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A Great Southern Poet Wrestling with Mortality

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How exactly does one come to grips with their own mortality? The answer to this question comes in a variety of ways and typically depends upon the person facing death. In poetry, the notion of an impending passing has inspired some of the most honest and beautiful lines, and has shaped the way we view ourselves in light of them. Charles Wright’s latest collection, Caribou, does not lack in providing a depth and roundedness in regards to how we should view death and poetry simultaneously. The book is an examination of the self, a self that has grown weary of the trials of the world, and has accepted a disappearance into the great beyond.


Wright possesses an impressive body of work that includes 27 books and chapbooks, a shared National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Lifetime Achievement Prize, an International Griffin Poetry Prize, and many other esteemed honors. He has seen and done about everything an American poet can hope for. Now, in his late seventies, Wright seems to have taken the role of an elder prophet, residing himself to the woods of Montana in order to scrawl his last incantations to the dead.


All life, as someone might offer,

                                                rises out of death

And longs to return to it.

It’s in that longing that our days shine out,

                                                                        and glow forth,

And are our comfort into the dark.

 - from ‘Natura Morta’


One of the most prolific Southern poets of the twentieth century, Charles Wright is very familiar with the narratives that coincide with the natural world and dying. His poems have been filled to the brim with the stuff of death, and he has never shied away from expressing his feelings about the afterlife. There has long been a tension in his writing that invokes the skeleton of religious language, while subverting it to the belief that death is really a dark nothingness. In Caribou, Wright reaffirms this by writing: the condition of everything tends toward the condition of silence (from Time and the Centipedes of Night). In Wright’s poems, the only salvation is one from a life in the flesh. Salvation is the peacefulness of death. This isn’t meant to be a bleak sentiment, but one that gives us hope that our lives and the surrounding world are important, not what is beyond death.


I’ve said what I had to say

As melodiously as it was given to me.


I’ve said what I had to say

As far down as I could go.

                                         I’ve been everywhere

- from ‘Lullaby’


Caribou reads, in many ways, like a great poet’s last gasp. In many of the poems, Wright seems to acknowledge that everything is headed to a world of dark, but he continuously affirms his acceptance of that fact. The poems, relying heavily on the natural world, appeal to the great mysteries of life and death in a way that questions our insistent dependence on things that fail us – religion, language, nature, humanity, etc. The looming essence of death has had a profound impact on Wright, who can’t seem to shake the idea that his eternity is behind some locked door, and he can never seem to find the proper key. His poems orbit the culture of the world, and use it to prepare himself for the long walk to the end of his life.


I’m gone, or I am going,

                                      let everyone forgive me.

I tried to make a small hole in my life, something to slip through

To the other side.

- from ‘Translations From A Forgotten Tongue’


In many ways, this book was very difficult to read because it seemed like a great mentor accepting his home in the grave – the end of his life’s work. In other ways, this book is another testament to the power and wisdom that seethe from the surface of Wright’s poems. Charles Wright is the great minister of the dead, and remains a great teacher in the world of poetry. Caribou is another must-read book, maybe the final one, in an illustrious career filled with some of the most enlightening poems in the American canon.

Submitted by Trip Starkey.

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