Grass Chapels by William Wright
Equal parts earthen and fabular, William Wright’s Grass Chapels, his first edition of new and selected poetry, walks the proverbial tightwire between aesthetic oomph and nigh-crystalline narrative clarity. Thrummed forward by its nimbly configured lyrical motor, Wright’s voice occupies the tense interstices between scientific specificity—characterized by a sustained inclusion of ecological, botanical, and geologic jargon—and the crows-circling-a-corpse southern grotesque. This mixture of the macro level, lab coat clinical and the pungent local, this attention to both the minute and the momentous, not only displays Wright’s mastery of myriad poetic registers, but also affords him different avenues of appraisal for his foremost subject: the physical and metaphysical landscapes of the American South.
Readers familiar with the comings and goings of contemporary southern poetry may well recognize Wright, who has been a mainstay in the movement for the better part of twenty years. In addition to publishing six full-length collections and two chapbooks of his own, Wright coedits the Southern Poetry Anthology Series—a sometimes-annual publication which has done much to highlight the work of sundry southern and Appalachian poets, and sits at the vanguard of southern letters more broadly. Wright’s geographic and genre credentials go without saying.
Grass Chapels, which offers curated selections from each of his eight poetry collections, allows readers to track the development of Wright’s wondrously oblong poetic sensibilities from their nascence to the present. The book opens with a folio of new poems and works backward, and while there is utility in this pattern of organization, I would encourage readers, in at least one of their forays through, to begin at the end. A concertedly linear approach better suits an excavation of this poet’s formal and stylistic trajectory (poet-cum-scholar Jesse Graves recommends a similar reading schematic in his foreword to the book, and I heartily second this). In doing so, one discovers that while Wright’s earliest output may lack the consummate polish and high-torque vivacity of his most recent work, the nucleic fundaments of a mature voice and a patently unique way of seeing are already present.
Thematically speaking, Wright’s poems are preoccupied by a persistent and all-encircling disharmony between mankind and nature, and humanity’s inability to find modes of production and structures of feeling that are feng shui with the natural world. At the global/municipal level, environmental disasters abound—buildings are halved by brute wind, harvests nullified by flood and blight, and fire chews through eons of understory. At the familial/person-to-person threshold, the standpoint from which a majority of Wright’s poems are narrated, tragedy and tribulation are stitched into the teleological fabric. “Trumpet Creeper,” a long poem which expertly marries mathematic language to a heart-worn and homespun plot (a prime example of Wright’s penchant for taking intensely complex organic functions and framing them as analogous to lived human experience), is rife with the cyclical rhythms of birth and death, fecundity and fallowness:
Around the bowed trunks [of trees] the loam shoots forth
lush feelers, sprung broad then clustered,
pink star-trails drooped at the stalk
to hum a song I almost hear.
Coiled red mouths, they bloom beyond the shed
into unhinged greenness,
brighten, pump, swell through everything,
foiling their own morphology.
As the poem progresses, this emphasis on the boom-and-bust seasonality of the natural world is cantilevered into a meditation on what an aberration, what a cosmological mishap, human consciousness is. But, even though the speaker matter-of-factly declares he is no more than the sum of his measly parts—“I am meat, salt, [and] water. / in my skull hums / a three pound sentient chunk”—this does nothing to inoculate him, or the human race entire, against the ravages of grief and sentimentality. Thus, the speaker goes on to catalog his own family’s lineage of hardship: “My great uncle Basil died when he was five years old / on a farmhouse floor in Iredell County, North Carolina […] Quilts and winter storms / broke my great-grandmother / to bone and a scorched gown.” In addition to “Trumpet Creeper,” poems like “Blonde Mare, Iredell County, North Carolina, 1870-1896”—which outlines the hardscrabble plight of his itinerant, sharecropping ancestors through a codification of the life and labors of their benighted plow-horse—also attest to the notion that the homo sapiens (ever indentured to his elastic passions and illogical humors) is in his own way a beast of burden: pitted precariously against a callous, unforgiving universe; estranged from the rest of the biotic world by his emotional predispositions and metacognitive capacities.
Wright’s speaker feels this acute divorce from the “natural” and organic, as well. Frequently, his mental state, his dialogic perspective, appears frayed or overtly fretted, and veiled references to anxiety, soul-sapping depression, and various parasomnias are rampant. In “Sweet Gums near Pond at Night,” the speaker’s sleeplessness is attributed both to a gnawing fear of sleep paralysis (several other poems, such as “Nightmare, Revised” and “Insomnia in fall,” directly confront the banal lawlessness of sleep paralysis), and an irreconcilable dissonance between his climate-controlled bedroom and the unspoiled world—i.e. nature and its untamed actuality—that reigns outside: “I am still / sleepless, afraid to move, / as though what keeps me / awake breathes this solemn room / alive, grinning behind me / in the hackled dark.” As the speaker continues to toss and turn, writhing fitfully between dream and wake, he starts to imagine himself attuned to the verdant cadences and metronomic processes of the adjacent ecosystem: “Now I can hear / the tall, sullen heads / of the sweet gums outside / lean into one another, / unlatching autumn / from its deep hiding.” But even in his wildest fantasies—when he can in his marrow feel the subtle, almost imperceptible shifting of the seasons—he is still, by dint of his myopic humanness, alienated from the innermost crux of the natural world. Ultimately, in pursuit of self-preservation, “the pond knows / to keep silent, / showing the world only itself / its mouth full / of secrets closed.”
While Wright’s poetic temperament is best encompassed by the lyric (which begs for fierce music and imagistic barrages), he is more than capable of conjuring rich narratives and many-sided characters. The selections from Bledsoe—a book-length poem chronicling the stunted ponderings and ethical quandaries of Durant Bledsoe, a mute South Carolinian who’s been asked to mercy-kill his own terminally ill mother—showcase Wright’s long-form abilities, and his deep fluency in the Piedmont dialect. Similarly, “Prologue,” the multipart tone poem that opens Tree Heresies, testifies to Wright’s knack for clothing narrative lucidity in stylistic pyrotechnics, not to mention ably taxonomizing every inch and iota of his chosen setting. All of this to say: Wright is the furthest thing from one-dimensional.
Whereas much of Wright’s back catalog can be defined by its aesthetic and alliterative intensity (the influence of sonically minded poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and E. E. Cummings is palpable throughout), the new poems in Grass Chapels show him at his most measured and monosyllabic. In previous collections, readers were occasionally in danger of being outmuscled by the sheer verbosity and oracular denseness of Wright’s vision. Here, the language is still lush and recognizably kaleidoscopic, but this newfound restraint embeds more slack and silence into each line, which serves to spotlight moments of lyrical crescendo without risking sensory overload. Poems like “Sapphire”—which features an old jokester with a “snaggle-toothed smirk” and a “slyly kind heart”—and “To a Minor Chinese Poet of the Kunlun Mountains” beautifully foreground these daintier facets of Wright’s voice.
For longtime admirers of Wright’s work, Grass Chapels is a comprehensive reminder of what a distinctive niche he has whittled into the baseboard of American Poetry. For the uninitiated, this collection is the perfect port of entry to his imagined biosphere. Ultimately, it does a handsome job of reiterating Wright’s singular achievement, while also hinting at the bewitching new directions his verse may take in the future.
IAN HALL was born and reared in Eastern Kentucky. His work is featured in Narrative, The Journal, and The Mississippi Review, among others.
WILLIAM WRIGHT is author or editor of twenty-three nationally and internationally distributed books: seven full-length books, including Grass Chapels: New & Selected Poems (Mercer University Press, 2021), and four chapbooks, including April Creatures (Blue Horse Press, 2016). His poems and books have garnered praise in many venues, including the Los Angeles Review of Books. Wright has published in journals such as Oxford American, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, Terrain.org, North American Review, Rattle, and myriad other magazines and literary journals.