one inch of snowy rectitude in his living heart into the infinite ice of the tomb. . . .

The hunger for the purity of the dead grows, in these poems, almost to a lust. . . .

From Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Julian Gitzen

Repeatedly, in poems such as "Anniversary" "Delta Traveller," "Virginia Reel," and "Homage to Paul Cézanne," Wright invokes the spirits of the dead and is comforted by their presence. According to him, our dead continue to love and minister to us. Their spirits hover round to "mend our clothes . . . hold us together." At times they may go further by briefly drawing us far enough into their element to allow us a rare transcendent moment of disembodied consciousness:

Often they’ll reach a hand down,
Or offer a word, and ease us out of our bodies to join them in

.  .  .

We look back and we don’t care and we go.

And thus we become what we've longed for, past tense. . . .

("Homage to Paul Cézanne")

So strong is Wright's bond with the dead that, as in the lines above, he looks forward to joining them. He repeatedly expresses an unmistakable death-wish, and imagery of death is prominent in his lines, distinguished by its own symbolism. Like numerous other poets, he persistently associates death with fire and wind, but he adds his personal touch by also linking it with the color blue. Death is variously described as cadmium blue, cobalt, plastic blue, and as a "blue idiom, blue embrace." The author visualizes death as the ultimate mystery, of which the dead have acquired knowledge; he assures the spirit of a dead relative, "There's only one secret in this life that's worth knowing,/ And you found it. /I'll find it too." Wright's admiration for Dante may well stem in part from that poet's successful imaginative journey through the realm of the dead, a pilgrimage which Wright also yearns to make. In fantasy he transforms a bumblebee outside his window into the monster Geryon, upon whose shoulders he longs to sit, in order to descend into "the hard Dantescan gloom," where he might converse with the dead. So intense is his anticipation of death that he can assert:

Each tree I look at contains my coffin,
Each train brings it closer home.
Each flower I cut, I cut for a plastic vase
Askew on the red dirt. . . .
Each root I uncover uncovers me.

("Link Chain")

Death is an especially obtrusive presence in China Trace (1977), perhaps the most widely discussed of Wright's volumes. It is helpful to know (and it might be less than clear in the reading) that he conceives of the three volumes Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), and China Trace as a trilogy, "sort of a past, present, and future, an autobiography by fragmental accretion." Under these circumstances it is natural that death should shadow the last volume, but it might be added that Wright’s death-haunted imagination is manifest in the very conception of a portion of verse autobiography set in the future.

Evidently Wright looks forward to death in part because he imagines that it will unite him with his unknown or forgotten past, making him complete and allowing him full knowledge of himself:

Soon it will be time for the long walk under the earth toward the

And time to retrieve the yellow sunsuit and little shoes
                                                            they took my picture in

In Knoxville, in 1938.

Time to gather the fire in its quartz bowl.

("Hawaii Dantesca")

In addition to its power of reconstruction, Wright hopes for even more from death. He imagines that it will effect a transfiguration, altering the flesh into what he describes variously as "light," this being for him perhaps the most precious phenomenon, beautiful in itself and necessary to the expression of beauty. "Homage to Paul Cézanne" describes the spirits of the dead as "little globules of light" which hover near the ceiling, "thinking our thoughts." The poet dreams of being transformed like them into "A BB, a disc of light." In "April," inspired by the brightness of spring, he wishes himself "divested of everything" and released at last as "a glint, as a flash, as a spark." A different season produces much the same impulse in "October" which causes him to muse, "The transfiguration will start like this, I think": red colors like leaves will fall from his hands, the air will grow cold, and the author will rise from his weary body, "a blood-knot of light."

Probably not since Roethke has an American poet of considerable stature and repute expressed such enthusiastic and unembarrassed spirituality.

From "Charles Wright and Presences in Absences." Mid-American Review (1994)

David Young

Charles Wright's new book [The World of the Ten Thousand Things] brings together three previous collections and a group of new poems. It covers a ten year span, from 1980 to 1990. Here's how it opens:

At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and
    scraps of cloth.
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.
Like us, the water unsettles their names.

("Homage to Paul Cézanne")

We’re in the presence of jumpy, highly original poetic language. A line may have three internal rhymes. Its length may vary from eight syllables to nineteen. The verbal music is intense: consonants crackling, vowels echoing, rhythms reaching toward the incantatory. But what strikes us most, disorienting us a little, is what we call the content. Here is a series of six or seven assertions, none of which could be thought of as literally true. We aren’t dealing, as in some poets, with a literal level of narrative and reportage that then mixes in figurative language to move the level of discourse toward the poetic; instead, as in much of Wallace Stevens, we're confronted with the figurative, the indirect and playful, immediately. The moon's light is a fish-light, the dead wear our shirts, they litter our fields and we pick up scraps of cloth and pieces of paper that are evidence of their activity, their trying to stay warm. The dew on the scraps gives a "realistic" base to the passage from night to day, but everything else feels metaphoric, metamorphic, hallucinatory, surreal.

This opening set of assertions has to be translated into some kind of account of how we imagine, respond to and care about the dead, why we traditionally dress them in white (the stereotypic sheets here become, surprisingly, shirts), how it might be said that they wear our clothes or litter our fields. The imagination is dilated, the terms on which language communicates are redefined, and we are in a disturbing, exhilarating world. With the figurative base established, we can entertain abstractions. The claim of likeness, familiar signal for the figurative, here moves not toward the image but toward conceptual statements: like us, the dead refract themselves; like us, they keep on saying the same thing. And these assertions of likeness tease us because they ascribe likeness to a community that includes the speaker and the reader, those who are alive. They begin to erase the barrier between living and dead. A more normal mode of discourse would have posited the dead as objects, imagined by us as subjects. Wright's move is to start with the dead as subjects who are different from ourselves and then gradually subtract the differences. Language itself becomes key when both groups are seen as using it repetitively in the interest of precision, "trying to get it right," an attempt that seems never to succeed.

The assertion that closes the stanza returns to the figurative for the third "Like us," and we imagine, variously, gravestones eroded by rain (especially Keats's, with its famous epitaph, "Here lies one whose name was writ on water"), identities dissolved or carried away in floods, selves recognizing their instability by acknowledging kinship with an unstable element. Is this the same water that made the moonlight seem fishy, that dewed the scraps of cloth and paper? We're less apt to try to get literal sense from gnomic statements; we take them as atmospheric, part of the larger pattern of deliberate "misuse" of language to drive toward a visionary sense of being. If we tried to reduce the eight sixteen-line sections of "Homage to Paul Cézanne, to propositional status, that activity might clarify the poem's structure somewhat--the dead are all around us, the dead are more and more with us as we get older, the dead have a rhythm that allies them to the sea, the dead are like the blue a painter like Cézanne puts everywhere in his paintings, etc.--but it would not begin to approximate the poem. The propositions, if we can call them that, are merely there as triggers, opening moves, ways of tuning up the music and the gorgeous, painterly succession of meditative stanzas. Often, they open the sections, as if to get the necessary relation to ordinary language use out of the way so that the enterprise of turning language into music, incantation, re-presentation, color and shape and texture for their own sakes, can get quickly underway. The poem teaches us how to read it (or not read it, if by "read" we mean normal interpretive reading, translating the knowledge and information out for separate use) as we go, and learning how to take in the poem is the first step in learning how to take in the book, this book of ten thousand things.

[. . . .]

The dead find that their names, verbal identities, are unsettled by water. Even such crucial and irrevocable words as names, names of the dead, prove unstable in this world of change and process. As the poem moves forward, we learn that the dead "point to their favorite words/ Growing around them, revealed as themselves for the first time" and that "what they repeat to themselves,/ Is the song that our fathers sing," As the sea "explains itself, backing and filling/ What space it can't avoid" the dead "Over and over, through clenched teeth," tell "Their story, the story each knows by heart:/ Remember me, speak my name." The dead are of course finally us, and our projections of memory and desire, so their obsessive storytelling and singing, their pitiful dependence on speech, is our own. There's something circular and meaningless in our constant conversing with them, they with us, something that may go nowhere but serves a little to relieve our sense of loss and separation: "Our words are words for the clay, uttered in undertones,/ Our gestures salve for the wind." To clay or trying to heal the wind is ridiculous, but it is the story of our lives and of our dependence upon words.

From "The Blood Bees of Paradise." Field 44 (1991)

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