On Charles Wright's "Crystal Declension"

I recently picked up Charles Wright’s Caribou when I was at Powell’s in Portland (gosh, I love a good bookstore), and it’s been my traveling companion for the last few weeks. I’m definitely still finding my way in Wright’s verse, and “Crystal Declension” is my first foothold in Caribou. I appreciate Wright’s natural imagery and the way he connects our lifecycles with nature. Caribou is more than simply about birth and death; it’s about the perspective this recognition opens up. This is where “Crystal Declension” fits.

“Crystal Declension”

Well, two things are certain—
                        the sun will rise and the sun will set.
Most everything else is up for grabs.
It’s back on its way down now
As a mother moose and her twin calves
Step lightly, lightly
                       across the creek through the understory
And half-lit grasses,
Then disappear in a clutch of willow bushes.
                                                            If one, anyone,
Could walk through his own life as delicately, as sure,
As she did, all wreckage, all deadfall,
Would stay sunlight, and ring like crystal among the trees.

This poem is first and foremost a meditation. The pacing is excellent; it encourages you to rest on each phrase as you build the scene the poet sees. I’m interested here in the structure of the language that guides you through the meditation.

There’s repetition throughout the poem though strictly speaking that’s not the right word for it. The verse remains open, like the language is still being turned over, leaving you, the reader, with space to come to it. No two of the “repetitions” function quite the same, and each one calls you to pause for a moment to work out what it’s doing.

The poem begins with a repetition of phrasing that reveals a division in the ordinary—“the sun will rise and the sun will set.” The poet refers to this as two certain things. He separates what we often think of as one certainty—everyday, the sun rises and sets.

The next repetition is an elaboration. “As a mother moose and her twin calves / Step lightly, lightly / across the creek...” Weight-words often gain power from repetition. Here the lightly nestles against itself even though the second lightly belongs with the next line. However, the second lightly is allowed to serve this double duty because the next line is visually far removed from the previous one, so you have time to consider the “Step lightly, lightly” together before you realize where the second lightly grammatically belongs. That new phrase elaborates the scene as if, on further reflection, the poet realizes “step lightly” is insufficient to picture the scene—you need to understand where it’s happening as well.

The moose disappear into the brush, and the poet is left to connect the natural to the human condition. If is a sign of contemplation—moving from what is to what might be. The poet proposes, “If one, anyone”—the upcoming thought is potentially universal. The impersonal one is a curse in English. It is disembodied and strangely abstract. It’s unacceptable here and requires clarification, so the poet adds anyone. Without losing the inclusivity of “one,” anyone prevents us from drifting into our purely objective mode. If anyone, then it could be you or me. This is about us.

“If one, anyone, / Could walk through his own life as delicately, as sure, / As she did”. The next repetition—clearly I’m stretching the meaning of that word now—is linked by as. But then, the whole thought is stretching here. The comparison being made is between the way the mother moose walked into the woods and the way that we “walk” through our own lives. Certainly, the idea of our walk through life is age-old. We probably rarely notice ourselves moving between the physical and the metaphorical senses of walking, and there’s good reason for that. Our physical walk is bound up with our perspective—the way we carry ourselves. There’s a leap here that should be noticed, but perhaps it’s one of those differences that ends up disappearing when we dig a little deeper. Now, the poet imagines one walking “as delicately, as sure” as the moose. The repeated as multiplies the comparison. You’re not asked to imagine us walking “as delicately and sure” as the moose. You can’t take this in all at once. Instead, you think of walking as delicately as the moose, and then you think of walking as sure as she did. You slow down and stretch with the thought.

If one can walk through his life in this way, then “all wreckage, all deadfall, / Would stay sunlight, and ring like crystal among the trees.” Stay with this for a moment.

The poet is still turning over the language here—“all wreckage” and “all deadfall.” The repeated all suggests the two images are equivalent; they stand like options for understanding this thought. To me, wreckage is a more human word though I know nature, like a flood, can also leave wreckage behind. But in each case I picture what’s wrecked as human-made. For example, a shipwreck in a tempest is only a wreck because of the human ship; without the ship there, it would have just been a powerful storm that came and went. So, we—humanity—wreck. Deadfall, however, is natural—“a mass of fallen timber and tangled brush” (American Heritage Dictionary). Here language is tricky because we love patterns and order. So when we see deadfall, we see disorder in the dead trees, the bushes they crushed below, and the brush that has newly wound around the fallen trunks. It’s like a wreck, but is it really? To nature, to those trees, to that brush, is anything out of order? Trees live, they die, and then they fall. Is it ruin to end up in deadfall? Let me modify my claim: while all wreckage and all deadfall are presented structurally as equivalent, they should not be treated as such. They should be taken in sequence. They model the very change in perspective the poet is contemplating. They’re similar terms, but it seems to me that deadfall brings us closer to the way of the moose.

To walk through our lives as the moose walks into the woods will be transformative. What we previously saw as lying in ruin would instead “stay sunlight, and ring like crystal among the trees.” This final line is not a repetition though the two images remain linked by the and. So the poem ends in the opposite way it began. In dividing the sun rising and sun setting, he made two out of what we normally see as one. Now at the poem’s end, he takes two different sensory experiences and binds them together as the effects of the same change in perspective. Everything would stay sunlight in contrast to the dusky moment in which the poem takes place. And everything would ring like crystal among the trees. In Oregon, I’ve been staying at a place that has a couple of young aspen trees in the backyard. When the wind blows, the trees shimmer and the leaves shake in a gentle ovation. I imagine the ringing like that a hundredfold. 

All of this brings me to the title, “Crystal Declension.” What does it mean? Declension is one of those words I know something about, but I really couldn’t define it with any precision. So, I turned to the dictionary. [By the way, my new rule is that whenever I’m reading something that has carefully chosen words, I respect that by having a dictionary available. This is not only for words I don’t know or am fuzzy on like declension, but also for familiar words that seem special in the context. You learn a lot by looking at alternate definitions or etymology. This little extra care allows you to see the aura around the words—the many associations and variations that they’ve gathered throughout the history of their use.] Anyway, I looked up declension. Its linguistic use (related to inflections in languages) is interesting, and perhaps I could weave an explanation for why this poem is called “Crystal Inflection,” but I don’t feel it. The next couple of definitions have to do with decline, which is tempting but again not how I see it. The last definition is “a deviation, as from a standard or practice” (AHD). Yes, that. In “Crystal Declension” I find a call for us to see our lives differently, to deviate from the all-too-human measures of order, success, and failure and to transform the apparent wreckages of this life into sunlight and ringing crystal among trees.