Farrar, Straus & Giroux
A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen
W.W. Norton & Co.
IN HIS 1923 poem "Anecdote of the Jar," Wallace Stevens placed a vessel on the ground in the Tennessee hills. The great poet wasn't littering; he was trying to demonstrate the way interior and exterior life can define one another. "[The jar] made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill./The wilderness rose up to it,/And sprawled around, no longer wild."
At first glance Charles Wright--America's most compelling practitioner of Stevens's right-brained metaphysics--seems like a man raised inside Stevens's jar. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright observes his native landscape in a near holy hush, using its fauna as talismanic images in meditations on death, the failures of language, and the elusive barrier between our bodies and the spirit world. While Stevens could turn such themes into poetic math equations, Wright--who has looser stanzas arranged in canto-like forms--makes sweet music.
Wright's new publication Negative Blue collects the poet's last three books of poems, ending what has become a trilogy of trilogies, proceeded by the three-part collections Country Music and The World of Ten Thousand Things. Whereas those two books explored the poet's past and present, the poems in this new collection look to the future with a sad, contemplative eye. Wright is entering his sixth decade with intimations of mortality: "Leaves beginning to rustle now/in the dark tree of the self." While Wright has a burning desire to make sense of his life, and its coming end, he is not content with easy answers. Sometimes this leads to confusing lines, such as "A single dog hair can split the wind." For the most part, Wright confronts these questions with gentle lyricism, avoiding such circuitous navel-gazing. When he writes about the immediate natural world, observing "[d]andelion globes luminous in the last light," we realize he has not been inside the jar but living in the world outside.
Aside from having one of the best titles in recent memory, Martín Espada's new collection, A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen, is a tough, beautiful collection. Espada's biography explains these poems' razor edge: Now a professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the writer has worked as a bouncer, a welfare-rights paralegal, and a tenant lawyer. Judging from the slice of autobiography sprinkled in these poems, violence was also part of growing up. In "Why I Went to College" he writes "If you don't,/my father said,/you better learn/to eat soup/through a straw,/'cause I'm gonna/break your jaw."
Espada does more than talk tough, however. He zeroes in on the injustices perpetuated on America's work force. His poem "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent" raised a stink when NPR's All Things Considered (who commissioned it) refused to run the poem because of its "subject matter and political sympathies," according to Espada. Unlike most poets, Espada can engage politics and write splendid compositions at the same time. One poem, with a title too long to include here, addresses discrimination in the workplace; Espada ends it with this haunting curse: "[M]ay the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies/to the menu wait for you in the parking lot/at midnight, demanding that you spell their names."
Other poems breathe life into the unrecorded stories of nighttime janitors, Mexican cabdrivers, and carpenters. Although his rage is apparent, Espada never soapboxes. Rather, he is like a Mayan astronomer: Through the lens of his poetics he shows us the world, and all its crushing disparities.