on not joining: Remembering c.d. wright
by Anna Ross
C .D. Wright, Language poet; C.D. Wright, elliptical poet; C.D. Wright, poet of the Ozarks, of Arkansas, erotic poet, poet of conscience, of place, of reportage, ekphrastic poet, elegiac poet. Poetry is the weird one: funny-looking on the page, resolutely non-commercial, refusing the neat thesis or linear narrative, and those of us who practice it often find ourselves in a defensive, explanatory crouch in the face of the question “So, what kind of poetry do you write?” As often, we acquiesce, labeling ourselves by school or influence either out of guilt for having introduced the awkward subject in the first place with our presence or because the stage, by its smallness, invites division. C. D. Wright, whom we lost suddenly and much too soon just over a week ago, never succumbed to this pressure. As she wrote in her National Book Critic’s Circle Award-winning One With Others, a book-length telling of Wright’s friend “V’s” participation in the 1969 Arkansas March Against Fear and the repercussions of that act, “[Where was it you wanted to bury this hatchet. Your land or mine.]”
Fortunately for us, we were always solidly on Wright’s land throughout her career, land that is contradictorily knobby and studded with lookouts that offer both stunning views and unforeseen falls. One With Others encapsulates this breadth; in elegizing V, whose husband divorced her and took custody of her children and who was, quite literally, driven out of the state for her Civil Rights activism and her anti-segregationist sympathies, Wright is lyrical in her anger while displaying intimate knowledge of the context. Take these lines:
There is black air
and white air; this includes
the air in the tires blowing out
over the interstate between town and
river, the air that riddles the children
when a crop duster buzzes
a schoolyard, the air that bellows
from the choir of robes
when the Very Reverend Pillow
bids, Be seated, and even the air socked
from the jaw of the champ, born
seventeen miles west, in Sand Slough,
when he took that phantom punch
the year in which this particular round
of troubles began.
In an interview with Jacket magazine in December, 2001, Wright said, regarding her lack of poetic affiliations, “I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining.” In the details of the scene above, we can see her heritage (“crop duster,” “Very Reverend,” “jaw of the champ”), but we can’t miss her “resistance,” her willingness to call out the hatred, nonsensical as the attempt to segregate “air” but no less pervasive, that disfigures and divides the landscape and characters she finds within it.
This same intimacy, her ability to be “one” with the “others” she chronicles, is evident in Wright’s sense of humor, which underlies, but never overwhelms, her poetry. Later in the book, she describes V’s first encounter with “Sweet Willie Wine,” the black activist, or “Invader,” who organized the Arkansas march: “No, come over here. I want to give you something / [Mr. Invader thinks he’s about to become Mr. Goner and politely declines to approach.] / She flings a gold chain at him and squalls off the curb. BLINGBLING.” That Wright lets us laugh here only underscores the fear, unquestioned and virtually impenetrable, that is the foundation of this exchange. Wright sounds this note again in her tour de force, Deepstep Come Shining, a book-length poem set in both a remembered and contemporary Arkansas. Wright said of the poem “Deepstep Come Shining is my rapture,” and we hear her particular shade of rapture in the book’s refrain of “God is Louise.” We imagine it spay-painted on overpasses, hollered from pick-up trucks, printed on homemade bumper stickers and t-shirts, a match for Beckett in its mix of irony, wit, despair, and celebration of the vernacular.
I came to Wright’s work (later than I now wish I had) through her book Tremble, which I found in a used bookstore down the street from Columbia University after several new grad school friends informed me of what I was missing. It was the fall of 2001. I was newly married and had just quit the first real job I’d ever had to start my MFA in a new city and a new state; most things in my life, Wright’s poetry included, felt equal parts intimidating and exhilarating. I admired her lists, her ability to suggest narrative through juxtaposition, her eroticism that is at once tongue-in-cheek and far more honest than I had ever dared to be. Who wouldn’t idolize a sequence like this one?
Strangest device: cock rings
Preferred intervention: human hand
Source of common terror: retina
Wish: to never know unhappiness again (“Autographs”)
Rereading Tremble fifteen years and two children later, as I did the night I heard she’d died, a different poem caught and held my attention, “Song of the Gourd.” In this poem, Wright softens the shocks within her list with repetition:
in gardening I said excelsior: in gardening I re-
quired no company I had to forgive my own failure to
perceive how things were: I went out barelegged at
dusk and dug and dug and dug: I hit rock my ovaries
softened: in gardening I was protean as in no other
realm before or since:
It’s the colons that catch hold of me at first, pushing the poem forward and creating a breathlessness that is unremitting. Squint, and the colons seem to come to the foreground; the poem could be a series of times on a digital clock, discrete moments crammed together by its prose-block structure. We are moving, always moving, no matter what memories (“one man’s death one / one woman’s long-term isolation”) we haul with us. But there is some possibility of hope, even happiness, here as well:
my soul let out an unyielding noise: my lines softened: I
turned the water onto the joy-filled boychild: only in
gardening did I feel fit to partake to go on trembling in
the last light:
In a world without C.D. Wright, we are fortunate still to have her words: moving us forward, keeping us trembling.
Anna Ross is the author of the collection If a Storm (Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry) and the chapbook Figuring (Bull City Press, forthcoming), named a finalist for the Alice Fay DiCastagnola Prize. Her works has been recognized with fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, and she is a contributing editor in poetry for Salamander. She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing Program at Emerson College.