Arts/Literature

Littlefoot: Charles Wright's elegiac awareness

Charles Wright’s book-length poem Littlefoot declares in its second line:

You can’t go back,
you can’t repeat the unrepeatable.

You can look back, though. In Littlefoot, written in 2007, the year he turned seventy, Wright stands on the ridgeline between past and future, moving forward with an elegiac awareness of everything behind him.

I’m starting to feel like an old man
alone in a small boat
In a snowfall of blossoms….
Voices from long ago floating across the water.
How to account for
my single obsession about the past?
How to account for
These blossoms as white as an autumn frost?
Dust of the future baptizing our faithless foreheads.
Alone in a small boat, released in a snowfall of blossoms.

The poem is, as the book jacket declares, “an extended meditation on mortality”—but Wright also feels content, reconciled, ready for the final stage of the journey.

After the end of something, there comes another end,
This one behind you, and far away.
Only a lifetime can get you to it,
and then just barely.

While he might wonder what lies ahead, he spends little time ruminating on scenarios or possibilities. Instead, he seems to take stock in what he’s discovered that has prepared him to move in that direction.

Who knew it would take so many years to realize
—Seventy years—that everything’s light—
The day in its disappearing, the night sky in its distance, false dawn…
that all things come from splendor?

As is typical in Wright’s poems, he finds splendor in the natural world and then positions himself in it, giving voice to his meditations and observations and giving voice to the natural world itself.

So stub out your pencil, Pilgrim,
And listen to what the wind repeats
As it starts and erases itself,
Unstoppable storyteller with nothing to say.

Nature has much to say and no voice to say it in except its own, which is to say, in a voice most of us find unrecognizable. Even as he tries to listen to that voice and translate it, the natural world helps his own thoughts coalesce into voice, too.

There is comfort for Wright in just being, in experiencing that which cannot be articulated. His poetry works best when he shares that solace. Near the end of the book, Wright marvels at a neighbor’s maple tree, shining like a galleon in the dusk. “With such splendor, everything falls away, even our names,” Wright says.

In another instance, he writes about his love of watching falling stars, and how he

loved them, too, as they stayed in place,
Designs in the afterlife of dreams,
and beyond that,
Connecting the dots to nothingness.
It comforts me to know they’re up there,
and that their light
Keeps coming long after my sleep has gone forth, and my sleep’s sleep.

Albeit tinged with melancholy, the book strikes a tone not of regret but of satisfaction, not for all the things he didn’t do but for a life well lived. Littlefoot traces the process of contemplation that puts that life into context, that puts those lived experiences in their final places so he can move forward toward the last stage, whatever that might be.

“Sometimes I feel I’ve already told/every story I’ve ever heard,/Or even once heard about,” he writes. While that might sound like resignation or even defeat from another writer, for Wright the work rests in the flip-side of that “sometimes”—because, at other times, he knows there’s work to be done, stories to tell, poems to write.

But only the poem you leave behind is what’s important.
Everyone knows this.
The voyage into the interior is all that matters,
Whatever you ride.