April 20, 2016

In a word, a world

The week that David Bowie died was also the week that C.D. Wright died. Maybe you had this experience, too: going into public spaces and being surprised at the universal Bowie background music. C.D. Wright's poems aren't quite such a cultural force, but they're also a wonder. Seeing her obituary made me finally check out a couple of her books. The word I'd use for them is generous: they're welcoming, playful, like highly stylized letters from a kind friend.

In her 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, Wright's prose poems consider the uses of poetry. Many of them share the same title, with the effect of implying perpetual revisions and revisitations. "In a word, a world" begins the book with a sentence set off as a stanza: "I love them all." Reading this on the floor of a bookstore just a week or two after the poet's death had a specially elegiac quality. Going out loving the world of words. Wright's poems assert qualified, quirky stances: "I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific; it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else." In this faith, then, poetry sculpts substance.

Other poems under the "In a word, a world" heading discuss the love of "O," as in "O my black frying pan" or "O what's the point." They consider compound words both recognized and novel, referring back to another collection of Wright's work with "deepstep, "which names a tiny town in Georgia — an engagement with Southern place is another thing I appreciate about Wright, who was born in the Arkansas Ozarks. The final poem with the title announces what "the mother word, word of words" should do: "It must whelm the mouth when spoken, and clobber the senses when confronted. It must include everyone everywhere. Forever." It's posited that "world" is this word, with a hypnotic listing of its Old English etymology concluding that "It cannot be got outside of." So "world" is enough, a totality. "Made of everything and nothing." There's warmth and wonder: the inescapable totality of it feels like an embrace, not a limit. A world of possibilities.

The poet doesn't act alone in this book. Wright's poems bring up conversations and travels with other writers and artists. Robert Creeley is a frequent presence, in a series of poems titled "Hold Still, Lion." The phrase quotes from one of his poems:
Hold still, lion!
I am trying
to paint you
while there's time to.

Wright contextualizes this with the idea of rightness: "He always wanted to do things right. Now he wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to get it all right." This idea of capturing a wild thing just right in diminishing time seems close to what poetry does. You might as well say hold still, fire or hold still, feeling. Everything's always changing, while there's time to see and document it. 

It's sad that it took her death for me to find C.D. Wright's poems. They offer a new angle on what poetry can do: forge allegiances, remember, respond, create.