“But what would Robert Johnson say?” Charles Wright’s poem at the Crossroads

It seemed only appropriate to write about Charles Wright’s poetry today, since he has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States. In a 1998 interview with PBS Newshour‘s Elizabeth Farnsworth, Wright said the following about his work: “I think that the true subject of all poems is a clock, I think, because time is what–time is the great destroyer. Time is what feeds us and takes it away at the same time. Time is what starts us and time is what ends us. We live in time. We would like to live outside of time. But we can’t, of course. And so the clock is what we all write about. Our lives are all about the clock.” My favorite Wright poem is “Poem Almost Wholly In My Own Manner” from the Black Zodiac collection. This poem explores the idea of the clock through the blues and the Bible, through the crossroads and Ezekiel’s burning vision.

The first line reads “Where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog” (Wright 28). The reader knows immediately that this poem will be about the idea of the crossroads, specifically the southern idea of the crossroads. This poem is placed firmly where it can go anywhere, in any of the four directions. This is juxtaposed with Ezekiel’s vision. “Time, like a burning wheel, scorching along by the highway / side, / Reorganizing, relayering, / turning the tenants out” and “Interstices. We live in the cracks. / Under Ezekiel and his prophesies, / under the wheel” (Wright 28, 29). The chariot is drawn by four beings that can be seen as representative of the four directions. In this vision, God can send the chariot in any direction, and Wright puts himself and the reader firmly beneath it, consumed eventually by fire and time. Wright calls upon Robert Johnson and WC Handy, both famous for the use of their own crossroads in their blues: “But what would Robert Johnson say,  / hell-hounded and brimstone-tongued? / What would W. C. Handy say, / Those whom the wheel has overturned, / those whom the fire has, / And the wind has, unstuck and unstrung?” (30).

The reader visualizes the railroad tracks at the crossroads, the lines in the dirt; she hears the rhythm of the train’s wheels on those tracks. This is the sight and sound of the clock hands turning. And here’s the message: “Poetry’s what’s left between the lines” (29). The lines of verse, the lines of song, the lines of a guitar’s strings, the straight lines of railroad tracks crossing. Poetry is what happens in lonely passage, in the rolling destruction of fire. I simply cannot do this poem justice in trying to write a brief analysis. This poem hit me in my gut the first time I read it, and it is one that comes to mind often, and unbidden.

If you’ve never read Charles Wright’s poetry, today’s a good day to start. 

Wright, Charles. Black Zodiac. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1997.

Wright, Charles. “Seasons serve as backdrop to Charles Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection.” By Elizabeth Farnsworth. PBS Newshour. 15 April 1998. Web. 12 June 2014.