Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.
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The poet C. D. Wright died unexpectedly on January 12, 2016 at the age of 67. She was a fiercely experimental writer, moving from lyric to prose-poetry to, in her most recent work, “prosimetrical essays” (essays that aren't generally lineated but that do employ many of poetry's other tools: rhythm, repetition, fragmentation, compression).
Wright was also fierce in her moral vision. One Big Self (2007), a visual/textual hybrid created with the photographer Deborah Luster, focused on Louisiana’s state prison system. (A sample bit of reported dialogue: “I’m never leaving here.—Grasshopper, in front of the woodshop, posing beside a coffin he built.") In 2011, she published One with Others, a meditation on the Civil Rights Movement as told through the life of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, Wright’s mentor, “an autodidact, deeply literary, an outraged citizen, a killingly funny, irresistible human.”
In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some quotations from Wright’s most recent book, published a week before her death: The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, and Fire & All.
Yes, that’s the whole title, and it accurately represents the book’s omnivorous interests. Wright focuses on poetry, first and foremost, but also on the relation of photography to the written word; on her experiences researching and visiting Louisiana state prisons (“I remember an afternoon at the iron pile at Transylvania watching the men quietly plait each other’s hair between sets at the weight bench”); on her loving regard for the late poet Robert Creeley (“In his company I felt poetry’s sturdiness and purpose”); on the exhilarating experience of reading Under the Volcano while traveling in Mexico as a penniless undergraduate (“In those days I dreaded coming to the end of a mighty book. It was not so much the story; I just resisted being ejected from the experience.”)
As Ben Lerner has written, “Even categorizing [Wright] as uncategorizable is too easy: she was part of a line of mavericks and contrarians who struggled to keep the language particular in times of ever-encroaching standardization.” Wright’s intellectual and formal restlessness comes through on every page of The Poet. She will be missed—most, of course, by those who knew her (she taught for many years at Brown), but also by those who read her.
While finishing this post, I noticed that Zoey Cole just published a remembrance of Wright on Literary Hub. It's excellent and worth a read. In the meantime, here are some of Wright's words from The Poet ... .
Here she is on nouns:
I like nouns that go up: loft. And ones that sink: mud. I like the ones that peck: chicken. And canter: canter. Those that comfort: flannel and pelt. Cell is an excellent word, in that it sweetly fulfills its assigned sound in a small, thin container. Unlike hull, which is disappointing.
On poetry’s relationship to social and political circumstances:
Poets will have to summon a fierceness equal to the current environment. We will have to meet irrational force with savage insight. We will have to bring our own rudimentary technology, our own order, to the common weal. Inasmuch as poetry is the mind’s domain, it is the mind’s defense. But poets will have to shed some of our mental armor. We will have to channel our loathing toward our elected objections of negation, forgo gentle murmurings (as Adorno says, “There is nothing innocuous left.”) Poets will have to stop bemoaning poetry’s lost station, while continuing to press its perceptions. That which we cannot speak of we can no longer pass over in silence.
My colleague at Purchase College, Kathleen Zamboni McCormick, has published her first novel, Dodging Satan, and it’s one that will be of particular interest to Commonweal readers. It tells the story of Bridget Flaherty, an Irish/Italian girl growing up in the greater Boston area, trying to negotiate the various claims upon her identity: her Catholic upbringing, her Irish and Italian heritages, and her emerging sexuality.
The novel’s first paragraph sets the tone for what follows:
The Italian and Irish sides of our family can argue about almost anything—the thickness of porridge, how much people can drink before they’re officially alcoholics, and which side acts more like “bloody foreigners.” But they all agree on the sacredness of the crucifix. An uncle on each side survived an attack in WWII that killed the rest of their platoons—all because they were wearing their crucifixes.
This is a novel filled with arguments, and McCormick is particularly adept at showing how frequently family gatherings—Christmas parties, in particular—can shift from celebration to adjudication, becoming a forum for the airing of past grievances. Bridget’s aunts and uncles flit in and out of the novel, serving both as a chorus and as the background against which Bridget must carve out her own sense of self.
A deep part of this self, affecting everything from Bridget’s imagination to her sense of physical embodiment, is her being raised Catholic. The novel opens with Bridget’s First Communion, and it ends with her taking a Diocesan exam on which this question appears: “Our Lady has blessed children all over the world by appearing to them. Today she has chosen to appear to you alone. Describe, step-by-step, what your words and actions would be with the Blessed Mother.” Bridget struggles with her faith throughout, often in comic fashion, in particular trying to figure out how female sexuality fits (or, as she comes to believe, doesn’t fit) within the Catholic church.
Dodging Satan manages to be both theological and comical. Indeed, it finds comedy in theology, even and especially when it’s taking theology seriously. Take Bridget’s thoughts about the Incarnation, how this incursion of the eternal into the temporal might have affected a very human, very young woman: “I mean, you have a baby and it turns out to be God. Where does that leave her? She can’t even discipline Him. And talk about on-demand feeding. He’s God, for heaven’s sake. What He wants, He has to be given.”
“The Black Beaches” serves as a perfect opening to Les Murray’s latest collection of poetry, Waiting for the Past. In it, we see Murray’s complete command of form—of rhyme and half-rhyme, of imagery and tone. The poem also reveals one of the collection’s major thematic threads: how any single moment of existence is overlaid with many other moments of existence; how, to modify T. S.
Book critics often start off their year-end lists by way of apology. It’s ridiculous to rank works of art, they say; I haven’t read enough to be an authority on the matter; there were too many (or too few) good books written this year; et cetera, et cetera.
It is a sad fact that a writer’s death is often what gets us to read him or her in the first place. We put off reading a poet or a novelist, telling ourselves that we’ll get to the work eventually, that the next book will be the one we try. And then, only when we know that there won’t be a next book, we finally start reading.
Are you Team Pound or Team Stevens? It’s a question that readers of modern poetry often end up asking themselves. All would agree that both Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens are important to the history of modern poetry; that, without The Cantos and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” without “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Plain Sense of Things,” modern poetry would be a fundamentally different thing. But agreeing on a poet’s importance doesn’t mean agreeing on a poet’s value, and, as Marjorie Perloff and other critics have noted, lovers of Pound tend not to be lovers of Stevens and vice versa.
Moreover, choosing sides here seems to express something more than mere personal preference. Do you believe that poetry is about subjectivity and the imagination? That it speaks not so much to the world as to “the delicatest ear of the mind,” as Stevens put it? That, in other words, poetry is the self speaking to the self about the self? Then you’re probably on Team Stevens, along with Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and others. Or do you believe that poetry is about hard surfaces and sharp angles, about particulars rather than essences or types? And that it should—indeed, must—include not just the self but also history and politics and economics? Then you’re probably on Team Pound—and a venerable team it is, counting Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie among its members. To love both Pound and Stevens is akin to loving both the Yankees and the Red Sox: it’s possible, but not particularly likely.*
Lawrence Joseph, whose “In Parentheses” appears in the current issue of Commonweal, is one of the rare poets—really the only one I can think of—whose work belongs to the traditions of both Pound and Stevens. Joseph has been hailed as one of the great poets of post-9/11 America, and rightly so. His most recent collection, Into It (2005), charted the serious damage done by America’s endless wars—damage done to those we’ve invaded and to ourselves. In “Rubaiyat,” for instance, we see soldiers, aided by digital cameras and the Pentagon’s Military Diaries Project, turning horror into home movies: “soldiers starring in their own / war movies, training digital cameras // on themselves—a child is put / in a wheelbarrow after stepping on a mine. / Politics? Personified.” Joseph trains our eyes to see politics personified—to remember the particular, real, and mangled bodies that are elided beneath the abstract label of the War on Terror. The child’s body is mangled, and so too is America’s politics and its soul. War begets war, violence begets violence, and our war footing now seems permanent: “Cyberwar and permanent / war, Third Wave War, neocortical war, / Sixth Generation War, Fourth Epoch / War …”
Yet what I want to focus on isn’t Joseph’s strength as a poet of war and its aftermaths, although his strength as such is considerable. Rather, I want to talk about how Joseph’s work bridges the gap between two very different conceptions of modern poetry: the meditative, self-interrogating poetry of Stevens and the fractured, history-interrogating poetry of Pound.
Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:
Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.
(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)
This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:
Danielle Chapman is a poet sensitive to life's intensities. Her new collection, Delinquent Palaces, regularly charts the fierceness of sensory experience, how the world, in its overabundance and strangeness, can strike us like revelation, as when she describes a "wad of gum" being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: "Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness."
Literary biography is perhaps the hardest genre to get right. Though spending lots of time in the archive is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. You need to turn this research—the lunch receipts and discarded drafts and report cards and love letters—into a compelling narrative; you need to present not just a sequence of events but a life, with its recurring motifs and central dramas, its rising action and sudden reversals. Likewise, though citing from the work is crucial, it’s not enough. You need to be a critic, able to tell us how the poems or novels or plays work, how they fit into the broader fields of literary and social history.
Finally, and most importantly, you need to have a theory of how the life and the work relate to one another. You can’t reduce the work to the life, but you have to show how the life informs the work. You can’t claim that biography explains any given poem or novel, but you have to show how the alchemical transformation happens.
There are so many ways to screw things up, and the list of those literary biographers who have screwed things up is long and venerable.
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