David Biespiel remembers the late American poet
C.D. WRIGHT, WHO passed away this week at the age of 67, was always willing to confront the most savage and tender parts of American life—from the brutality of racism to the banality of death to the dangerous bravura of the erotic. Because she was a true original—a poet who sounded like no one else, framed her poems like no one else, called forth the psyche’s archetypes and addressed the most difficult civic issues like no one else—she is being mourned by those who reject the repetitiousness, and self-righteousness, of poetic fad. But because she chafed at the limitations of the late-twentieth-century American lyric poem of anecdote—a form she mastered and toyed with in her early books—she is also being mourned by those who strive to retool its most traditional elements: emotional urgency, narrative memory, and the sanctification of the singular poetic utterance. If you write poems in the United States today, your poems owe something to C.D. Wright’s vision. And yet she was one of those poets—like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich—it’s dangerous to imitate.
I’m being intentional in putting her in this company. Like Whitman, Dickinson, Merwin, and Rich, C.D. Wright changed American poetry.
I’M WRITING THIS on an airplane, on my laptop, which is apt; Carolyn was always on the move.
We first met in the spring of 1991 about the time her third book, String Light, was coming out. She was giving a reading at the University of Maryland, and I played the small role, as adjunct faculty, of escorting her to the venue and hotel and around campus. That we were both southerners—me from Houston in East Texas, she from the southern Ozarks of Baxter County, Arkansas—ensured we got along swimmingly. We acknowledged it was good to be with kin. That was the word. Kin.
I’d already read String Light in manuscript. The judge of the University of Georgia Press award that year who selected her book was Stanley Plumly. He'd passed the manuscript to me one afternoon thinking I’d find it of interest. It was an easy sell. C.D. Wright had me at “I am the goat. Caroline by name. Née 6 January. Domesticated since the sixth century before Jesus, a goat himself”—the opening of “Self Portrait on a Rocky Mount.”
That day in College Park when she read “Remarks on Color,” she had me (again) with the word “blacktop.” Here’s how the poem, composed in 40 numbered units, opens:
1. highway patched with blacktop, service station at the crossroads
2. cream soda in the popbox, man sitting on the pop box
3. a fully grown man
4. filthy toilets, just hold it a little while longer
5. shacks ringed with day lilies, then a columned house in shade
6. condensation off soybeans
7. someone known as Skeeter
8. his whole life
9. flatbed loaded with striped melons
10. Lopez’s white car at JB’s mother’s house
11. katydids crepitating in the tall grass
12. gar wrapping itself in your line
13. gourds strung between poles
14. imagine a tribe of color-blind people, and there could easily be one, they would not have the same color concepts as we do
15. that’s trumpet vine; that’s what we call potato vine 16. no potatoes come of it though
17. no potatoes I know
18. I come back here about three years ago to see if I could eke out a living then I run on to Rhonda
19. help me Rhonda help help me
And then the climactic units:
30. what the Swede concluded: if you want to know what’s the matter with blacks in America study the other side of the color line
31. I am just telling you what the man figured out
This is a poetry of inventive travel—into and out of word and object, transcending event and scene, phrase to phrase to phrase. It’s a poetry of fierce tenderness, too, where the lives portrayed are seen in motion and in still life. It’s a narrative poetry of clauses. No, too highfalutin. It’s a narrative of shared lives and divided lives, of giving forgiveness and living with responsibility, of showing bravery and generosity.
THIS MORNING MY wife Wendy and I awoke early. We walked the dogs, called a cab to the airport—Portland to New York City. And I’m writing this now somewhere above America.
Down below are Carolyn’s poems. After we met in the early 1990s, that’s how I knew her, more as Carolyn than C.D. Well down below are her poems: the boys in the band and meat on the counter and girls on the stairs. Pop boxes and turned-up radios. Bus stalls and breezes and ice trays and muskrat and wintered tomatoes and hollyhocks and passion marks and stripped truck gears. Down below are hot-water bottles and Yolanda’s buried placenta and a salt-bag quilt and trying “to get used to the Yankee growing season.” Down there, brother, is the poet of dust:
I was the poet
of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch
phone books, of failed
roadside zoos. The poet of yard eggs and
jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline
factory on the penitentiary road.
A poet of spiderwort and jacks-in-the-pulpit,
hollyhocks against the toolshed.
An unsmiling dark blond.
The one with the trowel in her handbag.
I dug up protected and private things.
That sort, I was.
My graves went undecorated and my churches
abandoned. This wasn’t planned, but practice.
I was the poet of short-tailed cats and yellow
Of satellite dishes and Peterbilt trucks. Red Man
Chewing Tobacco, Triple Hut
Creme Soda. Also of dirt daubers, nightcrawler,
martin houses, honey, and whetstones
from the Novaculite Uplift.
I had registered dogs 4 sale; rocks, dung and straw.
I was a poet of hummingbird hives along with
The poet of good walking shoes—a necessity
in vernacular parts—and push mowers.
The rumor that I was once seen sleeping
in a refrigerator box is false (he was a brother
who hated me).
Nor was I the one lunching at the Governor’s mansion.
There are open roads down there, too, and those are Walt Whitman’s roads. There are C.D. Wright’s roads down there, as well, and those roads are the lost roads.
EVEN AS C.D. Wright’s poems underline a moral attention to the lives of the working class in America, which the passage above evokes, she appears, often, to challenge it. This quality is one I adore in her writing. Those lives don't need poetry, she tells you, but poetry needs those lives to be poetry. What is meant when she writes, do you suppose, that she is always “the one with the trowel in her handbag?" Suppose we agree that poets are the archeological diggers of the lexicons of our memories in the first place. And suppose we further agree that there exists in America today an amnesia about how American lives are fashioned, about how capital and economies and politics vie to divide citizen from citizen. Then a poetry that doesn’t use volcanic language that has bubbled up from actual living and actual speech—roadside zoos, weapons plant, dirt daubers, push mowers, Governor’s mansion—would be an enemy of life.
WRIGHT’S EARLY POEMS were precise representations of the vernaculars of place, in particular the Ozarks of Arkansas. Deepstep Come Shining, published in 1998, went further than anything she’d done previously. It fused 1) narrative with 2) metaphor with 3) identity. And it did so in one expansive, novelistic, lyric dramatization. But it also did so far outside the confines of the received, traditional free verse of the late-20th century as most people understood that term. I mean, this wasn’t “free” verse. This was liberated verse, on the tip of a southern tongue:
After he lost his sight, he could discriminate colors by their vibration. He was thrown to the ground under the power.
The water here, black marble. The grass, army-surplus green.
Poking around in the woods with a gun. Poke around in the house with a book. Poke around. Poke around.
They bleach their teeth those women.
Are those Casa Blanca lilies. I covet.
We lunch on Onion River. Stop by Cloud’s Fly Shop.
Get the hell out of here, can’t you see I’m not dressed. Can’t you see I’m depressed.
I see. I see. Please don’t put your feet on the chairs, it said in the eye doctor’s office.
Please don’t spit on the floor, it said in my father’s courtroom.
Her Aunt Flo said she hadn’t had any in so long she’d done growed back together.
Are you still working on that drink.
Cold pop. Free sir. Sold here.
We never close. Every nickel counts. Just ask Big Sam. He suctioned every nickel from every small town pocket and he sewed it under his lids, a veritable sheik from Arkansas.
He put a pillow over her mother’s head and shot her. The white piano shivered in the corner like a boy with an orchid. That was a helluva note.
This passage (I’ve bought the airplane Wi-Fi and downloaded the book onto my computer) comes from early in Deepstep. (Hardly anyone, by the way, calls that book by its entire title. It’s just—like a southern nickname—Deepstep.) I was born fifteen years after C.D. Wright and was brought up one state over, but I recognize these people. They exhibit the scars of living without private capital in an economy that lashes them. Like C.D. Wright, I was raised to revere their fortitude and celebrate their stories and affirm their breath.
Writing like this shakes off the studied world-weariness of a poem like Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife” and its exquisite “bright red sloop in the harbor,” its goofy heart and sad permission and its “littleneck clams out of season.” Wright’s poetry, instead, defies the ornamental. Eviscerates it. It’s poetry of the saliva in the spit not spat onto that courtroom floor. It’s what swirls inside the American mouth—and is swallowed. And it’s about lives swallowed up—nearly. Wright's grotesque gorgeousness is a form of lyric protest and also feminist protest. I’m of the opinion that her most essential feminist contemporary antecedent is neither Sexton nor Sylvia Plath. It’s Adrienne Rich. Like Rich, Wright’s poems verify experience.
Wright’s poems also ask questions about Southerness in distinct ways. The book One Big Self, her collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster and a record of Louisiana’s prison population, represents racist terrorism against fellow citizens. Sure, there is throughout her writing both editorial page and tabloid, suffering and meaning. But there’s no arrogance, nor self-pity. Her poems evoke how easily lives can be annihilated. What she restores is the conversation between people—the folk language and folk vernacular of their existences:
Two white horses side by side. Going to take her on her farewell ride.
Ain’t it had.
Half-fare, blind, mhmm.
Nothing in the world beats time.
She said her sister was more like Aunt Flo everyday. Big blond Aunt Flora with the smutty mouth who said she hadn’t had any in so long it’d done growed back together.
In the gated communities the women are bleaching their teeth.
Shielding her eyes among her Casa Blanca lilies with a tad of a hangover she offers spiderweb to staunch his paper cut.
Cloud’s Fly Shop in spitting distance.
Fiddle contest rain or shine, declares the flyer on the creosote pole.
I see. I see.
Don’t you just hate it when your gown catches between your buttocks.
Don’t you just hate it when the waiter says, Are you still working on that drink.
Poke around. Poke around. Can’t you see I’m depressed.
Welcome to my sensorium. You can touch, but you cannot lie.
You must know the Veals of Deepstep.
Mother’s neighbor passes on her mower, riding (sic) her Clancy novel.
She suffers from what Wittgenstein called aspect blindness. Is it a rabbit. Nay, it’s a swan, a swan.
Just because these are lines from a poem, and we understand that we’re meant to empathize with the figures presented, doesn’t relieve us from some responsibility for their suffering. Wright invites us into her writing to reckon with the half-buried past. When she extols everyday lives bred in the earth and buried in the earth, she reminds us of our shared desires and shared atrocities, too.
SEVEN OR EIGHT years ago, I was on a prize panel and was brought to Washington, DC to meet with my fellow judges. As the boxes of poems came in the mail prior to the DC meeting, I found out I’d been paired with another poet who was reading the same poems I was. But, I also found out, I wouldn’t learn who my partner judge was until the meetings in DC. At first I was nervous when I found out Carolyn was my silent co-judge. We’d not been in contact, really, for many years. But because the meetings went for several days, we were able to arrange our meals together and visit and create a friendship anew.
Over lunch one afternoon, she told me this great story: Browsing alone in a small airport bookstore, she suddenly noticed (a few steps away and moving quickly in her direction) the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton. Former president, yes, but also former governor of Carolyn's native state, Arkansas, Clinton is famous for shaking hands with anyone near to him. And here he was now bearing down on the diminutive C.D. Wright in a lonely bookstall in a bland airport.
With just the two of them in the bookstore they struck up a conversation about the books on the shelves in front of them and what each was interested in reading. He detected the mountain rhythms of Arkansas in her voice. (You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever heard a recording of her reading one of her poems.) And he got out of her that she was from Mountain Home in the southern Ozarks. Got out of her (she was always a determinedly private person, and was determined to keep her name to herself, she said) that her father had been a judge. Just then suddenly Clinton began to get pulled away by the arrival of other travelers and passersby who wanted to shake the president's hand, get an autograph, photos, and now here comes the secret service detail, too. And so the great poet of the American Southland, the poet who was, unbeknownst to most of America, changing what a poem is in America, began to walk quietly away, in solitude, from the greatest politician of the era. (I have to ask 30,000 feet up here above Nebraska or Iowa or wherever we are now, what was in the water in Arkansas in the 1940s and 1950s?)
But before she got too far down the aisle and out of the bookshop to reach her departure lounge, Wright could hear Clinton call back to her. He was waving to her and then said, “Nice talking to you, Carolyn. Good luck with your writing.”
She had not told him her name. Had not said she was a poet.
Now that’s Bill Clinton for you. The great memory. The capacity to comb through the old files: Baxter County, father is a judge, must be old Judge Wright, would’ve had a daughter about this lady’s age, wife's name….kids…got it...a writer…
“Nice talking to you, Carolyn…"
But that’s C.D. Wright for you, too. She was a poet’s poet. The work was what it was. Talking to the 42nd president of the United States and she’s just living in the world. A lady on the way to her airplane who is looking for something to read on the flight. No nimbus here, folks, move along. Just the discreet ego, the fine print of humility of a great American poet. And a kind friend.
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on.
DAVID BIESPIEL's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Slate, The New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and The New York Times. His latest book is A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns (2015).