“The imaging of the invisible”: Narrative, pilgrimage and “the metaphysics of the quotidian” in Charles Wright’s poetry


Dowling, Sarah. (2014). “The imaging of the invisible”: Narrative, pilgrimage and “the metaphysics of the quotidian” in Charles Wright’s poetry [Thesis]. https://doi.org/10.4226/66/5a977e363bab8
AuthorsDowling, Sarah
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

This dissertation presents an analysis of the whole body of poetry by contemporary American poet Charles Wright to date. Building on existing scholarship, I argue that his poetry can be read as having a single focus, which I label “the invisible” (a term from Wright’s poems) and which represents the object of Wright’s pilgrim’s metaphysical longings. The invisible names a multifaceted sense of something ultimate, ungraspable and often absent. It is commensurate with what Wright calls “the metaphysics of the quotidian”—the otherworldly quality of the mundane material world—and “the idea of God”, an agnostic sense of ultimate realities that remains half-begrudgingly reliant on religious terms. To reveal the centrality of the invisible to Wright’s poems I present an analysis of their recurrent symbols and metaphors, demonstrating that visions of the invisible are ubiquitous and consistent throughout his oeuvre. I also argue that an implicit, repeating narrative of “pilgrimage” persists all the way through Wright’s body of work. This pilgrimage is an ongoing quest of spiritual aspiration towards the invisible. It amounts to the kind of concealed storyline that Wright calls “undernarrative”. As I make clear, the pilgrimage constitutes the paradigmatic pattern of Wright’s poetry, a sequence of drawing near and falling back that recurs in an almost fractal manner in every part of his oeuvre. I trace this undernarrative within Wright’s whole body of poetry, not just his famous “trilogy of trilogies”, to reveal how his recurrent themes produce an implicit, repeated movement towards and then away from transcendence. From a perspective informed by Derrida’s deconstruction of Western logocentrism, I focus on Wright’s many meditations on the past, contemplations of the present and speculations on death. I consider the way that Wright entertains a particularly Southern, place-bound sense of origins, even while confounding that prioritisation of origins with a motif of rise-and-fall that destabilises “place”. The fluidity of memory reflected in tumultuous landscapes, as exemplified by the poem “The Southern Cross”, challenges the ideal of origins by revealing them to be elusive, uncovering a lack of consistency between the past and the present and rendering the past irretrievable. I explore Wright’s sense of being in time in relation to his poem The Journal of the Year of the Ox. This poem demonstrates two key patterns in Wright’s poetry: the perpetual renewal embodied in the cycle of seasons and the tragic fact of decay and rising entropy evinced by the poet-figure’s experience of ageing. Both concepts of time attest to the inapprehensible nature of the invisible, which is envisioned as an elusive eternal instant of time. Furthermore, the conflation of the idyllic origin with heaven in Wright’s poetry means that his pilgrim’s journey towards transcendence has a unique direction. Passing time both drags him away from paradise and conveys him back to his birthplace. Finally, I consider Wright’s multiple visions of death, which are variously, I suggest, redemptive, entropic, decompositional and cyclical. I consider the implications of these different “ends” for the preceding life narrative and for narrative closure in general. As obvious fictions, Wright’s endings draw attention to the fictiveness of all ideals of closure and completion. Ultimately, I argue that Wright’s modernist undernarrative of seeking wholeness demonstrates the appeal of dominant narrative paradigms even while subverting them and bringing the ideal of fundamental truth into question.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.4226/66/5a977e363bab8
Research GroupSchool of Arts
Final version
Publication dates01 Jan 2014
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