William Wright: Night Field Anecdote
- by Williiam Wright
William Wright’s other recent release, Bledsoe, is an extended narrative focused on a single family, while Night Field Anecdote exists in a wider breadth of place and experience. The latter collection does contain “Bledsoe,” the original version of the poem that was expanded into the other full book, but Night Field Anecdote stretches beyond the fringes of Appalachia. Wright’s lexicon begins in tactile touches of the pastoral, yet ends in a nightmarish collage of animal and human violence.
Wright’s world is near that of Irene McKinney’s debut collection from 1976, The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap, although his approach is quite different. McKinney’s content shifted after that first book: She left behind her dark pastoral roots as a place of childhood. Wright’s book feels more adult and heavy, a world where nature’s dynamics do not simply recede into the background of memory and dream. This is a place where, in “Trumpet Creeper,” “all spines suffer their histories.” An uncle died “on a farmhouse floor ... half his face boiled from his skull” from “the lye he tipped and spilled.” Man is not the only victim: “Burning House” tells the tale of its title, the fire spreading to a field, “a sleeve of smoke.” Elsewhere, a blond mare recedes into memory, “bones now broken / beneath the barn’s dark rutted boards.” The dead horse is not alone, though: “now they are with you, too, all knitted by death’s / twine.”
Night Field Anecdote is not simply a catalogue of all calamities big and small. Wright’s cleverness, his control of lines, could be extended beyond his traditional location, as in “Chernobyl Eclogue,” which certainly does not read as the work of a provincial poet dipping into foreign land. Still, Wright’s treatment of the South earns sustained attention, and demands a new look at rural life. “Your grandfather fades behind the creak / of the barn door” in “Equus,” his “mouth trembling with sermons / lodged forever behind his tongue.” The oral recitation of experience is by no means relegated to this place, but Wright offers individuals in these poems who harbor history. “Snake Lore” is a testament to such tales, a life populated by rattlesnakes, a world where the ritual of sin becomes the orthodoxy of the masses:
over her knuckles like oil
in those raucous mountain chapels,
chanting in the sway of bodies
and tongues striking the bright air
The narrator of “Spirits of Old Mountain Road” is warned by his grandfather of ghosts that “ate clay / and summoned storms.” The possibility of the supernatural is not the end of these poems; the grandfather’s whispers, their walks together “drunk / on the hymns of those unseen kin, drunk / on the balm of that land’s green language” speak to a persistence of place.
Night Field Anecdote is not all serious: there is enough play here, with the “The Potato,” where the narrator imagines “submit[ting] to the hunger of anyone who knocked / the earthen garments from my body.” Wright’s verse can also be an ode in the tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid”:
We are orchard keepers, hidden in our roles,
rehearse the grove’s momentum into apples.
Even our baskets are beautiful, heavy with their loads:
Now we wash our hair in the slick language of apples.
This is a place where “we grow old with the earth”; at least hopefully, as the poem, “Strays,” ends with a question: “will our bodies / become vessels of shadow, battened to the thrill of rain?”
For all these possibilities of permanence and hope, the South of Night Field Anecdote is wounded by the past, burdened with the present. The justice in “Rabid Cat” is final: after an animal is killed, father and son, “with gloves, bleach, and scalding soap-water,” suffer to erase the act. Later, in “Loggerhead Shrike,” the animal “impales its shrew on a barbed-wire fence / and twists, empties that small cup of bones.” Violence in this book rams the reader from the brevity and power of Wright’s imagery. If the mythos of the South was brewed and cultivated by prose writers, Wright’s poetics sustain energy through implicit causality. Actions occur quickly, but paint the minds and memories of all participants.
“Fever” is not the final poem of the collection, but its economy could carry the power of a conclusion. Several of Wright’s poems arrive in numbered sections, and “Fever” begins with part statement, part question. A “tall Mexican” is “snagged” by a Copperhead. The man, “foot swollen with venom,” rushes to “a vision of relics / piled under his mother’s bed.” The poem descends into briefer sections, the pain increasing toward a mundane ending:
Half-drunk, he ate breakfast at the PK diner.
When they surrounded him, he shook his head,
The South of Night Field Anecdote might be harsh, eclectic, odd, and final, but it is absolutely real. Such a truth might be refreshing—that the poet is offering a prosaic and rational world, easy to touch—and also frightening, especially if our nightmares appear to be all that we have.