Reading Scar Tissue, Charles Wright’s seventeenth book of poetry, I am reminded how it appears almost impossible to consider any current individual collection of Wright’s poems without immediately placing the recent pieces into context with his past work. As I indicated in a longer previous essay in VPR examining Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems (2000), this poet’s intentions in his writing seem plain and straightforward. He has openly stated the purpose of his poetry: “What do I want my poems to do? I want them to sing and to tell the story of my life.”
The expanded lyrical history of Wright’s life began when he discovered Ezra Pound’s poetry while a member of the army stationed in Italy nearly half a century ago: “Like Dionysus, I was born for a second time. / From the flesh of Italy’s left thigh, I emerged one January / Into a different world,” (“A Short History of My Life”). However, in this poem and continually throughout his career, Wright’s chronicling completely covers the seven decades of his life, traveling back to childhood in his native Tennessee: “I was born on a Sunday morning, untouched by the heavens . . .. The Tennessee River soft shift at my head and feet.”
Since the publication of Negative Blue, a collection that brought to a close Wright’s self-proclaimed decades-long period of work, a trilogy of trilogies termed The Appalachian Book of the Dead, the poet now has produced three new books of exceptional poetry—A Short History of the Shadow (2002), Buffalo Yoga (2004), and Scar Tissue (2006). These three volumes represent a later stage of his poetic life story, what Wright has acknowledged as an ongoing “spiritual autobiography,” one that links landscape, language, and the likelihood of God. The final lines in “A Short History of My Life” extend Wright’s efforts: “No light on leaf, / No wind in the evergreens, no bow in the still-blonde grasses. / The world in its dark grace. I have tried to record it.”
In these collections, perhaps to be regarded as another Wright trilogy, the poet concerns himself with issues of memory and mortality even more intently than before, as he continues to inspect and internalize the external world of nature: “Gazing out of some window, still taking it all in, / Our arms around Memory” (“The Wrong End of the Rainbow”). The opening imagery of “Heraclitean Backwash” presents a speaker’s figure in reflection, as if superimposed upon a view of nature in the landscape which fills his vision: “As though the world were a window and I a faint reflection / Returning my gaze / Wherever I looked, and whatever I looked upon.” Wright’s recurring identification with nature recalls similar connections created by one of his most significant influences, Walt Whitman, who also arranged the whole of his poetic life into a lyric progression of spiritual autobiography.
Nevertheless, in Scar Tissue Charles Wright clarifies the use of landscape in his poetry: “Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique, / A method for measure, a scaffold for structuring” (“The Minor Art of Self-defense”). Wright concedes: “Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God.” Ever since his religious upbringing in Tennessee, Wright has grappled with the concept of God. In “Confessions of a Song and Dance Man,” he categorizes himself: “A God-fearing agnostic.” Though doubtful (“Are you there, Lord, I whisper, knowing he’s not around”), the intention of his life-long search for God seems to be an exploration of the possibility some spiritual sense to our lives might explain to us our complex emotional reactions to the world in which we find ourselves.
As in past volumes, Wright’s extensive use of religious imagery and holy symbolism or situations with spiritual connotation continues to suggest a sacred element to nature: “Good Friday, then Easter in full drag, / Dogwood blossoms like little crosses / All down the street, lilies and jonquils bowing their mitred heads” (“Last Supper”). Wright’s fascination with the idea of an afterlife of some sort appears more emphatic in his later poetry: “One knows / There is no end to the other world, no matter where it is.”
When Wright is not projecting into a future beyond the temporal existence of our mortal presence—“Our lives are summer cotton, it seems, and good for a season” (“Transparencies”)—he turns his attention to the past again through memories of younger days, particularly beginning the third of the book’s three sections, where Wright includes a few poems with nostalgic visits to events located in specific years from long ago. “Appalachia Dog” derives its title from the name of a “metallic red” car in the poet’s youth written “in black script on the left front door. / A major ride, dragging the gut in Kingsport in 1952. / A Ford, lowlife and low-down.” In “Get a Job” Wright remembers construction work, the worst of his life, in “Sullivan County, Tennessee, a buck twenty an hour, / 1952.” A recollection of camping with his brother at “Hiwassee Dam, North Carolina” in 1942, during which “incidents flicker like foxfire in the black / Isolate distance of memory,” leads the speaker to suggest a reason we look back so often as we age: “The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods, / Hoping to find the radiant cell / That washed us and caused our lives to glow in the dark like clock hands / Endlessly turning toward the future” (“Archaeology”).
Significantly, the collection’s middle section, from which the book draws its title, focuses more closely on memory and nostalgia: “It is impossible to say goodbye to the past” (“Scar Tissue”). When Wright delivers another of his wonderfully inventive metaphors to intimate the nearing of an end (“The slit wrists of sundown tincture the western sky wall, / The drained body of daylight trumps the Ecclesiast”), he chooses to use language in a way that might provide comfort or understanding. As he has written elsewhere, Wright believes that poetry remains a means toward “contemplation of the divine and its attendant mysteries.” In this instance, the poet connects time, language, and landscape, each with its need for order, knowing all three supply their own symmetry and organized systems: “The urge toward form is the urge toward God.” Yet, much seems to hinge on the crucial influence of memory: “Names, and the names of things, past places, / Lost loves and the love of loss, / The alphabet and geometry of guilt, regret / For things done and things undone” (“Scar Tissue II”).
Readers of Wright’s poetry over the years expect commentary within the work on the attachment of language to landscape, the coupling of word and image, as well as a necessity for narrative, fragmented as it may be in memory and in Wright’s style, that portrays the past in a manner that explains the present or proposes direction for the future. In the book’s first poem, “Appalachian Farewell,” the poet gives a description: “The country of Narrative, that dark territory / Which spells out our stories in sentences, which gives them an end and a beginning.” Later, Wright declares at the start of “Scar Tissue II”: “Time, for us, is a straight line, on which we hang our narratives. / For landscape, however, it all is a circling / From season to season, the snake’s tail in the snake’s mouth, no line for a story line.”
Just as scar tissue marks where a wound has happened but not yet fully healed—partially protective and remaining as reminder of a past experience, while also triggering a recall of the emotions felt at the time—the poetry in this collection displays to readers pieced-together evidence of instances that have marked Charles Wright’s life: “memory’s gold-ground mosaics” (“Ghost Days”). Nostalgic revelations in these poems also often serve to shield their speakers somewhat from more unpleasant aspects of memory: “Her full lips telling us just those things she thinks we want to hear” (“The Wrong End of the Rainbow”).
However, as much as anything, the memory poems in Scar Tissue exist as entities exhibiting proof from the past of a life lived well: “Our lives, it seems, are a memory” (“Transparencies”). In “Vespers” the speaker sees, in the glorious visions of nature around him, a place that allows for some sense of spirituality in the present, especially for an agnostic, and permits him to playfully conclude: “Not much of a life, but I’ll take it.” Indeed, with this statement, one might be reminded of Robert Frost’s “Birches,” and his similar declaration: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
Through the use of memory and with his careful consideration of the past, Wright’s appreciation of his life is a bit more enthusiastic elsewhere. Frequently, he seems “like the man who comes to a clearing in the forest, and sees the light spikes, / And suddenly senses how happy his life has been” (“Morning Occurrence at Xanadu”). In the final lines of the book’s closing poem, “Singing Lesson,” Wright advises and directs: “Suffer the darkness to come unto you, suffer its singsong, / And you will abide, / Listen to what the words spell, listen and sing the song.” Thus, in Scar Tissue, as in his other two recent collections, Charles Wright submits persuasive poetry persistently filled with wisdom, aided by a nostalgic filter of memory and an ability to render exquisite descriptions of nature. This contribution to Wright’s latest trilogy contains superb work that continues to convince readers about the value of his rich and lyrical language, which once again enlightens the poet during his contemplation and, in the process, enriches our lives as well.
Wright, Charles. Scar Tissue. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.