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"I Came to Talk You into Physical Splendor"

On the poetry of C. D. Wright

Stephen Burt


Click on book titles to order directly from

The Ecco Press, $12.00

Just Whistle: A Valentine, with photographs by Deborah Luster
Kelsey Street, $14.00

String Light
University of Georgia Press, $14.95

Further Adventures with You
Carnegie-Mellon University Press, $20.95

Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues
SUNY Press, $14.95

Other poets have long admired C. D. Wright for her compact, spiky, forceful language, and for her depictions of bodily sensation and sexual life.1 Those depictions, and their word-hoards, took two decades to emerge: a full description of Wright's achievement ought to show both her big changes of style and the way each of her books of poetry gets answered by the next. Wright began as a poet hemmed-in by abstracted, surrealist style, and as a writer almost paralyzed by memory and grief; she has reinvented herself by finding what a recent poem calls "new ways of moving under my dress," new ways to put bodies into verse. Tremble, her first book from a national trade press, represents a triumphant cap to the changes her work has gone through. Her new poems of physical experience and desire solve problems peculiar to writing about sex--problems whose terms may help show why Wright succeeds in territory where so many poets fail.

Literary writing that grows out of or answers to "the body" is more often demanded than achieved. Some French and American feminist writers from the 1970s and 80s sought new styles that would express, in particular, women's embodiment, sensibility, and sexuality. Helene Cixous, for example, aspired for her own writings and those of her allies "to use our whole body to enable the world to become flesh."2 This ecriture feminine was to be more fluid, less narrative, less constrained by reason, and more given to juxtaposition and ambiguity than older norms of prose and poetry had allowed; ecriture feminine meant to violate rules of expository prose, and to resist grammatical (and political) subordination. Against such programs we may set William Gass's more traditional argument that genuinely sensitive, really erotic writing cares more for words than for persons, attitudes or acts; that it avoids describing body parts and follows ordinary rules of prose expositions; and that "the true sexuality in literature--sex as a positive aesthetic quality--lies not in any scene or subject . . . but in the consequences on the page of love well made--made to the medium which is the writer's own."3

Wright's best new work--at once disorientingly specific in single phrases and words; attentive to registers of language and to bodily acts; and evasive, fluid, without single plots and centers--manages to fulfill both prescriptions. Her poems are also surprising evidence for another thesis from French feminism: Cixous and others argue that patriarchy, and its literary styles, forced writers (especially women writers) to mourn, to look back to resented or idealized pasts, to regret or lament already-lost powers, or even lost persons. Ecriture feminine, by contrast, might free writers from mourning, lifting them from tragedy, elegy and history into some kind of celebration of the present. Over the last fifteen years, Wright's changes of tone, genre, and goal have followed precisely that upward path.

"Tokens of Loss and Recovery"

The 35 short poems in Wright's early Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues hew mostly to one devastated mood; her clipped sentences sometimes seem interchangeable:

Outdoors, the orchestra
Of frogs and bull bats.
The man brought the radio home.

A radio comes on in a yellow kitchen.
The woman is dressed
And dreaming up a sweat.
("Who Sit Watch in Daylight")

The woman up the road is still nursing„
But she remembers the neighbor
And the dead woman never got along.
("Obedience of the Corpse")

Much of the book relies on a Southern Gothic prop closet, and on generically portentous nouns--moons, rivers, dead roses, "others," "someone," "dusk, Sarah, harvest." Wright's most salient details signify grief, as when a black key on a piano evokes "[s]omeone putting their tongue where their tooth had been," or in such juxtapositions as these:

Men go to the porch
Doing a slow dance, drinking gin
With women they did not bring.

The talcum under her arms is wet,
Beginning to sour.

The atmosphere of such lines owes something to the style of W. S. Merwin, and much to that of Wright's companion, Frank Stanford, who died in 1978: Wright's elegant prose "foreword: hills" to her next book, Further Adventures with You, describes Translations as "a lamentation for the late Frank Stanford, poet from Arkansas."4 Cixous writes of having to defeat in her own psyche a male "craving to be mourned . . . [t]o make me pay for their defeat," a masculine desire to tie writing, or women's writing, to a lost past.5 Translations, similarly, can sound paralyzed by compulsive memory, by a repetitious grief which prevents its clipped nocturnal scenes from going forward.

The descriptive and lyrical poems in Further Adventures, and those in its successor String Light(1991), gave Wright's observational skills more scope. The prose poem "Scratch Music," in Further Adventures, explains (to Stanford's ghost?): "Time here is divided into before and since your shuttering in 1978." The same book's "Petition for Replenishment" opens as if Wright and her kind had been complaining, and mourning, for too long:

We do not mean to complain. We know how it is.
In older, even sadder cultures, the worst possible sorts
have been playing hot and cold with people's lives
for much longer. Like Perrow says,
We'll all have baboon hearts one of these days.
We wintered with ample fuel and real tomatoes.
We were allowed to roam, sniffing and chewing
at the tufted crust. We were let to breathe.
That is, we respirated. Now the soft clocks
have gorged themselves on our time. Yet
as our hair blanches and comes out
in hanks we can tell it is nearly spring„
the students shed their black coats
on the green; we begin to see shade.
Lo, this is the breastbone's embraceable light.
We are here. Still beating and constellated.

"Tufted crust" sounds as if the planet itself were new again, its magma still cooling: it is the geological counterpart to the early spring Wright goes on to invoke, the season of green shoots and snow-melt. The students' light and shade could belong to a dozen American poets; but the jangling single words, funny ("sniffy"), insistently physical ("gorge," "breastbone") or jarringly medical ("respirated") mark this spring poem as Wright's.

Such disruptions are her signature effect: she creates a simple mood, then breaks it with a term deliberately too specific, realistic or clinical for its context: "Behind her devoted black oak / the mineralized sky, weakening, glows" ("Slag"); "American cigarettes, quartered melon, a special brush for her ramous eyebrow" ("Kahlo"). Wright thinks characteristically in arrangements, arrays, like a visual artist. She wrote in "foreword: hills" that her poems were really all narrative, "succinct but otherwise orthodox novels"; it would be truer to call them, after a poem in String Light, "Narrativity Scenes," since they are so often bundled fragments of stories, sets of luminous or illustrative facts and things. Blurring verb tenses, displaying events as if they had been simultaneous, Wright can show herself, and her readers, what sticks out--can, thus, celebrate misfits and singletons, words, actions, people, that defy their context:

He knew the woman who wouldn't sell her gallon container of assorted buttons was touched. Everyone said so. She's touched. And he knew Mr Wallace of Lock & Key was dying of lung cancer, that he had his Pall Malls delivered. Before the doctor made his call Mr Wallace wore a shower cap (so the hair wouldn't smell). In this green town under gaping stars no one went anonymously hungry. Almost nobody murdered one another. Ribbons of smoke unraveling from the chimney. The shingles sparkle under the sun. Women go to basements with a load of white then a load of colored clothes. Secretly they drink. ("Little Sisters")

These lists of events and things, with their tendency to collapse stories into tableaux, persist in Wright's later work, where clock time and narrative drive become the body's enemies.

At her most powerful, Wright embeds catalogs in other, framing structures. In "King's Daughters, Home for Unwed Mothers, 1948" a baby's cry triggers 37 inset noun phrases' worth of juxtaposed memories:

She is up on her elbows, bangs wet and in her eyes. The head
crowns. Many helping hands are on her. She is told not to push.
But breathe. A firm voice.
With helping hands. They open the howl of her love.
Out of her issues:

volumes of letters, morning glories on a string trellis, the job at the Maybelline Factory, the job at the weapons plant, the
hummingbird hive, her hollyhocks, her grandmother's rigid back next to her grandfather's bow, the briefest reflection of her mother's braid falling below her wing blades, her atomizers and silverbacked brush and comb [ . . . ]

And so on, through the courtship that led up to this infant's conception. The bravura lines, whose broken-up, tense sentences mime parturition, balance the remembrances let loose over the rest of the poem.

String Light is Wright's first "mature" work, her first whole book no one else could have written. "Lake Return," its first poem, tells readers what to expect:

Maybe you have to be from there to hear it sing:
Give me your water weeds, your nipples,
your shoehorns and four-year letter jackets,
the molded leftovers from the singed pot.
Now let me see your underside, white as fishes.
I lower my gaze against your clitoral light.

Wright (her poem says) is going to give us close-up, unmournful looks at leftovers, at the undersides of things. "Lake Return" also tells readers to expect obtrusively local, Ozark, things; lots of sex; acceptance, even liberty (as in the Statue of), for the conventionally-despised; and a tender rudeness that appears to be direct (in ignoring decorum) but turns out to be excitingly oblique, because Wright has replaced her stories with arrays of their details. The poem "Personals" iterates, with expert syncopation, things said around or about the Wright of String Light and things she'd say about herself:

Some nights I sleep with my dress on. My teeth
are small and even. I don't get headaches.
Since 1971 or before, I have hunted a bench
where I could eat my pimento cheese in peace.
If this were Tennessee and across that river, Arkansas,
I'd meet you in West Memphis tonight. We could
have a big time. Danger, shoulder soft.
Do not lie or lean on me. I am still trying to find a job
for which a simple machine isn't better suited.
I've seen people die of money. Like Admiral Benbow. I wish
like certain fishes, we came equipped with light organs.
Which reminds me of a little known fact:
if we were going the speed of light, this dome
would be shrinking while we were gaining weight.
Isn't the road crooked and steep.
In this humidity, I make repairs by night. I'm not one
among millions who saw Monroe's face
in the moon. I go blank looking at that face.
If I could afford it I'd live in hotels. I won awards
in spelling and the Australian crawl. Long long ago.
Grandmother married a man named Ivan. The men called him
Eve. Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.

Stream-of-consciousness links hold one phrase to another--thus, a dead Admiral suggests the bottom of the sea, where luminescent fishes live, and machines bear warning signs like Do not lie or lean. Wright's statements orbit the defiant, aging body whose teeth, shoulder, organs, weight, even ancestry, they invoke. She invites readers to build up, from her attributes, a portrait of the author in all her winningly ragged daring, and to infer, inside her wariness, ordinary needs for affection and hope.

String Light closes with an essay on a keepsake box, "a modest inventory of things kept in spite of their inverse relation to value," whose contents are like a Wright poem: "Within the limits of this diminutive wooden world I have made do with the cracks of light and tokens of loss and recovery that came my way." This poet as reticent collector, keeping her cathected objects inside, suggests that her program for her poems still contained as much of loss as of recovery; the flip, cagey author of "Personals," like the authors of personal ads, is obviously seeking someone, something. And while she perfected such bruised, brilliant, packed-to-capacity token-collections, Wright was also writing poems of Stevensian emptiness, like "Humidity":

There are no houses no trees there is no body
of water. Things are as they seem.
They are driving around another beltway of light.
A hand glows under the radio's green dial.
Both are taken up with their own itinerant thoughts
about the borrowed binoculars or mineral rights
to an unknown relative's land. They are at a point in space
where animate dark meets inanimate darkness.
Flares from refineries ignite their faces.
There are no houses no trees . . .

The landscape of night driving on highways is one in which almost nothing can be seen: no one lives here, no one could, "there is nobody." Wright's couple--themselves cut off from each other--plan to exit and "look for a cafe." The question the poem almost asks is: Do the people, the characters, in Wright's mental world have essences apart from their "narrativity scenes"? What would they be without their settings, their hills and pimento cheese? And could such selves--or poems--work as antidotes to loss, to grief?

What such selves have, irreducibly for Wright, is bodily sensation: touch, kinesthesia, sexual excitement, parturition--even borborygmi, leaky panties, and farts. "The body alive, not dead but dormant, like a cave that has stopped growing, stirred up, awakened, waked, woke itself altogether up," begins the book-length sequence Just Whistle: A Valentine; its over- lapping, slow-motion prose clauses, with their slightly-Steinian stutters and continuities, seem a natural consequence of living in and through one's body, and in the present moment. Just Whistle means to give words to such physical experiences, to make them the stars of their own long poem. It also means to exculpate bodies (especially Wright's) of blame laid on them for human self-hatred and death (especially Stanford's). And its tenaciously nameless protagonists ("the body," "the body in panties," "the suspect") meet Cixous' expectations for confidently feminine, post-patriarchal, embodied writing, even down to Wright's suppression of character names: "It is no one, always more than one, who is the diverse `hero' of all the works whose story is told here, a subject . . . put at risk far from a central ego, and irrepressible . . . No one is not attached to a name, no name links it to some one."6 Such intense attention to sex and to bodies ought to include, in poems as in life, moments of embarrassed comedy, which Wright brings off:

The one went so far as to send away for another body in the mail. The response was overwhelming. The one poured over the contents in the bathroom. Sound of water sloshing. Settling for the time being on an ascetic dish from France.
The prevailing respondent wasn't French but frenched and
smoke-free. The settlement was supernumerary as in the
famous rib of lore.

Though she usually depicts female embodiment, Wright is unafraid to focus on the male member, "the time-honored tool ever alert under its suit, the long-maligned tube manufacturing trouble under its folds." For a better penis in American lyric, we might have to go back to Whitman.7

"Deep Kisses and Catamenia"

If there is a name for the kind of poem Wright now wants to make, it might be "ode." The ode, she wrote in 1989, "dignifies the event, elevates the person . . . is given to improving upon things as they are actually to be found . . . admits wonder and presumes a future"; it is the forward-looking opposite of elegy and tragedy, and of the warily retrospective, intermediate modes of String Light.8 Psyches in Just Whistle have to accept their mature, sexual, bodies, to "presume a future," or die: the two possible outcomes occur to a couple who look much like Wright and Stanford:

Both bodies did long battles with their wound and the body
referring to its wound as it slew itself on the eve of its own birthday whilst the one designating its agony The Thing gave birth to itself, took its children in hand and visited the sea.

A style that encourages parthenogenesis might be an appreciation of orifices, of the vaginal and anal O. The "O" of apostrophe (Whitman's "O camerado close!"), the sublime "O" of ode ("O trumpet of a prophecy!"), the `o' of whistling lips, and the vaginal O (as in "King's Daughters Home") merge:

inland orifice, capital O, pore, aperture to the depth, within which all, the overstocked pond, entrance to vast funnel of silence, howling os, an idea of beautiful form, original opening [ . . . ]

"This changes everything," that page ends--to which the next replies: "and nothing." Wright is too good a poet to let such pure celebration go unchallenged, but she is also self-confident enough to give such celebrations spaces of their own, and self-aware enough to remind us that her new style succeeds and subsumes barren and long-continued obsequies: "Let the record show the body / has never made such plaintive claims before / except in the wake, the wake of."

Much of Tremble works out for lyric--for shorter, more obviously musical, utterance--the "extraordinary regeneration" Just Whistle had promised. Brief manifestos throughout Tremble announce her final, durable, freedom from mourning, and from writing poems of mourning: "I felt less responsible for one man's death . . . I longed to torch my old belongings and belch a little flame of satisfaction . . . I could almost forget what happened many swift years ago in Arkansas." The poet of armpits, breastbones, and "clitoral light" committed herself to celebrate (often specifically female) sexual feeling: Tremble shows what that promise implies for the tightly stopped spondees and noun-phrase arrays out of which Wright makes lineated poems. "Like Peaches," the best of several similarly-organized new poems, begins:

change speak sway
keep lingering smell protected by a succulent seal a burr
yield one's earthy wand one's earthly sac into this vessel
trace blaze clear
the foliage at the wrought gate
the serrated tongue rescinded along with the dream
of urinating in three streams

Forever Lynne riddles the water tower of a dying town
ripen cling drop
what would it be like to fell this mess of twigs to graft
the shaking body to lyric the seasoned body to stem
to shake the lyric body to season
the stemmed to trail the fallen . . .
slather shudder lower

Active verbs float, objectless, in their excited triads: the water tower, the urine, the word "serrated," are Wright's signature harshnesses, and balance her expansive inquiries with stubbornly-noted, concrete fact.

"Like Peaches" and kindred Poems marry the fluidity Cixous seeks in women's embodied writing to the linguistic exactions Gass believes ought to replace such attention to the body. Gass warns that sexually explicit writing has the odd effect of turning people into parts:

the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proposition of events is lost . . . a sudden absurd and otherwise inexplicable magnification occurs, with the shattering of previous wholes into countless parts and endless steps; articles of underclothing crawl away like injured worms and things which were formerly perceived and named as nouns cook down into their adjective. What a page before was a woman is suddenly a breast.9

Gass links the sexually specific, the narrowly-focused, to the morally narrow (writing that turns "a woman" into "a breast" will not be sexy not least because we suspect it of being sexist). But Wright makes the disruptive effects of all sexual explicitness one of her strengths. Her linguistic habits--her preference for arrays over linear stories, her skillful handling of single strange words--make the close-ups and disjunctions Gass fears in explicit sexual writing seem to belong in her poems already. And the tenacious affections she evokes celebrate and give warmer contexts to the splinterings, the mysteriously-cathected phrases and partial breakdowns of syntax and narrative, which are exactly what Gass seems to fear.

Wright's openings are often better than her endings: her need to celebrate and vindicate sometimes leads her to sentimental last lines. The baby boy in "King's Daughters, Home," we are told at the end, "will do things they never dreamed." Such facilely upbeat closures disfigure swaths of Tremble. Can the author of "Personals" really end a poem "the unknown must remain unknown // I know that and you know that / flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone"? But it may be that all these strained self-encouragements had to take place for Wright to produce real poems of bodily self-confidence, poems--and, since they are Wright poems, collocations of things--as powerful as "Key Episodes from an Earthly Life":

As surely as there are crumbs on the lips
of the blind I came for a reason

I remember when the fields were no taller
than a pencil do you remember that

I told him I've got socks older than her
but he would not listen [ . . . ]

Around this time of year especially evening
I love everything I sold enough eggs

To buy a new dress I watched him drink the juice
of our beets And render the light liquid

I came to talk you into physical splendor
I do not wish to speak to your machine

Again, these are "narrativity scenes," scraps that allow us to imagine what took--what is taking--place, and for whom. Such slices of stories give Wright some past against which to balance her present fierce desires. Like many of her most successful closures, the end of "Key Episodes" does not dispense entirely with a sense of recollection and loss; instead, the poem allows its remembered resentments to fade before so vivid a sense of what and whom Wright wants and loves, here and now. The eggs, the beets, the hint at material poverty, give the poem specificity and local color, without tying it to a single storyline: Wright's last phrases, in defiantly regular blank verse, suggest that it is precisely outside the "machine" of such plots, in the paradise of detail, that verbal-yet-physical "splendor" may be found.

Wright's new goals, achieved through her old verbal habits, have thus transformed her from a poet of obdurate grief into an author of intellectual, challenging contemporary verse that is authentically erotic. Much of Just Whistle now seems to me a rehearsal for lines like these, from "Autographs":

Recurrent fantasy: trickling between his legs
Cutest ass: bend, cleave
Religion: against my fire
Kismet: I feel very fortunate
Abstraction: leaves out too much
Biggest flirt: some people have roman noses, some have
roman hands
Secondary concern: depilation

Eau de toilette: white shoulders
Rambone: I need it I need it now
Back of her throat: slit light
Wish: compassion [ . . . ]

Here the associative accretion lets Wright revel in the sometimes-embarrassing secrets, and the sometimes-frightening illogic, that can characterize really satisfying sex. The question a first-time reader might ask ("Why is the poem called Autographs?") gets answered neatly, after five stanzas, by "PS: have a wonderful summer and a wonderful life": the poem lists the phrases Wright's "I," or her lover, would have written in a yearbook, had he or she dared.

Yeats wrote that when he revised his poems, "It is myself that I remake": Helen Vendler has more recently argued that "style in lyric writing is best understood as a material body."10 Wright's accomplishments support these contentions in startlingly literal ways: her new body of work is distinguished by its sensitivity to actual bodies, by its resistance, on behalf of present loves, to memory, linearity, and mourning. Wright remains the gifted observer, the Arkansas native who could tell posterity,

I was the poet
of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch
phone books, of failed
roadside zoos. The poet of yard eggs and
sharpening shops,
jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline
factory on the penitentiary road.
("Our Dust")

But she has also become a poet of "physical splendor," of (as the first poem in Tremble has it) "vandalized headstones," "deep kisses and catamenia." Wright's ways of making poems, her grammatical and structural predispositions, have survived each change in the kindof poem she writes, from oneiric elegy to local-color chronicle, to the new, adventurous odes. "Colored by impurities [,] autochthonous," "intent on seizing happiness," and turning, as if by phototropism, from the past and the dead to a fiercely intimate present, Wright's best poems now deploy her catalog-making habits, and her characteristically disjunctive diction, to offer readers a really new--and a feminist--vocabulary of sensual power. "Girl Friend Poem #5" (one of six) makes its salvific connection not even (as in the new prose poems) a goal to be promised, or reached by the end, but an epiphanic, briefly specified moment, achieved between women in the middle of the poem, in the middle of a train trip, in laconic four- and three-beat rhythms like bisected updates of Emily Dickinson:

The brunette is boarding a train
with many bundles

The pockets are sewn shut on
her rayon jacket

The old world tapers away

The day slips through the straw
whole as an egg

We use Gregg shorthand
so the men won't understand
The brunette has traveled over 700 versts

A breath parts her lips

Let's nurse one another's babies
She says even before

We tell what we've been reading

A "verst" is an old Russian unit of distance, about two-thirds of a mile; Wright's word places her travelers at once in contemporary America, and in the literary past, with Anna Karenina and Chekhov. Such moments of touch--of achieved, compressed, defiant, generous ecriture feminine--allow Wright's new poems at their best at once to speak from a body, for her body, and to take their own place in the ongoing, long-haul train of original achievements in the history of lyric--which is, after all, where they also belong.

1Wright also published three books of verse in the 1970s with Lost Roads Publishers, which she and her husband Forrest Gander continue to operate: new Lost Roads books, often more obviously "difficult" or harshly intellective than Wright's or Gander's own work, can be ordered from the press.

2 Helene Cixous, "Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing," The Helene Cixous Reader (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 203. Cixous' often-difficult theoretical writing, with its bases in philosophy and psychoanalysis, has generated shelves of academic commentary: the point here is simply that her program for writing through and about the feminine body, and her ideas of what such writing might accomplish, seem in a very general sense to have borne fruit in Wright's recent poems.

3 William Gass, On Being Blue (Boston: David R. Godine, 1976), pp. 42-43.

4 Wright has just published her own compressed, and astonishing, account of her relationship to Stanford, during his lifetime and afterwards: see C. D. Wright, "Frank Stanford, Of the Mulberry Family: An Arkansas Epilogue," Conjunctions 29 (1997): 297-310. Stanford's sprawling, uneven, "naked," often surreal, and occasionally wonderful poems can be hard to find: the most widely-distributed selection is The Light the Dead See (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991). A new Web site for Stanford reprints several poems:

5 Cixous, "Angst," The Helene Cixous Reader, p. 78.

6 Cixous, "First Names of No One," The Helene Cixous Reader, pp. 28-29.

7 This imaginative incorporation of both sexes follows from, rather than contradicting, the French prescription for embodied writing: Cixous recommends "starting with this `permission' one gives oneself, the multiplication of the effects of desire's inscription on every part of the body and the other body." Cixous, "The Newly Born Woman," The Helene Cixous Reader, p. 41.

8 C. D. Wright, "The New American Ode," Antioch Review 47:3 (Spring 1989), pp. 288-89.

9 Gass, On Being Blue, pp.16-17.

10 Helen Vendler, The Breaking of Style (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 1.

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review

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