A Restless Soul, Redemption in the Early Poetry of CD Wright (draft)
By CL Bledsoe
From her poetry and writing to her work with Lost Roads Press, C.D. Wright loomed large in Delta letters. Born in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, Wright was raised by a judge and a court reporter, was highly educated and an academic, but she broke free of that upper middle class background. Wright maintained a connection to the lives of the poor and disenfranchised, as a poet and activist. She wrote about her work in the prison system in Louisiana and sought out and published “forgotten” poets like Besmilr Brigham with the Lost Roads Press. Her work is hard to categorize because she constantly explored new styles and approaches, from narrative to experimental. Common themes were a focus on poverty, injustice, love, and Delta imagery, and her use of her native language, or ”Idiom Ozarkia,” as she called it. But regardless of her subject matter, Wright’s language tends toward the spare and perfect — she uses one exact word to startle.
I never met CD Wright, but it’s hard to be a Delta poet without feeling like she knew you. I first encountered her work in college. I was going through a difficult time and felt disconnected from my peers; along with still dealing with some childhood trauma, I was a country mouse in the (not very) big city. I struggled with the idea of how to live in the world, not only with my grief, but also as a decent person, themes she explores constantly. In “Bent Tones,” Wright describes scenes of poverty as poor people of color prepare for a “dance at the black school.” (1) She continues:
In the shot houses people were busy.
A woman washed her boy in a basin, sucking
a cube of ice to get the cool.
The sun drove a man in the ground like a stake. (2–5)
To counterpoint the oppressiveness of reality, Wright slips in more optimistic images as a young girl “skipped down the walk in a clean dress.” (7) It’s hopeful because the girl skips and because someone loves her enough to put her in a clean dress. Immediately, Wright grounds that image in a harsh reality it with the detail, “Bad meat on the counter.” (8). This hope isn’t an easy thing. It’s fragile and easily disrupted. But Wright finds beauty even in desperation. “In the sky, broken glass. (8) The poem concludes:
When the local hit the trestle everything trembled —
The trees she blew out of, the shiver owl,
Lights next door — With her fast eye
She could see Floyd Little
Changing his shirt for the umpteenth time. (9–13)
The train is a way out, which affects everything, even the animals, but the effect is fleeting. The true hope lies in others, as we see with Floyd Little looking to impress someone, we assume, at the dance.
Stylistically, Wright employs a sparseness of line and image that characterizes Arkansas writing, in particular. There are silences in her lines, spare, brooding, intensity and unspoken trauma. In “Tours,” a girl overhears what may well be her future as her father beats her mother.
Wright simply describes the physical situation. The girl’s feelings can be inferred but are not explicit. The poem continues, “The piano stands there in the dark/ Like a boy with an orchid.” (5–6). This is a surprising turn, made more compelling by the ingenous comparison. The girl dives deep into the music as, “Her mother’s music is spread out/on the floor like brochures.” (9–10). “Brochures” implies an introduction to something new, possibly exotic. Later, the poem takes a potentially dark turn for the girl as, “She hears her father/Running through the leaves.” (11–12). Why is he running? Is he escaping the scene of a crime? Is he leaving? It’s unclear. The tragedy of the scene is reinforced by the final lines: “The last black key/She presses stays down, makes no sound/Someone putting their tongue where their tooth had been.” (13–15) Ultimately, the music fails her. Or rather, perhaps it doesn’t completely sustain her. There is an absence that the music can’t fill. Here, Wright staves off sentimentality in the poem by underpinning the scene with the stark reality of trauma.
In Wright’s poetry, emotions are rarely simple, and love often holds hands with tragedy. In “Scratch Music,” Wright muses on the suicide of a loved one. One can’t help but think she’s writing about her former lover, the poet Frank Stanford. “Time here is divided into before/and since your shuttering in 1978,” she says. (2–3) “Some memory precedes you…” she says (5). She describes events from her childhood, a fearlessness she had. “Now if I think of the earth’s origins, I get vertigo.” (14). But it’s not all fear: “I’ve picked up a few things. I know if you/
want songbirds, plant berry trees. If you don’t want birds, buy a/rubber snake. (15–17).
The poem reads like a letter: “…So how is life in the other world. Do/you get the news. Are you allowed a pet.”(23–24) Throughout, little hints show us she is trying to make sense of the suicide and failing:
And more than six years have whistled
by since you blew your heart out like a porchlight. Reason and
meaning don’t step into another lit spot like a well-meaning stranger
with a hat. And mother’s mother, who has lived in the same house
ten-times-six years, told me, We didn’t know we had termites until
they swarmed. Then we had to pull up the whole floor. (27–32)
Finally, her anger appears, “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.” (33–35)
Ultimately, sense cannot be made, and she has simply had to learn to live with her grief.
In “More Blues and the Abstract Truth,” Wright constructs a call-and-response structure. She begins the first three stanzas with fears and worries from her life, which she then tells to her grandmother on the phone. Each time, her grandmother has a nonchalant-seeming response, “Well you know/death is death and none other,” (5–6) Wright’s narrator becomes increasingly desperate. She seems to want a cure, something that will solve her problems. She relates bodily worries, corrupt mechanics, problems with the house, but she can’t get a rise, “Grandmother says, Thanks to the blue rugs/and Eileen Briscoe’s elms/the house keeps cool. (18–20)
Finally, Wright’s narrator has had enough. Her frustration is captured through Wright’s punctuation and pacing, “Well. Then. You say Grandmother/let me just ask you this:” (21–22. Wright lists seemingly normal actions like getting out of bed in the morning, planting trees, and making love, but escalates to more existential concerns like faith. Grandmother’s response to this outburst is just as taciturn as before, “…And she says,/Even. If. The. Sky. Is. Falling./My. Peace. Rose. Is. In. Bloom.” (37–39)
The struggle that Wright’s narrator is having — and ostensibly Wright herself in many of her poems — is this tension between the overwhelm of life and some kind of peace. Grief haunts her work, it threatens to drag her down. The grandmother in the poem says to endure, but endurance is a constant struggle. In “Song of the Gourd,” Wright has an answer to this struggle: gardening. What could be more important to a Southerner than dirt? Here, also, we see Wright’s reinvention of classical poetic themes as more honest depictions of life. Almost immediately, she shifts the pastoral tone into something more real-world, “in gardening I shat nails glass contaminated dirt and threw up on the new shoots,” she says. (2–3) That blending of the sacred and profane is at the heart of Wright’s style. She continues, “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 longterm isolation.” (3–4) There’s a deep humility in this poem, as in many of Wright’s poems. She describes the things of the world, “in gardening I lost nickels and ring settings I uncovered buttons and marbles” (4–5).
Throughout the poem, Wright uses Faulknerian shifts from present to past which emulate the way the mind might drift while the body works. She goes back to Stanford’s suicide, concerns over daily life, her country’s involvement in war. An interesting thing to note is that she doesn’t spend time on the produce from the garden; it’s the act of gardening, itself, that matters.
In “Everything Good between Men and Women,” Wright explores the complexity of relationships. She begins by stating that everything good between men and women:
has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce. The walls and
the floors used to be gorgeous.
The socks off-white and a near match. (1–4)
Her tone is wry and ironic, contrasting a “keeping up with the Jones” attitude with one more down-to-earth and universal. The implication is that mistakes have been made. Things were once simple and pretty on the surface, but no more. This complication can lead to good things, though. She describes “quince with fire blight/but we get two pints of jelly/in the end.” (5–7). This optimism is grounded in reality; “Long walks strengthen/ the back,” (7–8) she states. It’s a simple idea with many implications. Are the walks romantic evening walks taken in tandem? Angry solitary walks taken after a fight? Perhaps both. Regardless, they serve to strengthen the relationship, Wright seems to be implying.
Wright recognizes how fortunate she is. She states, “The torrents/go over us. Thunder has not harmed/anyone we know.” (11–13) But there is depth and distance to this relationship, “The river coursing/through us is dirty and deep.” (13–14) Ultimately, the poem achieves a balance of these ideas — simplicity, conflict, tragedy; it’s all part of a journey of learning:
We have so little time
to learn, so much… The river
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead. (23–26)
Ultimately, there is only so much we can accomplish before the limitations of life overwhelm us. The lettuce must be covered, i.e. practical matters must be taken care of. They get in the way of what we consider to be important, sometimes, i.e. more spiritual concerns, but maybe that’s just a wrong-headed way of looking at it. Maybe it’s covering the lettuce that matters. We must make peace with what we have, what we’ve accomplished, and what we can’t have and won’t accomplish. We have no choice.
Biespiel, David. 2017. “David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems that Shaped America (Pt. 8): “Song of the Gourd.” TheRumpus.net, March 14.
Burt, Stephen. “‘I Came to Talk You into Physical Splendor’: On the Poetry of C. D. Wright.” Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/index.htm.
Chiasson, Dan. 2011. “Southern Discomfort: C.D. Wright’s One with Others.” NewYorker.com, January 3.
Wright, C.D. 2002. Steal Away, selected and new poems. Port Townshend, WA: Copper Canyon Books.