The Poet The LionThere is a familiar generosity in the title, in the sentences, the tones and range and heart of it all. One expects such from C.D. Wright’s every move, and here it is again in her posthumous book of essays focused largely on a brief (usually a half to a full page) appreciation of selected poets that moves centrifugally outward urging the reader to follow up, to return to reading one of the many authors mentioned, to move out into the world as she does. Her personal passion further reading. At the same time, her focus is always on the particular, viewing the world in a word as at the outset where she declares her love for “particular lexicons of particular occupations.”:

My relationship to the word is anything but scientific; it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.

C.D. Wright is justly admired for her ability to include in each of her books document, history, narrative, personal anecdote, lyric, rant, travel, affection, worry, enigma. There is an amplitude in her approach to the world and word that rigorously counters narrow views and easy irony. What I greatly appreciate is that the book moved me to watch a documentary on Agnes Martin, to look up words C.D. notes don’t mean what you might think they would, to reread books on my shelf, to check out collaborations between Robert Creeley and bass player Steve Swallow (Home 1979), visual artists Susan Rothenberg, R.B. Kitaj, John Altoon, Francesco Clemente and others (In Company: Robert Creeley’s Collaborations), to reread her amazing book collaboration with Deborah Luster, One Big Self, Prisoners of Louisiana, a collaboration not only between the two artists, but between them and all the faces of the prisoners: “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of—all faces of the same man: one big self,” Terrence Malick. Wright’s short essays not only have a large if idiosyncratic scope, but also make one aware of and eager to imitate her restless and intense searching for worlds and words. The book certainly stands on its own—the essays are suggestive and interestingly selective—but following out the various leads was instructive and engaging.

Her attention falls on various poets and quotations, but repeatedly on Robert Creeley in sections titled, “Hold Still, Lion,” Jean Valentine, William Carlos Williams, Jane Miller, Brenda Hillman—but especially Robert Creeley who was, as Hank Lazer wrote her lamenting his death, “the figure of Onward” from whom we must now be “in our writing and friendship and conversation and correspondence, that no longer figure of Onward.” It is not hard to see a correspondence between Creeley and Wright herself as she describes him as loving the internet: “Finally some thing actually existed that could facilitate his wonderful rapid-fire mind and keep him in touch with his ever-widening affections.” The essays aren’t analytical, but rather ways of indicating the scope and power of poetry, especially American poetry, as when she says that we are still, as Wordsworth was, trying to “see into the life of things.” The particular, however, is never neglected, and word choice is always essential: “Writing is choosing. Choosing is decision-making. Decisions among word choices are among the most delectable of the whole writing experience. They may be accidental, they may be serendipitous.”

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures etc. is also a glimpse into C.D. Wright’s own values and process—most importantly, her sense of poetry’s purpose in a world of capitalism, war, greed, the distraction of “buying a ginormous pallet of stuff.” Several somewhat longer essays address her work on prisons in Louisiana, and her own book of poems, Rising, Hovering, Falling, a book C.D. describes writing with difficulty:

The process was painstaking—spread out over several years and geographies—the more so because it was lived-in; because it was temperamental by dint of its sources…because poetry makes nothing happen. In the end, she was more satisfied than she expected to be since the process was so protracted.

To underscore the difficulty of this book, she speaks of herself in the third person addressing family troubles, the war in Iraq, prisons, border patrols, the history of Mexico, finally utilizing juxtaposition (both documentary and lyric) in a process she found painstaking, a pattern “tessellated at best, but the individual words were very insistent.” Throughout the essays one feels the intense difficulty of writing, the “heed that poetry requires,” the crucial important of listening to others: “Human discourse. Breaking silence. Staying violence.” In thinking through why poetry matters more now, C.D. queries others, of course, but I’ll just quote from one, Forrest Gander: “Because in a time of spectacle, poetry is the anti-spectacle, the wormhole through silence into the interior rich with nuance, with feeling sparked by intuition and attentiveness…the place of our deeper transformations and renewals.” She locates the language of poetry in doubt:

Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to a get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.

The book also gives all poets a summons to find a fierceness equal to the current environment in which we live: “We will have to meet irrational force with savage insight. Poets in our day will have to draw down against our latent subversiveness and punch through the dream hold to that opening wherein listening is possible and violence is not inevitable.” In one short essay, “My American Scrawl,” she writes: “This is the one scene where I advance determined, if not precisely ready, to do battle with what an overly cited Jungian described as the anesthetized heart, the heart that does not react.” It is a reminder of the loss of a great American poet to read these words in the face of C.D. Wright’s death on January 12, 2016. It also is bracing: so much fear and faith and work and curiosity and appreciation of others. It will give heart to all who read it.