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This review is taken from PN Review 110, Volume 22 Number 6, July - August 1996.

THE MASK OF BATTLE CHARLES WRIGHT, Chickamauga (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Hedgehog people, Americans have always tended to batten onto One Big Idea. From our origins in the Puritans' Redeemer Nation down to the Cold War's millennial anti-communism, the American mind has shown a remarkable ability to construct triumphalist narratives from which ambiguity, contingency, and uncertainty - let alone error! - are excluded. Fidelity to a near manichean conception of the world endures even as the Idea, whatever it happens to be, changes over time. Source of much of the nation's hard-headed genius, the national temper has also given us probably more than our fair share of messianic madmen, demagogues, and cranks. And in a culture enamored of generalization its often hard to tell the one from the other, genius from fool: Henry Ford had his great idea for cheap automobiles and he also thought a cabal of Jews ran the world. The Quaker hymn may say "tis a Gift to be Simple' but it's also a curse.

This totalizing 'mind-set' (a recent Americanism whose inelegancy rigidifies quicksilver concepts of belief, ideology, and history in an iron cage) of One Big Idea makes it tough for people, like poets, who deal in unanswerable questions. It is the poet's skeptical take on One Big Idea and his search for an alternative faith which is at the heart of Charles Wright's luminous new book, Chickamauga. A critic's blurb word, really, luminous. Rather, Wright's verse is a raking light across what is a contingent world, a light intended to pick out ...


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