C. D. Wright once declared the stripe of her ambitions, peeled the bark from the limb: In her “Our Dust,” from 1991’s String Light she “agreed to be the poet one life, / one death alone”; in so saying Wright made it seem as if she had struck a modest bargain with the devil. If so, it’s obvious what she gained from the transaction. She has mastery of the modernist dictionaries and the colloquialisms of her “one life” as well. The point around which this record pivots, the crux-stone of her beautiful tensions, is her consideration and re-consideration of what this dual mastery allows her. The story of what she surrendered in this infernal transaction—more truly, the story of what she once felt an obligation to avoid and has in recent years embraced—describes the hidden narrative of Steal Away. Steal away indeed: even the devil does not escape a negotiation with Wright without losing his fire, his tongue, his very goddamned hayfork. They belong to the poet now: She knows their uses, and in her wielding of those tools she has become one of our few essential artists.
You can shake Wright’s first several books (the near-impossible-to-find Translation of the Gospel Back Into Tongues, Further Adventures With You, and String Light) and count yourself lucky if a single question mark comes flying out—this is one of her weirdnesses and her charms, that her poems be so curious about their worlds, so inclusive, and yet be so hell-bent to never directly ask a thing of them. In all of Steal Away, I think Wright asks maybe three unmodifed questions: In Translation’s ” Clockmaker with Bad Eyes” we get
Love whatever flows. Cooking smoke, woman’s blood,
tears. Do you hear what I’m telling you?
This isn’t much, but the quality of the question—its slightly cracked impatience—finds in the early work better and more frequent expressions. The judgment implied by this reticence (or reluctance to phrase the necessity of her own inquiry) equals a jaw-clenching stoicism. Wright has always suggested that most rhetorical poetic questions patronize the object and exalt the questioner: She wants to cast about to discern what’s there, not what might be there, such that the “might” serves only the poet’s agenda. This willingness to apprehend the details of the world so as to defy the vanities of art fits neatly with Wright’s laconic Ozark persona: No one is going to be the boss of her, including the maundering excesses of the artistic traditions she’s chosen. In this initial work, Wright sometimes reads like an extremely articulate houseguest who refuses to speak unless spoken to; she’s a glass of ice water at a wine tasting. “Poetic” questions, she seems to suggest, are the privilege of the fancy-pants’d. For one as deliberately whittled of rrrrromanticism as Wright, a poet for whom fat of any kind is a type of atheist’s sin, the task of cataloguing is work enough. Her early refusal to bust loose of her own britches was thus a function of her indictment of bullshit—in order to save a language she clearly loved, Wright refused to misuse her own powers.
So the catalogue: We find dressed-down jazz, its brass and tarnished agents and metaphors, all manner of weathered desperations. We also find a diction part biblical and part Dixie-fried. In “The Secret Life of Musical Instruments,” Wright establishes a consistent thread of her language via the introduction of phrases such as these:
They dream like so-and-sos.
Come all ye faithless
young and crazy victims of love.
Come the lowlife and the highborn
all ye upside-down shitasses.
These early lists (and listing is a habit Wright never completely surrenders) usually proceed as brief monologues of events having misfired, traumas free of dramas, or else they subsist in very brief narratives of ” a man” and “a woman” and sometimes (sometimes terribly) “a child”. Wright’s reluctance to deviate from this most spare of narrative forms finds a formal analogue in her grammar: There is no contemporary poet who has done more with S-V-DO, the simple actor and the simple action:
I brushed the folds out of the tablecloth.
The visitor stood in the steam
lifting off the table.
He wiped his hand on my apron.
The voice of my father came on
gentle as a lamp
a page being turned in its light.
They pushed their plate away, took their chair to the front room,
and lit up. I went to mine.
It was a school night. I held my pillow to my chest
and said Kiss me Frankie.
In Further Adventures with You and String Light, either Wright begins to chafe at the limitations her diligence has thus far required, or achieves the confidence necessary to distort her own tropes. I suspect the evolution has more to do with impatience than a lack of confidence; it’s difficult to imagine Wright backing down from any true challenge, and further, her poems always include predictive evidence of what will follow—she plants seeds in the cracks of her own structures, apparently certain that the fruit forthcoming will be worth the fissure. So Further strikes immediately as just that: a furthering, most immediately in terms of length and breadth of the catalogue option:
Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
Fish do not slow down. A good robe. Pencils. The back of his head.
from “Elements of Night”
Note that this poem concludes with what will become the character tell of Wright’s declarations—”Also: 1981, Where is / my beautiful daughter.”
Even her questions adopt the posture of claims, deliberately unaffected, unalarmed even in the face of fire. These tendencies (of catalogue, grammatical minimalism, and flattened query) unite in places:
The tea is greener now and cold.
The woman he married is seated
before the mirror. She stares
through concentric circles in the glass
and asks of the figure leaving
the shadowy cove of their hall,
What is your favorite body of water. And why.
from “The Cinematographer’s Faro Island Log”
You don’t really realize the inherent optimism of the question mark until you find it replaced with the period, at which time the foolishness of mistaking statement for inquiry— for imagining that the claim, the marrow of language, can ever be disguised without corrupting its essence—stands revealed in all its naked ignominy. In her struggles to communicate the disingenuousness of conventional inquiry, Wright staggers and stutters the language. Further Adventures and String Light in particular feature sometimes awkward innovations, including narrative interweavings, numerations, and the long poem comprised of shorter ones. But sometimes Wright just lets her grammar-impatience run rough over a standard diction, as in “More Blues and the Abstract Truth”, which concludes with
Well. Then. You say Grandmother
let me just ask you this:
How does a body rise up and rinse
her mouth from the tap. And how
does a body put in a plum tree
or lie again on top of another body
or string a trellis. Or going on drying
the flatware. Fix rainbow trout. Grout the tile.
Buy a bag of onions. Beat an egg stiff. Yes,
how does the cat continue
to lick itself from toenail to tailhole.
And how does a body break
bread with the word when the word
has broken. Again. And. Again.
With the wine. And the loaf.
And the excellent glass
of the body. And she says
Even. If. The. Sky. Is. Falling.
My. Peace. Rose. Is. In. Bloom.
The poet cannot sustain the admixture of force and frustration contained herein; her language must transport her elsewhere or else-ways, and there are further hints of this need in String Light. But there are also conditions Wright needs to make explicit, as she does at the end of “Scratch Music” in Further Adventures with You:
But you, you bastard. You picked up a
gun in winter as if it were a hat and you were leaving a restaurant:
full, weary, and thankful to be spending the evening with no one.
This is the shade of the late poet Frank Stanford, whose The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You wields a terrible and awesome gravity on the orbits of those contemporary poets tough enough to fight with the demands of that monstrous work, overflowing with monsters and beauties itself. Wright has long championed Stanford’s work, and endeavored to replace the mythologies of his life with the hard miracles of his language. And I should note at this point that I do not believe in psychology, and do not seek to read into Wright’s own accomplishments a lifelong reconciliation of her work’s relation to Stanford’s. But her writing to the date of String Light, for all its hard-boned genius, was locked in a limited yard of tones, like a dog chained to a tree investigating every last feature of the yard. This produced one kind of capaciousness at the expense of another, and Wright’s increasing willingness to cede to her material a degree of explicitness marks a serious departure. To this end, the farewells to Frank are of a piece with the formal inventions and the dismantlement of the lists: These gestures collectively announce Wright’s recognition that in order for her language to thrive, it will have to decouple from both the pages and the thumbprints of her prior achievement.
Consider then the rare pair of questions in “Old Man with a Dog”:
climbing the hill
in a heavy coat
to Sunset Manor
to comb his wife’s
white clumps of hair,
what you cannot
end up with
in 72 years.
Eating at the stove
in his heavy coat.
with the dog.
on the heel of this
he wonders aloud,
What will I do?
How will I live?
This is very nearly the end of this kind of poem for Wright, who at this point is on the verge of abandoning poems, with all their enveloping strictures and limitations, and writing poetry instead: capacious, language-wild and brilliant. I think that “Old Man with a Dog” is thus a more fitting declaration of principles than is “Our Dust,” in which Wright claims her one life. What she promises in this mid-period collection is whispered in poems like “Petition for Replacement”: “Lo, the breastbone’s embraceable light”, we read, and hear the whistle and forewarning of the work to come. In “Humidity”, the poet writes that
Things are as they seem. There are no houses
no trees and no body of water.
Wright summons things as they are by their absence; into this void will rush the carnal shocks of Just Whistle, the lyric inversion of minimalism from stark to sensual that is Tremble, and Deepstep Come Shining, a book that marries Wright’s early concerns to her later methodologies in a ceremony of perpetual, perfect unfolding.
To be continued.