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New Scaffolding for New Arrangements

Charles Wright’s Low Riders

ISSUE:  Spring 2004

Old scaffolding, old arrangements,
All fall in a rain of light.

Poetry makes us consider the how as well as the what, and in changing the how great poetry also changes the what. —Kevin Hart, interview

He didn’t have much to say, he thought,
                                                          but knew at least how to say it.
Cold comfort.
(“Buffalo Yoga”)

Poets who dwell in the same style for most of their careers often hone one type of poem and then work to produce books full of its siblings. This is poetry as a series of habitual twitches, as well-traveled corridors of the brain guide poems along preset pathways to their predictable conclusions. Yet some poets pursue distinctiveness through frequent stylistic changes. Few stylistic shifts are as apparent or as effective as the move from the short line to the long line. Such a move can imply that the poet no longer feels satisfied with the space and energy allowed by the conventional tetrameter or pentameter line, that the poet seeks to occupy more of the page, or that the poet wants a broader canvas on or against which to work. Although some recent American poets (most notably Allen Ginsberg, James Dickey, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, and Hayden Carruth) have made a compelling strategy out of the long line, only C. K. Williams and Charles Wright have dwelled in it long enough to become readily identifiable by it. When Williams’s lines are not prolix, they often sag under the weight of pontification, and his gestures toward prose ultimately become prosaic. However, Wright’s poetry since 1980 has sought a long, image-heavy line (“the odd marriage of Emily [Dickinson] and Walt [Whitman]”) that can accommodate “information” and “lyric intensity” at the same time (Halflife). Until Wright concocted his special blend of Dickinsonian compression and Whitmanesque proportion, American poetry lacked a poet willing and able to adopt, inhabit, and revitalize the long line over a significant period of time.

Pursuing the effect of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “He heightens worth who guardedly diminishes,” Wright’s early lyrics are taut, controlled, and highly compressed. Although their diction is neither unnatural nor stilted, the poems are less colloquial than his later poems, their scaffolding less capacious. But the style of his early poems is distinctive because of its compression and rhetorical agility. They employ a sinewy syntax forged from monosyllabic words and compound words. Consider “Dog Creek Mainline”:

Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,
Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;
Odor of muscadine, the blue creep
Of kingsnake and copperhead;
Nightweed; frog spit and floating heart,
Backwash and snag pool …

Even the title of the poem is composed of two discrete monosyllabic words (no “of” or “the” connecting them) and a compound word. Wright’s imagistic catalogues do not strive to be all-encompassing, as Whitman’s do; rather, Wright’s vision discriminates among what he sees in a narrative of the image, and his poems render his perceptions economically, connecting images to fashion an associative narrative instead of a linear one.

One of Wright’s most effective rhetorical strategies in his poems, especially those in Hard Freight (1973) and Bloodlines (1975), is repetition, often through anaphora and epistrophe, as in “The New Poem,” in which each line begins “It will not.” Because of the role of repetition in religious and spiritual poetry, not to mention the Bible, Wright’s repetitions can lend an evangelical tone and cadence to his poems, particularly when the repetitions occur in the last line of the poem: “And the vines strike and the vines recoil” (“Tattoos,” part 10); “They talk, and nothing appears. They talk and it does not appear” (“Skins,” part 14); “Blue of the twice-bitten rose, blue of the dove” (“Cancer Rising”); “Feeling it take. Feeling it” (“Tattoos,” part 2); “Rising and falling back and rising” (“Delta Traveller”); “It comes to a point. It comes and it goes” (“Skins,” part 20); “We stand fast, friend, we stand fast” (“Tattoos,” part 11); and, most strikingly, “&c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c. &c.” (“Nocturne”). Technically, the repetitions add a dimension of formality to Wright’s free verse lines, as they do to Whitman’s. But repetition is also a refocusing technique for Wright, with each instance of repetition altering his perception of an experience or object.

This persistent focus on the surfaces of his poems is echoed by Wright’s statement, in an interview, that “to me the most vital question in poetry is the question of form” (Halflife). But he does not pursue form without entwining it in the figurative, as when he claims “each line should be a station of the cross” (“Improvisations on Form and Measure,” Halflife). Wright’s most resonant metaphor in relation to his own poetry is a natural one: “My poetic structures tend toward the condition of spider webs—tight in their parts but loose in the wholes, and endlessly repetitious” (“Halflife: A Commonplace Notebook”). The spiderweb metaphor highlights the circularity of his poetry, which not only meditates on recurrent themes but also uses repetitive stanzaic and syllabic structures to create circularity, going beyond the more literally circular technique of repetition. Wright has been attracted to symmetry from the beginning of his career (most clearly in the complementary sequences “Tattoos” and “Skins”), but his more recent poems demonstrate an ongoing devotion to symmetry. Nearly all the poems in Chickamauga (1995), Black Zodiac (1997), Appalachia (1998), A Short History of the Shadow (2002), and his new volume, Buffalo Yoga (2004), are in regular stanzas or are symmetrical. Black Zodiac’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” for example, consists of three numbered parts divided into nine sections of nine lines each (three tercets) with an envoi consisting of nine tercets. The other long poem in Black Zodiac, “Disjecta Membra,” consists of three numbered parts divided into eight sections of ten lines each. The three poems entitled “Looking Around” in A Short History of the Shadow are composed of sixty lines each. The 288-line title poem of Buffalo Yoga and the 184-line “Buffalo Yoga Coda I—III” resist such overt symmetry yet rely on small symmetrical clusters within the larger wholes; thus, numerous subsections of the poems consist of two or three stanzas of identical length (most often three, five, or six lines). Wright’s approach to order is as mathematical as it is mystical.

If Wright’s early poems combine passion and precision, his longer poems are “epiphanic and oceanic” (Quarternotes). They pursue a “conversational line that is imagistically packed,” an “extended, image-freighted line that doesn’t implode or break under its own weight” (Halflife). The long lines of the poems in The Southern Cross (1981) help Wright achieve the tonal blend of the oracular and the colloquial that characterizes his work from that point forward. Where the earlier poems are compressed and dense, the later poems seem rhythmically looser. Fittingly, Wright’s move toward the long line has been accompanied by a shift to longer poems. Among his early poems, only the “Tattoos” and “Skins” sequences from Bloodlines are long, and as sequences they’re made up of individual short poems. But in his later books, long poems become increasingly common: the title poem of The Southern Cross, “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” in Zone Journals (1988), “Sprung Narratives” in Chickamauga, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” and “Disjecta Membra” in Black Zodiac, and the title poem and the trio of “Buffalo Yoga Coda” poems in Buffalo Yoga. (As his lines have become longer, the titles of his poems have become longer as well. Of the 45 poems in Chickamauga, 19 include titles seven words or longer, as do 15 of the 45 poems in Appalachia.) Wright’s spiderweb structure radiates outward, occupying more and more of the page. This stylistic shift has extraformal and -visual consequences as well. After he moves toward the long line, Wright’s language acquires a distinct luxuriousness and achieves a colloquial tone; its rich layers do not translate into a superficially baroque style, and the conversational tone is neither chatty nor self-indulgent. His poems have become increasingly rooted in mundane particulars (times, dates, places), and China Trace (1977) announces Wright’s attempt at “verse journals” (Halflife), where the quotidian and the metaphysical intersect.

The most striking achievement of Wright’s move from the conventional line to the long line is the “low rider.” Taking Hopkins’s “hanger” or “outride” as his model, Wright has created his low rider to fashion a free verse both imbricated and fluid. Hopkins’s outride (or “outrider”) displaces a word or phrase at the end of a line and positions it near the right margin as a short line. But Wright drops the displaced part of the line immediately below where it would be if it remained with the rest of the line. The earliest use of this technique occurs in his second collection, Hard Freight:

The summer enlarges.
You, too, enlarge …

Because Hopkins has explained the outriders as “licenses” he allows himself in his sprung rhythm, defining them as “one, two, or three slack syllables added to a foot … so called because they seem to hang below the line or ride forward or backward from it in another dimension than the line itself,” Wright is technically not using outriders in his poems. Where the outrider can be used to disrupt the space of the page (as in Jorie Graham’s The Errancy) or to approximate spiritual ecstasy (as in Hopkins’s poems), Wright’s low rider has numerous purposes: it compels the reader to shift focus (visually and/or mentally), reassess or doubt the preceding statement, slow down, or navigate the contours of a complex syntax. In “Firstborn,” the low rider forces the reader to pause six syllables into a pentameter line in order to absorb the weight of the repetition and the syntactical relationship between the summer and the “you” of the poem. But the low rider here seems more convenient than innovative because it does not agitate the appearance of the poem on the page or particularly disturb the process of reading.

The low rider retains a similarly modest voltage in Wright’s third collection, Bloodlines, in which it occurs several times. However, in China Trace, the low rider acquires distinction while retaining a long, fluid line:

Lie back and regenerate,
family of dust,
Invisible groom, father and son I step through.
(“Where Moth and Rust Doth Corrupt”)

But best of all is the noun, and its tiny horns,
When shadows imprint, and start
their gradual exhalation of the past.

In these excerpts, the drop serves as an alternative line break, yet rather than returning the reader to the left margin, it forces the reader’s eye to descend immediately below the break. Tentative as its beginnings might have been, Wright’s version of the Hopkins outrider has now become an innovative stylistic strategy because of the various tensions it creates within his lines and poems. The tension can be temporal, imagistic, narrative, figurative, or syntactical—a flexibility that resembles poets’ options in breaking lines. However, because Wright breaks and drops his lines, he has two ways to initiate such tension, and in subsequent books he hones this technique until it becomes a signature.

With the low rider, Wright also has established a new way to work upon the canvas of the page. In a 1981 interview, he describes his motives in using the low rider as evolving from an interest in “using stanzas and lines the way painters sometimes use color and form … using the line more as an overall unit in the poem rather than as a bridge from one part of the poem to the other… . The lines in the stanza are applied, in a way, rather than narratively leading from one thing to the next.” This aim emanates partly from Wright’s attraction to poems built on the image rather than on narrative, as well as from his fascination with the work of painters, especially Paul Cézanne, Mark Rothko, and Giorgio Morandi. These lines from “Homage to Paul Cézanne” demonstrate Wright’s new strategy:

And thus we become what we’ve longed for,
                                                                past tense and otherwise,
A BB, a disc of light,
                              song without words.

Although the low riders here occur as modifiers—the first temporal, the second metaphorical—this homage reminds us of the visual, or extralinguistic, effects of Wright’s low riders. They affect our reading of the poems, but they also affect our seeing of the poems by presenting visual blocks in the manner of Cézanne. Half representational, half impressionistic, Wright uses the page as a painter uses the canvas, occupying as much white space as possible while retaining the constraints of verse. And like Cézanne, Wright covers the same territory again and again without becoming tedious. Both artists show that a single landscape can be revisited numerous times for new (in)sights.

Elsewhere, Wright has claimed that the low rider arose as a solution to a poetic “problem”—i.e., “how to use all the page in structuring a poem… . Using the dropped line, the ‘low rider,’ you are able to use both sides of the page, use both left- and right-hand margins” (“Halflife: A Commonplace Notebook”). If Wright mechanically broke and dropped his lines, the low rider would be just a habit or a mechanized act, as the line break has become for most poets today; but by connecting the low rider and its impact on his lines to painting techniques, he has given himself a tool that has proven successful and flexible.

With its four low riders, China Trace’s “Going Home” anticipates Wright’s later poems:

The ides of a hangdog month.
Dirt roads and small towns come forth
And fall from the pepper tree,
                                           evening flashing their panes
And stray flakes through a thin drizzle of darkness,
Strikes in the dry fields of the past,
From the nailed feet that walk there.
I ask for a second breath,
Great Wind, where everything’s necessary
And everything rises,
                               unburdened and borne away, where
The flash from the setting sun
Is more than a trick of light, where halflife
Is more than just a watery glow,
                                               and everything’s fire …

But “Going Home” is aligned more with Wright’s earlier poems than with his poems from The Southern Cross onward. With predominantly tetrameter or pentameter lines, some of them as spare as trimeter, the poem lacks the sprawl that has characterized his poems for the past two decades. The work in China Trace clearly belongs to a different part of Wright’s oeuvre when compared to many of the poems in his next book, The Southern Cross:

The distance between the dead and the living
                                                                         is more than a heartbeat and a breath.
(“Portrait of the Artist with Li Po”)

I like it because the wind strips down the leaves without a word.
I like it because the wind repeats itself,

                                                                and the leaves do.
(“Ars Poetica”)

Jesus, it’s so ridiculous, and full of self-love,
The way we remember ourselves,
                                                        and the dust we leave …
(“Gate City Breakdown”)

What matters to them is what comes up from below, and from out there
In the deep water,
                                  and where the deep water comes from.
(“New Year’s Eve, 1979”)

These excerpts demonstrate the predominance of the low rider and the expanded lines it has made possible in Wright’s work since The Southern Cross. Each subsequent book relies heavily on the low rider, so much so that only seven poems (out of more than 200) in the eight books published after The Southern Cross have no low riders. The extrastylistic effects of this stylistic signature have affirmed Wright’s persistence in using the low rider to recast the long line in American poetry. Despite the appearance of some low riders in China Trace, The Southern Cross stands as the origin of this protracted effort, making these lines from “Gate City Breakdown” seem as prescient as they are energetic:

Remember me as you will, but remember me once
Slide-wheeling around the curves,
                                                 letting it out on the other side of the line.

More than two decades later, Wright continues “letting it out on the other side of the line” in his new collection, Buffalo Yoga. The title recalls “Dog Yoga” in The Southern Cross, and though it might be tempting to envision buffalo doing Sun Salutation or Downward Dog, the book’s title refers to Buffalo, New York, as the first line in the title poem reveals: “Everything’s more essential in northern light.” Here, too, “everything’s more severe.” And while the poem does not address yoga specifically, and while yoga itself is not affiliated, or even closely associated, with any religion, the influence of Eastern philosophy, poetry, and spirituality on Wright’s poetry for the past three decades must provide some overlap in worldview, as when he writes, “splinters of the divine / Suddenly flecked in our fingertips” and “All my life I’ve listened for the dark speech of silence.”

A few poems in Buffalo Yoga refer to earlier poems by Wright. “In Praise of Thomas Chatterton” recalls “In Praise of Thomas Hardy” in his previous book, A Short History of the Shadow, and “Homage to Mark Rothko” and “Homage to Giorgio Morandi” reflect the aims of “Homage to Paul Cézanne” in The Southern Cross and “Homage to Claude Lorrain” in The Other Side of the River. Buffalo Yoga also includes three sequels to earlier poems—”January II” (“January” is in China Trace), “Star Turn III” (“Star Turn” and “Star Turn II” are in Appalachia), and “Nostalgia III” (“Nostalgia” and “Nostalgia II” are in A Short History of the Shadow). This cross-referencing, even to poems more than twenty years old, contributes to the idea of Wright’s poetry—its forms and its themes—as operating like a spiderweb: “endlessly repetitious.”

The most significant stylistic element of Buffalo Yoga is also the most common: every poem in the book employs the low rider as an integral element not only of the poems’ styles but of their meanings. In the book’s opening poem, “Landscape with Missing Overtones,” the only low rider in the poem introduces the only moment of action in the poem, which otherwise would read as the verbal equivalent of a static snapshot:

The sun has set behind the Blue Ridge,
And evening with its blotting paper
                                                  lifts off the light.
Shadowy yards. Moon through the white pines.

Although the poem does not follow the syllable count of the haiku in English—5/7/5—it presents a variation—9/13/9—that is symmetrical (and odd) in the same way. And as in the haiku, which has 17 syllables, the total number of syllables in Wright’s poem—31—is also a prime number. Further enhancing the structural intricacy of the poem, the low rider emerges after the ninth syllable of the second line, thus disturbing what otherwise would be a perfectly harmonious and symmetrical order—three lines of nine syllables each, or 27—3³—syllables total. In its first poem, then, Buffalo Yoga introduces another purpose for the low rider: enforcing Wright’s (literally) odd brand of symmetry.

The second poem in Buffalo Yoga, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” includes four low riders, one of which—the last—serves as an unusual extension of a description of the language of poetry. Although Wright has used low riders to further define a preceding phrase, this low rider has unusually far-reaching significance in the poem:

I write, as I said before, to untie myself, to stand clear,
To extricate an absence,
The ultimate hush of language
                                            (fricative, verb and phoneme),
The silence that turns the silence off.

The first line of the stanza refers to the last stanza of “Reunion” in China Trace: “I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace.” The new poem, published more than twenty years after the poem it cites, introduces the terminology of linguistics, which serves as a contrast to the more mystical language in the rest of the stanza (and in “Reunion”). Whereas “fricative,” “verb,” and “phoneme” contract, narrowing possibilities to specific properties of words, “the ultimate hush of language” and “the silence that turns the silence off” expand, removing language from the field of scholarly or scientific inquiry to that of mystical thought. If there were no low rider in this stanza—i.e., if the line read “The ultimate hush of language (fricative, verb and phoneme)”—this distinction would seem less notable, because the linguistic would exist on the same line as the mystical and would be separated from it only by parentheses and a line break. The combination of the low rider, parentheses, and line break provides a necessary visual separation between these two realms. Similarly, if the low rider was given its own line, left-justified like the other lines, the shift in wording would seem less significant:

I write, as I said before, to untie myself, to stand clear,
To extricate an absence,
The ultimate hush of language
(Fricative, verb and phoneme),
The silence that turns the silence off.

What was visually distinct as a low rider would become indistinguishable, formally, from the other lines. Clearly, the phrase “fricative, verb and phoneme” requires three levels of differentiation in this stanza to achieve this balance.

Throughout Buffalo Yoga, the low rider moves beyond its stylistic and visual effects to affect in substantial ways what Wright is saying. While many low riders in the book serve primarily visual ends, many others introduce new or revised strategies for the low rider, demonstrating Wright’s determination to perpetually renew its significance to his poems. The long title poem—a continuation of his ongoing and important work with the long poem, and the intellectual and emotional centerpiece of the book—includes 84 low riders that encompass a wide range of possibility for the technique while introducing new uses for them. It would be impractical to catalog every low rider in “Buffalo Yoga,” but four in particular demonstrate the flexibility of the technique and Wright’s resourcefulness in renewing it as a poetic strategy.

The position and movement of the first low rider in “Buffalo Yoga” actually contradict what it says:

Clouds trail, like prairie schooners,
                                                  across the edge of the left horizon

Here, “the left horizon” rubs against the right margin, as if mistaking the landscapes of the poem and of the page. The low rider in “Buffalo Yoga” also can mimic the action that it narrates:

God’s ghost taps once on the world’s window,
                                                                  then taps again

The visual drop and temporal pause established by the low rider perfectly time the appearance of the phrase “then taps again.” Just as the reader has imagined and heard “God’s ghost taps once on the world’s window,” the low rider delivers “then taps again.” A single line would have presented the two taps too quickly, and two separate, left-justified lines would have established too much time between the taps. The low rider, then, emerges as the ideal way in which to depict the action. The low rider can further modify, or specify, the poem’s physical setting:

Where the road tumbles down,
                                             curving into the invisible city.

Here it serves as a zoom lens, taking the rather abstracted “road” and giving it shape and a destination. Applying this strategy to the figurative, the low rider also can revamp a metaphor:

The stars seem like window lights tonight,
                                                                    or street lights left on to comfort the dead

Of course, these and other low riders also allow Wright to occupy as much of the page as possible, to use both the left and right margins, and to layer his lines rather than apply them in blocks.

Many of the 55 low riders in the three “Buffalo Yoga Coda” poems play similar roles, illuminating or refocusing the preceding statements in unexpected ways. One example from each “Buffalo Yoga Coda” should suffice to illustrate this range:

Low deck, Montana sky
                                  color of cold Confederate uniforms
(“Buffalo Yoga Coda I”)

The deer put their tentative feet,
                                                one forward, one back,
On the dead pine needles and dead grass
(“Buffalo Yoga Coda II”)

Under the low hum of the sweet bees,
Under the hair-heavy hoof of the warrior ant,
Under the towering shadows he must go through,
                                                                       and surface from,
Under the beetle’s breast and the grub’s,
The future is setting its table,
                                           its cutlery dark, its mirrors anxious and blank.
(“Buffalo Yoga Coda III”)

But the “Buffalo Yoga Coda” poems also introduce potential difficulties in their structures—difficulties that no other poems in the book present. “Buffalo Yoga Coda I” and “Buffalo Yoga Coda III” have the same number of lines—61—and end with identical quatrains:

I think I’ll lie down just here for a while,
                                                          the sun on my cheek,
The wind like grass stems across my face,
And listen to what the world says,
                                                 the luminous, transubstantiated world,
That holds me like nothing in its look.

The image here recalls “God with his good ear to the ground” in the first stanza of “Buffalo Yoga,” and the literal repetition of the stanza in which the poet is lying down listening to the world seems intended to reinforce the image. The prominent placement of “God with his good ear to the ground” also ensures its being remembered; thus, the reader is invited, if not compelled, to connect the two images, to connect the poet to God (whose ghost so effectively tapped twice “on the world’s window”). The implications of this connection are beyond the scope of this essay, but the ways in which the poems’ structures illuminate that connection call attention to Wright’s meticulous craft and attention to detail.

That care becomes evident throughout the rest of Buffalo Yoga, emerging in several particularly stunning poems—”Portrait of the Artist in a Prospect of Stone,” “Homage to Giorgio Morandi,” and “Charles Wright and the 940 Locust Avenue Heraclitean Rhythm Band.” The final stanza of “Portrait of the Artist in a Prospect of Stone” includes four low riders, each of which contributes to the poem’s content in distinctive and essential ways:

Nothing is ever lost, I once said.
                                                That was untrue,
I know now, the past a hiding place
Beyond recall or recovery, no matter our wants or our diligence.
Whatever is gone is gone,
Settling like sand dollars under memory’s eyelid,
Down to the darkness where nothing stirs,
                                                             nothing except the heart,
That eyeless fish, drifting on slow, invisible currents
Beneath a blue hop-scotch of islands where,
                                                                up above,
Somebody young and undiminished assembles a few friends
Along a breakwater in the sun.
                                              Then one of them takes a camera out.

The first low rider—”That was untrue”—contradicts the preceding statement, which, set in its own white space with nothing to its right and nothing immediately below it, holds some authority. The low rider shatters that authority. Although the second low rider—”nothing except the heart”—seems to contradict what comes before it—i.e., “nothing stirs”—it actually modifies that statement; by allowing something to stir, the low rider increases the potential for action, or emotion, in the poem. Having “nothing stirs, nothing except the heart” on the same line would not allow enough space between the first statement and the one that follows and modifies it; likewise, placing “nothing except the heart” on the next line, justified left, would create too much space between the two statements. The third low rider—”up above”—offers a spatial reorientation and in doing so seems like the most conventional of the low riders in this stanza; but the importance of this phrase becomes apparent in the next two lines, which portray the action that made the poem possible: if someone had not climbed to take a photograph, this poem would not exist. And by visually displacing “up above” from the line to which it belongs, Wright makes the language do what the person in the poem did: physically separate himself from his companions. The fourth and final low rider—”Then one of them takes a camera out”—initiates an unexpected shift in the narrative. Again, without the action depicted in this low rider, the poem would not exist; and the low rider times that action flawlessly.

In addition to making clear Wright’s great respect for the painter, “Homage to Giorgio Morandi” introduces several novel functions of the low rider. Here, the low rider provides a delayed definition:

You, of all the masters, have been the secret sharer
Of what’s most important,
Until the form is given us out of what has been given

The word “exclusion” could not occur in any other way and retain the force it possesses in these lines, because the low rider establishes an uncannily apt pause after “what’s most important.” A later low rider gestures toward the subject of the poem in a meaningful way:

How proper it is we see you most where you are not,
Among your objects.
                                This bottle, for instance, this vase.

Given the subject of the poem and of Morandi’s paintings, the way in which the low rider specifies “your objects” itself pays homage to Morandi, who painted the same kinds of objects—often made of glass—for most of his life. The final low rider of the poem is also the most powerful:

You looked as hard as anyone ever looked,
                                                                then left it out.

The effect here is one of inevitability: Wright has succeeded in making the low rider seem the only way to make certain statements.

As its title suggests, “Charles Wright and the 940 Locust Avenue Heraclitean Rhythm Band” aspires toward both humor and seriousness. The poem’s first low rider also signals this aspiration:

The declination of desire
                                    is greatly to be desired.

The pause and visual drop created by the low rider produce a comic effect and contribute to the timing in the delivery of what at first seems utterly serious. The Heraclitean notion of not being able to step into the same river twice—Heraclitean flux—informs the entire poem, and it first appears in the poem’s second low rider:

Out of the west window, lights like the lights of floating sea birds.
Tides of darkness rock them among the trees, back and forth,
Forth and back,
Desire, at last, a remembered landscape,
                                                             and never the same hurt twice.

The flux of the physical world in this poem also includes the flux of memory, which becomes entwined, or confused, with desire: “When was it desire devolved into memory, when / Did the X become the Y?” The poem’s ending combines these two dimensions while providing a counterpoint—the stars—to both the landscape and human memory:

The stars have opened their bottomless throats, and started their songs.
They are not singing to us,
It turns out, they are not singing their watery songs to us.

And do we care about that? Of course.
We are the travelers down below,
                                                 without sisters, without brothers.
Inside us the earth is turned over into a new language.
Inside us the seeds
                            oboe their inventory, their shadow music.
And never the same song twice,
And never the same life twice, who knows which one is better?

The poet, too, sings, but here he is not only singing but listening; even though the stars “are not singing to us,” he listens. The revision to the idea of Heraclitean flux at the end of the poem—”And never the same song twice, / And never the same life twice”—could be applied to Wright’s own poems, concerned as they are with repetition and revisitation. But even as he repeats and revisits, he renews, as his continued work with the low rider makes clear.


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