Coming Soon: the Opening Moment

Bloodlines Image

The first book by Charles Wright that I encountered, as an undergrad.

In just a couple of days, 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Charles Wright will give his opening reading at the Library of Congress. I was thrilled to see Ron Charles at The Washington Post help spread the word, and even suggest that the Laureate wear a suit! Rumor has it that the acclaimed poet might don a cobalt blue Italian sport coat, at the suggestion of his wife . . .

I can tell you this for sure, though: Wright will read poems throughout much of his storied career. I can tell you the moment I fell in love with his work. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of my workshop teachers introduced my class to the Gaus Poetry Collection in the undergraduate library, out amidst a study area. It was a life-changing discovery for me, as it kick-started my reading of contemporary American poetry. Among my favorites was Bloodlines, with the wildest author photo I’d then seen: the author, in mirror shades, perched perfectly in front of a hanging washtub (which looked like a halo). And the poems were just as wild. Here’s the opening poem:

Virgo Descending

Through the viridian (and black of the burnt match),
Through ox-blood and ochre, the ham-colored clay,
Through plate after plate, down
Where the worm and the mole will not go,
Through ore-seam and fire-seam,
My grandmother, senile and 89, crimpbacked, stands
Like a door ajar on her soft bed,
The open beams and bare studs of the hall
Pink as an infant’s skin in the floating dark;
Shavings and curls swing down like snowflakes across her face.

My aunt and I walk past. As always, my father
Is planning rooms, dragging his lame leg,
Stroke-straightened and foreign, behind him,
An aberrant 2-by-4 he can’t fit snug.
I lay my head on my aunt’s shoulder, feeling
At home, and walk on.
Through arches and door jambs, the spidery wires
And coiled cables, the blueprint takes shape:
My mother’s room to the left, the door closed;
My father’s room to the left, the door closed–

Ahead, my brother’s room, unfinished;
Behind, my sister’s room, also unfinished.
Buttresses, winches, block-and-tackle: the scale of everything
Is enormous. We keep on walking. And pass
My aunt’s room, almost complete, the curtains up,
The lamp and the medicine arranged
In their proper places, in arm’s reach of where the bed will go . . .
The next one is mine, now more than half done,
Cloyed by the scent of jasmine,
White-gummed and anxious, their mouths sucking the air dry.

Home is what you lie in, or hang above, the house
Your father made, or keeps on making,
The dirt you moisten, the sap you push up and nourish . . .
I enter the living room, it, too, unfinished, its far wall
Not there, opening on to a radiance
I can’t begin to imagine, a light
My father walks from, approaching me,
Dragging his right leg, rolling his plans into a perfect curl.
That light, he mutters, that damned light.
We can’t keep it out. It keeps on filling your room.

from Country Music: Selected Earlier Poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1991). Reprinted with permission from the author.

A good Midwestern Catholic teen, I found this poem positively incantatory. Or, it felt like a strange vision: imagistically rich, but just as troubling. Almost a quarter-century has passed since I first read “Virgo Descending,” yet writing this makes me want to go back to the poem again and again, to see what I can discover. To see why the poem still makes me feel like I do: like the world it creates is both surreal and intimate, revealing in ways I can’t quite grasp but know instinctively.

So, much has to happen before Thursday night–when the lights go down and our next Poet Laureate walks through the center doors of the Coolidge stage–but that’s the moment I’m waiting for. For the great hush, when everyone in the audience is waiting, and I’m waiting. And Charles Wright’s voice fills the room, as the voices of our Laureates and Consultants have from almost the time when he was born.

Coolidge -- doors about to open

The Coolidge Auditorium stage, where Charles Wright will give his inaugural reading as Laureate.

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