JANUARY 2, 2016
WILLIAM WRIGHT’S new collection of poems, Tree Heresies, lay unopened on my desk for weeks. Amid moving from Connecticut to Tennessee, summer teaching stints in Nashville and Raleigh, writing projects I needed to finish, and ramping up my running mileage to hang with the boys’ cross country team I help to coach in the fall, I held off beginning Wright’s book because I knew I couldn’t give it the time and space it deserves. But I ensured that it stayed on top of my to-read pile because I couldn’t stop staring at its cover. A lone, bare tree stands in the right third of a photo, and clouds transition in the background from white at the top of the cover to navy in the middle — too evenly, as if someone applied Photoshop’s gradient feature. A pond spits back the lowest third of the tree at the bottom of the picture but not without a flat, wide stroke of blue-black paint separating the real tree from its inverse that appears to defect from this world to another.
The tree isn’t special to me. I grew up among the white ash, black locust, box elder, and shortleaf pine of southwestern Virginia. I scraped shins climbing them, dulled pocketknives carving them, and sat down for dinners unable to wash their saps off my palms. Maybe I miss living my days so close to their bodies, not going to bed without touching one at some point during my waking hours. I didn’t think about my keeping Wright’s book close until I arrived in Raleigh, the “City of Oaks,” to teach at a young writers’ workshop. In my first week, the frequency illusion (also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon) slinked into my life like a Virginia creeper climbing a telephone pole. Talk and writing of trees appeared everywhere — in my pre-light reading of Sally Mann’s new memoir, Hold Still; in a student’s workshop submission entitled “Ode to the Southern Oak”; and in a Friday afternoon visit to the “Dig It!” soil exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The tulip magnolias in North Carolina’s cove forests grow into giants as a result of the soil’s high fertility under the damp canopy. I looked up at a different canopy to whisper, “Okay, I get the hint,” and opened Wright’s book that evening.
This is Wright’s fourth full-length collection, and he titles the first of two sections in his book, “For the Insomniac Plagued by Thoughts of Time.” I couldn’t help thinking at two o’clock one morning, “Or by thoughts of trees.” When Sally Mann and her soon-to-be husband planned their wedding in 1970, they had trouble finding an officiant because their vows didn’t mention God and the Holy Spirit. Mann writes she solved the problem by reading an E. E. Cummings poem during the ceremony: “[As] for the Holy Spirit, we figured Cummings had it covered in ‘the leaping greenly spirits of trees.’” Wright begins his book by sitting us down to tell a story — one:
poured by phantom giants to set peach trees steaming,
caught between here and the other world. Where foxes
scream the woods to sacredness,
and owls crouch the limbs spirit-eyed to watch
for mouse-skitter or skink.
We get giants reminiscent of Cummings’s jumping fairies, but more importantly, we have the first words related to the heresies (and heretics) Wright intimates with the book’s title, those beings “caught between here and the other world.” I read this first poem, entitled “Prologue,” with trapped trees like the one on the cover, in the foreground.
Thomas Aquinas quotes Jerome, the church father who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, in the third volume of his Summa Theologica: “Heresy is derived from a Greek word meaning choice, whereby a man makes choice of that school which he deems best.” Wright enrolls in the music class of Gerard Manley Hopkins, apocalypse class of Christian Wiman, and southern mysticism class of James Dickey to form the school of his choice for this collection. Try to enunciate, “Wind bends east through thicker flora, / and gangs of mange-pocked dogs lope and skulk,” without thinking of Hopkins’s “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; / Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough.” A few stanzas down, the lines, “A swamp stagnates, impaled with a derelict / truck, mattresses, a charred tractor and heaps of cattle bones,” remind me of Wiman’s west Texas of “foreverness / sifting down like dust.” And I could devote an entire essay to Dickey’s influence on Wright, who once wrote about a Dickey poem, “It had nothing to do with heritage, with South as a banner to wear — it was just the template, it was simply the landscape that supplied the tools to ignite the imagination.”
The poem was Dickey’s “The Strength of Fields,” the same poem I found myself turning to while creasing Tree Heresies’s spine and before I discovered Wright had articulated the Georgia-born poet’s impact in writing. Here’s Dickey:
Dear Lord of all the fields
what am I going to do?
Street-lights, blue-force and frail
As the homes of men, tell me how to do it how
To withdraw how to penetrate and find the source
Of the power you always had
And here’s Wright, still in that first, long, five-part poem:
Near these earthen cancers a high shed with music, coarse
laughter where farmhands gather to myth out their emptiness
in tequila and cervesas, lewd jokes. Their faces are soot-smeared,
sunbrowned, smiling raucous, muscled, their eyes half-mast
and brains staved pattern and drone. For what can the heart
carry from this place?
Both poems consider the salt-of-the-earth ground on fields and farms, and they look up for an answer to their situations, their fall. But where Dickey’s speaker prays to leave and to witness a higher power of which to feed, Wright’s speaker hopes only that the farmhands manage to escape a “Ghost-choked country. Where no ear / stops for story.”
Making my way through Wright’s collection, I can’t help noticing the work my mouth must do to keep up with my mind. Notice your cheek muscles and dancing teeth when reading, “Red-eyed duck-chisels: they whittle the mind / so sharp it conjures collapsing ice.” Your tongue gets it workout later in the same poem, “Nocturne for Cicada,” with “Fork tines / clicking on a clean plate. The miracle of a silver // pocket-watch unclasped and ticking still.” Wright’s hard c’s and consonant-plus-l constructions spawn a music I imagine would please the most tired of farmhands, notwithstanding Wright’s redeeming role for an insect all too familiar to them: “To scrape / and sing the sun down, swell poplar // and elm through wind and wind time / back to earth’s first songs.”
Animals seem to inhabit all of the poems in the first section of Wright’s book, and these scenes hold a sense of awe different from that which comes from observing these creatures in real life. “Hard to hate them for this madness // to outdo what will do them in, as fall bleeds queens to flakes and new kin / hatch, winter-hidden, waiting,” he writes in “Aubade for Yellow Jacket.” In another poem, “White moths hoard here where hanging lanterns / have long been snuffed, // where the only fires are the moths themselves.” But by the time I hit the poem “Something New and Moonburnt,” I was ready for something new, something that, as enjoyable as they are, could not be described with the title “Barn Gothic.”
Wright won my attention with the word “Moonburnt” because I’m drawn to ideas I can’t believe I’ve never read, or I can’t believe I can’t remember if I’ve read them. The speaker describes a new valley, separate from the barns and fields of previous pages, where “Daughters / will drive the horses away / from the yolklight of cookfires.” I haven’t imagined a fire without thinking about a yolk since I read this image. And what made me turn back to Mann, and even Milton, was Wright’s ending:
and torn flesh will be stitched,
bread broken, and the new
violence an acquiescence
to the notion that nothing
need be carried, no more
than the body can bear.
The last time I heard the following lines from the second book of Paradise Lost, Wiman described them as some of the most depressing lines in all of poetry:
Our torments also may in length of time
Become our Elements, these piercing Fires
As soft as now severe, our temper chang’d
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain.
Over time, in other words, the fallen angels will become accustomed to the trials of hell — what seems severe now will one day become soft. Though Wright’s valley houses a new, perhaps “better” violence, it’s nonetheless a violence to which its residents must assent. And as with Milton’s fallen angels, the violence will live eternally because the bodies always manage to bear. Mann likewise adjusts in her hell after a stalker begins communication in the wake of her Immediate Family collection of photos: “We live routinely now with a hitherto unendurable amount of stress. Each time it ratchets upwards, we adapt to it. In accommodating it, we normalize it.” Or as the speaker of Wright’s poem utters, “Night / will be the new day.”
I dog-eared two more poems in Wright’s first section. “In Fear of Silence” introduces questions of theodicy, or why God allows evil, into the lives found among fields, pastures, and in this case, western South Carolina. The speaker hears a crazy man “barking at twilight,” and I think of Dante’s portrayal of the wrathful and tortured shades in hell as dogs. The man disappears from the speaker’s sight, and he hears “what Christ // allows: the truck engines of teenage murderous / with boredom, bullfrogs, the human screams / of rabbits dying in their dens. The houses / ticking gaunt and lean, long and crumbling.” Wright leaves me thinking about God’s permitting the murder of this ill man.
Going back to Aquinas and the Greek origin of heresy, should we not unbelieve but choose a new belief if this violence is the norm? “No one can hope to understand / these fields’ rapt emptiness,” the speaker says earlier in the poem. Is this a call to subvert the current, ineffectual ways of knowing for something else? Or do we accept it, and praise what we can, while we can? “[A]nd if I admit the world is / kind, even as it murders / my cells and days,” Wright writes in “Hour,”
my heart blooms orchard deep
to know this earth has made for me
an hour of seasons, seeds,
and sentience, for which I am
nun, priest, imam: married
to all it withholds.
Whether married to it or merely stuck with what we’ve been given, we’re headed toward death from our first breath. I recently played for my young writers’ workshop students a TED talk delivered by critic Stephen Burt, where he says, “[W]e’re all going to die. Poetry can help us live with that.” Wright’s “One Third of Our Lives,” which comes in the middle of his collection, came to mind. Making an audible “oh,” I discovered early in the poem that the title refers to sleep. The lines narrate the speaker’s fear of missing out, when sleep strikes. A repetition ripe with cadence hits midway through the poem when the speaker tells herself, “We sleep on, smiling as a phantom moth alights upon our hair. // We sleep as starlings shunt down / nightfall like thrown stones.” But her confidence wanes in a concluding plea that reminds me of several people I helped to die during my time as a hospital chaplain: “tell me that sleep / is more than these nightly / wombs of blue // narcosis, more than our mouths / slackening, rehearsing / early for the dust.” I want to grab her hand and say, “I’m afraid our entire lives are a rehearsal.”
I looked up the meaning of “Inflorescence,” the title Wright gives the second section of his collection. The OED’s first definition reads, “The complete flower head of a plant including stems, stalks, bracts, and flowers.” But after living with these poems for a spell, I believe the third definition does Wright’s work more justice: “The process of flowering.” The heading works even among the winters and ghosts that serve as grounding motifs. “He loved the killing frost that checked the sap, / that silenced the cicada’s long debate,” Wright begins “The Farmer Who Loved Winter,” one of my favorite poems in the second half of his book. This farmer dreams of snow even during the green of springs and summers. His mind stays on gray fields and “his wife hair // spiced with conifer.” I imagine the farmer would get a kick out of the Game of Thrones tagline, “Winter is coming.” And when winter does come, Wright gifts us an ending with sounds echoing the stars’ shimmers:
Their salt shimmer
slaked his mind to know the soul’s residuum
long outglowed leaf or flesh, stem or stone,
returned to join and root in some new
flagrant spring, ghost-grown, abiding.
Here’s a taste of ghost inflorescence. Mann, too, writes about the rooting and flowering of ghosts in the American South, a place “haunted by the souls of the millions of African Americans who built that part of the country with their hands and with the sweat and blood of their backs.” The farms of Mann’s Shenandoah Valley and Wright’s mountain town spring from each winter with life that sprouts from the same soils toiled by these bodies. “I was moving among shades, aware, always, of their presence,” Mann says.
Wright similarly ends the section’s title poem with a spring rebirth like a farmer who signals he’s done talking with a mention of better weather to come. But the poet doesn’t offer this trust that God annually will deliver reprieve without first describing an all-take, no-give relationship between human and place. “If you cling to anything here— / an obsidian shard, a leaf of smutgrass, / it will be taken from you / as dust,” the speaker warns. “This is where you end / and where you begin, where leaf-language, // earth’s only divination, / scatters through the wind’s / fixed lexicon.” The first notion — that one cannot hold onto anything more than mere dust — troubled me. It seemed too dramatic for the atmosphere of the poem. Even in the most desolate of Blood Meridian-like landscapes, most people are able to cling to something — be it physical or mental. I didn’t sense where Wright might be leading me until I thought about clinging, or not holding lightly, and revisited Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
“When we realize that everything we see is a part of emptiness, we can have no attachment to any existence,” Suzuki writes. “When we first hear that everything is a tentative existence, most of us are disappointed; but this disappointment comes from a wrong view of man and nature.” Wright’s next lines eerily converse with Suzuki: “I cannot speak for all the emptiness / between the earth and me, // the cold spaces that hold this clarity.” The speaker nods in agreement with Suzuki, in other words, and I’m the one with the wrong view of man and nature. Only a person in the position of a farmer, a field laborer, or someone else required to live intimately close to the land would come to realize nothing is as lasting as it seems. Even the “winter grass / made hex, implacable” doesn’t play by the rules of man. Only when we don’t expect or hope for control or permanence of our environment will our disappointment with this arrangement be assuaged. This proverb isn’t limited to Buddhism — Christian mystic Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace:
Attachment is no more nor less than an insufficiency in our sense of reality. We are attached to the possession of a thing because we think that if we cease to possess it, it will cease to exist. A great many people do not feel with their whole soul that there is all the difference in the world between the destruction of a town and their own irremediable exile from that town.
The town stays but not on our terms. “[L]ight / and shadow author act and meaning // green-heat and birdsong past all / praise and grief, motion, murder,” Wright writes. Nature, not man, remains the author of meaning despite all we do in and around its kingdom. Mann again: “Profligate physical beauty is easy to find in the South, but what gins up the ecstasy is the right light, the resonant, beating heart of that light, unique to the South.”
Wright knows this South. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, has an upcoming stint as a writer-in-residence at a university in Knoxville, serves as the series editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, and has contributed to the Oxford American, which bills itself as “A Magazine of the South.” But at times in Tree Heresies, all of this southern-ness distracts from what makes the South worthy of Wright’s lines. David Orr writes in The New York Times about Frank Stanford that he “leans on the clichés of the Southern Gothic until he is nearly horizontal. Much fishin’ is done. Knives and rivers and hog blood are plentiful. The moon must be exhausted from all the appearances it makes.” Yet, these subjects make for good poetry if they aren’t delivered page after page.
Wright doesn’t rely on clichés as much as he writes the same few poems in the way of another Wright — Charles. In an interview for The Poetry Foundation released in April of this year, Charles Wright explains why his poems are like prayer beads. “You come back to where you started, which is what meditation does and why my poems seem to be so repetitive,” he admits. “I’m afraid I’ve been writing the same poem for fifty years. We all have two or three ideas. That’s about it. You work them over and over and over. And I do it on purpose. […] I do it on purpose because they’re my devotions.” Will Wright comes from this same school. I found myself waiting to read his poems before I went to sleep, amid “The hieroglyphs of evening: moon / filters through woods / and strikes the mossy floor with marrowlight, / sun’s last comment.”
In “The Book of Nights,” Wright’s speaker imagines a girl asleep, commenting, “We share nothing // save a steady unraveling.” After living with Wright’s book, treating it as much of a prayer as an accounting of long, unforgiving days and nights in southern circumstances, I shared in this unraveling of what Marie Howe describes as “the everyday we spoke of. […] This is what the living do.” But fortunately for Wright’s speaker and for us, a position of disentangling is “where a little, just a little / truth leaks through.”