The Southern Cross is a complex gesture to the past bracketed by two complementary long poems, "Homage to Paul Cézanne," a hypnotic, highly figurative litany for the unnamed dead, and the title piece. . . .
"Homage to Paul Cézanne" is an attempt to amplify voices that have become too faint to hear. In eight unnumbered sections, each sixteen lines long and given a separate page, the poem postulates a wide range of things the dead do, refusing to individuate them. "At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts / To stay warm, and litter the fields," it begins. "We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth." In the elusive and cumulative imagery of this poem, the dead are always with us, an ancestral presence--refracted and transfigured, moving and unsettled, fading and returning, evasive, unrecoznizable, nudging "close to the surface of all things." They slip under our feet and twist like stars over our heads. They are mist on the mirror, a gap in the wind, a space we enter in dreams, what we will become. Until then, however, "We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts."
Wright's "Homage" is a nonlinear poem in an oracular mode, an attempt to bring a series of painterly techniques to the poetic sequence. Cézanne is the magnetizing presence and guiding example, especially the sixty paintings of Mont Sante-Victoire that he made between 1882 and 1906. Wright's idea is to treat words like pigment, to build the blocks, by layering lines and stanzas the way Cézanne used color and form. The fourth section recalls Cézanne's commitment to significant form, his determination to seek in nature the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, to penetrate its masses and planes, to use the color blue as a way of defining space, an intercession between earth and heaven:
The dead are a cadmium blue.
We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.
We layer them stroke by stroke
In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.
We choose, and layer them in,
Blue and a blue and a breath,
Circle and smudge, cross-beak and buttonhook,
We layer them in. We squint hard and terrace them line by line.
For Cézanne technique was itself spiritual ("What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint") and there is an exaltation to his work that is sometimes linked to the pantheism of Chinese painting. That's one reason he becomes "The Black Chateau"--the title of one of his greatest paintings--at the end of Wright's fourth self-portrait.
From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.