I remember when I went to babysit Brecht for the first time. He was ten, I think. I drove to their schoolhouse home and as I pulled up I could see through the windows the three of them—C.D., Forrest, Brecht—scrambling to do something. Three gorilla heads popped out of the door to say, Hello! I said, What an ugly family! And we laughed because it wasn’t true. It was Halloween.
Today I’m reading C.D. Wright’s latest book: The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. A book of essays about poetry and life that came out in the same month she died unexpectedly, the month of her 67th birthday.
Their old house was abundant with books, art, music; C.D. had chalked a poem on the old blackboard; their son’s room was busy with projects, animal posters, books; in the yard was an abandoned fridge, its breast ripped open to see what was inside; in one corner stood an array of homemade Joseph Cornellian shoe boxes of feathers, pennies, pencils, thingies. Everywhere something sat that asked to be looked at. Enthusiasm everywhere spilling its guts in loving containers.
Later that night, Forrest asked me what happened in the Hardy Boys book I read to Brecht at bedtime. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know. I had been too distracted by the evidence of the exuberant poet’s life around me to pay attention.
The book’s long title says much about C.D.: a voracious enthusiast of the world and its lexicons. With alacrity and tenderness and fear, she looks at everything in its complexity and wants to include it & All. She writes:
On a wall in Whitechapel I saw it written:
I propose to keep looking. I propose
we all keep looking. I propose
it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.
When C.D. was my teacher at Brown, we read all sorts of books, all sorts of poets. Her reading was eclectic, absorbent. I remember the first night she invited all the poetry students to spend the night at her house. She gave us a rousing talk encouraging us to be brave, to write large poems of significance, to present our work on the college lawn—to be risky, relevant, real. And she was quiet at first, but understanding and gracious, when some of us dodged her ambitions and instead just wanted to work on our poems in our quiet rooms. She took us for a long walk on the beach.
She asked us to write a book we would put into a vending machine. She asked us to write poems that were silent. She responded to our work with keenness and rolled-up sleeves and a warm scrawl. Only later I realized she plucked me out of my youth and generously gave me two years to read and see what it was like to be a poet. When my first book came out, she sent me a postcard congratulating me on a good review. She was witty and lively and magnanimous. She writes in the new book:/p>
I am still attached to the illusion that I can lay a hand on a book and feel its heat.
These are merely provisional memories. I didn’t know her well. And, I’m in no way ready to conclude what she taught me as a poet and person in the world.
C.D. showed me how to be a working mother. She told us about their son going home on the wrong bus, giving the wrong address on the answering machine, and the panic when the wrong woman wouldn’t let them into the house. She told me about locking her keys in the car after picking up party supplies for school, “just trying to do one more thing.” She told us about how she was swimming with her son, who introduced himself to another boy, who not knowing how to grasp a boy named after a poet said, Hey, can I call you Kid? She told me, You can’t ever find the right purse. Her bag, it seemed to me at the time, had a whole lot of stuff in it. I didn’t know what it was like to be a working mother yet—how you find little stinky underpants in your bag when you go to teach your class. The poems have to keep coming.
Poetry is nothing if not equipped for crisis. Sharp and penetrating, it cuts through every fear by which we are secretly governed, brings each to the light of the page and names it.
One icy morning she met me in a café. We talked and talked. She worried about driving home on the slippery roads and driving back at night to a reading. I suggested—not knowing anything about having a real job—she just not go. If she missed it, she said, her colleague would be annoyed with her. She was loyal; she liked to engage; she showed up.
She wore funky shoes. Her hair both spikey and soft. Her mouth was crooked in amusement or skepticism. I remember her looking at me with wry humor whenever I said something too polite, naïve, spaced out. She was a sharp listener. She said, You wouldn’t believe my teachers, when I was being silly about not being encouraged enough. I remember her putting me in my place, kindly, when I did something immature wanting her attention. I very much wanted her approval.
It’s painful to write about C.D. in the past tense. Some poets shouldn’t be in the past tense. Again and again I teach my students: Write about literature in the present tense. C.D. was a person of presence.
The poet would bid Virginia Woolf rise out of the Ouse emptying the stones from her pockets. She would that artists endure.
She also liked fart jokes.
One night we all went to hear Forrest read. C.D. sat in the row in front of me, and while I was listening to his poems, I couldn’t stop watching C.D.—she perched on the edge of her chair. She leaned forward. She murmured with pleasure at the lines and delight with the endings. Her whole body was tense, ready, heeding. I thought with amazement, That’s love! That’s what it’s like to be married to a poet. To be a poet in love with a poet, both in love with words.
When C.D. read her poems, she was serious and funny. She was all angles, head tilted to the side, hand on hip jutting, devoted to her work, which was lyrical, sexy, ethical, encompassing, droll, aching, & All, all at once. At the end of the reading I remember she said wholeheartedly, Thanks, I’ve learned a lot from this place.
I find myself desperate to come up with comparisons. Was C.D. like a bird? Which bird? Should I look up birds of the Ozarks? Was she a diminutive, observant hawk intent on its important work of survival? I’m getting distracted by pathetic fallacy. She didn’t get distracted in her work. She was ardent about life and poetry.
They all came to my wedding. I had an anxiety attack and threw up in the bathroom. So even though we had a zydeco band, it wasn’t that much fun for me. Later, C.D. came to Soho to read with me at an art gallery. I was very nervous. She said, Not as nervous as you were at your wedding! She said of the wedding, We almost didn’t come. She said of the reading, I almost didn’t come. She had showed up with a clothesline and an old flowered housedress to hang from it. She kept saying, I wanted to bring my chamber pot. She looked at me askew when I gave her over-careful directions to a sushi place. I worried she might get lost. She wouldn’t get lost unless she wanted to, unless it was an adventure.
She was busy, working hard, drawn to many places and roles. She gave me a tall green glass vase for my wedding. Something to put a sunflower in. A container to stuff some brief beauty into it. That’s what poems are—stuffed with meaning and sometimes beauty.
Poetry requires movement in its direction, faith in its persistence, receptivity to its fundamental worthwhileness.
Later, I was one of her many readers and fans. I remember the first time I read One and Others, her brilliant book about her brilliant friend V., who defied her family and small town in support of the Civil Rights movement and was punished for it. From the couch, I kept reading parts out loud and bursting out: Oh no! They put the kids in the pool! C.D. wrote books that made you want to shout from a tender spot.
Spring clings to poetry. It brings forth possibility, “the greatest good.”
That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.
In my head I have all these things she said that are not serious or profound, but they resonate. When I last saw her, just last year when she came to read and talk about her poetry with the students, she told me that when she travels she likes to sit at the bar and order dinner and talk to the bartender. She talked about her son with a fierce love. She told me a story about a time he took off on a small adventure, which turned into a mishap. Can’t you just stay at home and read a book? she said.
C.D. had amazing friends, but talked about them like they were just normal humans. She told me that she recently saw Michael Ondaajte. There isn’t a mean bone in his body, she said. Curious about people and their particulars, her poems were about the self and others. The little stuff and the big stuff with horror and joy. About a book by poet Jane Miller, she wrote:
What a splendid testament to the ill fortunes of love.
That last time I saw her she was, as usual, vivid and candid with everyone, eager to talk about everything. She told us about her new poems on the grand trees she had been visiting; she spoke of the trees and the people who tended to them with great respect. We talked about how her work was investigatory. She listened to every question intently. All of a sudden, she burst out, A critter! A woodchuck passed outside the window. Her mind was on alert to the surprising ordinary & All.
During that visit we all had dinner, and she told us she and Forrest had bought a new house in California. There were lovely plans for the future. Across the table of conversations and wine, I asked her a personal question. As if she conjured a tunnel of privacy, we talked about serious things. She created intimacy.
After that, we exchanged some messages. I was in need of help, experiencing what can only be described as a mid-life crisis. She sent me the Nina Simone video “I Got Life.” She told me that in a hard time she had gone skydiving; she skied down a hill in the darkness; she traveled and met astonishing people; she wrote many books. You could throw your body from a plane and write fearless, heartbreakingly good poems. You could spill your guts and make art. You could live with pain and difficulty and make something. You could bring forth possibility.
The call of the writer is the same as the call of the reader. Take me to the other planes of myself. Agnes Martin said her paintings were for people to look at before daily care strikes. Suppose reading and writing do their best work after daily care has struck (and struck hard).
Like a child, I thought she would always be around to rely upon, to teach me how to be a poet, a mother, an upright person in the world. This is a makeshift remembrance of C.D.. I can hardly face going through all her books and messages now. So this portrait is just a glance at her.
Was she like a sparrow? A kestrel? But she wasn’t a bird. She wasn’t a figure. She was a real person who once told me at the bar, When the plane goes down, I’m sitting with the poets.
In the marvelous photo of her on the back of the new book, she leans near what seems to be an abandoned chicken coop with a heart carved into its sides. Rolled-up sleeves, jeans, suede boots, and a wide blond streak in her hair.
I’ve been reading the obituaries and remembrances. I keep being disturbed by the end date: 1949-2016. I say, like a child, some people shouldn’t have an end date. That’s the extra disaster of a poet dying: No more words. So grateful to hear there are two more books of poems coming out.
The goal is to make not sense but art of this story. The goal is not to make a story but to experience the whole mess. There are mental sufferings and physical sufferings to go through—to apprehend if one can. There are the spent casings of history to sift through, pick up, and examine. Calm-like, hysterical, forensic. This life is not just a worn passage.
Flinty? Sparkly? The sparks you get when you chip rock against rock. Light and fire and warmth and a way to survive and something new. That’s what you get from C.D. Wright and her poetry.