“The world’s an untranslatable language.” So poet Charles Wright states in the first line of “The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight.” The poem appears in Oblivion Banjo: The Poetry of Charles Wright, a new collection from Farrar, Straus and Giroux comprised of Wright’s previously published works from some twenty books, written over the course of forty years. In the collection, the former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner invokes many ghosts: of people, places missed, memories and ephemera. As a result, Oblivion Banjo is a complex theater of images where the world — “chalk hills” and “A length of chain, a white hand” — appears strange yet cherished in Wright’s verse.
Wright’s life — he’s a veteran and a former professor, among many other things — is a great wellspring from which he draws inspiration. It’s appropriate that memories are treated as monadic quantities in Oblivion Banjo; Wright employs the past to create poetic moments in which he toys with his reader’s senses. The collection is neatly bound. The cover, in the fashion of Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems, published in 2008 by Ecco, features a solitary figure over a black backdrop. In this case, it’s not Herbert striking a cigarette with a lit match, but a sole index finger covered in sparkling dust standing before an inky darkness.
In the winter 1989 issue, the Paris Review published J. D. McClatchy’s interview with Wright, conducted at Wright’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia. McClatchy stated, “You say you began writing in Italy. You could as easily say you began writing in the army — but you don’t.” Wright responded: “The army was fact, Italy was fiction. Again, the metaphysics of the quotidian. Or, poetry is the fiction we use to prove the fact. Something like that.”
The two discussed the importance of Ezra Pound; Wright kept a copy of Pound’s Cantos while stationed in Italy. The text inspired him to compose his own poetry. It’s fitting, then, that readers find in Oblivion Banjo a poem titled “Homage to Ezra Pound” that reads:
Today is one of those days
One swears is a prophesy:
The air explicit and moist,
As though filled with unanswered prayers;
The twilight, starting to slide
Its sooty fingers along the trees;
And you, Pound,
Awash in the wrong life,
The speaker of the poem apostrophizes Pound after the controversial literary figure returned to America from Italy. Though Wright and Pound never met, the speaker addresses him directly. The reader finds a dialogue; as in the previous stanzas, the terrain where Pound once lived speaks to Wright. “As though filled with unanswered prayers,” the Venice landscape acts as a channel between artist and muse.
In poems like “Homage to Ezra Pound,” Wright focuses his gaze on things left behind: a modern Orpheus looking back. After all, the truth of prophesy is only revealed in hindsight. Wright gives readers a sense that memories leave imprints on landscapes, but only if one can discern them. We are left to wonder at Wright’s metaphysics. When poetry proves the essence of reality, perhaps every landscape is haunted by unsung memories. Perhaps every memory is a landscape waiting to be sung.
From a thematic standpoint, the poems in Oblivion Banjo are concerned as much with mysticism and theology as they are with philosophical constructs. There are moments, as with the “first dusk” described in the poem “Invisible Landscapes,” that Wright conceptualizes God’s role in his speaker’s subjective experience of nature:
I bring to this landscape a bare hand, these knuckles
Slick as a cake of soap,
The black snag of a tamarack,
The oddments and brown jewelry of early September evenings
In wet weather, a Colt-colored sky…
God is the sleight-of-hand in the fireweed, the lost
Moment that stopped to grieve and moved on…
There is a poetic sleight-of-hand here: that God is a “Moment.” Not only a student of Pound, but also a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Wright is carefully — playfully — aware of form. The description of God as “the sleight-of-hand in the fireweed,” and the capital “M” in “Moment,” create the sensation of motion, suggesting a prime-mover. Though Wright capitalizes the first word of each line in the poem, the enjambed phrasing of the last two lines also makes “Moment” a proper noun — a thing of great importance. But the moment is fleeting. The God of the poem moves on.
A kind of grappling occurs in Wright’s poems because of his many influences. Speaker and place intersect, only to be wrested apart by memory; place and God entwine, until God exits. It makes one wonder: if “poetry is the fiction we use to prove the fact,” is there truth within Oblivion Banjo? It may only be a subjective one for both poet and reader: a line that rings the bell of memory, a turn of phrase that hurts too closely, a metaphor suggestive of a secret joy.
Walter Benjamin writes, in “The Task of the Translator,” “One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it.” Though more famous for his prose, Benjamin, too, was a poet; he wrote over seventy sonnets in honor of his friend — the poet Christoph Friedrich Heinle. From the German, translator Nirmal Dass approximates in English pentameter part of line eleven and the last tercet from “Sonnet 1” as:
you royally carried
The banner whose emblem you did fathom
If just in me you’d raised your holy name
Imageless like an unending Amen.
Accordingly, Wright finishes “The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight:”
If tree is tree in English
And albero in Italian,
That’s as close as we can come
To divinity, the language that circles the earth
and which we’ll never speak.
Is divinity, of a kind, what he is after? Or is it a belief in a pre-Adamic language of gestures? Earlier in the poem, Wright writes there is “a language of objects / Our tongues can’t master.” Happy and without a name for everything — every moment — Wright has a manner of knowing uncertainty. As he’s done throughout his career, he leaves his reader wondering what language can aspire toward: how poetry unties the tongue-tied muse of memory.
Oblivion Banjo: The Poetry of Charles Wright
By Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published Nov. 5, 2019
Jordan Foti Gulino is the Features Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. He is a poet, essayist, and translator based out of Chicago (and sometimes Greece). Follow him on Twitter at @fotakigulino.