Night Field Anecdote
by William Wright
Louisiana Literature Press, $14.95 paperback
I must admit my own affinity for the soil, so when I was offered the opportunity to review Williams Wright’s third full-length collection of poems, Night Field Anecdote, I was more than excited to get my hands dirty. Throughout Wright’s collection, I could not help but think of Keats listening to the darkling night in “Ode to a Nightingale.” Like Keats, Wright’s poems are so consumed with the threat and beauty of the nocturnal that their only logical conclusion is to trust it. As Keats does, Wright must “cease upon the midnight” and its earthen motives. But to be sure, Wright’s collection is also a testament to the lasting urgency of rural landscapes, the eternal spirit of nature, pastorals and their “green language” as Wright says in “Spirits of Old Mountain Road.” Then again, after reading Night Field Anecdote I also felt the cold, dark reassurance that comes from understanding the ground’s muddy syntax and stark images: the night is callous and death is and will continue to be the inescapable poetic concern.
In the Appalachian world of Night Field Anecdote, memories, the past, and nature are the modi operandi, the language we must trust. As the poet says in “Family Portrait, 1970,” here the land
is the sole tongue, etched in intricate syntax
of apple and trillium, the garden’s blood-idiom,
husk-dry stanzas quenched by prophecies
of rain. Nights, when their worn out bodies
die into sleep, their dreams ration
to applewood and rattlers, valleys’ tobacco
and fodders stacks, the few words passed
down that I take with me, write down, and move on.
I find myself entirely trusting of what hides in the dark earth of this and so many of these poems, even though I know that “death / is the worm drowsing under the leaves” of the ground the poet leaves me with in “Defiance of Autumn.” This is the real paradox at work in Wright’s collection (and I do not mean this as a slight against the book). What I find so wholly compelling about these poems, what appears to be at stake in Wright’s work, is this duality we find in nature. To understand the vernacular of the land we call home, to know and understand “the blood of the earth . . . trust its music” as the narrator says in the opening poem “Sweet Gums near Pond At Night” means that we must offer ourselves fully to this dark world and its secrets. Trusting the music of the landscape means also trusting the open hands of the grave—those inescapable hands of death returning us to the soil.
However, Night Field Anecdote is not purely about the music of the ground. What we see from so many of Wright’s poems—through image, through lyrics—is that our existence is like snake skin or the blonde mare or the potato. It is seasonal. And not only do these poems excel at producing beautiful descriptive language of the physical world—binding the readers to this threatening place—in poem after poem, Wright also imparts knowledge and forewarnings of the night’s augurs. Even rattlesnakes and pit-vipers provide wisdom for the reader, the brains
in [their] pineal heads
[holds] knowledge more luminous
than even the faithful could conjure
in their mortal, seasonal skin.
In the end, what more should we expect from darkness and its omens? The poet here knows that we cannot remain passive observers of the knowledge that the night offers us. To seek the earth’s blood, to trust its music, we must also trust its shadows and its dark secrets. And despite how hard we try to “refuse the night’s bone-cold alibi” as Wright says in “Strays,” we cannot escape the twine of death.
The poems in this book are exactly the sort that I find true, resonant, and alive. The language and images here are urgent, striking, and certainly revelatory. I cannot praise this book and its dark pastorals enough, but I will leave by invoking the nightingale one last time. I sincerely believe that while the voices in this collection often feel wholly devoted and “in love with easeful Death” as Keats says, like Keats, they are also reverent and fearful even of the tender “darkling” night.