Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 20, 2008

The word "nostalgia" sometimes has pejorative implications, but like its cousin "sentimental," the term can be approving as well as disapproving -- depending upon who is talking and about what. Most of us feel it occasionally: a wincing yet pleasurable return to what once was familiar, now remote.

With his delicate, virtuoso rhythms and his brooding but good-humored poise, Charles Wright is well equipped to evoke nostalgia while holding it up to a cool light with gentle amusement. In section 15 of his recent book Littlefoot, Wright ponders his own nostalgia: You still love the ones you loved

back when you loved them -- books,

Records, and people.

Nothing much changes in the glittering rooms of the heart.

Only the dark spaces half-reclaimed.

And then not much,

An image, a line. Sometimes a song.

Car doors slam, and slam again, next door.

Snow nibbles away at the edges of the dark ground.

The sudden memory of fur coats,

erotic and pungent,

On college girls in the backseats of cars, at Christmas,

Bourgeois America, the middle 1950s,

Appalachia downtown.

And where were we going? Nowhere.

Someone's house, the club, a movie?

See the pyramids along the Nile,

WKPT, I'm itching like a man on a fuzzy tree.

It didn't matter.

Martin Karant was spinning them out.

and the fur was so soft.

That triple use of "love" at the beginning suggests Wright smiling at himself, with some judgment. The third "love," in "back when you loved them," indicates an active, wholehearted emotion. The first, in "you still love," is milder, more static: that is, more nostalgic.

In its apparent simplicity and urbane candor, its detail, its allegiance to a past that is transitory and lost except in memory, these lines about a past "Appalachia downtown" remind me of the traditional Chinese poetry Wright admires and often evokes. For instance, here is Burton Watson's translation of a poem by the 11th-century poet Su Tung-p'o, "Rhyming with Tzu-yu's 'At Mien-ch'ih, Recalling the Past' (1061)":

Wanderings of a lifetime -- what do they resemble?

A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.

In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,

but the swan flies away, who knows to east or west?

The old monk is dead now, become a new memorial tower;

on the crumbling wall, impossible to find our old inscriptions.

Do you recall that day, steep winding slopes,

road long, all of us tired, our lame donkeys braying?

The Elvis Presley lyric (that fuzzy tree is from "All Shook Up"), the lame donkeys, the "snow-soaked mud," the snow that "nibbles away at the edges of the dark ground": Indelible details, with their aura of past emotions, return with the new, softening colors of retrospect.

(Charles Wright's "you still love" can be found in his book "Littlefoot." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright 2007 by Charles Wright. The poem "Rhyming with Tzu-yu's 'At Mien-ch'ih, Recalling the Past' (1061)," by Su Tung-p'o and translated by Burton Watson, can be found in "Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o." Copper Canyon. Copyright 1994 by Burton Watson.)

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