The chapbook occupies an interesting place in American Poetry these days. It used to be the first refuge of the beginning poet, a format that permitted the publication of a group solid poems without the conjoined headaches of thematic unity or narrative line, a way to announce one’s presence as a working poet while the longer manuscript was still in process. That it was also the first refuge of the self-published didn’t help its reputation any, and if that weren’t enough, the lack of heft in chapbook manuscripts meant that they were often saddle-stapled rather than perfect-bound, in consequence of which they shelved awkwardly. Yet in the past twenty years, the poetry chapbook has become something to be taken very seriously indeed. Legitimate chapbook publishers and competitions have proliferated. More and more established poets turn to the chapbook as they develop tightly themed, intricately balanced collections that seem almost to draw breath as they are read.
William Wright’s first full-length book, Dark Orchard (Texas Review Press, 2006) received the Breakthrough Poetry Prize and showed readers a poet throughly enmeshed in the Southern lanscape that shaped his childhood and adolescence, a landscape rife with beauty and hope and, of course, regret. With The Ghost Narratives (Finishing Line Press, 2008) Wright turns to the chapbook as he uses the lushly metaphorical landscape of the South to create a series of mediations on death and what it may mean. What makes this little book remarkable is the fine mix of incandescent image with language honed to something visionary and song-like.
Observe “the millennial sky-clatter of bird language, leaf-litter / and lichen” (“Ferns”). Consider the implications of “millennial sky-clatter”, the inexorable alliteration of “language, leaf litter / and lichen.” Understand “Summer sky an old onion” (Trumpet Creeper Variations II”), the endless layering that is nature’s work.
Persevere. Recognize that “Field wolves snarl loose the hearts / of slow cattle,”(“The Escape”) and that “reversed medusas // lick through stones, outstare all the locked houses / of blood and hair,” (“Ferns”). Watch as “Frost toughens the grass, slows red oaks // The last of minnows / like gray brushstrokes” and see at last “the rich mud we take up / and eat, our mouths ripening like white fire” (“Ghost Water”). In each stunning image, Wright gives us the root of decay and the poems become illuminations of a world that is, simultaneously, reliquary and release. “Unfurling, my body was wind / passing through the wood” (“Stray”), “June light comes again /and again without remorse” (“Trumpet Creeper Variantions”), and “As water scars deep grain, / cottonmouths uncurl // over roots that twine kin / to smilax and larkspur: // the stream’s clear coil.”
The Ghost Narratives, obsessed as it is with repeated dyings, uplifts through the resilient beauty of landscape and language. The tone throughout is relaxed, almost dreamlike, and seductive. This is a poet who knows well how to use words to great effect, whether it is stars that “shone their platitudes” or “codices in the milkweed” (“Stray”), the world of William Wright is always a world of text in things, the speech of the natural world rendered coherent by the poet’s imagining. The final poem, “Hell,” recalls Hieronymous Bosch, telling us “The damned might as well burrow into the earth, / let salt spill into wounds the reopen like blossoms,” the images full of simultaneous suffering and beauty that is possible only as the poet’s sensibility creates it for his readers. Here is the paradox: Even in its desolation, the poem is sufficiently beautiful that despair does not quite seem possible. The imagining of the unachieved song, the terrible radiance of the effort, are enough to keep things going. “[The damned] dig for all eternity // in the glare of gas flares, their hands soiled then burned // immaculate, again and again the radiance // of melting lungs the closest they will get to song.”
Phebe Davidson is a poet/reviewer/editor with work in print and electronic venues. Current poetry collections include Fat Moon Rising (MSR, 2008) and The Surface of Things (David Robert Books, 2009). Self-described as a recovering academic, she lives in Westminster, SC with her husband Steve and their cat Fripp.