Prose from Poetry Magazine

To Let You Pass

Remembering Craig Arnold.

by Christian Wiman

It is now six months since Craig Arnold died—or vanished, as most notices have termed it. We have delayed running an obituary for him partly because of the circumstances of his death. As most people in the poetry world now know, he disappeared while exploring a volcano on a Japanese island, and all indications are that he suffered a fatal fall in such a remote and dense location that his body may never be found. Another part of the delay, though, perhaps the better part of it, is this: I knew Craig, and knew him to be a person in whom life burned so intensely and immediately that not only is his death at forty-one a shock, but in some part of my brain it simply will not register.

I first met Craig about ten years ago at a little college in Virginia, where he was part of a symposium of young poets I had organized. Tall, lean, and with his head shaved, clad in black leather pants and tight white T-shirt, he didn’t “read” his poems: he performed them, strutting elastically about as if he were on stage, whipsawing lines and limbs in precise, rehearsed ways, electrifying that quaint little lecture hall as if it were the Moulin Rouge. I tend to be allergic to this kind of self-dramatization in poetry, but I loved it. All of it: the flair that seemed to arise naturally out of his character rather than being appliquéd on; the mercurial and protean nature of his subjects (and, I would learn, his own life); the hell-bent hungers and raptures kept in check—or at least kept intact, intelligible—by the tough-minded conscience and craft that ran through the poems like a spine.

Those were the poems of Shells, Craig’s first book, which had been selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1998 (published in 1999). The poems hold up, to say the least. In fact, what strikes me when reading them now is how little they need any embellishment of drama or gesture, how absolute their integrity is on the page. “Hot,” a long, tightly-wrought narrative which is emblematic of the book as a whole, is about—besides life and death and art, I mean—two friends who share a passion, of a sort, for ever-hotter peppers:

                                                   I called in sick
            next morning, said I’d like to take

       time off. She thinks I’ve hit the bottle.
The high those peppers gave me is more subtle—

       I’m lucid, I remember my full name,
my parents’ birthdays, how to win a game

of chess in seven moves, why which and that
       mean different things. But what we eat,

why, what it means, it’s all been explained
       —Take this curry, this fine-tuned

balance of humors, coconut liquor thinned
       by broth, sour pulp of tamarind

       cut through by salt, set off by fragrant
galangal, ginger, basil, cilantro, mint,

the warp and woof of texture, aubergines
       that barely hold their shape, snap beans

       heaped on jasmine, basmati rice
—it’s a lie, all of it—pretext—artifice

       —ornament—sugar-coating—for
. . .

For what? Well, that’s the whole heart of “Hot,” the whole heart of Craig, really, who seems to me as powerfully present in these poems as when I first heard him perform them all those years ago—and as teasingly elusive.

Nine years would pass between the publication of Shells and the appearance of Craig’s next book, Made Flesh, nine years in which Craig lived in Rome and Bogotá and Wyoming and Utah and I don’t know where else. It was in some ways the typical twenty-first-century up-and-coming American poet’s life—the pick-up jobs and the scramble for publishers, the fellowships and relationships (for the past six years of his life, Craig was very happily partnered with another poet, Rebecca Lindenberg), the constant effort to find a way of staying alive without allowing one’s lifeblood to congeal into a career.

And yet it wasn’t so typical, too: Craig was perhaps the only poet I have known personally—the only good poet, I should say—who seemed completely at ease with being a poet. Don’t get me wrong: Craig had all of the existential friction and psychic disquiet we’ve come to expect from post-Romantic poets—an excess of it, actually. You don’t have to read his poems autobiographically—and they’re too cunningly, winningly imagined to do that—to get a hint of the tempest that was their source. But he also had, right down to his soul (I guess it was his soul), a calm and clarifying equanimity about his purpose on this earth, and always over the years when I would encounter him—a few days in Virginia again, a dinner in San Francisco, a breakfast in Chicago—I would discover my own bristling insecurities melting away in his presence, and would feel my own relationship with poetry renewed. This wasn’t because Craig had achieved some sort of monkish calm with regard to ambition (ha!), and it certainly wasn’t because he was placidly and brainlessly open to everything he encountered (in fact, he could be quite sudden and sharp in his opinions). No, what Craig had, besides his endless and endlessly inclusive charisma, was a capacity to be at once absolutely grounded in the physical world, and in his own body, and yet utterly, mysteriously permeable. I’m not sure how this played out in his daily life, but I know it affected mine, and for the better. I also know that this quality gives the concrete things of his poetry, and especially his later poetry, a powerful sense of being more themselves by being more than themselves:

Here is a small café
opening for breakfast
a zinc counter catching the light
at every angle in bright rings of glitter
A cup of black coffee is placed before you
brimming with rainbow-colored foam
a packet of sugar   a pat of butter
a split roll of bread
scored and toasted and still warm
The butter is just soft enough to spread
the coffee hot and sugared to perfect sweetness
the bread grilled to the palest brown
crisp but not quite dry
You tear it neatly into pieces
eat them slowly    when you finish
you are exactly full

Here are bread butter and coffee
Here you are     your own body
eating and drinking what you are given
as one day you in turn will be devoured
and that is all
     You were never the lord
of a lightless kingdom
     any more
than she has ever been its queen
and the world you talked into a prison
suddenly seems to be made of glass
and your eyes see clear to the horizon
and you feel the molecules of air
part like a curtain
     as if to let you pass
                —From
“Couple From Hell”

This is from Made Flesh, which is a different sort of book from Shells. Shells is often about the immediacy of experience, but there is just as often a detachment to the poems, a very palpable (and altogether successful) sense of artifice, of talent that is in some way distancing a world even as it brings that world wildly alive. In Made Flesh that distance is gone. The language is sparer, all irony is obliterated, the poems are less obviously “formal,” and their raptures are at once quieter and more complete. There is something both precise and encompassing about these poems, something at the same time piercing and liberating (for a straight shot of what I mean, flip a few pages back and read the more recent “Meditation on a Grapefruit”). Time abrades talent. Some poets don’t seem to notice this and continue to make the same ever-thinning sound right on into oblivion. Others lapse into embittered silence. In some, though, the abrasions bloom:

On the fire escape of your rented room
we sat and felt the empty city
sweat and fret     we passed a cigarette
back and forth     as once we passed
words like these between us      without
hope of keeping
                              Now I write
without hope of answer
     to say
that what we gave each other nakedly
was too much and not enough
To say that since we last touched
I am not empty
     I hear you named
and my heart starts
     the pieces of your voice
you left
     are interleaved with mine

and to this quick spark in the emptiness
to say Yes
     I miss how love
may make us otherwise

               —From
“Asunder”

The bracing, rule-breaking (show, then tell), completely convincing move from detail to abstraction, from sensation to realization; the space-ghosted form of the lines so apt for their subject; the careful, graceful assurance of the poem as it charts an entirely new route through a minefield of emotional and poetic cliches: it takes an enormous amount of skill to speak one’s pain in this way, and it takes a rare, clear heart.

I last saw Craig back in February, when he came into town for the AWP conference. He showed up at the Poetry offices one afternoon and practically lifted me off the floor in a hug. As always, the twitchy intelligence, the solar flares of his energy, surprised me—and, as always, surprised a happiness in me I hadn’t known was there. We locked him in an office all afternoon in hopes that he would write the long-overdue prose note to the translation he had done for our April issue, and for hours he sat there (weird: how suddenly still he could become, how creaturely focused), finally emerging near dusk with a single brilliant and self-revealing page on a poet he had recently met while living in Colombia (“to hit upon such an image requires an intimate acquaintance with all the flavors of pain and persistence and hopelessness—here, I thought, was a conscience to reckon with”). The next day he led—with great kindness, and much to my surprise—a reading he’d shaped as a celebration of the magazine. He’d given up the extravagant reading style of years before because, he said, he began to think it was actually deflecting people’s attention and detracting from the work. Still, even understated (as if that word could ever be used for Craig!), he was searing, mesmerizing, unforgettable.

Craig stayed with my wife and me that week, and somehow in between the dozens of friends he was seeing, or tending to, or shuttling to and from the airport, we found time to talk. I remember most clearly his last morning here, when he made us “migas” for breakfast, and the conversation turned to something he and I had talked of many times over the years: the necessary but destabilizing intensities of poetry, and the life that one risks by cultivating those intensities, and the life that—in some cases, our cases, we both felt—poetry also rescues. Out in the front yard he gave me another of his no-holds-barred hugs and promised to be back in August. Only as he drove off did I realize I’d forgotten to get him to sign our copy of Made Flesh, which is a shame, since the inscription he wrote for me on Shells all those years ago is a gem. Filling the entire page, and linking quotations from Fight Club and Baudelaire with a self-consciously absurd smiley face, it’s Craig all over. “I hope this stays with you,” he scrawled on the very last bit of space at the end of the page. “I certainly will.”

Originally Published: October 1, 2009

COMMENTS (20)

On October 5, 2009 at 9:49am sassjemleon wrote:
excellent tribute for your fallen friend. one small exception, from my point of view as an other. in the future, i would prefer you to refer to my silence as satisfied, rather than embittered. as a former noise-maker and talent-quaker, i'm quite satisified in my learned quietude.

On October 6, 2009 at 8:37pm Jake El. wrote:

I understand the sense of loss many poets feel who knew him, but I'm really not impressed by the poetry. Why is this poet such a big deal?

On October 7, 2009 at 6:23am Francisco Aragon wrote:
Very moving (and beautifully written)
tribute.

On October 7, 2009 at 10:19am Michael wrote:

Hey Jake El. I just took a breeze through a bunch of Craig Arnold's poems and I can kind of see where you're coming from, but also might have a lead on an answer for you. It seems to me that Craig's poems have a modulated sense of what the experience of a poem should be, which I think a lot of people find appealing: they move gracefully along, are comforting in their light application of meter and sense of repetition, and expose a sort of 'clear-thinking of the soul.' Their every-day-ness doesn't hurt them whatsoever in achieving those things, something which in fact helps them along and broadens their appeal. Even if topically the poems may not be to your taste (and they certainly are not to mine), there is some mark of controlled craft that impresses. I think lastly--and Christian touches on this a bit in the essay above as he points out the sense of ease that Craig had being a poet--that through Craig's poems you get a sense of the person that he was. From my own very limited interactions with him, that's almost reason enough. Hope this helps, Michael

On October 7, 2009 at 9:16pm William wrote:
How can you read Arnold's "Incubus" and not be impressed? The man oozed talent. And while his untimely passing is indeed a tragedy, it is oddly poetic that he died like he lived--exploring the intensity of existence.

On October 8, 2009 at 6:08pm Jake El. wrote:
Yes, Michael, thank you for taking the time to respond. I do appreciate those things you pointed out. I'm a bit more convinced as to his skill, and yes, William, Incubus is a very good poem, but nothing to warrant this extraordinary level of praise he's garnered. The poets that I consider impressive and worthy of such praise are poets like Rilke, Gluck (sometimes), and Elizabeth Bishop, Stevens, too. I recognize how Craig's poems earn themselves, set themselves up and succeed in answering themselves. But I'm still not impressed, sorry. Still, loss is loss, and I do wish he were still alive.

On October 9, 2009 at 11:40am Chad Parmenter wrote:
This was tremendously moving, Chris. Thanks so much.

On October 13, 2009 at 1:21am ray gibbs wrote:
i loved the two lovers, sitting on her fire-
escape, feeling the empty city, 'sweat and
fret', passing 'back and forth' a cigarette,
false promises, and more !

sorry your friend's end, his talent, one i
would have enjoyed knowing.

On October 13, 2009 at 3:08am Austin Bailey wrote:
Yes, this is a tremendously moving
piece on Craig Arnold. I only
discovered his poetry after his
disappearance but I instantly fell in love
with it because his voice is so unique.
Particularly his later work from Made
Flesh, as well as the stuff he published
in poetry magazine and the poems that
were published recently in the Paris
Review. Those were particularly
striking. I think what is most refreshing
and memorable about his work is how
much of a risk it takes, in the sense
that it journeys into areas that (being
absent of any irony, as you put it) could
be derided as sentimental within the
context of contemporary American
poetry. But that kind of clear, sincere
and profound lyricism is what
contemporary poetry, I think, needs
more of. For that reason I love his work
very much.

On October 13, 2009 at 1:23pm jeremy Iacone wrote:
Hey Jake,

when we measure the greatness
of others with a calculus of debits
we reveal the frailty of our own
currency.

Wishing you all the best,
nonetheless.

JI

On October 16, 2009 at 6:00pm Erik wrote:
A wonderful appreciation. Thank you.

On October 25, 2009 at 5:14am James wrote:
Chris, there are no more fitting words to better honor Craig Arnold than those you have woven together, here.
Your tribute is very deeply moving.

On October 25, 2009 at 5:45pm Joy wrote:
A heart warming tribute for your dear friend.Very well written poet Love!

On November 3, 2009 at 10:07pm Victoria Noble wrote:
I only discovered Craig Arnold in September and had no idea he was missing at all until yesterday. I was reading Meditation on a Grapefruit when I saw 'Remembering Craig Arnold' I was shocked. When I read your tribute I cried. I have never cried over the death of anyone. I never met Craig but, through his poems, I felt I had taken a peek at his soul; at the soul of poetry itself, and I will never forget what I found. Thank you, Chris, for giving us who did not know him such a beautiful glimpse of Craig's life.

On November 6, 2009 at 2:08pm Kristen Dennis wrote:
I was at that small little college in Va with both Professor Wiman and Craig Arnold. I am saddened to hear of this great loss and remember with awe Craig "preforming" his craft from Shells.

On January 3, 2010 at 11:49pm Jerome wrote:
Jake, I appreciate your willingess to venture a question of aesthetics. It's a bit taboo to do so these days. I say this only to counterbalance responses of the "when we measure the greatness
of others with a calculus of debits..." (see above) variety, which I personally find to be a bit finger-wagging.

I think such are discussions to be encouraged, not shut down.

On May 5, 2010 at 1:18pm Chris Wiewiora wrote:
[Note: I had orginally written this last year in 2009. Fred Sasaki, associate editor of Poetry Magazine, kindly got back to me. I thought about it again after the 2010 AWP in Denver held a Remembrance of Craig Arnold. I thought it would be nice to share my reflection on Craig here on the comments section of PoetryFoundation.org a year after his passing.]

Dear Editors,

In the spring, when the news broke that Craig Arnold was missing, a professor-friend of mine asked me if I knew about him and said how sad it was that he had disappeared. I had been working on an Honors undergraduate thesis in poetry at the University of Central Florida, but that conversation was the first time I felt connected to the community of poets. I had been in Chicago for my first AWP conference, but didn’t get to hear Craig read his poems that my professor-friend summed up as being about “sex and food and identity.” How could I not have Craig’s books on my shelf?
So, I ordered a used copy of Shells online. When it arrived, I opened it up to find that Craig had written to some woman named Barb:
I have nothing profound to say either. Um... Peace out.
From what I had heard about Craig’s genuine spunk, I was pretty sure it was his and not some random person’s note to a friend. But I had learned you couldn’t trust hearsay from the hallways of my middle school. In the fall of my 8th grade, the equivalent to a town crier told me, “Bret’s dead,” and before I could ask how, “He shot himself.” And I don’t know if it was Taco Salad Tuesday, but I know I didn’t feel like eating.
Bret smelled like his mom’s cigarettes, when I first met him at my Boy Scout troop, but he had a bowl haircut like me. I think Bret got to race at least one Pine Wood Derby before...I don’t know what to call it: an accident? an incident? Whatever it was, Bret was gone.
At first, I didn’t know anything other then that Bret had disappeared from our cafeteria table, our weekly Scout meetings, and my life. The school didn’t have any announcements or offer counseling. The not knowing was my survivor’s guilt. Only when I opened my yearbook, in the spring, did I see Bret again—his photo framed with an In Memoriam banner along with his birth and death dates underneath. I didn’t want to remember Bret like that, so I went back to an earlier yearbook and found his signature and underneath it he had jotted:
—The Great!—
And I just smiled, because it’s the same thing I did when I read Craig’s note.
I hadn’t thought about Bret’s death for a while until I read Christian Wiman’s essay “To Let You Pass” while using the bathroom, which is my quiet time where I read Poetry Magazine. Whether or not Craig disappeared or is probably dead is a haunting conclusion that I understand, because for me I’ve never known which story about Bret to pick as truth: he was playing Russian roulette, or he spun the trigger around his finger like a cowboy, or he just pulled and “click” it was over, on purpose.
As I washed my hands I thought about Wiman’s essay. I still didn’t know what happened with Bret, I only knew that I had to let such speculation go. But that’s as easy as trying to wash the still-soapy-residue-feel of soft water from my skin. I know it’s gone, but it feels like it’s still there, and I want to check to be sure.

Chris Wiewiora
Assistant Editor
The Florida Review
-Orlando, FL-

On December 16, 2010 at 11:33pm Dario wrote:
I met Craig Arnold during a workshop in 1999 at Gemini Ink, Texas. You see, I’m a workshop poet. I take workshops to learn my craft. At any rate, I read a description in the Gemini Ink catalogue about this young poet, Craig Arnold, a Yale Series of Younger Poets winner. “Learn from the young,” I told myself. So I signed up, as quickly as I could. Like my friend, April Guajardo used to tell me, “I get my education any way I can.” So, I went for it. The workshop taught by Craig was titled, “From Soliloquy to Slam: Poetry as Performance.” It turned out to be a great workshop. As usual, in a poetry workshop, the participants share their work and the rest of us critique it. Mine was too “rhetorical,” Craig said. He was right. So I re-wrote it, less rhetorical, better, but not yet there. Later on, I saw him perform. It was a great performance, straight from memory. He signed my copy of "Shells" with,

To Dario—

You’re talking + I’m
looking at you
Cuidate Siempre—

Two years later, in 2001, I saw him, again, at Gemini Ink. I told him, “I’ll be in your workshop.” He told me “You’re crazy, Dario!” True, I am for fantastic poetry, and fantastic teachers.

On June 20, 2012 at 4:07pm Jason Stenar CLark wrote:
I just miss him is all.

On July 14, 2012 at 10:39am John Meyers wrote:
I was saddened indeed to learn of Craig's demise. I am
a good friend from his high school years, and had
reconnected with him in 2009. Craig was a brilliant
writer and incredibly intelligent to boot.

He and I and two other friends traveled Europe together
by train for a month back in 1983, going to Yugoslavia,
Greece, Spain, Germany, Italy, France & England. We had
a great time, and even slept out under the Eiffel Tower
(we were on a budget and somewhat inebriated!) until the
local gendarmes kicked us out at about 3am. Good times!

I am filled with an emptiness at his death, but I shall
remember the good times we had in high school and
traveling together.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

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Biography

Poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman was raised in West Texas and earned a BA at Washington and Lee University. He received an honorary doctorate from North Central College.
 
Making use of—and at times gently disassembling—musical and metrical structures, Wiman often explores themes of spiritual faith and doubt in his spare, precise poems. Praising Wiman’s “ear for silence” in a review of Every Riven Thing for . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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