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Shadow And Smoke: Brendan Fitzgerald And Charles Wright Reflect On What We Let Go

Illustration by Jesse Wells
Brendan Fitzgerald

"My wife and daughter left Montana for our new home in Ontario while I stayed to pack our things," writes journalist, editor and recent University of Montana MFA graduate, Brendan Fitzgerald. "I was glad they’d gone ahead. It was fire season, and smoke had lowered the ceiling of the world, dissolved the mountains and filtered color from the sunlight. On the radio, someone said that spending more than an hour outside was hazardous. I spent two in the parking lot of the post office, hauling books from my car and packing them into boxes.

Besides my car and some clothes, our books were the only things we kept. My wife and I had moved every two years since we met. Moving, we agreed, was one of the most difficult things a person could do. We left people we loved, whose absences we felt we couldn’t bear, and so we mourned. We carried too many things with us, and yet we always took on more. We asked each other, Must we move the books again? A home relieved each object of its weight, but a move revealed that weight again.

Among our books, I found a collection of poems by Charles Wright that I’d borrowed from the library. Throughout this volume, Wright’s voice is awed by time and wonderstruck by death. I had carried the book in my backpack for months after our daughter was born, when what was truly necessary also seemed most fragile.

What these poems seemed to say most strikingly is that one day, we will say goodbye to our wives and daughters, to our families and friends and all our stories, and that day will come before we are prepared. Yet the universe was designed to bear that loss and to unburden us of the weight we carry. “Bowls will receive us,” Wright wrote. And: “Later, at the great fork on the untouchable road, it won’t matter where we have become.”

I returned the book of poems to the library, and then set out to meet my wife and daughter. I drove east for hundreds of miles until the smoke was gone."

Fitzgerald pairs his reflection with a poem published by Charles Wright in 2014, the same year Wright was named the 20th Poet Laureate of the United States. He is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for poetry. The volume that Fitzgerald spoke about, titled Caribou, included this poem.

“Shadow and Smoke”

Live your life as though you were already dead,
Che Guevara declared.
Okay, let’s see how that works.
Not much difference, as far as I can see,
The earth the same Paradise
It’s always wanted to be,
Heaven as far away as before,
The clouds the same old movable gates since time began.
There is no circle, there is no sentiment to be broken.
There are only the songs of young men,
And the songs of old men,
Hoping for something elsewise.
Disabuse them in their ignorance,
Tell them the shadows are already gone, the smoke
already cleared,
tell them that light is never a metaphor.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 5/18/16 and 11/23/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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