Ben Marcus on C. D. Wright

I was just young enough, and just inattentively boringly stupid enough, that it took the appearance of underwear, or, as she put it at the time, panties, to wake me up at the poetry reading. C.D. Wright was reading from Just Whistle, and the revelation I had was sudden and fairly clichéd in its power. At a graduate school in the North, where I was supposedly a fiction writer, I had theretofore been hearing an American poetry in another language, one I didn't speak, that happened to use English words. I wrestled with this problem, or should have done, and thought for a while that the poem that trafficked so remotely from my understanding, my reason, and my feeling was designed to trigger my own tuned-out daydreaming, so that the poem was about whatever filled my head, boring or not. What an imperative not to have banal daydreams, and I determined—when my attention failed in the face of one of these challenging poets—to keep my thoughts away from my grocery list and such.

But C.D. Wright ruined all that readerly shame by clearing her throat and throwing some panties on the table. This is a stupid way to describe it. She didn't cater to my couldn'teven-get-into-a-fraternity person. That's not what I'm saying. What she did was brew up a serious complexity that could accommodate all sorts of vernacular, a lyric abstraction not afraid to sound good, to rip out some beauty, to be suddenly personal, as clear as a children's book, intimate or remote, song-like, atonal, mystical, biblical, and dirty, with all that ossified so-called high-brow etiquette thrown out the window.

No more fear of feeling, of clarity, of rapture. This was thief-poetry, epic monologues poured through a broken horn, heart-blown speakers, skanky fornicators smeared with parent water, praying children. Of course C.D. had been doing this for some time, in books like String Light, Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues, and Further Adventures with You, and would continue to in Tremble and Deepstep, Come Shining, which I regard as a masterpiece.

She shifts effortlessly between a distorted Biblical rhetoric and a down home rhapsody, a mixture of speech that seems lawless, fantastically so. Yet there's a deep logic to it, as though she has written a new, fool's Bible (where 'fool' only indicates someone not ruined by privileged information, unafraid to speculate about religious questions in a way that is personal). Certainly these impulses arise in part from a tradition, often Southern, in which the poet or writer applies a sort of borderless looting of any language at hand—the various ways, official and not, that the culture addresses itself—not content with the dressed-up formality, the well-behaved chilliness, of some literature.

I've wondered sometimes at the stereotypes we're inclined to use when a writer happens to come from the South, where particular lyric affiliations, abilities, or instincts have conspired to make critics, or at least people like me, fall into ratifying naming frenzies that mean entirely nothing. We tend to get anthropological and categorical when talking about Southern writers, even if we're Southern ourselves, condescending to a classifying syntax that is enjoyable, maybe, but ludicrous.

We don't have a Shakespeare or Dante of the North, we have them of the South. If a writer infuses comedy with nihilistic abstraction, he is a Beckett of the South, as has been said of Padgett Powell. But the border is one way only—reciprocity is outlawed—since we don't get a Padgett Powell of the North, and it's not because one of him is enough.

The South is, I gather, supposed to be a special place that can only be understood in relation to places or people outside of it. But of course, it is a term, and we all know that the word "term" was used by Indians to refer to the special, heavy blanket they threw over their children when they were loud. In other words, it performs a comforting, annihilating violence on what it references—it gets us off the hook, where we long to be, from knowing anything substantial about what we might be talking about.

I mention this in relation to C.D. Wright because she is the someone of something—the Yahweh of Kindergarten, maybe (that's my best guess); in other words: the person of place—but you will join me in failing to know the appropriate nouns to complete the syntax, and it is in my failure to describe her, to locate her in the various joy-killing, children-smothering assignations of the poetry world, that I have grown more enamored of her poetry, since for me she defies full understanding in precisely that way that I require, in order to remain interested, attracted, and moved, in order, for instance, to stay just shy of knowing, where I'd give everything I have just to remain for a while. This is my definition of literary suspense, as it applies to the poetry of C.D. Wright: she actually suspends us where the most active life and feeling are, where language is at a riot, and knowing (a.k.a. dying) is never quite possible.

I'll mention dumbly a distinction I see sometimes in the poetry I read. There is the poetry I understand too little and the poetry I understand too well. I prefer neither. Each of these extremes are too easy to achieve, leading to a special disappointment known as sleep. Sense and nonsense can be made by most anyone, but when a poet works between these poles, as C.D. does, she ratifies, through language, a difficult space that puts a reader in his best body: alert, alive, searching, raw to the way sentences make and remake our world, inside and out.

I am glad that C.D. Wright, who is really a true C.D. Wright of the South, a C.D. Wright of Arkansas, a C.D. Wright of Seekonk, a C.D. Wright of the very person at this table in front of me—oh hell: The Julia Child of Hades, the Helen Keller of girls' rugby, the C.D. Wright of C.D. Wright.

I am glad she has the fortitude, the tongue, the wiles and the brilliance, to stay here, in this place, and make sentences for me. I'd want no one else.

(On February 11th Ben Marcus introduced C.D. Wright at The Bowery Poetry Club.
Originally published in Crossroads, Fall 2003.)




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