Follow Harriet on Twitter
The Best Job on Earth: On the Poetry of C. D. Wright
In 2005, C. D. Wright published her first volume of lyric essays on poetry, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. It’s notable, the word vigil in its subtitle. The shared root of vigilant and vigilante, vigil in Latin means awake, though its subsequent mutations denote everything from night-watchman to insomniac, and its oldest usages in English name the Christian ritual of staying awake the night before a holy day or festival. Wright was herself nothing if not awake to American poetry, and such was the intensity of her commitment to it that Cooling Time calls up just about every denotative and connotative shade of the word vigil, even the nineteenth century notion of a vigilance committee, a vigilante group intending to maintain justice and order in what they perceive to be an imperfectly organized community.
“Poetry is tribal not material. As such it lights the fire and keeps watch over the flame,” she reminds us, “Believe me, this is where you get warm again… This is where your memory must be exacting—where you and your progeny are held accountable but also laudable.” Indeed, Wright seems to have seen such wakefulness as an ethic intrinsic to poetry itself, a way of keeping watch over not only the art, but also the tribe, the practitioners she considered fellow travelers. Wright was one of the first contemporary poets to make poetry seem possible for me as a young writer from the Deep South, and so, in the year since her death, I have kept watch over the flame her poetry lit in my life. The following essay is both an account and a laud of the work, the defiant fire around which I and countless other readers have gathered for warmth during the long political night of 2016.
“The popular perception is that art is apart,” Wright said in an interview at the millennium’s turn, “I insist it is a part of.” By the time she left us, Wright had fashioned herself as a sort of one-woman vigilance committee, a gesture that generated breathtakingly ambitious books, records of conscience as remarkable for their humility and humor as for their intelligence and keen sense of injustice. “It is a summons,” she writes in One Big Self: An Investigation (2003), her documentary-inflected collaboration with photographer and longtime friend Deborah Luster. Concerned with mass incarceration and the big business it has become, the book supposes that, “If we go there, if not with our bodies then at least our minds, we are more likely to register the implications” of the U.S. penal system, implications largely unspoken, unexamined, and therefore tacitly accepted by our culture. Drawn from visits to three of Louisiana’s prisons and interviews with the incarcerated, the book’s aware it is “an almost imperceptible gesture, a flick of the conscience, to go, to see,” but Wright insists on going and seeing anyway: “I will be wakeful.”
Each of the last three books she issued before her death insists on such wakefulness. After One Big Self, in 2008 Wright published Rising, Falling, Hovering, a sprawling post-NAFTA wartime book that situates personal crisis amidst relations between the U.S. and Mexico and “the last hours of empire or some such/inauspicious whispering.” In 2010, Wright followed this book with One with Others [a little book of her days], a focused documentary project recounting the life and times of “The Unappeasable Mrs. Vittitow,” an old friend of the author’s, a Southern white woman and the only white person to participate in a Civil Rights Movement “march against fear” in 1969 in small-town Arkansas. Taken together, these three very different late books bear witness to and ultimately protest what Wright in Cooling Time calls “the great mix-master of egotistic, material, and technostructural forces…distort[ing] the whole business of living and creating.” Taken together, they form a trilogy of conscience, a personal confrontation with neoliberal capitalism, the so-called war on terror, and our legacy of racial and economic violence, each “as American as apple pie.” Few poets of her generation have so far matched the intensity of her ethical reckoning.
But this trilogy came after thirty years of writing and publishing poetry whose linguistic sensibility slowly, insistently dilated outward from the explicitly regional—i.e., the Ozarks—to an almost unlocatable capaciousness. In time, Wright’s poems outpaced her Arkansas accent without abandoning it, integrating twang into a ravenously fabulous idiolect that could easily accommodate any diction: the Latinate and the vernacular, the baroque and the plain. What emerged from this accommodation of a wider purview is Wright’s signature voice, which can be heard at the end of “Like Hearing Your Name Called in a Language You Don’t Understand,” a lyric from Rising, Falling, Hovering:
I have stood small and borracha and been glad
of not being thrown down the barranca alongside the
in the celebrated book.
In every sense I have felt lonelier than a clod of clay, a whip,
a skull of chocolate.
I have been lured by my host’s pellucid face and the blue
where the rooster is buried.
Though I have worn the medal of the old town with forlorn
I say unto you:
Comrades, be not in mourning for your being
to express happiness and expel scorpions is the best job
This poem exemplifies one strand of Wright’s poetics, a strand that’s woven through every period of her work: the lyric of our shared existential situation. Domestic or elegiac, erotic and often comedic, these short poems concern themselves with how exactly to get on with the business of living despite loneliness, difference, violence, and trauma. And they are also exercises in voice, in compressing the syntax so that disparate levels of diction meld into song. “I have stood small and borracha and been glad” yokes English and Spanish though rhyme and alliteration: the sibilance of stood small, the assonance of small and borracha, the further assonance of have and glad, and the later slant rhyme of borracha and barranca. In a move familiar to those who love her voice, the final three lines recall Biblical syntax as well as political speech, harnessing echoes of public rhetoric to affirm the weird work of our being here together on earth.
In the year since she left many of us feeling more earth-bound and solitary than usual, I’ve re-read many times Wright’s nearly forty years of books, and the awe and gratitude I’ve long felt for her poems and lyric essays have seized me anew. But now those feelings are infused with a far better sense of what she achieved as a poet. Her body of work is considerable, yes, but its breadth of vision and generosity of spirit is bigger still. Now her work seems to have always been not just a part of the literary map, but one of the cardinal directions in which a poet might travel. One of my earliest encounters with her poems was in April of 2000, at an event at Vanderbilt University: the Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South. Wright was not in attendance, but at an afternoon panel, a white man got up to present and read to us a poem from Tremble (1996):
“Everything Good Between Men and Women”
has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce. The walls and
floors used to be gorgeous…
I remember that the panel had something to do with an attempt to define what’s Southern about Southern poetry. And if you come from the South, or if a Southerner reads this poem aloud, these lines pretty much come sprung out of the alliterative vowel and consonant clusters of women and been written, mud and butter, floors and gorgeous. There’s something funny, just too much, and also sexy about the nasal pinch of women…been written and the guttural drag of drawl in mud and butter. Though I remember well his resonant Georgia-inflected reading of the poem, I no longer remember exactly what our panelist said about it, and I no longer remember what I thought then either. Instead, I remember what I felt as I listened. I was then—as I am now—literally charmed by the aural and oral qualities of the work that return reading and listening to the body as acts inflected by a specifically regional ear and tongue.
Back then I was in my last semester of graduate school and deeply ambivalent about being a Southern writer, which is why Wright’s work already mattered so much to me. Wright’s work did not reduce Southernness to the cultural kitsch or pat performativity of some Southern lit: part folksy humor, part paean to a rich oral tradition, and part nostalgia about white Southern culture before Civil Rights and other liberation movements made such nostalgia even more insidious than it already was. “That self-conscious Southern poetry,” Wright once wrote, “preposterous as a wedding dress.” It’s not that Wright’s work can’t be “folksy” or funny or imbued with a performative orality. In the years just after I left the South, I’d put my ear to her books because her use of vernacular diction and familiar phrases calmed my homesickness for the oral culture I’d left behind. “Shit. I burned the shit out of my shit-eating tongue,” she writes in Deepstep Come Shining (1998), “I said I had a mean streak. Whom do you meet in the mirror.” To read certain of her books was like reading certain Faulkner novels, but a lot funnier. In fact, few poets of her ambition and high seriousness are as seriously funny. But the poignancy and power of her idiosyncratic vernacular somehow intensified the less she hewed to the more traditional narrative lyrics of her early books.
Published in 1991, String Light–my sentimental favorite–kicks off her fabulous middle period, a time of great experimentation with narrative structure, and most importantly, the time when she discovered her calling as a poet of lists. I’d argue, in fact, that the list later became both her genre and her basic structure, the building block of her generic genome. Eventually, the list would come to support book-length helical experiments like Deepstep Come Shining, One Big Self, and One with Others. But String Light opens small, with the graceful list-based lyric, “Lake Return”:
Maybe you have to be from there to hear it sing:
Give me your water weeds, your nipples,
your shoehorns and four-year letter jackets,
the molded leftovers from the singed pot.
Now let me see your underside, white as fishes.
I lower my gaze against your clitoral light.
In the poem, origin and ontology–“you have to be from there”–might lead to certain abilities–“to hear it sing.” But to what does “it” refer? What sings for the native listener? Lake or lover, lake and lover, the ensuing list, mixing as it does the quotidian and the physical, is one answer. The best poems in String Light select from the myriad details offered by Southern life and landscape and braid them together in ways sonorous, erotic, and suggestive of forces just outside the visible: gender, class, race, time, sex. The poems are not exactly narrative but they’re not non-narrative either; they describe what one poem calls “narrativity scenes,” in which details suggest narratives that are explored more as ambient situations than as linear stories. In other words, they’re more about gorgeous cinematography than they are about straight storytelling, more Malick than action flick.
With the poems of String Light and Just Whistle: A Valentine (1993), Wright began to figure out how to turn a well-curated list into a world as suggestive of place as of action and character. If String Light restricted this technique to the level of the individual poem, Just Whistle made an entire book out of such curation. The latter collection’s prose paragraphs, lists, short individual lyrics, and canny repetitions all employ a core vocabulary around which the book builds a diction singular to itself. This would in time become Wright’s signature strategy, her own particular solution to the challenges posed to lyric and narrativity by Language poetry’s use of collage, parataxis, and cross-genre techniques. In a 2001 interview with Kent Johnson, she explains that her time as office manager at the San Francisco Poetry Center in the 1980s had exposed her to
The theoretically-driven San Francisco poets who were in cahoots with poets in New York and conversant with European vanguard movements—they provided me with a need to become critically aware of my back-home ways; sharpened me to a degree. I’m grateful for the exposure, the education. I am indebted to particular poets’ work from that point in time, but I am not an intellectual in the sense that qualifies or requires me to belong to a manifestoed-group. And of course one comes to take some pride in one’s own outsider status.
Though it took some time–about a decade–for her work to fully evidence the informal education she got from her time in San Francisco, I’ve always admired the way she stubbornly wrote her way into a truly postmodern practice utterly different in its ends than those of Language poetry.
Deepstep Come Shining could be seen as her fullest response to Language Poetry. It’s a singular text, the apotheosis of her middle period, a book Wright once called “my rapture.” Though its “narrativity scenes” follow a road trip through the Deep South, its most central concern is vision both literal and metaphysical–the ocular and the visionary–and vision’s flipside: blindness and small-mindedness. But the book is also characteristically full of Southern talk:
Onionlight. Vidalia onions. That’s right. Now do you know
where you are.
The boneman said apply flax and whites of eggs to bleeding
So Gloucester had to smell his way to Dover.
But we aren’t going there. Or anywhere the air does not
smell of barbecue.
The preacher considers Whitey’s Drive-In his parish.
What did you buy at the 20-cent table.
Where do you folks live at. Between the a and the t.
Take a mirror to the river. Then what. The young woman
shuffles into the boneman’s shed, and he brings her a jar
of fermented swamp mulch from the closet. To make the
swelling go down. Leglight.
If Vidalia onions put you in mind of Georgia, you wouldn’t be wrong. But the magic act Deepstep pulls off is in somehow situating us in specific Southern states while also situating us in a postmodern linguistic space “between the a and the t,” an aesthetic gesture that plays off very site-specific language and language specific only to Wright’s own poiesis. And though this excerpt shows how Deepstep employs the sentence as its primary measure and non sequitur leaps between verse paragraphs, it doesn’t show how asynchronous cycles of repeated sentences slowly begin to coalesce into the tensile force that holds together both the book-length list and the visionary experience of the South that emerges from it:
All around in here it used to be so pretty.
The boneman’s bobcat. Its untamable eyes in the night. Did you know a ghost has hair. A ghost has hair. That’s right.
Peaches and fireworks and red ants.
Now do you know where you are.
I once heard Wright read from Deepstep. This was in July of 2002, at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She read from it with such awesome confidence and surety of the work, the way a baseball player takes the bases after hitting a homerun. It was the first time I’d heard her poetry in her voice, with the particular nasal twang of Arkansas inflecting the words, its rhythm more pinched than the slower drawl I grew up with in Alabama. Under the influence of the aura and further authority her voicing gave the text, it was for me a reading as rapturous as the book itself. It explained something to me about my relationship to her sensibility, a relationship built on our shared Southernness and interest in experiment, but a feeling of kinship her work also elicits from readers across the globe. “Now do you know where you are,” it asks again and again, and my answer is always: “Yeah. Hell yeah.”
That summer was the first time I met C. D., a meeting that came after many years of reading and learning from her work. I came to Napa to study with her, a venture freighted with everything her books had come to mean to me. Given the intensity younger writers often bring to their meetings with older writers they admire, it could have been a disaster. But C. D. very graciously modeled a way of being a poet in the world. The basic message of her pedagogy was: read widely, read weirdly, be ambitious for your work, be true to your process, keep writing, pay attention, and support each other. She gave out singularly catholic reading lists, offered challenging writing prompts, made pitiless suggestions when editing lines, and generally wasn’t interested in wasting her own or anyone else’s time. And despite the fame that would soon come to her after the MacArthur, over the years she remained consistently supportive of me, my work, and the work of other poets in ways that never failed to make me remember: be ambitious, keep writing, support each other.
Though ours was essentially a collegial intimacy, I’m still stunned she’s gone. She and I hadn’t been in regular touch since 2011, when we worked together on a chapbook for Albion Books, but in my inbox sits an email she sent just a month before her death, a little note about a book I published in the fall of 2015. “Another hauntingly beautiful book,” she wrote, “Keep it going—the lyrical mind to soul to word.” It was an entirely unexpected gesture characteristic of her generosity, and it meant so much to me that I was speechless, still trying to put into words my gratitude when I heard from a friend that she’d died. Since then I’ve been sitting, reading, writing –vigilant concerning what I consider a deep debt to her and her work. What began as a few memories, some notes about the arc of her career, and lists of favorite poems turned into this essay, my way of saying that her work meant the world to me: meaning, it has given me a way forward into this one.
Over the past year I’ve returned multiple times to each of the books she published before her death, but I still can’t stop returning to one poem from String Light in particular: “Our Dust.” A self-description in the past tense, it’s a preternaturally posthumous-sounding poem, in part because of its eerie accuracy: it describes both the poet C. D. was at the time of its writing (sometime in the late 80s I imagine) and the poet she was, in time, to become. It embodies everything I love about C. D.’s work: from the aural to the oral, from the Ozarks to otherwise, from humility to hubris, from laughter to justice. It is, of course, in essence a list, intimate and expansive at once.
“I was the poet,” she writes, “of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch/phone books, of failed/roadside zoos.” The poem speaks of a rural South that still exists but is as of 2016 depopulating, its citizenry increasingly displaced by incarceration and the loss of jobs to both urban centers and offshore outsourcing. “A poet of spiderwort and jacks-in-the-pulpit,” she writes, “My graves went undecorated and my churches/abandoned.” But like C. D.’s career, the poem dilates outward from the specifics of place to articulate its own aesthetics and ethics, building to a crescendo that accommodates both “simple music” and “experimental guitar,” poetry as an artistic medium and as builder of coalition:
I didn’t work off a grid. Or prime the surface
if I could get off without it. I made
out of sticks and string. On side B of me,
experimental guitar, night repairs and suppers
such as this.
You could count on me to make a bad situation
worse like putting liquid make-up over
a passion mark.
I never raised your rent. Or anyone else’s by God.
Never said I loved you. The future gave me chills.
I used the medium to say: Arise arise and
Free your children. Come on everybody. Let’s start
I’ll say it again: few poets of her ambition and high seriousness are as seriously funny. But humor in her work makes very little laughable. Instead, it offers a statement about how to approach our shared existential and political situations, ones that are, after all, rather dire.
“Poetry is the language of intensity,” C. D. once wrote, “Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.” But laughter is often overlooked as one such justified expression of intensity. To be able to laugh enables us to hold grand tragedies close without either being destroyed by them or diminishing their horror. And to continue to laugh allows us to endure, survive, and then turn toward one another and say, “Arise arise and/come together.” In C. D.’s laughter lies the strength to look at some of the worst we’ve done to each other and still extend a hand in trust and solidarity: “Free your children. Come on everybody.” In her laughter we find a sense of ethics that renders a few of the sins of man as close to scale as art can get. Without losing sight of just how big those sins are, her laughter also suggests we do something about them: “Let’s start/with Baltimore.” This renewed sense of what’s possible between us reminds us that poetry’s power to create coalition is not now and never has been trivial. In her laughter is the command to remember:
Comrades, be not in mourning for your being
to express happiness and expel scorpions is the best job
(If you would like to pitch an idea for “Open Door,” please contact us)