That Invisible Weight: On Charles Wright’s “Words and the Diminution of All Things”

Thank you to Lisa Mahaffey & Ario Farin for their thoughts

Words and the Diminution of All Things (from poets.org – there’s a particular format to this poem, do take a look)
Charles Wright

The brief secrets are still here,
and the light has come back.
The word remember touches my hand,
But I shake it off and watch the turkey buzzards bank and wheel
Against the occluded sky.
All of the little names sink down,
weighted with what is invisible,
But no one will utter them, no one will smooth their rumpled hair.

There isn’t much time, in any case.
There isn’t much left to talk about
as the year deflates.
There isn’t a lot to add.
Road-worn, December-colored, they cluster like unattractive angels
Wherever a thing appears,
Crisp and unspoken, unspeakable
in their mute and glittering garb.

All afternoon the clouds have been sliding toward us
out of the
Blue Ridge.
All afternoon the leaves have scuttled
Across the sidewalk and driveway, clicking their clattery claws.
And now the evening is over us,
Small slices of silence
running under a dark rain,
Wrapped in a larger.

Comment:

1. If you go to poets.org, you’ll notice some lines in the first two stanzas line up with each other. Those lines are: “and the light has come back,” “weighted with what is invisible,” “as the year deflates” and “in their mute and glittering garb.” That adds up to a sentence nearly making perfect sense on an initial read, except for “their,” which cannot refer to “light” or “year” directly: it must refer to the invisible things “weighting” the light, those things being that which wear the light but do not let us see anything else about themselves. Ario has remarked that on his “first glance” this poem seems to be about “the wonder of reality and the frailty of human rationalism:”

We name the surrounding objects, trying (and failing – the brief secrets are still there) to uncover their inner beings, but even if we did manage to name all, we can’t name the biggest secret of all, what/why/how life is. I note the sense of end-things here too, an apocalyptic threat almost (december, claws clicking).

The third stanza breaks from the way lines were lined up before: “out of the” is more to the right of the previous exceptions, “Blue Ridge” more to the left of them, and “running under a dark rain” is only sort of central to the poem as a unit. We can add “out of the Blue Ridge running under a dark rain” to the previous sentence constructed, and again, it nearly makes sense. Light runs under a dark rain? We are being tempted to make this logical; the position of the words – the most central theme and motif of this poem – stands counter. The words are being scattered themselves; even in light, things were invisible.

2. The position of the words is manifest thematically in the third line: “The word remember touches my hand.” Words are tangible: they can be things themselves: but can the invisible really touch the visible? Our speaker “shake[s] it off” and continues watching the world. Death is all over the visible world – “turkey buzzards,” the deflating of the year, the unattractive angels, the clouds, the leaves. Our speaker is trying not to remember – he doesn’t want to hear whatever it is – but we can see it along with him and hear it, too. The “little names” are linked to “rumpled hair,” and “my” in the first stanza changes to “us” in the final. The speaker seems to be part of a family that’s lost a child. The other noises – those of dead leaves and an alive evening – make it clear that we recognize the tragedy of human death because of the world’s seeming eternality. It is because the world is alive that we mourn; our speaker does not want to remember because he knows that to remember now is to forget later. As words are linked to things, the diminishing of things means the diminishing of names.

3. The “little names” did not go up to heaven; they are stuck on earth and are torturing our speaker, even as they sink into the ground. There is some sort of disconnect between words and things, as the “turkey buzzards” are cutting through the “occluded sky,” but the names that should rise are falling back. Something can “weight” words – light isn’t only just weighted – to make them things in themselves.

We know time is running short, but that isn’t the central issue. “In any case” is about the applicability of words (Wittgenstein on words/logic: “The world is all that is the case”) but “there isn’t much left to talk about.” The issue isn’t time as much as the fact that things/words have literally disappeared. You could try to say to “add” would be to add time, and that may fix this, but that can’t hold. That the world is alive seems permanent, but loss must be more permanent, more certain. We know we can’t even remember. Which is why I think the ambiguity of:

Road-worn, December-colored, they cluster like unattractive angels
Wherever a thing appears,
Crisp and unspoken, unspeakable
in their mute and glittering garb.

What are “they?” Could be anything mentioned before and after – buzzards, clouds, leaves, “things,” and given that things are names or words, even those. The invisibility is again a seeming issue: “road-worn” and “December-colored” could refer to the landscape, you just saw right through the “clustering,” perhaps the “thing” itself giving the light weight. What’s happening here is more significant in terms of noise: when a thing that a word corresponds to appears, one doesn’t need to utter volubly the name to think it when one sees it. The name is the thing in one’s mind: one is enlightened. The issue is now to think about what’s happening when a thing is gone, and that’s all that’s left. The true significance of invisibility has been revealed.

4. If the hand did not want to meet the word, the world in a curious way wants to meet us. The clouds and leaves move toward and beyond us, mimicking life and loss. But then the evening sets up overhead and stays, and that “dark rain” will produce life as surely as it symbolizes grief. The dark rain is perhaps part of something beyond the world, a larger blank or a larger question, depending on how you want to read this poem. The “brief secrets” could be an invitation to wonder, after all; there is joy in discovery. I do not see that joy in this poem. What I see instead is the layering of the tragic: death exists within life, but what is beyond life, grounding life, is emptiness. Not quite death, but the Nothing to which all things seem to return. One has to ground hope in the invisible, but the more one does that, the more one “weights” the light which one sees with.

1 Comment

  1. December-colored, I like that little piece of descriptiveness. I think it is both about the landscape looking snowy or it could also be an illusion to the coldness in not temperature, but in the way it (the word) reads or sounds.

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