Lady Sings The Blues: C.D.Wright, Vernacular & Visionary

by Lynn Strongin

Steal Away: Selected and New Poems. By C.D.Wright.Port Townsend, Washington, $19.98, paper $14.00 Copper canyon Press, 2002 227 pp. $25.00

C.D. Wright has published nine collections of poetry, including two booklength poems, Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon Press, 1998) and Just Whistle (Kelsey Street Press, 1994). In 1994 she was named State Poet of Rhode Island. She is a recipient of fellowships forms the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, and awards from the foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts and the Lannan Foundation. Wright is the Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English at Brow University. She edits Lost Roads Publishers with poet Forrest Gander and they live with their son Brecht near Providence, Rhode Island.

Deepstep Come Shining. By C.D. Wright, Port Townsend, Copper Canyon Press 2000, 107 pp. $14.00 Paper


A Poetry Of Poverty, A Poetry Of Women: String Light

     String Light was my introduction to C.D. Wright, a slim volume of poems, resonant, vernacular, a poetry of poverty, largely of women their outraged and wounded maternity, lyricism of light thin as a string. “The women's movement helped me to assemble a spine. “It is hard to walk upright without one,” says Wright whose poetry also evokes South, sun drenching bayous; the Grandmother's words “More Blues and the Abstract Truth: “Even. If. The. Sky. Is. Falling . / My. Rose. Is. In. Bloom.” (p. 67)
     While Steal Away, Selected and New Poems, does not begin with String Light, I start off with it: it segues into Wright's mature voice which “writes in light. . sets language on fire,” American Letters. No wonder the bold, innovative Copper Canyon Press now celebration its thirty- year history published both Deepstep, Come Shining and Steal Away,(2003 nominee for the Griffin Poetry Award.) If we probe to the roots of this originality, we will find them deeply sunk into American soil. The poems are peopled by Grandmother, Little Floyd, Ralph, who refused to dance. Look at “Humidity”

There are no houses no trees there is no body
Of water. Things are as they seem. (p. 75) “Humidity”

     We're shown a “beltway of light,” a hand glowing under a radio's green dial, intersecting silence and blackness “at a point in space / where animate dark meets inanimate darkness.” Wright describes a lonesome, thin landscape where “Flares from refineries ignite. . .faces,” making it a cardboard movie set. If “Our Dust” portrays a stark worldscape, “Humidity” is even bleaker “There are no houses no trees. . .” (the poem's refrain.) (p. 75) I am reminded of an Edward Hopper scene. The ending statement is mournful. “There are no houses / no trees and no body of water,” (p. 75) It is indeed a world balancing in string light. This lady is singing the blues.
     In 'The Body's Temperature at Rest,” Wright creates contrasts two members of a couple, a man and a woman:

While you are walking across the Orient
In a yellow paisley shirt,
I go around the house
Killing flies the rain drove indoors (p. 76)

She dips cold biscuit in black coffee, mornings. A cat meanders in., “I'm up on the step in my pajamas caressing the cat.” (p. 76) It feels like a long, long day a longer week, heavy already at Tuesday. By nighttime the world is breathless: “When night gets here the wind / whips breath out of the bushes.” (p. 76) There's naught to do but go inside, Often I am reminded of the thirteen-year-old Frankie that long crazy summer of A Member of the Wedding.
     Then the poet touches “the mirror in the dark / and think [s] of the cold noses” of her brother's dogs. (p. 76) This is a magnolia-drenched claustrophobic, world of Southern life: brick and mulberry fences, cut wires. The poem, however, leaps out of its dust and the vernacular into the visionary:

I imagine you there
Standing among 100,000 irises;(p. 77)

     The “other” is the lover” “face and genitals washed / seated at your desk with a straight spine, / a clear head-writing another version / in which irises are spreading.” (p. 77) The lover is magus. which confers upon him the clarity causing irises to spread. The ending reminds me of Robert Frost's “I'm going out to clean the past spring,” in its vernacular tone after that moment of epiphany: “If you come looking for me / and I'm not knocking daubers out of the rafters”, she, will be sitting on a log observing the world.
     The microcosm includes nabbing one more bottle of Mateus in the midst of killing flies which rain drove indoors; sitting in shad drinking ice water. It contains her vision steeped in the South, like those cold biscuits dipped in black coffee. It is unutterably sad, yet she utters it so many irises proliferating that they eclipse the domestic poverty implying a correlative poverty of the soul.
     The typical Wright earth is an atypical one. Wright knows poverty is a curse, so is money. So the woman in “Personals” remains holed up, her teeth small and even, sleeping with her dress on, a person with the virtue of not getting headaches: these she advertises as her merits in her personal.
     Wright's determination to endure and surface is reminiscent of Toni Morrison's advice to herself, “Stay steady.” In those two words from each woman a philosophy is summed up. “Stay Steady” and “string light” are both mantras. “Lives on the periphery” engage Wright. She serves us the injunction, “Remember pain. The night Yolanda lost her baby, / Bite down and hold on.” (p. 79) We are also to “Be ourselves chastened, / doing away with engraved gifts.” All the same, we are “Lone and awake in our cells; like a bird left without a blanket." (p. 79) To be utterly open, she must master life, her mystery inhering in her openness.

“. . .the book does not begin but opens on a typewriter
near the radiator. The typing machine has been
aimed at the window overlooking a park.”(p. 92)“The Next to Last Draft”

      Try as the poet might, laboring with meticulous care, she can never get it right. She chooses a scene out the window for relief. This is a feminist poem, like many in String Light: But at first, the book, like the women “was too dependent.” Women wrote notes and hid them in pages. “John Lee you're still in my dreambooks, et cetera.” How resonant the language: “the good died right off like notes / on an acoustic guitar.” Wright's is the compassionate eye because, “The work recorded / whatever it heard: dog gnawing its rump, the stove' clock, man / next door taking gout his cans.” The poem is faithful as a mirror “with the patience of a / dumb beast chewing grass, with the inconsolable eyes of the / herd.” (p. 92)

     Wright sings the blues. Not like Billie Holiday It figures that a poor woman's songs, a poor woman from the South would be spirituals indivisible from the blues. Although “oiled and blown out,” the typewriter is humdrum. The analogy of typing machine to old washing machine works: each irons our garment, of body, of soul. Hers is a lyricism whose backbone is irony. She paints portraits using string (a cat's cradle) that poorgirl's sculpture If Flannery O'Connor, dying of lupus, raising those swanked-up chickens which are peacocks, comes to mind in a match-struck blaze, or Carson McCullers nursing the bottle like the babe, committing slow suicide behind the scenes of Member of the Wedding, it is because C. D Wright too is never a “member,” No utopia of cathedrals is in inside her. Rather there is mud, “flies and midges” and intense sun, a “rotating fan, a typing machine.” Beyond inscape of “tire heaps and oil drums” there is the goodness of one seed for one tree where “you thought you would come upon / blades of steel light.” “Christbitten” hills. “Wednesday. . . Lazartgigues to be written to, return library books.” Here's paralysis of time-small things happen “smell of patchouli” which maker want “ to buy a woodstove Her saving graces are the human connection, plus the link of the wiring, the poem. downtrodden, damned- “matchbook odes.”
     String Light forecasts Deepstep Come Shining in whose vernacular poet and teacher must “convince honors students that poetry, beats “the bejesus out of a gig as gizzard splitter.” She echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom she loves, “No, Worse there is none!” impelling her to see to the end of the darkness some flickering light, “Be all you can,” a Biblical a throwback to her first collection Translation of the Gospel Back into Tongues (1981.)
     Her vernacular is always against the nuclear. The visionary sings a rafter of vetoes. Bandage your trigger finger till it falls off . Wright's poems occur “where all thing visible and invisible commence to swarm" p. 98) These are bluesy poems: to paraphrase one of “The Ozark Odes” with which the 1991 book ends” you don't “have to be from there to hear it sing” (p. 94.)


Deepstep, Come Shining

     String Light is early work, Deepstep mature, the poet in her prime. While String Light portrays many voices, several visions, Deepstep Come Shining ascends into one voice, a choral one, “writing in light.” The former is one clear soprano in voice praise and disbelief. The latter, one long poem, a chorus of voices. The movement to maturity from String Light to Deepstep is one from early strength, supple as a willow Deepstep's epigraph comes from King Lear:\
Lear: . . .you see how this world goes.
Gloucester: I see it feelingly.

This book is about modes of seeing. “Guide me to the light of your paper. Keep me in your arc of acuity. And when the ream is spent. Write a poem on my back. I'll never wash it off.” C.D.Wright's words stand as another directly under Shakespeare's. (p. 1) The book is lapidary “I wanted an archeology of language,” says Wright in the Holman interview: “Textbook language juxtaposed with the vernacular. I put the two tongues in circulation. I went forward to get through it and let pieces wheel around. . .I put it on the wall in columns. I made the columns talk to one another.” (p. 21 Poets & Writers.) “I look for the line of the eye,” says Wright in the interview. (p. 21, Poets & Writers.) While String Light hints at this later book's terrain, Deepstep read directly after String Light takes a quantum leap, beginning in medias res: “Meanwhile the cars continued in a persistent flow down Closeburn Road.” (p. 3) “The refrain to the rain would be a movement up and down the clefs of light.” (p. 3) We are in a “Chlorophyll world, July. Great goblets of magnolialight.” (p. 3) The mother plays “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” The poems increasingly deal with smoke, real and metaphoric. This is time-lapse poetry. Michael Ondaatje speaks of loving “the long snaky arms of her language that is willing to hold everything-human and angry and beautiful.” Deeply involved with optics. The lyrics are the deep step one takes into freedom into shining, the very essence of light. Indeed, her list of “Stimulants, Poultices, Goads” includes Smoke, by Bone Man, James Agee's Georgia, The WPA Guide to Its Towns and countrywide, farmer's Almanac as well as work by Flannery O'Connor, John Coltrane and Cezanne and ending with Mental Healers by Stefan Zweig.
     Glance at the conclusion. Here's the white piano of the opening page:: “In the hither world I lead you willingly along the light-bearing paths.”” The furniture lost, like the books collected over thirty years, so that the mother's white piano alone stands. “ I was there. I know.” (p. 106)
Trace your way back to the beginning through a series of light- shows which move the book forward: alternately spoken and sung hymn.

     “At the drive-in” we were all young, parents and children, kids falling asleep on the hood, the motor warm. “Coating the ornamental swan with their prints.” (p. 3) Soon we see photograph is a writing of the light.” (p. 3) We end this first montage with an image of “her”-although we do not know who she is-in her “air-conditioned nightgown. Her glory cloud.” (p. 4)There are refrains; white piano comes again. So does swan, this time not a car ornament but “in a dark room.”
     As at the end of Deepstep, (as on p. 5) Wright asserts, “I was there. I know.” But where is there? Is it here? Is it the past? The car is incubus and icon, of American life. “Everyone in their car needs love. Car love. . . Money love. Pass with care.” (p. 7)
     “The boneman, ” reminiscent of Charon and the movement into an afterlife will take “the blinded to the river.” (p. 7) This boneman has a mirror, another recurring image: reflecting surfaces, accurately portraying or bending, warping, lying buckled. “The boneman hung up a sheet, slashed it, and ordered the blinded on stick his arm through, then he stuck thorns in their sightless arm."(p. 28.) Christ in the crucifixion. There is the mystifying, “God is Louise. / Moss flew to the clotheslines on Ann Street on silver operatic wings.” (p. 42) And “The lids sewn shut like pockets on a new jacket. You must smell your way to Dover.
     The grotesquerie of Southern lives shimmers over all: “the baby sister of the color photographer” who had an infant girl in the hills, “Born with scooped-out sockets in the head. Born near the track they sprayed with Agent Orange.” This is an endangered earth whose children are born deformed. The baby has no eyes but the hint of eyes which would have been blue as chicory in the ditch. The writing takes us deeper into the countryside which takes us deeper as well into the chamber of horrors. Bobcat with “untamable eyes” in night is followed by the question, “Did you know a ghost has hair.” The long book of the poem is riddled with colorful superstitions. The catalogue mushrooms: one thing detached from the other, like a Ferris wheel whose controls have gone amok. Peaches, fireworks, red ants are in the list. The suitcase of Blackbear fireworks. Her Roman candles, ladyfingers, sparklers are all confiscated. Meanwhile, she still gives stage directions for the car, “Make a left just beyond Pulltight Road.” This strange land is Wrens.
     Deepstep Come Shining is about the desperate (at times ravaging) search for love in modern rural terrain. This must “Come shining.”
“I have you in hand, Deepstep,” (p. 91), she claims near the end. On our pilgrimage, we have musical blues-like refrain upon refrain until the total effect is like a jazz-blues mass for vernacular voices. I link this back to the poem, “The Next to Last Draft” in String Light where perpetual frustration is generative.
     Lastly, one must examine light; many types of light shine in Deepstep. There is “cornlight” shade “directly below the bulb.” Wright's in Deepstep is a cumulative music, like other long, classic American poems Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

“We will become godlike.
Open the window. That the glory cloud may come and go.
Inside the iris of time, the iridescent dreaming kicks in.” (p. 10)

“In Rome (likewise-built-o-seven-hills), Georgia, the citizens
Hail their fellows as Romans. We never found the Forum. The arrows continued pointing right. And a sculpture of Remus and Romulus. Given by II Duce to the Romans of Georgia. Stored in a root cellar during the war.” (p.15)

     Listen to this and you hear some of the rolling vowels and consonants some of the music Stevens creates in his Auroras of Autumn, or “Peter Quince at the Clavier. “Get your bearings. Hear the trees,” she enjoins, like earlier injunctions which occur in String Light akin to Toni Morrison's “Stay Steady.” One gropes “for the area of darkest color.” Trunks are “painted with a palette” In increasing mistrust of a world, “First the light sinks to shadows. The shadows become flooded with broad washes of dark. Watch. As the dark comes entirely into its own. Watch . The light being eaten. Devoured. Sonorous certainty of the dark. What sets the hangers in a closet singing in unison. The light murdered. . You can see the light as a character in a passion play “The light is murdered, that the truth become apparent.” (p. 75)

“Branches drop without warning. Clouds accumulate around a kind of idea akin to sonic weight. Progressive darkness. 250 miles offshore with winds at 105 MPH, Bertha turns inland. Multitudes of windows crossed with masking tapes. Evacuation mandatory in the low-lying areas. Contrasts annihilated. Concealing loneliness and fear. As when the lens opening is too small. Taken too late. Or too early.” (p. 89)

     Deepstep, like the deep breath one must take before birth, or dying is driven by the lilt and the terror of a Black Spiritual. The lens is off. There is a brute injustice in this universe. “Uncharacteristic silence. . .worry over maundering. Hunger over worry. Tranquilized with a private jukebox in formicalight.” We are in a world, an endless highway of “Endless refills.” No pigs in the blanket nor grits on the side time can beat this loneliness this lonesome heart core out of us. Though it “Beats the bejsesus out of Bertha's maw. Now do you know where we are.” . . .“We must all escape our carapace. Come shining.” But do we? Are we capable “Day Animals” who must distinguish colors. Or night creatures? Night creatures must manage low levels of light And what of the white piano? It “is her mother. And it fills with petals. Ghost hair. Who killed the mother. And made the daughter to suffer.”

     We do not “need a magnifying glass / To make the feelings seen / Softly unwrap bandages / Unlike paper torn off a wall / Place yourself inside the damage / Lights approaching top speed." (p. 103)
     This is the sort of book given one in a vision, a dream. Deepstep has the ring of what will become a modern classic. "Two white horses side by side. Going to take her on her farewell ride.” (A twelve-year-old child going through the acute phase of polio, I saw white horses. I took a ride of hello and farewell. Farewell to one world-that of childhood, running, leaping-Hello to patience, pain, the ride of endurance.) “Ain't it hawd,” C.D. Wright says. (p. 86)
     Like Deborah Luster, with whom she collaborated on a book of photos from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for women. Wright speaks for the oppressed, the stepped-on who are first imprisoned within their shells of poverty and then whom society's viscous cycle puts behind bars. Wright possesses an “elusive immanence.” She says of Luster, “The way bayou people will handfish, stick an arm into a sunken log to pull out a channel cat, her focus enters and retrieves the very elusive immanence she is after.” (p. 90 Brick, A Literary Journal, Toronto, issue 68, fall 2001.) “Don't touch that dial,” the poet uses the vernacular before delivering the climax: “Here's the rest of the story.”. .open all night.” Evacuation conceals loneliness and fear. “Recuerda me sempre.” This is what the “blade of the knife he hung from a string” says, “The tip of it twirling over his pillow while he dreamed. How that man loved to dream.” This is Pattycake's husband, Pie. But it is also everyman to everywoman. “Remember me forever.” (p. 96) cries the poet near the end of her poem. We have all known that panic of “A sack of birds escaped in the house. Flesh, velvety dampness. Panic.” Greater panic when we wake to the fact those birds are us. “It is all whiteness. . .even this is sightlessness.” 102) The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts, which is the mystery that inheres in this radiant book. Ultimately, what is set forth in a great white light is mystery. at whose end we are given “not an inkling what it means / Urge to withdraw /” and as at the end of the play, the dream, the vision we are enjoined to “Pull the ladder up after” (p. 104)

Victoria, B.C.. CANADA July 1-September 1,, 2003