I first saw C. D. Wright when I was a seventeen-year-old high-school senior enrolled in a pre-college writing program at Brown University. It took about five minutes of her reading in her distinctly Arkansan accent from her most recent book—I believe it was “Tremble”—before I realized I was in the presence of an utterly original American artist. When I returned to Brown as a freshman that fall, I followed her around, weaseled my way into her classes, and tried to figure out the source of her cool and how to siphon something from it. I never really figured it out. None of us has ever really figured it out. You can’t imitate unaffectedness and unpretentiousness and such peculiar brilliance in the classroom or on the page. But you know it when you see it, hear it.
Academics and reviewers and prize committees and various admirers have tried to pin C. D. down, typically with praise: a Southern poet “of place” (she probably hated that) or an erotic poet or a vanguard innovator or an elliptical or documentarian poet, etc. Such descriptions are both briefly true and ultimately insufficient, because she was one of the most formally restless and ambitious writers in the language. Even categorizing her 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. I think of the messy genius of James Agee and Mary Austin as two possible antecedents for her genre-bending, lyrically charged, often outraged and outrageous American English.
Across her career she wrote stunningdiscretepoems, but starting with the volume “Just Whistle,” from 1993, she began exploring and extending the possibilities of the book as a specific medium—as a physical object encountered in time, as an environment. C. D. could write gorgeous lines and sentences and short lyrics (and titles, e.g. “Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues”) but she was also uniquely capable of scaling up her attention to the larger architecture of the book as a form. Volumes like “Deepstep Come Shining,” “Cooling Time,” “One Big Self” (one of her many collaborations with the photographer Deborah Luster), and “One with Others” braid research, reminiscence, and reportage with ode and elegy. Like many experimental poets, she wanted to test the limits of narrative, of reference. But C. D. never apologized for having or being a subject. She never fled into procedure; technique was in the service of the sharable, the felt. And her books, while never not political, were increasingly so. “I believe,” she wrote in a piece called “Op Ed,”
in a hardheaded art, an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms. I believe the word was made good from the start; it remains so to this second. I believe words are golden as goodness is golden. Even the humble word brush gives off a scratch of light. There is not much poetry from which I feel barred, whether it is arcane or open in the extreme. I attempt to run the gamut because I am pulled by the extremes. I believe the word used wrongly distorts the world. I hold to hard distinctions of right and wrong.
She had no illusions about what poetry could do in the face of “the factory model, the corporate model, the penitentiary model, which by my lights are one and the same.” But she had no patience for disillusion, for those who would surrender their wonder before the world. (“Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are all going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”)
My first words—I’ve been told—were obscene. My highchair was handed-down and painted over white. I remember the hard heels of my white shoes chipping at the paint of the rung. Brought up in a large unaestheticized house littered with Congressional Records and stenotype paper by a Chancery Judge and The Court’s hazel-eyed Reporter who took down his every word which was law. Throughout my childhood I was knife-sharp and aquatic in sunlight. I read.
After attending college in Arkansas, she spent time in New York and San Francisco, where she met the poet Forrest Gander; they moved to Providence in 1983. Together they ran the small, legendary Lost Roads Press and raised their son, Brecht. She passed away yesterday morning.
And now I’m sitting here surrounded by her books—a new volume came out this month—with the distinct feeling that I would need to possess C. D.’s mixture of precision and pathos and dark humor in order to begin describing what we’ve lost. She was to me and so many poets an exemplary and inimitable figure. And I mean to emphasize the tension between “exemplary” and “inimitable”—what her example taught us was the necessity of going our own way, of being one with others.