The type is set and proofed. The block is cut and printed. The sheets are numbered and stacked. The job is “stomped and chained” as the end of day in Charles Wright’s poem, “History Is a Burning Chariot.” I have spent a week immersed in this eighteen-line piece by the new Poet Laureate of the United States. Tracking down the imagery, rereading, confirming line endings, indents, and spacing, and then carefully setting each word in the 18 point foundry-cast Centaur type I bought last year and had set aside for a job like this.
This is how I read poetry. By a slow absorption of the words. Life moves at its breakneck speed; people, places, and things become a blur. Words find no purchase on me in this sort of life. They slide off my Teflon-coated, bullet-proof outer wear. I am safe from media assault. Life is tough out there!
To read a poem requires presence, time carved out of all the busy-ness to give full attention. When the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities asked me to print a broadside in honor of Charles Wright’s inauguration at the Library of Congress this week, I knew I would need to create some quiet space to read, listen, and enjoy Mr. Wright’s words.
I selected this poem from a half-dozen suggested from Mr. Wright’s most recent book, Caribou: Poems. The poem begins:
“History Is a Burning Chariot / It is a good-looking evening, stomped and chained. / The clouds sit like majesties in their blue chairs, / as though doing their nails. / The creek, tripartite and unreserved, sniddles along / Under its bald and blown-down bridges. / It is a grace to be a watcher on such a scene. / So balance me with these words— / Have I said them before, I have, / have I said them the same way, I have, / Will I say them again, who knows / what darkness snips at our hearts.”
My first reading of the poem is on the Amtrak train to Boston as I begin my August vacation. “Burning Chariot,” whoa, this is some powerful imagery. What is this heavy reference? I spend the next several hours on the web learning about the origin of this religious image and also about how Charles Wright’s Southern roots were transplanted to the Mediterranean in the 1960s with the US Army. Strongly influenced then by Ezra Pound, Wright’s awakening occurred in a landscape of the classical world. The burning chariot is a reference from the Hebrew Bible to the moment when the prophet Elijah is carried into heaven by a “…chariot of fire, and horses of fire…” An iconic image strengthened through hundreds of years of reference and re-reference by artists from several religious traditions. Well this explains the stomping and chaining and those majesties in the clouds!
But Wright is not passing on a classical story to children with his sky-borne imagery, his tone quickly becomes serious as he references the experience of “grace” one feels watching the sun set and the moon begin to rise. Turning serious as he mentions the “darkness” which “snips at our hearts.”
So much for horses and chariots. The rest of the poem follows:
“I’ve done the full moon, I’ve done the half moon and the quarter moon. / I’ve even done the Patrick Spens moon / As seen by one of his drowned sailors. / Tonight is the full moon again, and I won’t watch it. / These things have a starting place, and they have an ending. / Render the balance, Lord. / Send it back up to the beginning.”
Here we go again, a literary reference which throws me off track. Who is this Patrick Spens? Back to the library. Found in an ancient Scottish ballad, Patrick Spens is a young ship captain sent on a sea errand at the most dangerous time of year by an unthinking, selfish king. Here is the ballad’s description of the moon Wright mentions:
“Our guid ship sails the morn.’ / ‘O say na sae, my master dear, / For I fear a deadly storm.’ / ‘Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon / Wi’ the old moon in his arm, / And I fear, I fear, my dear master, / That we will come to harm.’”
A drowning sailor’s last sight of a portentous moon. What power Wright gives a glance at a rising moon, deciding, finally, he won’t watch this full moon’s appearance, but expecting the Lord to see that it all comes ’round again.
Holding each piece of metal in my fingers, arranging them into words, gives me plenty of time to reflect and ponder. I imagine Wright and the moment he describes. Setting the words into the press, inking them, taking a first proof, the words begin to settle into place in my mind and I begin to share the experience Wright is describing. My studio looks out over a mountain hollow, and I watch the sun and moon rise several times over Broken Back Ridge as I spend time with this poem.
But there is more, I have promised an image to accompany this piece. This is not a page of text I am printing, it is a broadside. A work that will hopefully be displayed pinned to a bulletin board or framed in a dining room. It needs just a bit of color to call the viewer over and turn him into a reader. But what image? Clearly it needs to be celestial. Moons, chariots, clouds… I begin a search. The image needs to be just right. It mustn’t compete with Wright’s poem, instead it should compliment it and contribute to the precious moment when the reader understands Wright’s words for himself. Definitely a sun and moon.
After a day or two of studying of medieval and Renaissance imagery of the cosmos, including the famous woodcut of the traveler sticking his head through the frame of the sky to witness eternity beyond, I come back to an abstract image. I search for images of circles that turn, and burn, and perhaps imply not the sun or moon, but perhaps both, simultaneously.
My search leads to playtime on my porch with a cup of ink, a brush, and lots of paper. I start looking at inks spots and splotches. And it is here I find an image, both radiant and living, suggesting the waxing and waning moon as well as the shining sun.
Cutting this image into wood and then printing it in three different passes through the press reinforces the feeling that Wright’s poem has made on me. It has become a memory not only in my mind, but in my hand and eye as well.
I hope Charles Wright approves of this publication of his poem. But, regardless, it has been a powerful experience for me to spend such a luxurious intensity of time with these few words. I have been blessed by the opportunity.
The broadside has been printed in an edition of 100, all signed by the poet. The broadside may be purchased directly from the VFH. Follow the link below to the secure sales site: