on The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store... by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon)
C.D. Wright wrote poetry as if serving a truth to be discovered. Do you object to “as if”? To persist in that pending, provisional state requires a quizzical tenacity. Between one’s experience of walking down the sidewalk on Main Street and the culture’s explanatory narratives of that walking, there is a gap. Some say a chasm. Her second book of multi-vectored and manifold prose, The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring Midnights, Fire & All, includes several assertions on the essential struggle to occupy and cultivate the gap with words:
“To suggest a purpose to being here for which humans are amazingly and imaginatively equipped, and then to follow through as if it were true, because one believed it true, and then along came the opening and the will with a very small sack of words by which to nail that goal to the page … ”
As if it were true.
These micro-essays and lyrical particulars reflect recurrently on many of those finely equipped humans who influenced and/or befriended her: Williams Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Mina Loy, Raul Zurita, Agnes Martin, Paul Celan. And then Robert Creeley, John Taggart, Jean Valentine, Jane Miller, Brenda Hillman. The photographer Deborah Luster with whom she collaborated. Forrest Gander, of course.
But a section titled “Of Those Who Can Afford to be Gentle,” devoted to an unnamed contemporary Chinese poet, struck me as particularly poignant and significant. He was at home in Beijing on June 4, 1989 hosting a visiting poet at the moment three of his fellow rebellious poets were killed by the military. Later, as a visiting poet in America, he told Wright that in the aftermath of their deaths, he stopped writing: “He did not want to make use, as he put it, of their deaths … The old way of writing ‘would not fulfill’ his aim. He wanted to create his own small literary cosmos qualified to respond to the giant wave of history. He began to develop an idea of writing ‘at a point between two ends — between poetry and history, between poetry and philosophy, poetry and religion.’”
Those “betweens” are gaps, not amply filled by mere political or moral certitude. Or guaranteed by fluency or iconoclastic pique. The enigma hides behind certitude. The unnamed Chinese poet faced an enigma: he perceived the evils, he mourned for his lost friendships, he was confirmed in his opinions, and he remained in China. But he was not an editorial or screed writer. Wright strongly implies that the Chinese “poets who became important symbols of the June 4 events” named the crimes and uttered their outrage (often from a safe remove) but failed in the more crucial task of creating a form for language, of doing more than pointing out the obvious for their partisans.
The Chinese poet “stayed with his fate, stayed silent, and began again, reconnecting with his language one word at a time” His silence, says Wright, is the twenty-five year silence of George Oppen and the terrifying muting of Paul Celan’s language while he waited for renewed, answering words. For The Poet, The Lion, Wright included several sections on the primacy of individual words, particularly nouns – an emphasis enjoined with her remarks on the foundational work of William Carlos Williams. In Wright’s pantheon, Williams is as much of a creation myth hero as Gilgamesh.
She had halted, too. But she was not inclined to exploit grief and memory, and she could no longer employ her early taste for surreal abstractions. When she looked more closely at poets who "found, borrowed, revived, or invented means that they could apply to their medium and bind to the 'collective undercurrent'" (Adorno), she asked, "Suppose there is a point from which you cannot be held back."
Wright’s first book of lyrical comment, Cooling Time (2005), concludes with remarks on silence that point to that element’s profound presence in the new essays. Earlier she wrote, “Lately silence, as a high poetic value, has begun to seep into the marrow. Lately silence, as the formal element I have been missing, has shattered the noise. I yearn to surprise myself, quietly; to proceed from an increasingly less protected vantage.” Cooling Time is subtitled “An American Poetry Vigil,” and sometimes hits a querulous note about American poetry (“Of the vanguard I can say, I admire their procedures, but I think their attitude stinks”). The commentary in The Poet, The Lion issues from a more experienced but still agitated position:
“The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to 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.” (From “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer”)
In the earlier prose, she wrote, “Poetry for me is compatibly tendentious and personal.” She articulates this further at the outset of The Poet, The Lion with recollections about her visits to Louisiana prisons with Deborah Luster: “The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is a part of. Something not in dispute is that people in prison are apart from. If you can accept … that the ultimate goal should d be to reunite the separated with the larger human enterprise, it might behoove us to see prisoners, among others, as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves.”
How will she render these impulses in poetry? Clearly, they will not be poems about a discrete first-person encountering a situation recognizable in advance.
In "The old business about form & content," she indicates her dislikes: "Poetry that does not really take language into account ... its texture, smell, shape, strength, options, registers, tonalities, etymologies, as well as its wide margins of error ... poetry that does not take formal acts into account: those weird, elusive organizing openings that the material presents ..." Well, tonalities gathered dust in her toolbox. A poet of pitch, not tone.
She is “interested in exploring the possible ways by which you can make meaningful contact with a consciousness other than your own without surrendering the possibilities to an obvious common ground.” She is apprenticed to a specific, slippery enigma, and she will write as if the aspiration is possible to achieve. She believes she is on the brink.
Robert Creeley, the looming co-mentoring spirit of this work, once told Wright that “writing could be an intensely specific revelation of one’s own content.” The other ghost is Williams who promoted “the supremacy of the imagination” while he “dealt in real things, with individuals in real and current need.” The Poet, The Lion is C.D. Wright’s exquisite record of keeping these faiths and yearnings. In the end, there is a solitary, unfulfilled, fulfilling question – laid out on the page, Wright-wise, without a question mark:
“Can you put words to an inchoate desire.”
[Published January 5, 2016. 136 pages, $18.00 paperback]