Home » criticism, Poetry

The Damage Collector

One Big Self

by C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon, 2007

Like Something Flying Backwards

by C.D. Wright
Bloodaxe Books, 2007

Rising, Falling, Hovering

by CD Wright
Copper Canyon, 2008

What puts people off abstraction is what puts people off a slick character who keeps changing the subject. Why did you call us all here today? C.D. Wright is a popular poet because she uses abstraction to zero in on a subject rather than to dodge it. When the poems work, the place or mood Wright has set out to capture appears in silhouette.

Her tattered ear; the totaled eyes of the woman who no longer

knows a soul living on the other side

Just came down for Mardi Gras

Dialed her mother’s number

though she had not seen the woman in thirty years and knew full well

her mother passed

Tuesday’s just as bad

The guileless face of the one whose boyfriend beat her lastingly senseless

Who told us her auntie lived in Monroe but had to go

because her house was possessed; at first the spirit was kind

made her pots of coffee, dusted the furniture…

Wednesdays were important for Faith

No up or down

Grew up in Waterproof

Grew up chasing chickens in Waterproof, Louisiana

I am down for life she said with a near smile

I’ve been down for eighteen years

Wearing that stand-by-the-door dress

with her near smile

C.D. Wright is a collector. Through book-length poems like Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self, she organizes scraps of memory that seem relevant to whatever feeling she’s trying to capture, then she overlays bits of overheard speech, road signs, song titles, newspaper headlines, and sets them one after the other on the page, separated by spaces like courtroom exhibits.

The use of the long, double-spaced line (interspersed with brief prose pieces) is relatively new to her, but the habit of collecting has been with Wright for awhile. In a lyric essay from 1991’s String Light, “Our Dust,” Wright catalogues the contents of a souvenir box (“Three battery operated watches, a strand of phony pearls, six or seven non-descript drugstore barrettes …”), concluding, “I can offer no more explicit demonstration as to what my poetry is.” Read a-la-carte, Wrights lines will most likely sound unexceptional. She isn’t Alfred Lord Tennyson and she isn’t Jack Spicer. Read together, her phrases and lists and memory bits achieve their force in clutches. That force can be a deep, wry, and all-absorbing one; or it can use its force to gesture at something that refuses to come into focus, as it does from time to time in her newest work.

Here’s one of her best short poems, a characteristic one, from 2005’s Cooling Time:

only the crossing counts.

It’s not how we leave one’s live. How go off

the air. You never know, do you. You think you’re ready

for anything: then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really

not. The genesis of an ending, nothing

but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn

away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

O phthisis, O lotharian dead eye, no longer

will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more

shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light,

between snatches of poetry and penitence you left

the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove

the butterflies home. You must know

how it goes, known all along what to expect,

sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.

Frankly my dear, frankly my dear, frankly,

Odd words: A revenant is a walking corpse, baize is felt, phthisis is Greek for consumption. These arcana make a kind of collection (and the poem a kind of box for them), but the more apparent collection here is that of last, least, and fleeting things (brumalia, scattering butterflies, guttering candles). It’s a poem about ends, particularly our own. It’s not tackled straightforwardly like an essay (or narratively like a story) but cubistically. The collected impressions form shapes in motion. The logical jumps are playful, mischievous. Our minds are guided by a light touch.

Her books are built like this too. Though two superb volumes of selected poems have been published (Steal Away in the U.S. and the more complete Like Something Flying Backwards in the U.K.), her full-length collections, for better or worse, beg to be read whole.

The early poems in Wright’s first widely available collection, Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues, feel like impressions. Feinting at straight narration, the poems resolve into small, incomplete particles, more powerful when read together than one by one. Bedsheets, blindfolds, and sailcloth appear in separate poems, but intermingle in the mind. Absent men strut. Women hold “our hand in our underwear / The furthest pole” then in the same placement in the next poem, the young “stroked their wild vines, their wet avenues / They bled.”

I’d underestimated the impression Frank Stanford left on C.D. Wright until I read more of her work. Stafford, who killed himself near the beginning of Wright’s own poetic career, was a hero and a partner to Wright. His own work is half-mad and visionary, but his death seems to have influenced Wright more than his poetry.

In her second full-length book, Further Adventures with You, she addresses Stafford directly. In “The Wooden Age,” her list-making style is already being born. She hoards and arranges memories against the space that Stafford left empty, like the bomb shelter cans below:

How many threads have I broken with my teeth. How many times have I looked at the stars and felt ill. Time here is divided into before and since your shuttering in 1978. I remember hanging onto the hood of the big-fendered Olds with a mess of money in my purse. Call that romance. Some memory precedes you: when I wanted lederhosen because I’d read Heidi. And how I wanted my folks to build a fall-out shelter so I could arrange the cans. And coveting mother’s muskrat. I remember college….

Later,

Now if I think of the earth’s origins, I get vertigo. When I think of its death, I fall. I’ve picked up a few things. I know if you want songbirds, plant berry trees. If you don’t want birds, buy a rubber snake….

In her third book, String Light, she finds success with a variety of forms (the poem-as-personal-ad, the poem of two stories with alternating lines), writing about herself and about poetry. “I poetry,” she verbs, “I also Arkansas.”

“Antithetical poetries can and should exist without crippling one another,” she writes elsewhere, and it’s a rare book that swings as freely as String Light does from narrative to pure lyric. More involved with the nuts-and-bolts of her art, Wright lets the backstage wires show. (Having called one poem “What No One Could Have Told Them,” she calls another, more abstract poem “Detail From What No One Could Have Told Them.” Another is, “The Next to Last Draft.”) Plenty of Wright’s early-nineties work is wonderful but, to my taste, too many of the String Light poems read like ars poeticae. They can also tend toward fuzziness. In poems like “Detail From What No One Could Have Told Them” (on the far side of avant- abstraction), she toys with John-Taggart-like repetition:

Naked in a splash of sun, he pees into a paper plate
the guest set down on the lawn as she reached
naked in a splash of sun into a naked sun splash
He pees into a paper plate a plate the guest set down
into a plate of white paper the guest set down He pees
into a plate the guest set down on the lawn in back of the airy house …

As in all poetry that spares the connective tissue, Wright’s work has the even chance of amounting to either more or less than the sum of its parts. Just Whistle: A Valentine falls into the latter category. Just Whistle is as abstract as Wright has dared be to date. A “Body,” a “Crow,” age, violence, birth … “Sand seeping from cavities no longer moist, not removing the panties, but making every effort to conform to the hull among scales, and leaves from overhanging willows …” Much of the language is lovely but there is no ground beneath our feet. As a series of impressions, the book-length poem’s arc is provided by accompanying photographs by Deborah Luster: A woman looking sexy in dark, sheer garments … a faceless body … a woman holding a baby. Nature is here, as is the life cycle, death, losing control of the body to both age and lust. There’s language to enjoy here, but little to hold readers in place or to stay with them.

But Just Whistle brought Wright into the world of the long poem, and she has distinguished herself there since. Deepstep Come Shining (1998) is an ode to Arkansas and to the Deep South. Her pace is easygoing, her tone playful, and there is plenty to turn over. Wright has said that in the ideal poem she is ever striving to write: “it is always Arkansas, summer, evening.” In Deepstep Come Shining she brings that Southern installation piece outside, interspersing description, overheard remarks, and disjecta from whatever she’s reading (she mentions Isaac Newton’s Optics):

A white house among the white hydrangea trees.

Now that is an Arkansas toe sticking out from that sheet if I ever saw one.

She wears me out. Doesn’t she you. Can’t she play anything else.

Is this where he swapped a motorcycle that didn’t work for a pinball machine that didn’t work.

It is not that we live in a world of colored objects but that surfaces reflect a certain portion of the light hitting them. It’s all whiteness. Here, in Ultima Thule.

The noise of the retina as you get older.

Known by her neighbors to garden by flashlight. Sometimes, she said, the darkness creeps up on me.

Wright is a reader of Wittgenstein and Cioran, and there’s an echo of their aphoristic style in her new line. Beginning with Deepstep, Wright settled on the long, double-spaced stanza that’s predominated her work since (that and the prose poem which she’s long used for her best work), and in which she composed both One Big Self and Rising, Falling, Hovering.

The effect of Deepstep Come Shining is that of listening to an off-and-on radio on a long drive through the well-known Southern haunts where you grew up and broke hearts and had your heart broken. And along the way to be reading “King Lear; The Art of Cézanne by Kurt Badt; Blake by Peter Ackroyd; It Came from Memphis by Robert Gordon.”

Wright still makes lists from memories, and they’re often something like apostrophes, as below to Frank Stanford (who founded Lost Roads Press):

The hand that explored my body cavities, hand of the selenographer, mapper of lost roads.
That picked my bones (white).
The hand that anticipated everything. While the fishermen of Borneo were stealing telephone booths.
That took me in deep (step by step).
That prepared my colors.
Then picked my brain (clean).
The hand that pulled my last Vidalia out of the garden and ate it dirt, bulb, and green.
That spread itself out on my window.
Eidolon of light (even as it decomposes).
Then made known to me the deep blindness of coitus and denied me a ladder to see out.

Her next book—and her best to date—One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana is an ekphrasis on a stack of tin-type style photographs by Deborah Luster, taken at Angola, St. Gabriel, and Transylvania prisons in Eastern Louisiana, located less than an hour apart along a toxic bend of the Mississippi.

Wright’s aim, as she writes in the introduction to the Copper Canyon paperback, was “not to idealize, not to judge, not to exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain. Not to demonize, not anathematize.” The daughter of a judge and court reporter, she entered the prison with trepidation and with a head full of “Akhmatova, Wilde, Valéry, Celan, Desnos, et al.” Before she walked in the door, she reports, “I already felt guilty. / I hadn’t done anything.”

The second line can pull the first in two directions: either Wright feels guilty despite innocence, or because she as yet hasn’t “done anything,” to understand the inmates’ lives, or their victims’ lives, or to put her shoulder to the wheel. Abstract, a lot of the lines can be read in more than one way, or read as true for more than one inmate, or an observer, or apply equally well to victim or visitor.

The One Big Self of the title, in fact, is the oversoul that holds us all. “Count your fingers / Count your toes,” begins the book, “Count your nose holes / Count your blessings.” The page consists of only this (extended) list, and is picked up later in the book: “Count the years you finished school / Count the jobs you’re not qualified to hold.”

This is poetry that rewards exactly as much time and attention as the reader is willing to bring. We all have ten fingers and toes, right? And so it’s a call to our common humanity? Well, prisoners are more apt than most to be missing a few. Count our blessings? Well, we have more than some. We’re all unqualified to hold plenty of jobs (I’d make the world’s worst pilot). What about Ricky Ray Rector, the lobotomized Arkansas prisoner (IQ ~70) who seemed incapable of understanding his own death sentence and who saved the pecan pie at his last meal “for later”? It’s another line in Wright’s book (“He would finish his pie later, he said”) flying by among “Count the chickens you’ve eaten” and “I would wash that man’s feet and drink the water.” It may not even, for all we know, have been inspired by Ricky Ray, but it invokes him. It may have been inspired by a man murdered in the middle of dinner, his dispatcher now modeling beautifully for Luster.

Large scraps of the poem (like the portion I quote at this essay’s head) may have been stories Wright or Luster picked up on their visits. Or they may be internal monologues as recited from a prison bunk.
Is this what fills the mind in interminable hours? How about the Q & A on page 63?

Q: What do you call a flesh wound

A: About the thickness of a pair of panties, Your Honor

Q: Westinghoused or Edisoned, your choice

AC or DC

A: It’s no real pleasure in life

Q: Did you have any pets?

A: I kept a dog.

Aside from the plangency of that “kept,” (as opposed to “keep”) this spare text gestures toward plenty. Is this a courtroom catechism, or a private hell? Both? Poetry readers may be put in mind of W.S. Merwin’s surreal Q&A “Some Last Questions,” where non-initiates may darkly suspect the “AC or DC” is a reference to prison rape.

The point is that readers, knowing the subject and taken with the potency of Luster’s photographs, can either be guided along by Wright’s text, sink into it, or let it wash over them.

In one New York exhibit, you could walk past the Luster photographs listening to Wright’s text on earphones. That about seems right. Luster’s pictures are wonderful – a world away from the artsy flesh of Just Whistle. She’s not unduly solemn about her subjects and that earns her what feel like real faces, full of anxiety, goofiness, glaring pain. Twin Palms published the original hardcover and, if you can spare the money, this is the edition to buy. Copper Canyon has published a paperback minus pictures: the text is worthwhile, but there’s more than a little missing.

Some poems reward a reader instantly, some slowly, some both. Because Gerard Manley Hopkins’ language is so lush, we don’t mind reading “The Wreck of the Deutschland” seven or eight times in order to get to get a sense of what’s going on. With abstract poetry, this decision becomes an even more important one on the poet’s part. It doesn’t really matter what Ron Silliman is ultimately “getting at” because his lines are clever (and if it does matter, he’s already got our attention). Susan Howe’s poems are too intriguing to put down, even when opaque. John Taggart’s rhythms seduce of themselves.

In Wright’s new collection, Rising, Falling, Hovering, some of the shorter poems suffer from less than vigorous surfaces. The depths are there, but patience is required. “Or: Animism” is a wonderful poem, for example, but only the third time through.

It rained. Or did it? There is water yet standing.

When in the late afternoon, everything gets hungry.

If my head should fall off, please don’t put it in a sack.

Does one start with the face, save the jam for the end?

Without Luster’s pictures to guide us, or an overwhelming aesthetic like in the overgrown, summery Deepstep, we’re left in the air. A few reads wind up painting the poem in African colors. Is Wright is a tourist there? This is not to say that one always needs a concrete story, but when language is served dry, one at least wants to know if it will be raining anytime soon.

Likewise, when in the otherwise excellent poem, “Re: Happiness, in Pursuit Thereof,” Wright, in a mess of a mood, says “we should be concrete, glass, and spandex,” we’re left wondering what to do with that. Why should we be?

Some poems in the new collection abstract what seem to be evening walks, maybe on vacation, maybe long ago. “Like Having a Light At Your Back You Can’t See But Can Still Feel,” versions (1) and (2), both begin on a late stroll perhaps during an argument: “she is not really hearing what he’s really saying.” The first version is ominous (“If this took place anywhere near the presidential palace / it would be nonstop terrifying”) and ends with a scream.

In version (2) the poem begins the same way (many of the lines are identical), but ends charmingly, domestically, and with a touch of Wright’s old humor. Horror may be near, but its safely confined either to Wright’s bedside reading or to the past:

The house is not far from here. Next to the old
burial ground.

Most nights aren’t dark enough to see stars.

If a bad movie, a bad movie. If a bad meal, a bad meal. If bad wine, bad wine.

They read. And go to bed early. He puts on an eyemask.

She wants a light on. She wants to read.

No, he says. Turn it off.

Let me finish the chapter.

Turn it off, C.

The page then, she says. I can feel it

streaming in my ear. Besides,

he is adamant,

you just go to sleep at night.

I go on a journey.

The double spacing, along with the way Wright breaks her lines on the clause, suggests the possibility of swapping those lines around within the poem, or at least (as in Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets) swapping lines from one poem into another (which Wright has effectively done, between the first version and the second).

That one poem lives with the gentle squabbles of domesticity, while the other lives in the possibility of terror, is representative of the book as a whole. Rising, Falling, Hovering is a post- Iraq war book, and the central poem, the book-length “Rising, Falling, Hovering,” is a post- Iraq war poem. Though Wright’s own life is safe, for now (even with her son mugged in Mexico and her close friend dying of cancer), the world is in chaos and every piece of it infects another. On vacation in Mexico, Wright sees “the same / ghoulish glow from a muted TV. / Civilian limbs sticking out of wreckage like so much rebar. Baghdad’s thirteen-century chronicle // shelled into the memory hole.”

The poem begins on an indistinct day (“nothing was unusual”) – a couple argue in the street. They could be the couple from the Doisneau photo, just after the kiss. Gradually, we come to realize they are the poet and her husband, and they are about to leave for Mexico. Thanks to the poem’s indeterminate language, we may wonder if we are in Baghdad at first, and be confused about which war this is (‘91? ’02?). After a few spare pages the poem comes into focus as a journal by an American touring Mexico and Central America during the commencement of operation Shock and Awe. She hears her “mind braying at the mind.” News leaks about museum lootings. Florists protest for peace. The narrator and her partner fly home to safe America, where in their quiet house, “The glorious photographs of their son were not stolen / from their secondhand frames.” Not sure of the power of poetry (“Nary a death arrested nor a hair of a harm averted / by any scrawny farrago of letters”), she is left collecting clippings, news of what’s happening around her, stray thoughts which she curates into her poem: “desert floor entering memory hole / Ants beginning their business from the inside.”

Rising: Wright’s growing son, the plane in which she lifts off for Mexico. Falling: the imperceptibly sinking center of the Aztec Empire, the shelled Mesopotamian treasure-house. Hovering: just about everything, including the origin, emphasis, and order of Wright’s lines of poetry.

A boy down the street drives his car into a telephone pole. “You wouldn’t even notice him on your electric bill.” Wright fights with her son; elsewhere, migrants to America struggle to cross the border over which she breezily flies, “the simmer of one’s very stomach in one’s very blood.” Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, “it’s still raining like plastic.” Her Autumn Journal covers years.

The poetry here is some of her best. Returning home from abroad:

The air in the kitchen too small
air that would fit in a matchbox

The sun lukewarm then a cold spot
in a colder-than-cold bed

As of Friday 850 of our members
will be Forever Young

In this reader’s mind: gas and matches, the incendiary that begins in the matchbox and spreads in the small space of a kitchen. We’re using white phosphorus in Iraq, though because it’s not a “weapon,” we’re bound by no treaty. Small once meant “thin.” And what separates her kitchen from that of an Iraqi woman’s? Her bed cold, as if she were already dead (and with a graveyard down the road…). We can tell by the body count that the war’s not yet out of its first year. “Forever Young” is a Bob Dylan song (one, incidentally, broken into parts on either side of Planet Waves, as “Rising, Falling, Hovering” is broken into two parts). What’s colder than cold?

Wright once said that her first big-press book, Translations of the Gospel Back Into Tongues (if you can call the SUNY Press a big one), was an elegy for Frank Stanford. Readers of Further Adventures with You and Deepstep Come Shining can be forgiven for thinking she wrote more elegies than one. But either the writing of Deepstep or the writing of One Big Self has seemed to free Wright–she sets down less about her own past, or about the Ozarks, and more about the big world, the common world and catastrophe in all of us, the one big self. As with Wright, “our badly decomposed affairs are carted off / every other Wednesday.”

And “the writing on the trees remains illegible.” And war happens in our name. And we live through it.

John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly, where he’s written on Cesar Vallejo, August Kleinzahler, and Paul Klee. Miami University Press will publish his first novel, Under the Small Lights, in 2010.