Steal Away (Part II of Raymond McDaniel’s Consideration)
The gulf between C.D. Wright’s String Light and her Just Whistle: A Valentine yawns wide, but you can see one side from the other, and it’s curious to ponder her leap, to reverse-engineer the acts that merely suggest themselves in the former work and outright declare in the latter. These acts are those of a poet extending the musculature of her language to the utmost. It is thus fitting that Just Whistle dissects the flesh of the erotic, with both flail and scalpel. Wright could never be excused of prettification, but Just Whistle marks a commitment to candor that resembles the penitent’s scourge—if, of course, the penitent felt more pleasure than pain:
apocryphal or not if a body coming through the haulm were
willing help the body scaled and riddled with mistakes, to
help the crumbling, hacky, runny body, the stiff, fitful body, the
dumb, anachronistic body, the teratogenic, totally gnarled,
hobbled body get to the other shore,
So it isn’t traditional erotics: pre-necrotic is more like it. But this poetry shares with traditional erotics, and the umbrella organization of love, a necessary impatience. Wright offers not beauty but a catalogue (as is her reflex) of ugliness as evidence of attention, an attention that bespeaks a deep and deeply mortal desire:
Here that sad body lies with its rubymeated vestibule
receiving the breeze.
The other body, priapic as a cigar, rubs the dark-staining juice
on the areolae.
Lights conk off as they pass.
One thing, the panties have to go—
It knows its rights it has been a suspect many times before.
Darkness parts the multiple folds about the hole. The windows
come down in unison.
Nevertheless, it is very perturbing all this business
with the cigar and the areolae.
In the first place, the panties have to go ere it is too late.
First, promise this isn’t going to be any mustache job.
Ere it is too late—
Although it lacks that story’s moral vanity, and wisely admits humor where Mishima finds none, Just Whistle shares with Mishima’s “Patriotism” an auctorial refusal to distinguish between loved bodies in ecstasy and in torture, colored with candlelight or evisceration’s primary prisms. Revulsion here never predicts a subsequent turning away; to call it a valentine (and let’s recall that saint’s unsavory fate) is a mild irony that masks a greater truth. This raw-boned devotion follows well Wright’s prior commitments, but differs from her earlier writing in three remarkable and telling ways: The book marks a shift in vocabulary, in experimental architectures, and most importantly in how the poet begins to distinguish between poems and poetry. And it is Wright’s adoption of the latter at the expense of the former that both summons and allows the tremendous achievement of her more recent writing.
There is no space here (or anywhere) to thoroughly discuss the logical boundaries of the single poem, but we cannot deny that we know one when we see one. “Uh, yes, officer, it was about a page long? Had a beginning and a middle and it ended? It tried to sell me a transparent commentary on recognizable experience, officer, but my momma taught me to say NO to anything that offered me an epiphany and then run away FAST.”
For all her mastery of the single poem, by String Light Wright was clearly growing frustrated with the limits of the poem. And, as conventionally understood, the poem indeed could not keep pace with her language. Poems stop; poetry doesn’t have to. To compress the power, the sheer variousness of Just Whistle into a sequence of conventional poems would result in abortion and deformity at the worst; the best the poet could hope for would be the kind of awkwardness I mention in the previous installment of this extended consideration. There is only so much the transparent, one-quaff-potable poem can do: Just Whistle is Wright’s response to the poem’s limitations, and it’s the right response—forceful, demonstrative and bold.
Some would say (and did say) that it was too bold. That judgment is the kind of twitch typical of poetry criticism, and wholly unwarranted. But Just Whistle did make some people, and some of Wright’s fans, unhappy, which may account for its disproportionate representation in Steal Away: about 45 pages, as opposed to the better-known and better-received Deepstep Come Shining, about which more later. I don’t fault the lengthy excerpt; Just Whistle is underappreciated, and anything that draws more readers into its capillary action is a good thing. I don’t think it too bold at all, though the book’s peculiarly biological clarity does create a tremendous focus, an erotic equivalent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. But that’s only fitting. Teenagers who have just discovered their capacity for sex fuck themselves into stupefaction; this becomes a form of transcendence that is supernally earthy, a flight by surrender to gravity. This dynamic, transfused into language with blood and piss and effluvia spilling from the vial, determines Just Whistle’s freight: both mass and velocity, the book is the body taken to its inevitable extreme, unflinching and affectionate. In much the same way as those formerly virgin kids ferment their sweat into a bitter wine, Wright uses Just Whistle to try out her new musculature, to exhaust her capacities.
What follows, naturally, is a drink of water, which is Tremble. Relatively spare where Just Whistle is dense, Tremble freezes the inevitable pendular swing initiated by the previous work’s acceleration. The poet doesn’t step back from Just Whistle’s challenge; she reconfigures it, proves the validity of her choice of poetry over the poem. Tremble is a breath, a pause, and Wright uses white space here with the same innovation she brought to the book’s predecessor. Some mistake this for a refutation of Just Whistle and a perfection of Wright’s efforts in String Light, and offer poems like “Autographs” as evidence:
Site of their desire: against a long high wall in 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
Such a reading is narrow and flawed, because it willfully excludes the consequences of a “poem” like “Autographs” appearing in a volume with the language of a “poem” like “The Shepherd of Resumed Desire,” which contains
go should you stayno shoulds about it no matter why
the hole was madethe task is not yours to fill it
why standest thouso nearto the brinkhow old were you
or this, from “Song of the Gourd”
In gardening I continued to sit on my side of the car: to
drive whenever possible at the usual level of distraction:
in gardening I shat nails glass contaminated dirt and
threw up on the new shoots: in gardening I learned to
praise things I had dreaded: I pushed the hair out of my
face: I felt less responsible for one man’s death one
woman’s long-term isolation: my bones softened: in
gardening I lost nickels and ring settings I uncovered
The point is not that these pieces fail to function as poems are traditionally understood to function; they function famously well. Indeed, Tremble introduces the “Girl Friend” poems, a form to which Wright has returned irregularly, and one that embodies all the normative satisfactions of both the poem and the sequence. The point is that there is no previous equivalent for this quality of language, nor for the degree to which the language of one “poem” infests and informs its adjacencies.
Some of this, I think, reflects a shift in Wright’s spiritual apprehension of what and how language achieves. I read in “Lake Echo, Dear” a surrender that, as surrenders often do, secures liberty:
Is the woman in the pool of light
really reading or just staring
at what is written
Is the man walking in the soft rain
naked or is it the rain
that makes his shirt transparent
The boy in the iron cot
is he asleep or still
fingering the springs underneath
Did you honestly believe
three lives could be complete
The bottle of green liquid
on the sill is it real
The bottle on the peeling sill
is it filled with green
Or is the liquid an illusion
How summer’s children turn
into fish and rain softens men
How the elements of summer
nights bid us to get down with each other
on the unplaned floor
And this feels painfully beautiful
whether or not
it will change the world one drop
Sweet Jesus, the green in this book. What you have here is a signature palette, a shade tantamount to ferocious seedling. “Lake Echo” reproduces all the gifts of vintage Wright, her lists, her un-questions, her deceptively basic grammar. But both in whole and as a part of Tremble— and thus as the floral mirror to the faunal wonders of Just Whistle— the poem represents Wright’s hard-won ability to let language unwind. It is as if the rod in her hand has finally metamorphosed into a serpent, the fluid and cursive creature it was always meant to be.
What Wright does with this fully realized gift, of course, is Deepstep Come Shining. My sole indictment of Steal Away is its selection from Deepstep; the edit excludes the strongest passages (though none could be called weak) and too few of even those. This results in a somewhat inaccurate microcosm of the book’s true glory. But I must also admit that Copper Canyon faced no good option here, unless they were to reprint Deepstep in its entirety, which would have been unwieldy if not unwise.
I do not have much to say about this book that has not been said better elsewhere, and I wanted to stand up for Just Whistle, as well. And since I cannot ask my editor to extend this enterprise to a third installment, I will simply note that Deepstep provides infinite, perfectly conceived astonishment. The work truly cannot be exhausted; each reading not only reveals novelty, but reconstitutes the prior readings, resulting in a text of perpetual re-writing and reward. I was lucky enough to hear Wright’s first public reading of the poem: It was like watching a moon landing if no one had told you that anyone had planned on going to the moon.
Steal Away concludes with selections from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, Wright’s collaboration with longtime ally, the photographer Deborah Luster. I’ll refrain from comment on that as well, since its delayed publication necessitates a release date, I think, circa now. In fragments, the book seems to further success with success, and also a recapitulation of Wright’s curiosity for character, in this case expressed as literal if also lyric biographies. The book won’t be cheap, and that shouldn’t discourage you from getting it. Wright has earned plenty of gold stars in this industry, especially for a poet so willful and odd and fearless. But her poetry has always undermined the professionalization of verse, not least by remaining true to its hard origins and open to the act of seduction, and of being seduced. Wright deserves the greatest praise, which is not praise at all, but the widest readership imaginable. She’s brought wilderness into poetry’s pastures, our landscapes and our bodies; each of her journeys renders home both more lovingly strange and yet better known. Readership is the least she deserves: We are all of us in her debt.