What We (non)Believe: Reading Poems by Charles Wright, John Burnside, and Kevin Hart

1 November 2014

‘What will become now of art,’ asks Maurice Blanchot, ‘now that the gods and even their absence are gone, and now that man’s presence offers no support?’1

Imagine that three poems are delivered to your door. They come without note, explanation or sending address. The first is Charles Wright’s ‘Appalachian Book of the Dead’2. The second is a fragment called ‘Pilgrimage’, which is the title of section three of John Burnside’s poem ‘Roads’3. The third is Kevin Hart’s ‘The River’4. You are curious and so you read them. They have strange parallels, all seem attuned to silence. This causes you to recall, for some reason, Paul Valéry’s initial response to Mallarmé’s A Coup des and what he calls ‘the immense question posed by this silence charged with so much life and with so much death’5. Yet you read them again and, this time, you are struck by their attention to the world: ‘sunlight lavishes brilliance on every surface’ (Wright 3), ‘wind in young boughs’ (Hart 3) ‘the scent of orchards’ (Burnside 22). After, a wisp of Maurice Blanchot ghosts through your mind, carrying with it echoes of Rilke and Heidegger: ‘Man is linked to things, he is in the midst of them.’

Unfortunately, you forget the rest of the quote6. What are you to make of these poems offered by no-one in silence? Is it part of a game? A wrong address? Or is this something religious? A call or summons? You ring your friends and ask them whether they have sent you a cryptic early birthday gift. No one admits anything. Some ask you whether you are subtly reminding them that your birthday is coming up soon. You search the poets’ names online and discover broad facts about each writer:

Charles Wright: born 1935 in Tennessee; attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; stationed in Italy with the US army where he began to write poetry; and currently living in Virginia and teaching at the University of Virginia. On matters of faith he has described himself as ‘a God-fearing non-believer, though Christ doesn’t really enter in to it’7. John Burnside: from the UK, born 1955; a Scotsman who grew up in England with an alcoholic father and a very unhappy home life; became addicted to various drugs and alcohol himself as a young man before embarking on an IT career he’d later abandon to write novels and poetry full time; and now teaching at the University of St Andrews. He has described himself as ‘philosophically religious, but not attached [with] no sense of having a personal God or a personal soul’8. Kevin Hart: born 1954 in England; grew up in Australia and converted to Catholicism as an adult; a personal chair in Christian Studies at the University of Virginia; divides his time between there and ACU in Melbourne; and has extensive writing on the intersection between continental philosophy and Christian thought. Increasingly, he writes more publically on matters of faith, from arguing against the New Atheists9 to editing a book on the experience of God10.

So you are faced with two deists and one catholic convert. And yet you have before you three poems that comport themselves similarly, finding silences, traversing the edges of belief in landscapes that harbor both faith and doubt.

You leave the house in order to purchase the volumes these poems are found in. Context may prove vital. Your local poetry bookshop may not actually exist, but it has a wonderful range and reasonable prices. The salesman is wearing a blue suit. He directs you toward Wright’s Black Zodiac (1995), Burnside’s The Asylum Dance (2000) and Hart’s Wicked Heat (1999)11. He asks, ‘Why these three books?’ You tell him this story. He seems to be disappointed with your explanation, but asks you to return when you have figured out the connection. After purchasing the three books you read them in a nearby café and become struck by the deep ambivalence of Wright’s volume, at once employing the language of faith, gesturing toward the possibility of transcendence, whilst also casting this possibility in decidedly dark terms. Burnside’s book seems to be an extended meditation on dwelling places and home, as an epigraph from Heidegger attests12. There are pregnant edges to the Scotsman’s domestic landscapes, however – shadows in the margins that grow large with imagining. Hart’s book is at home in Brisbane’s sensual heat, stifling humidity, and constant drone of cicadas. In this environment a poem like ‘The River’, with its North American setting in snowy woods, is cool breath on sunburned skin.

Walking home you realise your failure as a New Critic, the way you have succumbed to various fallacies (intentional, affective, Wikipedic). Even so, you duck into the library to read a few more journal articles and interviews. You discover that Hart has written about Wright’s poetry and its ‘negative transcendence’13. Both poets teach at the University of Virginia. You find out that Burnside quotes Wright’s ‘Last Supper’ in an epigraph to his poem ‘By Pittenweem’ (‘One knows/ There is no end to the other world, /no matter where it is’)14. Armed with more background material and some connecting strands you step back out into the winter afternoon. A cockatoo shrieks and you wonder whether it is a warning, or mocking laughter, or just a cockatoo.

At dusk, with shadows lengthening outside, you sit at the kitchen bench and read the three original poems once more. This time you notice the gaps in each work: crows deep in their own darkness, the hollow of the stairs, a light falling between words. And as you read you recall echoes of other poems in each volume, snippets of interviews, philosophical parallels. To mark out and remember these places you take up whatever is at hand: a postcard, a butter knife, a dried leaf that has somehow attached itself to your coat. Faced with this new textual array you decide to take things more slowly – to attend to each poem with care and write down your notes as you go along.

**

I. Charles Wright’s ‘The Appalachian book of the Dead’

The poem’s title evokes the landscape for which Wright seems to be known, but the opening lines immediately use a simile to tie this landscape to something bleaker and more ominous:

Sunday, September Sunday . . . Outdoors,
Like an early page from The Appalachian Book of the Dead (1-2).

By beginning with death, on Sunday, the day of resurrection, the poet has already begun to invert our expectations of revelation. Instead of any moment of upward revelation taking place in the poem, for example, the brilliance of afternoon light reflecting the brilliance of God, the poem moves in the other direction. The first lines descend from the Sunday afternoon sun to darkness of the crow and then to a general notion of otherness. Because of this descent, the moment of revelation takes on an ominous tone where the ticking of ‘something like water’ (6) occurs ‘just there, beyond the horizon,’ (7) in a space on the edge of the landscape itself.

Additionally, when it looks as though some kind of transcendence may be occurring, the second stanza begins with an interruption from Ezra Pound’s ‘A Retrospect’: ‘Go in fear of abstractions’15. Wright with his Episcopalian background must have noted Pound’s appropriation of the liturgical sending out (‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’16). But Pound is also arguing that the concrete image must be pure for the poet, as his preceding sentences make clear:

Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol17.

Wright seems to object with a shrug (‘Well, possibly’ 9), and follows this with some difficult lines which posit abstractions as the very atmosphere that ‘our bodies rise through’ (10). Here Wright seems to play with the concrete and the abstract as kinds of transcendence and immanence within a certain metaphysic. Indeed he inverts Pound’s project by noting that ‘whatever enlightenment there might be’ (12) acts as a conduit for two of these abstractions (that is ‘Housels compassion and affection’ 13). It is not as though the phenomena of the world are a ladder which one climbs to get to the abstract, to some higher plane. Rather by putting this in terms of the Eucharist, Wright is arguing that there is a sacramental mediation that runs from abstract to concrete, from higher to lower (just like bread and wine mediate spiritual realities). So enlightenment cannot be the epiphany of any specific religious experience that draws one away from the things of the world, rather it must be that strange moment where we ‘sense the sense of’ (15) these two higher tributaries flowing back into the world itself.

To ‘sense the sense of’ something places us at a kind of double remove and there is a Kantian legacy here, an impulse to preserve the unknowability of whatever is noumenal18. This repeated structure is something Wright uses elsewhere. So within this volume he writes: ‘We believe in belief, but don’t believe’ (3.19) or ‘Belief in transcendence,/ belief in something beyond belief’ (4.9-10)19. Of course these two phrases are inversions of one another: on the one hand, affirming belief as a form but emptying it of its content, on the other hand affirming a type of content that belief can never reach. Yet for Wright they become two ways of presenting the paradox at the heart of his poetry. Belief is necessary and urgent, but the most precious content is either far removed or obscured by the darkness of a dark landscape. This oscillation between faith and unbelief is also bound up with the nature of poetry itself; poetry can be a form of belief, the very form of belief that Wright ‘believes’ in, but it must reveal itself as a response to absence. Thus, poetry must be that belief in both the surprising impulse of language to reach beyond itself, but also in the beautiful inadequacy of this action.

  1. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 233.
  2. Charles Wright, ‘The Appalachian Book of the Dead,’ in Black Zodiac (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 34-35. All subsequent references included in text as line numbers.
  3. John Burnside, ‘Roads,’ in The Asylum Dance (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 73-84. All subsequent references included in text as line numbers.
  4. Kevin Hart, ‘The River,’ in Wicked Heat (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 1999), 45. All subsequent references included in text as line numbers. Line numbering for ‘Pilgrimage’ begins in section three of ‘Roads’ (such that the first line of the section is called line one).
  5. Paul Valéry, ‘On Mallarmé’s ‘Coup De Dés’,’ in Selected Writings of Paul Valéry (New York: New Directions, 1950), 219.
  6. Later, you stumble across the full reference annotated with handwritten exclamation points in your copy of Blanchot (but you cannot recall being the kind of person who would be this enthusiastic about Blanchot): ‘Man is linked to things he is in the midst of them, and if he renounces his realizing and representing activity, if he apparently withdraws into himself, it is not in order to dismiss everything which isn’t he, the humble and outworn realities, but rather to take these with him, to make them participate in this interiorization where they lose their use value, their falsified nature, and lose also their narrow boundaries in order to penetrate into their true profundity.’ Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 139.
  7. Daniel Cross Turner, ‘Oblivion’s Glow: The (Post)Southern Sides of Charles Wright: An Interview with Charles Wright,’ storySouth, no. 16 (2005).
  8. Mike Wade, ‘The Conversation: John Burnside,’ The Times, 2 January 2010.
  9. Kevin Hart, ‘Belief, Too, Can Start with a Bang,’ The Australian, 2 July 2008.
  10. Kevin Hart and Barbara Wall, ed. The Experience of God: A Postmodern Response, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
  11. Charles Wright, Black Zodiac (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). John Burnside, The Asylum Dance (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000). Kevin Hart, Wicked Heat (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 1999).
  12. ‘The proper dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell…’ in Burnside, The Asylum Dance.
  13. Kevin Hart, ‘La Poesia È Scala a Dio: On Reading Charles Wright,’ Religion and the Arts 8, no. 2 (2004).
  14. John Burnside, ‘By Pittenweem,’ in Gift Songs (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007). Charles Wright, ‘Last Supper,’ in The Wrong End of the Rainbow (Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2005).
  15. Ezra Pound, ‘A Retrospect,’ in Pavannes and Divisions (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1918), 97.
  16. The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Pension Fund, 1945), 366.
  17. Pavannes and Divisions (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1918), 97.
  18. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1950), 257-75.
  19. Wright, ‘Lives of the Saints,’ 43. and ‘Lives of the Artists,’ 51.
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