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September song

Littlefoot A Poem Charles Wright Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 92 pp., $23

June 24, 2007|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is an editor at large for The Times.

TRANSCENDENCE is a word often used to describe the poetry of Charles Wright. Inside his lyric, there resides a world well beyond the ordinary. Its compass points are unmistakable -- the reflection of the sky on the surface of a pond, a sunset spreading over a distant ridgeline, a cloud caught in space -- and they often direct us, as William Blake advised, to a picture of eternity.

"Poetry," Wright has said, "comes from the heart and from the soul," and it is the heart and soul that he delivers so eloquently in "Littlefoot." Rich with samplings of Chinese poetry, folk-song lyrics, bluegrass riffs and references to Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens -- his touchstones for almost 40 years -- this book-length poem is at once familiar and new. If it is noticeably tinged with shades of death -- more so than his previous books, even the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Black Zodiac" -- perhaps now, at age 71, he finds such a rendering easier.


I'm starting to feel like an old man

alone in a small boat

In a snowfall of blossoms,

Only the south wind for company,

Drifting downriver, the beautiful costumes of spring

Approaching me down the runway

of all I've ever wished for.


To call "Littlefoot" a meditation on death, however, is too limiting. Life and the present moment flow through these pages, and the thought of the grave, the "flowery-bound retreat" (to quote from the A.P. Carter song "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?" with which Wright concludes the book), only brightens the richness of the past.

Taking one year, autumn to autumn, as his narrative thread, Wright evokes the landscapes of his youth: the rivers of eastern Tennessee, where he grew up the child of an engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the hillsides of northern Italy, where as an Army officer in 1959 he first read Ezra Pound. But no landscape is exactly as it seems, as Wright well knows. "When I write to myself," he once told an interviewer, "I'm writing to the landscape, and the landscape is a personification of the people on the other side."

Ghosts and angels are the denizens of this world, haunting and blessing its landmarks. As the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico worked with light and shadow to intimate a divine manifestation ("He colored with apparitions and visitations, / The outlines already there, / Apparently, waiting to be filled in. / And he filled them, stroke by stroke, / Bringing the outside inside"), so too does Wright, coloring the signs that surround him -- constellations, clouds, grasses in the wind, the sweep of lakes, rivers and streams -- to intimate their possible immanence. He has called himself a "nominal pantheist," which explains his constant poking at the boundaries of empirical fact.


What I hear is what I will tell you.

I am the sluice of dead scrolls and songs,

I am the tongue of what exists,

Whose secrets are whispered and not heard.

Listen to me, listen to what's the nothing I have to say.


Translating this "nothing," then, is the challenge, and it allows him to confront the limitation of his craft and of language itself. "What does it profit us to say / The stiff new bristles of the spruce tree / Glisten like bottle brushes after the rain shower?" The point is to connect, but if even God is a metaphor, as he once suggested, then how close can we get to the truth?

No wonder he dreams of dissolving the boundaries between life and thought. ("The emptiness of nonbeing, / that which endures through all change -- / Something to shoot for, for sure, / Something to seek out and walk on, / one footprint after the next.") And one morning, while watching a yellow-tail hawk hunting above a creek and "the shadow of a wind chime's bamboo drag," he just about succeeds. Out in the meadow, he informs us, "The horses, Monte and Littlefoot, / Like it the way it is. / And this morning, so do I."

Stillness, like death, suits Wright: " ... stillness being the metaphor / Out of which every grain is revealed / and is identified. / Finger me, Lord, and separate me to what I am." With this reference to Blake, he tips his hat in the direction of eternity as he looks for aspects of the world that, though they may end, never go away.

Poetry in the modern age has long aspired to slip the bounds of Earth. Let other media brave the rigors of realism (and let William Carlos Williams go his own way), poetry has always been best at suggesting a more spiritual reality. Ironically, writers whose eye seems most attentive to the natural world have found this true. Wordsworth had his "spots of time," Theodore Roethke his awareness that "All finite things reveal infinitude." Wright, a romanticist and master of metaphysical intent, has his dream: "I empty myself with light / Until I become morning."

If Nature is a haunted house, as Emily Dickinson told us, and Art a house that tries to be haunted, then Wright has created in "Littlefoot" one of the most satisfyingly possessed landscapes of his career. "The other side of the world, they say, is a door / where I'll find my life again." That he reveals that door is the achievement of "Littlefoot."


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