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

By | 1 November 2014

This is the sense we get from the remainder of ‘The Appalachian Book of the Dead’, the poet walking the ‘suburbanized’ (17) landscape of a backyard as though he were Dante traversing the realms of the dead. This is a liminal world, marked by a porch and outdoor furniture, a place in which a lawn edged by a garden allows the poet to press against certain limits, ‘testing the grass’ (19) as it were. Thus, when ‘a stillness’ (20) arrives and ‘Bell jars the afternoon’ (21) we are lead along a via negativa toward a moment of anti-epiphany:

            Leaves, like ex votos, hang hard and shine
Under the endlessness of heaven.
Such skeletal altars, such vacant sanctuary (22-24).

Here is the kind of skeptical transcendence that befits an age of ‘postbelief’ as Wright puts it elsewhere1. As Bonnie Costello reminds us, we have in Wright’s work ‘a language of the transcendental without a narrative of transcendence’2. This may be all that’s left of transcendence after Holderlin reminds us the gods have departed3, or Nietzsche’s madman pronounces that God is dead4. Nature’s altars are inscribed with death. The sky is empty. Like in much of Wright’s poetry, the use of religious language and images helps to compound a sense of disappointment in the transcendent one who has withdrawn. This ‘metaphysics of absence and aspiration’ as Hirsch describes it, presents itself as a kind of apocalyptic negativity with a sharpened edge5.

The poem’s final stanza takes up this negative complexity that combines landscape, writing and transcendence. Here the poet notes that ‘what we see jacks up/ the odd quotient of what we don’t see.’ He is replaying a line from the Apologia which opens the volume (‘Landscape’s a lever of transcendence’6) and importantly this becomes a kind of creed for a deflated natural theology. So we do not see the creation’s parts combining to sing a glorious hymn to any deity (as in Psalm 19). Rather, we are presented with a landscape that ‘jacks up’ a principle of division. Thus, the poem ends with not only the deflation of natural theology, but an inversion of it (‘First glimpse of autumn, stretched tight and snicked, a bad face lift’). Wright’s elements do not combine to reveal the beautiful face of God. Instead, they show cosmetic surgery gone wrong. This is a fallen or post-Darwinian world. But, importantly, this is also a ‘virtual reality’ or a flickering screen. In an interview Wright explains that for him ‘Negative transcendence is virtual reality. How you say it, in the end, becomes what you have to say. Or vice-versa’7. So for Wright, transcendence isn’t something you get to via landscape, it is evident precisely in how landscape presents itself and in how one presents it. Therefore, within this scheme, poetry itself becomes the kind of long division that the poem’s final line advocates; a repeated process that divides the world, always discovering a remainder, always pointing to the quotient of the invisible. And for Wright that is why poetry is the mechanism for negative transcendence. For poetry is the language of form and belief that discovers something greater, something invisible, within those dark particularities that comprise the landscape of post-belief.

II. John Burnside, ‘Roads’ (section III Pilgrimage)

The poem is about travelling and homecomings, the sense of absence that drives a journey, but also the absence that seems to lie at the heart of home itself. A pilgrimage implies faith, but this one has negative features, as the epigraph from Octavio Paz implies (‘To elapse is enough/ To elapse is to remain’). Burnside places the titles for each section in the middle of sentences and so the word ‘illusory’ appears immediately before the title of this section. The phrase should read ‘illusory/ as all those journeys are/ home after dark’. But this illusion is cut by the title. The phrase is important because the poem maintains a desire for some kind of home, alongside the recognition that there is no true home, that the poet’s home is already and always compromised by that very negativity that he finds on the roads and in the impulse to travel.

This section is based on suspension and delay, those four long sentences that the poet uses to describe his journey back to his house and partner. Each sentence ends at a marker of negativity, or something that lies beyond apprehension. The first is at line 11 (‘some hunting bird/ skimming low over the tracks and vanishing’). The second occurs toward the bottom of the same page (‘nothing to think of/ as true’ 27-28). The third is on the next page (‘as if there were something more/ to be revealed’ 40-41). The fourth is at the end of this section itself (‘nowhere to go’ 67-67). A vanishing bird, nothing as true, some more to be revealed, nowhere to go: the poet sets up each long sentence so that it comes to rest upon absence, mirroring the poet’s own experience of returning home.

Of course, these journeys home are themselves marked by absence at many points. There is a sense of vagueness and loss in the repetition of ‘some’ in the section’s first sentence (‘some hunting bird’ 9, ‘something remains’ 13, ‘some haunting call’ 14, ‘some film or tape’ 16, ‘some local perfume’ 17). This allows the poet to maintain a distance from each phenomena as it is mentioned, compromising the particularity of any one experience. Too, the olfactory phenomena are vague and disappearing, and the poet uses these drifting scents to track his way home. But this repetition of ‘some’ also sets up the end of this sentence, which is about ‘nothing’ (25-27). Therefore, those elements of the world, the ‘somethings’ that are disappearing or have disappeared, are suspended over nothing. The triple-repetition of nothing (‘nothing here to understand’ 25, ‘nothing to grasp’ 26, ‘nothing to think of/ as true’ 27-28) in the face of these ‘somethings’ seems to drive the Pilgrimage itself. For the poet, there can be no definite revelation. Absence and negativity lie at the heart of this journey, and at the heart of the world.

Yet this negativity is not to downplay the importance of phenomena, senses and locations. Burnside is the kind of poet who takes joy in presenting phenomena as given to the senses (as the chain of olfactory images suggests). And he continues by offering conceptions of the landscapes that are traversed on the return home. Again they are often placed at one remove: worlds read through maps, or containing ‘the dream of a shoreline’ (31), ‘the delicate upland trees’ (32), ‘mountains nuzzling the rearview mirror’ (33). Dreamed, mirrored, far off landscapes then set the scene for the domestic settings which usher the poet toward his own house. Like Wright, we can see a desire for transcendence here, and it is the transcendence of the ordinary and domestic. The porch lights and doors (39), like the station lights, offer something more to be revealed. But they are also places of absence in the world of mundane: doors ajar (35), windows like gaps and traces (36), the possibility of angelic visitation (36). This combination of revelation and absence is important as the section draws to a close because it also describes the home to which the poet returns. So the stairs are ‘hollow’ (48) and the partner is sleeping, meaning that the poet loses identity becoming merely an intruder on the dream of another. Home means sleep’s distances between the poet and the beloved. It means being glad of silence. Yet there is an exquisite turn here, as the poet recognises that absence isn’t just an aspect of home, but part of what he himself has brought back to this space: ‘the blackness of country roads I have smuggled in/ on my shirtsleeves/ the flavour of rain/ and nothingness’ (52-55). Home is indelibly marked by his return. Yes there are gaps in domestic spaces, traces of transcendence and the unknown. But here the gap, the nothingness is also predicated on the journey and the return that changes the domestic space itself. So as the poet slips into bed, figuring himself as a dreamed and self-deprecating god (60-61), his mind remains fixed on the absence that lead to the journey in the first place. ‘This nothing’ (64) is the impetus for the poet to trace out negativity, the starless road (64), no-man’s land (65), eyes threaded by the night wind (66).

One hardly needs to mention that for Burnside this is also the journey of poetry. Later in the poem’s final section ‘Eternal Return’ he writes of ‘a science of goodbyes/ somewhere beyond the absence implicit in grammar’ (V.3-4) The negativity of language therefore runs alongside the negativity of the phenomena, landscapes, and domestic settings. So Burnside’s poetry is therefore driven by both the dark joy of having ‘nowhere to go’ (III.66) but also promise of ‘some haunting call’ (14). Earlier in the poem Burnside writes of cruising dust-roads and alleys ‘for something we almost find/ again and again’ (I.16). The beautiful problem is that his poetry will only ever find absences and gaps even as it unearths things worth preserving.

  1. ‘Polaroids,’ in A Short History of the Shadow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). Cited by Turner, ‘Oblivion’s Glow: The (Post)Southern Sides of Charles Wright: An Interview with Charles Wright.’
  2. Bonnie Costello, ‘Charles Wright’s ‘Via Negativa’: Language, Landscape, and the Idea of God,’ Contemporary Literature 42, no. 2 (2001): 334.
  3. Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Once There Were Gods,’ in Selected Poems (London: Bloodaxe Books, 1996), 17.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Madman,’ in The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181-82.
  5. Edward Hirsch, ‘The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright,’ in The Columbia History of American Poetry, ed. Jay Parini and Brett Millier (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 778.
  6. Wright, ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua,’ I.12.
  7. Turner, ‘Oblivion’s Glow: The (Post)Southern Sides of Charles Wright: An Interview with Charles Wright.’
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: