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Mark Neely reviews

Steal Away: selected and new poems by C.D. Wright

Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2002. 233pp.
USD$25.00  ISBN I-55659-172-1

This piece is about 1 500 words or about four printed pages long

You can read a long interview with C.D.Wright
in Jacket 15.

C.D. Wright has always had a knack for leaving things skillfully unsaid. For more than two decades, she has been making some of the more daring moves in American poetry, often in the strange white spaces between her lines and stanzas. Wright understands that sometimes this silence is ‘quiet as a mirror,’ and can be as illuminating as the surrounding words. While her poetry has continued to evolve, these trademark imaginative leaps have remained, as in these opening lines from ‘Privacy,’ where millions of years seem to pass between the first couplet and the next:

The animals are leaving
the safety of the trees

Light sensors respond
to the footfall of every guest

Wright’s poems have their own sort of sensors, and we are, of course, their guests. They can be fickle hosts, and though there are easy pleasures here, the poems are often stubborn and difficult. But for those willing to work with them, to pay them full attention, there are absolute rewards. Steal Away: selected and new poems is an important event — a chance to examine the first part of a startling career. The volume provides a sampling of poems from Wright’s previously published (full-length) books, including the complete texts of the book-length poem Just Whistle: a valentine, and Tremble.

Like any writer’s work, Wright’s poetry is partially a collection of stolen goods. She is originally from Arkansas, and has always made use of the voices and settings of that place. Her poems are distinctly Southern, and it is impossible to imagine them without the sight of ‘Little Floyd / changing his shirt for the umpteenth time.’ Wright’s concern here is not simply the obvious Southern heat, or the Southern-sounding nickname. (I think of this guy as about 300 pounds, only ‘Little’ because his daddy is ‘Big Floyd’). Floyd, like the poet, also has an interest in surfaces and appearances. Why change a shirt he is only going to be sweating through again? To make himself presentable, against all odds.

But Wright’s Southern roots are only a portion of what she uses in her work. ‘Wages of Love,’ from her second book, shows the range of material these poems incorporate.

The house is watched, the watchers only planets.

Very near the lilac
                     a woman leaves her night soil
to be stepped in. Like other animals.
  Steam lifts off her mess.

They have power, but not water.
      Pregnant. She must be.

The world is all that is the case.

The lives here are those of the people she grew up around, and some of the language — the polite ‘mess’ for example — also sprouts from those roots. But there is a less folksy, more intellectual ancestry here as well. We see the influence of poets like Charles Olsen in the openness of form, and a sentence from Wittgenstein (‘The world is everything that is the case’) functions as the hub the rest of the language whirls around. Some later lines seem to spring from Yeats, especially ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ But the end product is something wholly original, a new and powerful song running over looped samples taken from one woman’s personal and poetic history.

All the books show the influence of Whitman, or at least the part of Whitman it seems nearly all American poets have absorbed: the list. This is Wright’s default mode of telling, and some of her more stylistically innovative poems put the idea of cataloguing at the forefront. ‘Autographs,’ from Tremble, is a marvelous example, where fragments of a life show up as entries in a yearbook:

Site of their desire:  against a long high wall under vapor light
Most likely to succeed:  the perpetual starting over
Inside his mouth:  night after night after night
Directive:  by any means necessary
Song:  ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’
Sign:  hibiscus falls off the ledge
Nightmare:  actual horse seated on your ribs
Sonic Relations:  silent, breathy, ululant

After many funny, quirky, and disturbing entries, ‘Autographs’ ends with the devilish line, ‘P.S.:  have a wonderful summer and a wonderful life.’ This sheds light on Wright’s other poems, many of which are psychic yearbooks of one kind or another — lists of wishes and horrors and dreams, always marked up by lovers and ‘relations.’ ‘Remarks on Color,’ from String Light, is another example of the tension between the Whitmanian urge to record everything in sight, and the Southern urge to tell the best possible story, even if many of the ‘facts’ must be left out. It begins:

1. highway patched with blacktop, service station at the crossroads
2. cream soda in the popbox, man sitting on the popbox
3. a fully grown man
4. filthy toilets, just hold it a little longer

There are also traces of Whitman in poems like ‘Our Dust,’ where the speaker addresses people of the future. Here Wright tries to define her place among poets. She is modest, but also acknowledges that even in ‘satellite dishes and Peterbilt trucks,’ she is searching for the sublime. ‘I was the poet,’ the Wright-like speaker proclaims:

of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch
phone books, of failed
roadside zoos
I dug up protected and private things.

Near the end of the poem Wright assures her reader that her life ‘doesn’t bear repeating,’ that she was ‘the poet of one life, / one death alone...’ Good poets know this about themselves and their poetic ancestors. One can only be the poet of one’s own life, but at the same time must acknowledge that a large chunk of any poetic life is influence — the borrowing, cheating and stealing that makes up part of any oeuvre.

This attitude has gotten Wright into a little trouble in some circles. In 1979 she moved to San Francisco and came face to face with the language poetry that was lighting up that city’s scene. Elements of this poetry entered (and have remained in) her own work. Some have grumbled that Wright is stealing the approach without being invested in the agenda. But despite this influence, Wright remains ‘traditional’ in a lot of ways. The central ‘I’ of these poems seems to have a direct line to people like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, and the emphasis on narrative is always in the poems, even if it is often guarded by the sharp edges of fractured images and disjointed thoughts. Among sometimes radical interrogations of our language it is strange to come across ‘Grandmother Wright’s House’ or hear the more traditional (and moving) addresses to a dead lover (based on the Arkansas poet Frank Stanford, who killed himself in 1978).

But this poet won’t stay in school. She forces us to abandon what Wordsworth called ‘that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.’ The more we read and learn about poetry, the more likely we are to turn into poetry-reading machines, wired to dump poems into this or that school, or to reject them if they don’t fit our notions of ‘good’ or ‘important’ or ‘new’ or whatever else we look for in a poem. Wright challenges us to open our skulls and let the poems in whole. ‘I came to talk to you in physical splendor,’ she writes, ‘I do not wish to speak to your machine.’

Any selected poems will disappoint in some way — selecting means leaving out, and there are certainly poems readers will miss, especially from the first two books. One of the worst losses is ‘hills,’ the illuminating prose introduction to Further Adventures With You. ‘Spread Rhythm’ and ‘On the Eve of our Mutually Assured Destruction,’ poems from the same book, are other cruel omissions. The axe has fallen most heavily on Deepstep Come Shining, Wright’s latest book-length poem, which is difficult enough with all its parts intact, and has little impact in the hacked-up version presented here. Luckily, Deepstep Come Shining (unlike most of her other volumes) remains in print.

You can read a long excerpt from Deepstep Come Shining in Jacket 15.

There are some new poems here, but all of them (with the exception of four ‘Girl Friend Poems’) were written as companion pieces for photographs by Wright’s long-time collaborator, Deborah Luster. The photographs aren’t reproduced here, so we’re really only getting half the story. While the new work isn’t the main reason to buy this book, there is enough here from a new project, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, to excite the palate, and some of Luster’s accompanying photographs can be found online.

Six photographs from that remarkable series accompany the interview with C.D.Wright in Jacket 15.

Thankfully, this is a poet still in-progress, so Steal Away is almost certainly only a beginning. C.D. Wright does not stand still. Although she seems to have settled into life in Providence, Rhode Island, her poetry refuses to settle — it ranges around looking for a new ways to see and tell, new subjects to place under its light. As the poet writes, ‘it is / just so sad so creepy so beautiful. / Bless it.’

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