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.
Littlefoot, the eighteenth book from one of this country's most acclaimed poets, is an extended meditation on mortality, on the narrator's search of the skies for a road map and for last instructions on "the other side of my own death." Following the course of one year, the poet's seventieth, we witness the seasons change over his familiar postage stamps of soil, realizing that we are reflected in them, that the true affinity is between writer and subject, human and nature, one becoming the other, as the river is like our blood, "it powers on, / out of sight, out of mind." Seeded with lyrics of old love songs and spirituals, here we meet solitude, resignation, and a glad cry that while a return to the beloved earth is impossible, "all things come from splendor," and the urgent question that the poet can't help but ask: "Will you miss me when I'm gone?
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By Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
It may not be written in any book, but it is written —
You can't go back,
you can't repeat the unrepeatable.
No matter how fast you drive, or how hard the slide show
Of memory flicks and releases,
It's always some other place,
some other car in the driveway,
Someone unrecognizable about to open the door.
Nevertheless, like clouds in their nebulous patterns,
We tend to recongregate
in the exitless blue
And try to relive our absences.
What else have we got to do,
The children reamplified in a foreign country,
The wife retired,
the farm like a nesting fowl and far away?
Whatever it was I had to say, I've said it.
Time to pull up the tie stakes.
I remember the way the mimosa tree
buttered the shade
Outside the basement bedroom, soaked in its yellow bristles.
I'll feed on that for a day or two.
I remember the way the hemlock hedge
burned in the side light.
Time to pull up the tie stakes.
Time to repoint the brickwork and leave it all to the weather.
Time to forget the lost eyelids,
the poison machine,
Time to retime the timer.
One's friends lie in nursing homes,
their bones broken, their hearts askew.
Time to retrench and retool.
We're not here a lot longer than we are here, for sure.
Unlike coal, for instance, or star clots.
Or so we think.
And thus it behooves us all to windrow affection, and spare,
And not be negligent.
So that our hearts end up like diamonds, and not roots.
So that our disregard evaporates
as a part of speech.
* * *
Cloud wisps, and wisps of clouds,
nine o'clock, a little mare's tail sky
Which night chill sucks up.
Sundown. Pink hoofprints above the Blue Ridge,
If this were the end of it, if this were the end of everything,
How easily one could fold
Into the lapping and overlapping of darkness.
And then the dark after that.
* * *
Saturday's hard-boiled, easy to crack.
Sunday is otherwise,
Amorphous and water-plugged.
Sunday's the poem without people, all disappeared
Before the shutter is snapped.
Rainy vistas, wet-windowed boulevards, empty entrances.
Across the bridge, dissolute, one-armed,
Monday stares through the viewfinder,
a black hood over its head.
* * *
When the rains blow, and the hurricane flies,
nobody has the right box
To fit the arisen in.
Out of the sopped earth, out of dank bones,
They seep in their watery strings
wherever the water goes.
Who knows when their wings will dry out, who knows their next knot?
* * *
In the affinity is the affection,
in the affection everything else
That matters, wind in the trees,
The silence above the wind, cloud-flat October sky,
And the silence above that.
The leaves of the maple tree,
scattered like Post-it notes
Across the lawn with messages we'll never understand,
Burn in their inarticulation,
As we in ours,
red fire, yellow fire.
It's all music, the master said, being much more than half right,
The disappearance of things
Adding the balance,
dark serenity of acceptance
Moving as water moves, inside itself and outside itself.
Compassion and cold comfort —
take one and let the other lie,
Remembering how the currents of the Adige
Shattered in sunlight,
Translucent on the near side,
spun gold on the other.
* * *
Which heaven's the higher,
the one down here or the one up there?
Which blue is a bluer blue?
Bereft of meaning, the moon should know,
the silent, gossip-reflecting full moon.
But she doesn't, and no one descends to speak for her.
Time in its two worlds. No choice.
I am the sign, I am the letter.
I am the language that cannot be come to terms with.
I will go to my resting place
and will not be born again.
I am what is scattered and cannot be gathered up.
I am small, I am silence,
I am what is not found.
Moon like a hard drive
just over the understory
Freckling my neighbor's backyard,
Nightscreen unscrolling along the River of Heaven,
Unasked for and undeletable
In time-lapse upon the early November skybook.
These are our last instructions,
of which we understand nothing.
The road map is there, the password,
neither of which we understand.
They boil on our tongues like waterflies.
They cling to our fingers,
they settle along our still eyelids
As though we would succor them,
As though we could understand their wing-buzz and small teeth.
* * *
Wherever I've gone, the Holston River has stayed next to me,
Like a dream escaping
some time-flattened orifice
Once open in childhood, migrating now like a road
I've walked on unknowingly,
pink and oblivious,
Attended by fish and paving stones,
The bottom breaks like mountains it slithers out of, tongued and
The river is negative time,
always undoing itself,
Always behind where it once had been.
Memory's like that,
Current too deep, current too shallow,
Erasing and reinventing itself while the world
Stands still beside it just so,
not too short, not too tall.
There's no uncertainty about it, negative time,
Like wind when it stops, like clouds that are here then not here,
It is the pure presence of absence.
November's last leaves fall down to it,
The angels, their wings remodeled beneath their raincoats,
Live in it,
our lives repeat it, skipped heartbeats, clocks with one hand.
Out of the sallows and slick traces of Southwest Virginia,
From Saltville and Gate City, from Church Hill and New Hope,
The river remainders itself
and rises again
Out of its own depletion.
How little we know it, how little we really remember it.
How like our own blood it powers on,
out of sight, out of mind.
* * *
Outside of the church, no salvation,
St. Cyprian says.
Outside of nature, no transformation, I say,
no hope of return.
Like us, November doesn't know this,
Leaf ends curled up like untanned leather,
grass edges bleared back from emerald ease,
Light-loss diaphanous in the bare-backed and blitherless trees.
Well, the wings of time pass, the black wings,
And the light is not adumbrated,
or dampened down —
Like splendor, there is no end to it
Inside the imagination,
then inside of that,
Wind-beat, light of light, and even into the darkness.
November noon mist, gold coins of leaves
Glittering through it as though refracted by sunlight
Through rain shower,
radiant clusters, radiant change,
Mountains rehollowed and blotted out,
Car lights continuous rosary beads
both ways on the Interstate,
Evening already released out over the dark Atlantic.
These are the still days,
stillness being the metaphor
Out of which every grain is revealed
and is identified.
Finger me, Lord, and separate me to what I am.
* * *
In nature there is no past or future,
no pronouns, no verbs.
Old knowledge, Slick, old deadlights.
Still, the tongue does not know this, the half-lit and dumb tongue —
Precision of frogs and grasses,
precision of words,
Each singular, each distinct,
The tongue tries to freeze-frame them as they are,
and offer them to us.
Now is precise but undefinable,
now is nonverbal,
No matter how hard we work it out.
Nuthatch or narwhal,
like petals, words drift in the air.
* * *
Calamities covet us, wild grass will cover our bodies,
We read in the Book of Poverty.
Deliver us, blessed immaculata,
adorn our affections.
Language is luckless and limitless,
as nature is.
But nature is not sincere, nor is it insincere —
The language of landscape is mute and immaculate.
First character of the celestial alphabet, the full moon,
Is a period, and that is that.
No language above to aid us,
no word to the wise.
* * *
I leave a blank for what I don't know,
four syllables, _____________,
And what I will never know.
Thrones, and assisting angels, this is a comforting.
In Kingsport, looking across the valley toward Moccasin Gap
From Chestnut Ridge,
the winter-waxed trees
Are twiggy and long-fingery, fretting the woods-wind,
Whose songs, ghost songs, wind-lyrics from sixty years ago,
Float back and exhale —
I will twine with my mingles of raven black hair.
Will you miss me when I'm gone?
The winter leaves crumble between my hands,
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,
here under the latches of Paradise?
Sunset, line like a long tongue-lick above the Blue Ridge,
Mock orange, then tangerine, then blush.
How ordinary, dog,
The rush-hour car lights down Locust Avenue like quartz crystals,
Backlit and foraging forth.
Streetlights gather the darkness to them,
Compassion an afterthought,
mercy no thought at all.
Moon down, darkness fixed and unmoving,
Stars bobbing like water lights,
three weeks to the winter solstice,
Wind drift and tack from the north,
Night like a distance one could row on,
Whose depths are an afterlife
almost, whose sea is remembered
As half-crossed, its wave spray like wind dust.
Good luck bamboo in three shoots in high-glaze south German brown vase,
Front yard like a windowpane
Into the anteroom of all things untouchable,
Cycladic ghost mask,
little Egyptian and Zuni overseers,
Choctaw and pre-Columbian artifacts arranged
Against the ruinous dark waters
outside the horizon.
* * *
Time is your mother in a blue dress.
* * *
When was it I first heard of the blank,
The salve of nothingness,
all its engendering attitude?
When was it I felt the liquid of absolution
And all its attendant emptiness
For the first time, and what it might mean?
Not young, I'd have to say,
remembering not one thing about either of them.
How early, however, I learned of their opposites.
Muscadines plump in their plenitude,
Lake waters lowing at night under frog call,
night wind in leaf-locked trees,
Splash of the fishing lure, whisper of paddle blade and canoe,
Clouds like slow-moving cattle
Across the tiny and synchronized tip of the moon.
To walk up the Y-shaped hill
from the commissary
(This was a government town)
In summer under the hardwoods and conifers
Was to know the extension of things,
the deep weight of the endlessness
Of childhood, deep, invisible weight,
Lake-sound and lake-song in high hum, the future in links and
To lie under lake-wind in August,
under mountain laurel
And blue-green North Carolina sky,
Lunch over, campfire smoke-ends
drifting out over water glints,
Was something like nothingness, perhaps, and its caress,
Crusader knights in their white tunics
and red crosses
Like ghosts through the trees, but not enough.
* * *
Precious memories, how they linger,
how they ever flood my soul,
In the stillness of the midnight,
precious, sacred scenes unfold.
Good luck is a locked door,
but the key's around somewhere.
Meanwhile, half-hidden under the thick staircase of memory,
One hears the footsteps go up and the footsteps go down.
As water mirrors the moon, the earth mirrors heaven,
Where things without shadows have shadows.
A lifetime isn't too much to pay
for such a reflection.
Three years, the story goes, it took the great ship to appear
In silhouette from the shadows
hanging above Lake Garda
And dock at the small port of Riva,
The Hunter Gracchus carried upon a bier by two men
In black tunics with silver buttons
Up to a back room in the mayor's office
until it was time to return onboard
And circle the waters of the world.
Unable to set down on land,
unable to leave this world,
The story goes on, because of a wrong turn of the tiller
This side of the other shore,
The great ship and the great body,
like lost love, languish and lip the earth,
Received sporadically, recognized everywhere,
The ship with its infinitely high masts,
its sails in dark folds,
Cobalt and undulant rocking of lake swells and waves,
Long runners and smooth slatch of the seas,
Creek hiss and pond sway,
Landfall and landrise
like Compostela at land's end.
There is no end to longing.
There is no end to what touch sustains us,
Deep in their brown study and torqued limbs,
Fish-scale grey of January sky,
Absence of saints on Sunday morning streets,
the dark ship,
Dead leaves on the water, the muddy Rivanna and its muddy sides.
* * *
We all owe everything to those who preceded us,
Who, by the lightness of their footsteps,
Tap-danced our stories out, our techniques,
who allowed us to say
Whatever it was we had to say.
God rest them all in their long robes and vanishing shoes.
God grant that our figures be elegant,
our footwork worthy.
* * *
Faith is a thing unfathomable,
Though it lisp at our fingertips,
though it wash our hands.
There is no body like the body of light,
but who will attain it?
Not us in our body bags,
Dark over dark, not us,
though love move the stars and set them to one side.
Sunlight like I beams through S. Zeno's west-facing doors,
As though one could walk there,
and up to the terraces
And gold lawns of the Queen of Heaven.
I remember the lake outside of town where the sun was going down.
I remember the figures on the doors,
and the nails that held them there.
The needle, though it has clothed many, remains naked,
The proverb goes.
So with the spirit,
Silver as is the air silver, color of sunlight.
And stitches outside the body a garment of mist,
Tensile, invisible, unmovable, unceasing.
The Holston, past Rotherwood,
clear white and powder white,
The hills dark jade and light jade,
All of it flowing southwest
against the wind and the wind noise,
Summer enfrescoed in stop-time
alongside the Cumberlands,
Leo and Virgo slow as a cylinder turn overhead,
Wind in the trees, wind on the water.
Excerpted from Littlefoot by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2007 Charles Wright. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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