Getting to Know C. D. Wright

C. D. WrightThere are two kinds of brilliant talkers in the South: those with a gift for beating so far around the bush that what you end up caring about is the scenery. And those with a knack for nailing it so hard it’s engraved in granite. C.D. Wright’s speech is the latter.

But as a poet Wright, a headliner at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, can write poetry that ranges from forthright to lyrical to unpredictable.  Her poems have been described as socially conscious, erotic, experimental, elliptical, and Southern, and at various periods of her writing you can make a case for all those definitions. She decries poetic movements. In an interview with Kent Johnson, she says in her gentle but direct voice, “I just never liked anyone telling me what to do or what to like. Or ‘versa vice.’ If the poetries I like cancel one another out at the polls, so be it. I’ll vote as many times as I please.” Nailed!

But Wright’s poems aren’t always so direct. It all depends on how she’s voting. We’ll look at both her elliptical style and at her direct, socially conscious style.

Wright in a somewhat elliptical mode

Sometimes it is hard to encapsulate her often wonderfully dodgy style. Take these lines that begin the poem “Everything Good between Men and Women”:

has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce.

Barbecue sauce?! What a lovely unexpected beginning. And if you guess you’re in for a surprising ride right through the poem, you’d be right. The poem goes right on dodging around and ends this way:

       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.

Wright gives us a feeling, a mood, which allows us to determine an equivocal narrative about men and women that flows behind the poem. In the lines above, “we” – men and women – are learning in the cold night (“Cover the lettuce”) and the dirty, deep river, which flows around and through us. We “flow on.” Whatever “good” we’ve learned about each other may come from simply going with the flow, whatever that may entail. Notice how those first lines with the mud, butter and barbecue sauce — the good and the not-so-good — anticipate where the poem has led us.

Then that ending word — “Instead”–  is one final turn.

Here is the complete poem.

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.
The quince with fire blight
but we get two pints of jelly
in the end. Long walks strengthen
the back. You with a fever blister
and myself with a sty. Eyes
have we and we are forever prey
to each other’s teeth. The torrents
go over us. Thunder has not harmed
anyone we know. The river coursing
through us is dirty and deep. The left
hand protects the rhythm. Watch
your head. No fires should be
unattended. Especially when wind. Each
receives a free swiss army knife.
The first few tongues are clearly
preparatory. The impression
made by yours I carry to my grave. It is
just so sad so creepy so beautiful.
Bless it. 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.

Wright in a socially conscious mode

But Wright’s poetry can also be direct as well as socially aware. In this segment from the PBS News Hour, Wright reads from and comments on her book that won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010, One with Others. It’s worth watching this YouTube segment from the show as Wright explains the source of these civil rights era  poems. It also gives you a chance to get a sense of her personally as well as poetically.

Here is one of the poems from that book:

One With Others [It was hotter then]

It was hotter then. It was darker. No sir, it was whiter. Just pick up a paper.

You would never suspect 66% of the population was invisible. You would

never even suspect any of its people were nonwhite until an elusive Negro was

arrested in Chicago or the schedule for the annual Negro Fair was published or

a popular Negro social studies teacher was fired for an insubordinate letter to

the superintendent and a spontaneous rebellion sprang up in a Negro classroom

in the form of flying chairs and raggedy books and a pop bottle thrown at a light

fixture, and then, the lists of long long suffered degradations backed up and

overflowed:

 

Parades without permits/ Boycotted stores

Funeral home turned into a Freedom Center

Kids arrested en masse and put in a swimming pool

V died during Operation Enduring Freedom

A bottle a day, she got annihilated/ Two packs a day

Always preoccupied with last things/ Always a touch eschatological

Always took a little tabula rasa with her caffeine

When I asked the neighbor if she knew the woman who lived there in 1969/

Oh yes she said/ She knew her

She didn’t trust me and I didn’t trust her

I don’t blame her though/ Everything

was so confusing/ She stayed to herself

She was overwhelmed/ That poor woman…

She was right/ We were wrong

.  .  .

Read the rest of this section of the long poem on the poets.org site.


C.D. Wright was born in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, the daughter of a judge and a court reporter. She is a professor at Brown University and has published over a dozen books, including Rising, Falling, Hovering (2008) and Like Something Flying Backwards: New and Selected Poems (2007). She will be reading, along with her husband Forrest Gander, on Sunday at 1:00 in the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Marine Hall.