Meditating on Mortality

Littlefootby By Charles WrightFarrar, Straus, and Giroux. 91p $23
Though we seldom speak of Charles Wright as a religious poet, at least not as we might discuss George Herbert or Gerard Manley Hopkins, he is nevertheless among the most spiritual of American poets of the last 50 years. His poetry is relentlessly attendant to the numinous: “I am,” he writes in Littlefoot, his 18th book, “what is not found.” For Wright, the not-found, the “other side of the river,” has been always as real as the here-and-now, as sure as a breath and as close as a not-breath. Years ago he wrote, “Thinking of Dante is thinking about the other side,/ And the other side of the other side./ It’s thinking about the noon noise and the daily light.” Always the present world and our present consciousness exist as the shadow cast by the light that is the meaning of all things: omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt. This latest collection, actually one long poem composed of 35 numbered but unnamed sections, is another in a series of maps that illustrate Wright’s way of living, as pilgrim, between the seen and the unseen, attempting to come as close as possible to the light.

This life and art of pilgrimage—Wright has always been conscious of his age, of the ticking of the clock, and Littlefoot makes much of his arrival at 70—involves a rich and detailed awareness, in this case very like Hopkins’s own uncanny sensitivity, of the physical world. Landscape, memory, desire and a wistful acknowledgement of death crowd each page. “I remember the way the mimosa tree,” he writes, “buttered the shade/ Outside the basement bedroom, soaked in its yellow bristles.” A matter-of-fact tautology about mortality—“We’re not here a lot longer than we are here, for sure./ Unlike coal, for instance, or star clots”—is followed by a raised eyebrow, a wink, and the poet’s hedge: “Or so we think.” Wright works simultaneously in the realm of the physical (coal, star clots, mimosa bristles) and the metaphysical. These are not distinct realms for him, but mutually present, one a palimpsest of the other: “How is it we can’t accept this, that all trees were holy once,/ That all light is altar light,/ And floods us, day by day, and bids us, the air sheet lightning around us,/ To sit still and say nothing...?” Wright is a pilgrim of the spirit, always on the road, like the Japanese poet Basho, always the reluctant disciple, unambiguous about the holy but burdened with doubt about the holes where the nails have been.

And this confluence of spirituality and emptiness brings us to the heritage of Appalachia still present in Wright’s work. Granted, these poems are built from many tools and sensibilities, including a sense of imagery and cadence learned from Ezra Pound (“Sun over plum-colored leaf planes....”), the vibrant understatement of poets of the Tang Dynasty (Wang Wei, for example), the line reach of Walt Whitman, the quick epistemological turn of Emily Dickinson, the structural blocks of Cézanne, the what’s-left-out of the evocative line of Giorgio Morandi, the Italian landscape and language. But Wright grew up in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and early on knew the death-haunted, weirdly melancholic music of A. P. Carter and the Carter Family. Since his earliest poems, that music has provided a recurrent hum in the background: life, beauty, love, loss, death, hope, hopelessness, the grave, possible but unlikely comfort. Littlefoot, perhaps more than any of the earlier works, is drenched in the sorrowful loneliness of that music, the orphan’s fear that salvation is an empty expectation.

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“Is there an emptiness we all share?” asks Wright. For this long poem and its individual parts, the answer is yes. The book’s 35th entry is A. P. Carter’s “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” That unanswered question is the last word, and it is the silence at the end of it that is the emptiness.

Wright’s artistry, which began with the publication of the autobiographical The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), has never turned its steady gaze away from the immediate accessible world visible to anyone who is willing to look—“The little birds are honing their beaks on the chopping block stump”—nor has it ever failed to situate its language in an understanding of what is not understood: “The dread of what we can see, and the dread of what we can’t see.” Littlefoot continues Wright’s pilgrimage toward an inevitable transubstantiation, toward absolution: “Almost noon, the meadow/ Waiting for someone to change it into an other. Not me./ The horses, Monte and Littlefoot,/ Like it the way it is./ And this morning, so do I.”

Poetry, especially American poetry, is seldom long enough and patient enough to provide us with a formally sustained inquiry into the meaning of our lives, or at least into a consciousness of that meaning. One thinks of Whitman, and, though the ambition was different, of Pound. Charles Wright has devoted more than 40 years to that inquiry and to the formality of it (“this business I waste my heart on”). Another poet, Mark Jarman, has commented that “the paradox of Charles Wright is that his is a religious poetry without a religion, but not without a metaphysics.” This “God-fearing agnostic,” as Wright has labeled himself, keeps producing prayer after prayer: “So many joys in such a brief stay,” he writes. “Life is a long walk on a short pier.” Littlefoot takes us closer to the edge.

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