The Year of Turning Seventy
Littlefoot by Charles Wright. FSG, 2007. 91 pages. $23 cloth.
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who know Charles Wright’s career know the story. While in the Army, in
Italy, in the spring of 1959, Wright went to the shore of Lake Garda and
read “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” near the spot where Ezra Pound had
composed it, discovering—for the first time, at age 23—poetry
propelled not by narrative but by association, the kind of poetry he was
meant to create. Ten years later, Pound published the last section of his
Cantos where, in Canto CXVI, he wondered if this poem that had occupied
him for decades cohered. A year after that, in 1970, Wright published his
first book; and since then, his poetry, whose split-level lines and
free-verse music owe much to Pound’s influence, has prompted similar
wondering—for Wright is fond of bringing together individual poems in
larger and larger groups. For instance, his fourth book, China Trace, consists of fifty short poems, but he has also referred
to it as a single poem in which the main character begins by saying
goodbye to childhood and ends as a constellation, stuck in the sky and
short of salvation. Wright then put most of China
Trace together with poems from his first three books into Country
Music: Selected Early Poems, following it up with “selected poems”
for the 1980s (The World of the Ten
Thousand Things) and 1990s (Negative Blue). And, then, he called these three books a trilogy.
Readers of the poetry will, of course, disagree about how well these
groupings actually cohere and how much coherence matters.
latest book, Littlefoot, raises
the same issues in a new way, for it is the first to bear a promise of
some level of coherence on its cover: on a clear white background, in
small black capital letters, one finds the words “A POEM.” Littlefoot, named after one of the horses on his Montana ranch,
moves chronologically through one year (October 2004 to October 2005)
during which Wright (on August 25, 2005) turned seventy. A comparison to
one of his earlier long (although not book-length) poems is inevitable:
“A Journal of the Year of the Ox” also moves through a single year
(1985) during which the poet celebrates a significant birthday (his
fiftieth). Despite being a “journal,” it is highly structured, with
references to three places (or groups of places) providing structure as
well as thematic unity. The story of the Cherokee nation being forced away
from a sacred part of their homeland (the Long Island of the Holston, in
east Tennessee near where Wright grew up) appears in the January, April,
September, and December sections. Visits to homes of literary precursors
and a vision of Dante suggest others’ (to Wright’s humble way of
thinking) more successful presentations of ultimate meaning. And
Wright’s home in Virginia (contrasted with an August stay in a Holiday
Inn on his birthday) is the setting for the September-December sections,
in which the poet finds some meaning and sense of home even as he
acknowledges an inability to find ultimate meaning or to feel perfectly at
comparison, Littlefoot is
relatively incoherent. The poem has thirty-five numbered sections, the
number thirty-five evoking the beginning of The
Divine Comedy and the
midpoint of the three-score-and-ten lifespan that Wright reaches in the
poem, as well as 1935, the year of his birth. But it’s usually difficult
to see how one section relates to the next, and often just as difficult to
see how, within the longer of the sections, one stanza
relates to the next. Yet, even if the poem seems more like a verse journal
than the actual journal poems of the 1980s, even (that is) if the calendar
seems to be the only reason the poem is ordered as it is, there are still
topics (familiar to Wright’s readers) that recur and make it possible to
make connections and find meanings: topics such as loss; and memory; and
the landscapes in which one feels the loss, and finds only memory of only
some of the past, and therefore (as in “A Journal of the Year of the
Ox”) falls short of finding ultimate meaning or an ultimate home. Wright
states the loss, in terms too bland for my taste, at the start of the
may not be written in any book, but it is written—
can’t go back,
you can’t repeat the unrepeatable.
in section 12, he revises the statement, indicating that some of the past does get repeated, in a way—in human memories (“in the mind”)
and through nature’s seasonal regenerations (“in the world’s
Whatever has been will be again
in the mind, in the world’s flow,
Invisible armies outside the windows in rank,
Footprints continuing into the vestibules of the end.
things—images, stories, songs—recur and create meaning in Littlefoot.
For instance, footprints from section 12 reappear in 23 (where the north
wind is called “Bigfoot”) and 33 (where “The emptiness of
nonbeing” is “Something to seek out and walk on, one footprint after
the next”). In section 9, Wright retells beautifully Kafka’s story of
the Hunter Gracchus, who dies only to have his death-ship wander from pier
to pier in this world without ever reaching the next. It’s a poignant
expression of a theme that goes back at least to the end of China
Trace and that Wright has said he shares with Emily Dickinson: the
impossibility of getting to heaven. He returns briefly to “the ghost
bier of the Hunter Gracchus” in section 22, where it represents “A
wrong turn, a lack of attention, a lack, it seems, of love” in the
poet’s own life. In section 34, where the poem reaches its chronological
endpoint, Halloween seems like a version of the same story, as some of the
living dress up as the dead and wander from house to house. Finally, bits
of hymns (all about memory or the dead or both) appear in sections 5, 7,
17, and 32 and culminate in a final section consisting entirely of A. P.
Carter’s song “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone.”
as there are many satisfying connections in Littlefoot
despite its lack of coherence, there is much wonderful poetry despite
a lack of consistent inspiration. Wright, who has said that he is after
“the metaphysics of the quotidian” and that he “writes an
eschatological naturalism,” is (in his earlier books and here) often
clumsy when writing about metaphysics, and sometimes downright cheesy when
using things from too low in the realm of the quotidian to make his
similes. But he is often brilliant when describing the quotidian or the
natural world with such loving attention to detail that something
metaphysical or eschatological gets implied. On the one hand, he is
capable of stanzas like this about the beliefs of some unnamed and vague
The light that shines forth from the emptiness does not sink,
They’d have you believe.
As well as whatever is next to it,
They’d also have you believe.
Philosopher, they are not able, philosopher.
And her begot him, think that.
capable of similes like these that are more distracting than illuminating:
The leaves of the maple tree,
scattered like Post-it notes
Across the lawn with messages we’ll never understand . . .
Moon like a hard drive
just over the understory . . .
New moon like a jai alai basket
just over the doctor’s rooftop,
Cradling the old moon before her fall.
On the other hand, he is capable of a seeing so precise and a saying so musical that his language invokes something of the unseen and the unsayable, as here, when he describes a snipe on the surface of a pond:
Suddenly, under a cloud, the sun’s bottom auras the pond’s
And snipe is consumed by fire,
Still walking, angelic, wings dipped in flame.
It must have been like this on the first retelling, back there on
the long water,
Sunlight and surface-shine and something winged on the waves,
Snipe settled down now, deep beak in the curls.
Or, as here, when he describes chinks in the forest at evening in terms that suggest the wounding and healing of human experience:
Those little slashes and blades
of sunlight cutting streaks
Between the trees, imperceptibly healing over
As sunset pulls back down its high road
And the dark bandages of dusk
are placed on the forest floor.
one point in Littlefoot, Wright
says simply, “At seventy, it’s always evening.” Even if this poem of
the October-to-October year in which he turned seventy does not show him
at his most coherent or consistently inspired, it does show that as his
career reaches its evening, he can still, sometimes, do what great artists
so often do. By describing their wounds so well, they offer us healing.
And by describing their sense of mortality so well, they help us to face