Thursday, January 14, 2016

Questions never asked: In memory of C.D. Wright

C.D. Wright, as shared by Forrest Gander

I recently finished reading thirteen books by C.D. Wright. I believe she wrote sixteen (the latest just released about a week ago), but over the past few months, I studied the ones I managed to get my hands on. The work was bold and perplexing and illuminating, and it filled me with questions.

The questions were the purpose of my study. A literary journal had contacted me with a request that I interview Wright—someone I considered a titan of poetry, and one I would approach only after the appropriate amount of diligence (to say nothing of the diligence inspired by the prestige of the journal in question).

It was a daunting task, but I was making myself as ready as I could possibly be. I was girding myself to write my note of introduction when word came suddenly that C.D. Wright had died.

Wright was a poet of perpetual energy and vision. Moreso, she was a restive, antsy poet, who explored a range of subjects and styles over the course of her many books. Her intellect was nimble and her interests were expansive, and it all made for a stunning array of work.

I suppose it’s no wonder that she penned her own elegy—or at least the poem “Our Dust” reads that way, with the striking words, “I made / simple music / out of sticks and string.” One reason I am so drawn to Wright is that my own Appalachian upbringing seems to dovetail with her Ozarkian one, and that appreciation for simplicity and directness is my heritage, too.

To complicate matters for the would-be interviewer, much of Wright’s work is also complex and intuitive, and it invites us to follow a mind that is, almost certainly, better than the one we ourselves bring to the task. But it is grounded, too—that’s the odd thing about Wright’s work—both ethereal and grounded, like swamp gas (also called “corpse candles,” by the way—and the image, which comes to me only after it could have served useful, seems almost mockingly apt).

Here are some more lines from “Our Dust” that describe the poet much better than I ever could:

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.

A poet of spiderwort and jacks-in-the-pulpit,
hollyhocks against the tool shed.
An unsmiling dark blond.
The one with the trowel in her handbag.
I dug up protected and private things.

C.D. Wright was practically all alone among poets who write about the world I know best—like those skinny phone books, and the yard eggs (eggs laid in the dirt instead of the nest) that most city dwellers would likely not know exist.

Why did I put off my interview with C.D. Wright for months and months—and, ultimately, too long? It should be obvious. I was scared shitless. That mind; that poetry! What smart thing do you ask when your heart’s question is a fan’s? I only had one real question for her, and it was, “How might I plug directly into the sparking, perilous current of everything?” As I type this, I can look directly at my list of smart questions, seemingly suitable, but my dumb red heart just wanted to know if she might return to the Ozarks some time, and if I could sit with her then.

The true heartbreak of “Our Dust” comes at the very end, where all of my questions get the only answer they’re ever going to get. There’s no replicating Wright. She was utterly original—utterly unrepeatable. Is it possible for lines of verse to both comfort a reader and at the same time break her heart?

Believe me I am not being modest when I
admit my life doesn’t bear repeating. I
agreed to be the poet of one life,
one death alone. I have seen myself
in the black car. I have seen the retreat
of the black car.

I stare at the dust of that car and can hardly believe it. I just missed her.


  1. Powerful,incisive,human,heartbreaking. The best memorial I have read.

  2. Powerful,incisive,human,heartbreaking. The best memorial I have read.

    1. Wow, thank you, Hilde! I'm very sad we've lost this titan.