In her recent book Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, C. D. Wright quotes pianist Glenn Gould: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline, but a gradual lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." If Wright, in one of the major poetic pilgrimages of our time, has not found serenity, she has certainly explored the wonder and found a way, entirely her own, to bring her readers into it.
Although the winner of just about every award a poet can win, including a MacArthur "genius" grant, and a writer who has always stressed her connection to a couple of very specific places (the Ozarks of Arkansas, where she
grew up, and Rhode Island, where she has lived for many years while teaching at Brown University), Wright has often been described as an "elliptical" or "oblique" or "difficult" poet. It is true that Wright often doesn't provide the connecting links between parts of her poems, but a reader willing to follow her jumps of perception will find the poems as easy to read as Robert Frost's. Wright worked out this method most clearly in Deepstep Come Shining, a 1998 book-length reflection on the American South and on the nature of her own memory.
She has since continued to explore these kinds of connections, particularly in One Big Self, a 2003 book that grew out of a collaboration with a photographer in the Louisiana prisons. It would be misleading to describe this book as a documentary poem, yet there is something of the documentary method in it. She includes quotes from different texts (even going back to Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde, great jailed poets of the nineteenth century), lots of quotes from prisoners she talked with, impressions from the roads and the advertising she saw around the prisons, and lyrical snatches from her own memory. Although there are no obvious links between the parts, there is an undeniable tone. As Wright begins her prefatory note, "Driving through this part of Louisiana you can pass four prisons in less than an hour. 'The spirit of every age,' writes Eric Schlosser, 'is manifest in its public works.' So this is who we are, the jailers, the jailed. This is the spirit of the age."
One Big Self is a passionate and angry book, but it is also an exciting journey of discovery. See how Wright follows a quote that could as easily be from a jailer as from one of the jailed with a lyrical moment and an aside, at once bitter and wry, that might be a bit of graffiti:
| It sure enough gets old
the way we do things
Defend me if you can
G-o-d is the boss with the sauce
Once we enter Wright's extraordinary imagination, these moments come together into a new shape that changes and expands our own perceptions of the world.
C. D. Wright reads from her poems at the U-M Residential College Auditorium on Thursday, April 10.
[Review published April 2008]