Los Angeles Times
C.D. Wright’s lasting voice
When C.D. Wright died Jan. 12 American poetry lost one of the great ones, one of the figures who changed what the language can do, one of the writers whose lines and titles, sentences and similes are going to last at least as long as American English. That’s something I believe, but it’s also something that seems inappropriate, even rude, to say, because Wright’s artistic powers cannot be separated from her deep sense of democracy, her work against boundaries, rankings and exclusions, her insistence that poetry, and society, should become not a hierarchy or a star system or a way to exalt a singular self but a way to be generous, to share the powers we get, to give of oneself, to let everybody come in.
She came, as all her readers have noticed, from the Ozarks, the daughter of a judge and a court reporter whose stenotype’s imprint adorns the interior pages of her 1998 mostly prose poem “Deepstep Come Shining.” Wright’s earliest poems, penned in Arkansas in the 1970s, exercised a scary, compact, post-Surrealist, Southern Gothic mode. “Maybe you have to be from there to hear it sing,” Wright would speculate later, in her beautiful compact sequence “The Ozark Odes” — but part of the point of her projects was that you don’t: The crackle and idiosyncrasy of her language, the concretely sensory weirdness of it all, meant that you didn’t have to live Wright’s life, or anything like it, to feel that she spoke to you.
To learn how to write that way, she had to leave: first for San Francisco, then Mexico, then in 1983 to Rhode Island for a position at Brown University. For the next three decades young American poets who wanted to sound both personal and strange, both observant and unpredictable, who wanted both to experiment and to sing, would try to study with her there.
All her books sound like her, but each one does something new: “Deepstep Come Shining” puts into bluesy, melodic, haunting sentences what Wright and the photographer Deborah Luster saw while driving around rural Georgia: “The scrape of chairs on a stone floor. A sack of birds escaped in the house. Flesh, velvety dampness. Panic.” Another book undertaken with Luster, “One Big Self ” (2002), incorporated photographs and interviews from Louisiana prisons: around the words of incarcerated people come Wright’s own notices about a decrepit landscape (“Dear Dying Town: The food is cheap”), and about our prison-industrial complex. It’s a book about the diffuse guilt we feel, or should feel, if we are fortunate Americans, and about the ideal (itself also American) of a great poem that helps everybody feel free.
It’s also a book by somebody who has been watching, and hearing, the prisoners themselves, each in their sometimes-defiant, sometimes-defeated, individuality. Louisiana, America, fate, money, cops, guards have told these people that their lives are interchangeable, “same old blunders on a different hill.” Her big book of selected poems, “Steal Away,” is the place to start reading her, maybe with “Personals,” or with a hot poem like “Everything Good Between Men and Women.”
“Steal Away” was also the last book before the MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2004: It didn’t change what she did, but it showed her that people were listening, and not just in the relatively insular poetry communities that sent fans her way early on.
I loved the poems before I met the poet, but I loved knowing her too. I met C.D. and her husband, Forrest Gander, at a writers conference in a remote part of New England while I was working on an essay about her: After a few days of conversation, I ended up, in a fit of fan-chutzpah, asking if they could drive me partway home (they did). They were good to, and certainly good for, me. It’s easy for me to remember seeking her calm, considerate, unselfish advice and wishing I could see our polyglot continent, with its lakes, its villages and its striving hipsters, as generously as she always did.
It’s also uncomfortable for me to write about her as a person, because it makes me want to recommend that you go meet her: A critic can’t do that even when great poets are alive, much less when they’ve left us. What critics can do — maybe all a critic can do — is send you, with some encouragement or preparation, to the poems. The titles in “Rising, Falling, Hovering” insist on likeness, on the unpredictable affinities between language and the rest of the world, between people and other people, for instance, “Like Having a Light at Your Back You Can’t See but You Can Still Feel.” Those affinities, those likenesses, are all over Wright’s work. You can tell a Wright poem from its diction (demotic without being folksy); from its sensory world (tangy, unpredictable, warm, with touch, taste or motion, not just sight and sound, involved); from its cadence (irregular, sharp, yet — if it were music — able to hold a melody); and from its affect, disarming, inviting, genuine. Wright was our most democratic, most trustworthy major poet in 50, if not 100, years. I wish more writers — more people — could be more like her.