Poet’s ravishing incoherence
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.