C.D. Wright was among the small handful of truly great poets of our time. Though she spent much of her adult life in Rhode Island, where she taught at Brown and was married to the poet Forrest Gander, Wright was born in the Ozark mountain region of Arkansas, and her poetic voice never really left the South; it cradled something old and distinctly American within it.
Wright, who died suddenly in January of a blood clot at 67, was also one of the major poetic innovators of the last quarter century. Her books — 15, not including the new “Shallcross” — form an encyclopedia of contemporary poetic techniques and a primer on the breadth of what a poet can accomplish.
Her work is deeply concerned with social justice, with the necessity of fighting for fair treatment of all peoples on a large scale. Her book-length sequence “One Big Self” is a journalistic investigation of life inside several Southern women’s prisons; her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “One With Others” is a poetic biography of one of Wright’s activist role models.
Among her innovations, over the last decade Wright explored the intersection of journalism and poetry, conducting interviews, quoting subjects, and folding it all into complex, impressionistic poetic sequences. Her poems are concerned with upholding the peculiar integrity of the individual: over and over again, she shows the people she observes — those prisoners, the families of murder victims, activists, strangers on the street, herself — at their most particular; no two people are alike under her gaze, and each deserves — and gets — a close look.
“Shallcross,” Wright’s first posthumous book (it follows a collection of prose about poetry published just days before she died) was by no means intended as her last. In fact, she had submitted her next manuscript to her publisher already. So this extraordinary collection of poems should not be read as any kind of a final statement but instead as the next installment in a series of books by a poet at the height of her powers. After years of writing extended works that span all or most of a book, Wright returned to shorter lyrics here (mostly written in series), though still with an eye on the big picture.
A sequence of brief poems, Southern American miniatures, shows the range of Wright’s aesthetic powers and poetic interests with haiku-like associative leaps. One, “Poem With a Dozen Cherries on a Ledge,” is a haiku:
a woman sweeping moths from a corner
straw coming out of the broom in handfuls
the violently blue sky
This is Wright focusing on the particulars. Traditional haiku study nature; for Wright, the natural world has some people in it, and their behavior — “sweeping moths” — blends seamlessly with the broom and the sky; she doesn’t need to take the people out to see nature, nor to ignore nature to see the people.
These little poems, a group called “40 Watts” near the front of the book, are most exciting when they shrink what Wright has previously done on a larger canvas: show how strange and true people really are. Here’s all of “Poem With No Up or Down”:
she is telling her husband that he is dead
and he is telling her he is no such thing
she tells him where he is buried and he
assures her that he is seated directly across
the table from her she tells him
she is going to call their son and settle this
and he’ll need to cough up $$$ for rent
Is he dead or isn’t he? Is she nuts? Or just grieving? Does it matter? Wright doesn’t care to explain. But in Wright’s world — which, after all, is the real one — people who see ghosts still have to pay the rent. These tiny pieces are like a bunch of seemingly candid photos that actually add up to a manifesto: the ineffable doesn’t excuse one from the mundane; nothing does.
At the center of the book is “Breathtaken,” one of Wright’s nonfiction projects, a chronicle of violence and murder in New Orleans. As in the books mentioned above, Wright’s method here is to force us to look at the facts, or the language used to describe the facts — she is a master of the emotionally loaded list — to count up, to see just how much there is, how overwhelming.
The 20-page poem is a relentless stack of fragmentary descriptions of murders lifted from “the NOLA.com Crime Blog … with contributions from an extended cast of reporters for the Times-Picayune.” The descriptions begin midway, bleed together, add up to a disturbingly incoherent yet somehow unified whole: New Year’s Day / in front of his grandmother’s house, 6th Ward / shot 14 times … / at a graduation party in the backyard / a girl totally in love with poetry/ mother of a 30-month-old ... the father ambushed in his car/ a few days after she learned he was pregnant. Who are these people? Wright gives them their humanity without their names, as if to remind us that even statistics have mothers, lovers, children. She transforms journalism into poetry, leaving us with feelings rather than thoughts, with a sense of culpability and responsibility that, as observers of injustice, we share.
That’s Wright’s most remarkable power, to make her readers feel both culpable and capable. Compassion, which her poems engender almost instantly in anyone who pays attention, can become a form of action, even activism in her work. And how deeply we need compassion now, amid this weird election and weekly reckonings with terror — how we need the capacity to see others on their own terms. We need C.D. Wright’s poems, which “turn our maudlin concerns / Into moments of incandescence,” and luckily we still have them.
Teicher is a poet and critic and also the editor of “Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz.” His website is www.craigmorganteicher.com.
Copper Canyon Press: 140 pp., $23