Since I’ve been in Washington, I’ve frequented bookstores in search of books to help me understand the city.
The stories and essays of Marjorie Williams—the late Washington Post writer whose profiles and columns were collected in last year’s The Woman at the Washington Zoo—put a face on the personalities behind DC power politics. The short stories of local fiction writer Edward P. Jones—Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children—have helped make the sidewalks and the strangers I pass on them familiar. I’ve had no lack of history texts.
In my search for contemporary poetry that gives a true feel for the spirit of the city, I’ve come up empty. Sure, there’s historical poetry, the stuff you read in eighth-grade English. On walks to the Lincoln Memorial, I’ve found myself spouting lines from Walt Whitman. At the U Street club HR-57, I saw a black-and-white photo of Langston Hughes and, against the blare of the shiny jazz saxophone, thought of these lines from “Jazzonia,” a poem Hughes gave to fellow poet Vachel Lindsay on a napkin in DC’s Wardman Park Hotel:
Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret
six long-headed jazzers play.
But Whitman and Hughes weren’t Washington poets. They were here for a time, drank deeply of their experience—Whitman more than Hughes—and then journeyed on to deeper wells.
What does it mean that Washington lacks a major poetic voice that takes the city itself as its subject? It could be that Washington is like the hub of a wheel. On weekends, many of us, like spokes, shoot from the city in every direction. We drive to West Virginia to ski, to Harpers Ferry to hike, to the Eastern Shore to sail. To eat and explore, we often catch trains and buses to Philadelphia and New York City. The places around us are as much a part of us as Washington is. In this way, “Washington” poetry becomes not just about the city but about the places Washingtonians know.
This spring, if you want to travel a hundred miles to the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Charles Wright’s Littlefoot—a book-length poem due out in May—could be your ticket.
Wright has been one of the most prolific and most decorated poets of his generation—that of Philip Levine, John Ashberry, and poet laureate Donald Hall. At the University of Virginia, Wright is part of one of the country’s best creative-writing faculties, and he has written 18 books. Country Music, a collection of his early poems, won the 1983 National Book Award. In 1997, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac, the second part of a trilogy unofficially entitled “The Appalachian Book of the Dead,” in which the Blue Ridge seasons dance and die into the soil of this Southerner’s soul.
His descriptions of both interior and exterior landscapes are as mysterious as they are stunning and spare, as evidenced by these lines from “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”—Latin for “defense of one’s life”—found in Black Zodiac:
How like the past the clouds are,
Building and disappearing along the horizon,
Inflecting the mountains,
laying their shadows under our feet
For us to cross over on.
Out of their insides fire falls, ice falls,
What we remember that still remembers us, earth and air fall.
Neither, however, can resurrect or redeem us,
Moving, as both must, ever away toward opposite corners.
Neither has been where we’re going,
bereft of an attitude.
With the forthcoming Littlefoot, the 71-year-old Wright will doubtless return to his constant themes—the bridges between our lives and the landscape, wisdom in Chinese philosophy and country songs, faith in mystery and the feel of the mud—but they’re worth returning to. We need breaks in this city from the reports and news stories with which we’re pelted daily.
Regardless of our travel schedules, trips like this, across poems instead of pavement, are well worth taking.