Poet’s ravishing in­co­her­ence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Hill

AKIN to many great artists, Charles Wright has been elab­o­rat­ing on the same work for a long time. In Lit­tle­foot, his 18th book, he sus­tains his inim­itable re­frain about mor­tal­ity, do­ing what Ezra Pound did with ca­dence and Walt Whit­man did with al­lAmer­i­can speech.

And, again as usual, he grounds his poem in his home state, Ten­nessee, ob­serv­ing all the sea­sons, all the weather, from his own gar­den, dwelling in them as he turns 70, the age when ‘‘ it’s al­ways evening, light di­luted, breeze like a limp hand’’.

Ex­cept that noth­ing is di­luted with a poet who is such a mas­ter of ca­dence, whose phrases fall down the lines with Mozartian ease, seek­ing the per­fect forms even as they speak of empti­ness: The cloud poets of an­cient China Saw what they saw and recorded it, Lit­tle­foot: A Poem By Charles Wright Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 91pp, $ 29.99 divin­ers of what wasn’t there, Pres­tidig­i­ta­tors of noth­ing­ness. Let me be one of them. Wright is one of them. He has long had an affin­ity with the Chi­nese poets who looked to the empti­ness in each of the ten thou­sand things. But he is not as ab­stracted as th­ese lines sug­gest, even when he is fixed on the clouds above him, assem­bling and re­assem­bling. Lit­tle­foot is also a song to the earth and all that springs from it. The car­di­nal in his fiery caul, The year’s first dan­de­lion globe ash- grey on the ash- green lawns, Dear tulip leaves, colour of carp bel­lies, wis­te­ria drools Withered and drained dry — All light in the gath­er­ing dark­ness, a bril­liance it­self which is set to come. This is the poem’s shut­tle, re­ally: from the purely meta­phys­i­cal, which is be­ing de­nied as a non­sense, back and forth to the ra­di­ant sea­sons of the phys­i­cal, even as they con­tain the seeds of dark­ness that be­long to what is tran­si­tory. Lit­tle­foot ebbs and flows, hov­ers and some­times plum­mets to the tune of th­ese thoughts, all the while seek­ing to in­stil in the reader a kind of nightin­gale or sky­lark still­ness, just as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shel­ley sought to do in the face of Chris­tian con­so­la­tions.

In fact, it is tempt­ing to say that Wright is close to be­ing an un­re­con­structed ro­man­tic. He

waxes un­apolo­get­i­cally: he ex­udes a melan­cho­lia, a nos­tal­gia, which takes him to the edge of the pon­der­ous, the por­ten­tous. But then his voice eases into a con­tem­po­rary drollery, twangs from the Ap­palachi­ans so close to him. ‘‘ When the body is old, the heart be­comes older still,’’ Wright says in his corn­cob mode. And: ‘‘ We all hum our own sad songs.’’

But not ex­clu­sively, and not, fi­nally, with com­plete suc­cess. Wright is not a be­liever and this is the thing. Lit­tle­foot ( which hap­pens to be the name of a horse in the next field) works with re­cur­ring nega­tions. Early on they are the ‘‘ Horses, black horses’’, and it is ‘‘ Five Min­utes to Mid­night’’. Later, as the ‘‘ in­look shifts’’, there is the swoon­ingly serene im­age of the horses that ‘‘ know noth­ing of any of this, their heads in the wet grass’’. Later the poet is taken by the knowl­edge that ‘‘ the world’s whinny and the world’s bit / are two thou­sand miles away’’, which pro­vokes the ques­tion, ‘‘ How is it I hear hoofbeats so sharp in my ear?’’

Lit­tle­foot does not clar­ify an an­swer to this ques­tion, any more than it re­solves the propo­si­tions about lan­guage, time, be­lief, land­scape and na­ture that of­ten push it to­wards a species of philo­soph­i­cal in­co­her­ence. That it is a ravishing in­co­her­ence may, of course, be the point: all the me­taphors are meant to flow into each other and cel­e­brate a sim­ple way of be­ing: I empty my­self with light Un­til I be­come morn­ing. There is an­other thing that made me baulk. Wright’s voice is in­ti­mate yet acutely im­per­sonal: that is to say, it in­vites some sense of loved ones, re­la­tion­ships, of a so­cial world at least as tan­gi­ble as the dirt he ex­tols in his gar­den. Alas. Lit­tle­foot op­er­ates around a void, which makes its down­beat end­ing — the pop­u­lar song with its re­frain, Will you still miss me when I’m gone? — weirdly off- key. Pathos, yes, but so cheek by jowl with the sub­lime that it is bathos, a kind of Bob Dy­lan irony gone wrong and di­min­ish­ing what might have been a truly great long poem. Barry Hill is po­etry ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian. His most re­cent book is As We Draw Our­selves.

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