Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.
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In 2009, C. E. Morgan published All the Living, a lonesome, lovely debut novel set on a Kentucky tobacco farm. Morgan knew the landscape well: she grew up just over the border in southern Ohio and attended Berea College, a tuition-free liberal arts college in Madison County, Kentucky.
David Means, a recognized master of the short story, is the author of four collections of fiction, most recently The Spot (2010).
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.
Early in her dazzling new book H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, $26, 320 pp.), the poet and naturalist Helen Macdonald learns that her father has died of a heart attack. A renowned photojournalist, Macdonald’s father was a lovely and loving man, and his sudden loss leaves his daughter unmoored. Macdonald begins to read her horoscope with great seriousness.
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.
In Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, Anahid Nersessian quotes from a beautiful passage by William Blake. In it, the Romantic painter and poet discusses what he calls “the bounding line”—the line that marks the limits of things and, in marking these limits, turns chaos into form:
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.
You'd be hard-pressed to name a modern poet more quoted or loved than Philip Larkin. His perfectly cadenced, precisely phrased lines come unbidden to the mind when you think of mortality (“Death is no different whined at than withstood”) or life’s bitter unfolding (“Life is boredom, then fear”), the potentially poisonous effects of family (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) or religion’s beautiful but—in Larkin’s view—false promises (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”).
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