J. W. Bonner   •  October 25, 2003

Shining the Particulars and Getting the Cool

A Review of C. D. Wright’s Steal Away

Steal Away: Selected and New Poems by C. D. Wright.
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press. 235 pages. $25 cloth.
ISBN: 1-55659-172-1.

Taking stock and reflecting on one’s work are considered good form. Ben Franklin certainly established one of the earliest models in his autobiographical self-help guide. Franklin planned a schedule he would follow each day, ending with the question, “What good have I done today?” (Busy busy busy, that Franklin.) Poets at mid-career may ask themselves a similar question: “What good poems have I written to date? What poems do I wish to cull and to preserve from the earlier books that may go out of print?” C. D. Wright’s Steal Away draws from a quarter century of publications, including lyrics, odes, prose, and book-length poems. In addition, Wright includes a number of poems that have not been collected previously, as well as excerpts of epistolary poems from a forthcoming collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster.

The range of Wright’s forms and the span of her syntax and diction in this collection prove remarkable. In the foreword to her collection titled Further Adventures with You, published in 1986, Wright writes that the poems in the collection are “About persons of small means.” This focus on persons of “small means” — those whom American society often disenfranchises — remains a constant subject in the collection as a whole. Many of the earlier poems are told in the vernacular of Wright’s Ozark origins. Her voice is all music, blues- and jazz-flecked. A mother bathes her son, “sucking/ a cube of ice to get the cool.” (That colloquial voice is found throughout, even from the last book-length poem Deepstep Come Shining, published in 1998. One character says, “Mercy,/ Louise. If it wasn’t hot hot hot.”) These are the lives sung about in the blues, lives of desire and conflict.

One of the lives Lou Reed describes in the opening words to “Street Hassle”; “You know,” Reed sings, “some people get no choice and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can even call their own, so the first thing they see that allows them the right to be why they follow it; you know it’s called — bad luck.” For example, in “Tours,” a father beats his wife while the daughter listens. The daughter goes to the piano, where “The last black key/ she presses stays down, makes no sound,/ someone putting their tongue where their tooth had been.” Here Wright joins the image of the mother’s beating and loss of teeth with the daughter’s pressing a piano key. The soundless black key matches the black gap in her mother’s mouth. In the poem “Libretto,” women’s “ironing boards bow/ under the weight of beautiful linen/ they do for other women.” Near the end of the poem, Wright observes, “A girl sits out-of-doors in her slip./ She turns fourteen, twenty-eight, fifty-six,/ goes crazy.” Or in “Clockmaker with Bad Eyes,” the poem’s final lines: “Love whatever flows. Cooking smoke, woman’s blood,/ tears. Do you hear what I’m telling you?”

In writing about African-American spirituals, W.E.B. Du Bois called them “Sorrow Songs,” because “they tell of death, suffering and unvoiced longings toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” (“Love whatever flows.”) Many of Wright’s earlier poems — though this strain exists in the poems as a whole (See, for example, “Planks”: “We must bite down/and hold on” — hold on to life, endure what we must.) — address this very longing. Their tone is the tone found in the spirituals “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” or “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Or the tunes collected by Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music, the voice of what Greil Marcus, in his brilliant book Invisible Republic, calls the “old, weird America.” Wright’s poems often evoke that feeling of dislocation heard in Smith’s collection of murder ballads and songs; here is Wright’s “Wanderer in His Thirtieth Year”: “One bus groaned/ over the mountain./ Carrying one rider./ Snow whirling over the floor.”

The later poems explode syntax. The diction expands from ordinary, everyday speech. There is often a remove from the person in the poem toward a more clinical detachment: a camera eye element. “Provinces” creates an objectified body, as if the body were part of geological stratum or an archetypal member of some anthropological report. Yet, despite this scientific tone, Wright creates wonderfully sharp and poignant lines: “one of those/ common bodies that felt it could not exist without loving,/ but has in fact gone on and on without love.” And the humor of the body as it travels: “When it travels, bottles of lotion open in its bags.” And then the final lines: “it likes the twenty-four-hour stores,/ walking up and down the aisles, not putting a thing in the basket.” This detachment is also pronounced in “Treatment,” whose very title creates a tone to describe this poem-as-film treatment of a schoolgirl raped by her bus driver.

All of Wright’s poems are replete with particulars. It is as if Wright were “shining the particulars” (“Planks”), dusting off the objects, giving them the once-over, then placing them again in the cupboard or the drawer, putting them on the shelf and the page. The subject of Frank Stanford is a constant in poem after poem, running the full arc of years; he’s a ghostly presence haunting many of the poems. Then there are the later poems about domestic love: husband, son, mother, relations. Domestic satisfactions resonate in many of these more recent poems. In “Lake Echo, Dear,” a man, woman, and boy — family — enjoy the everyday contentments, which “[feel] painfully beautiful/ whether or not/ it will change the world one drop.” No social transformations or barricade stormings, but contentment, nonetheless. In “Cervical Jazz: A Girl Friend Poem (#9),” the poem ends, “Holiness only in living;/ this the tablecloth knows;/ / the pillowcase makes it so.” Here Wright joins table and bed, these twins of domestic living and of life: food and sex, bread and rest.

Wright’s poems are often rich and complex as a novel, “dense/ and vivid, uncertain at the end” (“Hotels”). Wright’s voice ranges across the practical political (“Be all you can be, wrap a rubber band around your/ trigger finger until it drops off.”) to the marriage mantra (“Our love a difficult instrument/we are learning to play. Practice, practice.”). Practice, constantly.

One section of Steal Away is an extraordinary book-length “valentine” to a baby or child. The sections of the poems hint at a continuous narrative: lovers listed, “terminations” (abortions?), labor’s contractions and its seemingly endless eternity, birth. Yet there is little erotic or sensuous about these sections; the tone is distant, clinical: no he or she but rather “the body.” Interspersed throughout this narrative valentine are interruptions or asides, many of these titled as individual poems. Humor seeps from “Desk Cuts”: “If love is blind/ And God is love/ And Ray Charles is blind/ Is Ray Charles The One?” (He may be…) And also there is the mordant wit in “At the Lying-In,” a dialogue between some kind of attendant or nurse and a pregnant woman.

The poems from the later collection Tremble explore frank, sexual intimacy: “Your left middle finger sinks inside me/ and the nail of love just holds.” In “Gift of the Book,” Wright merges text and lover: “lights go off/ all over/ rhode island/ everyone falls/ into bed/ I stay awake/ reading/ rereading/ the long-awaited/ prose/ of your/ body/ stunned/ by the hinges.”

In one of the collection’s final poems, we read, “All our days are numbered. Not unlike old lumber for a house that’s going to/ be moved and lived in all over again. Same old blunders on a different hill.” Maybe. These poems tell stories that goad us a bit to seek some justice, to find some beauty, to look more attentively at all that surrounds us wherever we live. And the prose pieces experiment with the beauty of words, playing with the services of language, all the glories in the syllables of our tongue. These poems are illuminations of sudden light upon a scene, darkness before and after; they describe the bleakness of loss, but many also look to the solace of memory’s recovery or recollection.