‘The Poet As Witness’: CD Wright & The Art of Curating the Past

C-D-Wright1987

 

Paul Stephenson

 

How do we look at a difficult past? Carolyn Forché has put forward the notion of ‘poetry of witness’ for a category of poems that ‘bear the race of extremity’ and end up as ‘evidence of what occurred’ (Forché 1993). In the space between citizen and state, she advocates that we explore the ‘social’ – ‘a place of resistance and struggle’, looking back to find elements of ‘accuracy’ and ‘truth to life’. As practising writers, where could we look? We might root around in written artifacts, using language on record as source material, in the way that a historian or documentary-maker might. We might even preserve the memory of an individual by exploring their life as embedded in its surroundings, a life defined and a life constrained by the socio-political context of the time. Indeed, it was reading C. D. Wright’s One with Others (2010) recently that challenged my preconceptions of what a poetry book can be.

 

C. D. Wright (1949-2016) was deeply influenced by her parents’ working relationship to language. Her father, a judge, processed vast amounts of information, evaluated cases and delivered judgments, while her mother, a court stenographer, may not have ‘processed’ the words she was recording (Berner 2012). In Deep Step Come Shining (1998), Wright converged two modes of discourse – the documentary and the lyric – flattening and reframing her material to reconcile the objective and the subjective, i.e. marrying the professional approaches of both parents. A decade later, in One Big Self: An Investigation (2007), she visited Louisiana state prisons. Drawing on interviews, she mingled the narrator’s voice with the voices of prisoners to provide a mesh of anecdotes, epigrams, dialogue and dictums. The book ‘tangles with an urgent need not only to take everything in but to get it all down’ (Winter 2007). Through accumulation Wright achieves a powerful sense of place and, in turn, gives voice to the voiceless.

 

Soon afterwards, in Rising, Falling, Hovering (2008), Wright began to ‘chisel’ her lines ‘to the size of what she might plausibly see – a graveside service from her bedroom […] or a rant’ (Wright 2008). She drew heavily on local newspapers, claiming, ‘the material object of a daily, provided a loose substratum: obituaries, squibs, sidebars, stock phrases, the juxtapositions of the mundane and the tragic, a barrage of disconnected yet weirdly interdependent stories’ (ibid.). Ultimately, her highly developed use of ‘word-hoards’ can be seen as part of her painterly approach to writing, based on ‘arrangements, arrays, like a visual artist’ (Burt 1997-1998).

 

Then came One with Others (2010), a tribute to the memory of Wright’s mentor, V (‘a brilliant and difficult’ woman) and her role in the 1969 March Against Fear. Both a biography told slant and investigative journalism, Wright collages found material: ‘oral histories, photographs, newspaper accounts, and interviews with witnesses, neighbours, police, activists and students’ (back cover). The challenge is to find a way to bear witness retrospectively, some 40 years later. Wright sifts and sorts, and with an amalgam of requisitioned language, vibrantly curates and recreates the past to write the people and place, and the encounters between them.

 

People – In the preface to the book, the poet states: ‘People may have been rendered as semblances and composites of one another. And others, spoken into being.’ Indeed, Wright presents individuals, named and unnamed, but all announced in capitals, as one might expect to see with characters in a script for the stage. Those that make up the landscape of the town are generally non-specific: ‘A GRADUATE OF THE ALL-WHITE SCHOOL’, ‘A VIETNAM VETERAN, RETIRED NURSE’, ‘THE MAN IMPORTED FROM MEMPHIS’ though there is also ‘MR. EASTER, AN OUTLIER [with FISH 4 SALE]’ and ‘A MAN NAMED AS SKEETER [his whole life]’. This depersonalisation reinforces a sense of the randomness of the characters presented and arbitrariness of their lives. They become representatives for all graduates, veterans and outliers. By contrast, those that are part of V’s life are generally given names: ‘HER FRIEND BIRDIE’, ‘HER FRIEND THE ACTOR’ or ‘HER OLDEST DAUGHTER, MAY’. Even ‘HER FIRST MEMORY’, written in upper case, suggests that memories themselves have some kind of agency.

 

Groups are also an important feature of Wright’s retelling. She gives us the ‘FAMILY OF V’s BABYSITTER’, ‘THE NEGROES FAIL TO MOVE’ (headline) and ‘THE CONCERNED CITIZENS COUNCIL’. Moreover, the ‘ALL NEGRO HIGH SCHOOL ANNUAL’ is an object given voice, through which she portrays the students and their potential: the best dancer, friendliest, smartest, best at running, etc.

 

Finally, we see another category of people in officialdom to which Wright bears witness: the ‘MAYOR OF A TOWN ON A MARCH ROUTE’, ‘THE GOVERNOR’, ‘FORMER STATE LEGISLATOR’, ‘THE D.A.’ and ‘COUNTY JUDGE’. Only ‘THE VERY REVEREND PILLOW’ deserves his (wonderful) name. There is also the collective of Orwellian ‘ARMED MEN IN FERTILIZER BINS’ and the ‘RADIO MINISTRY’, which bring a sense of paranoia and alert. The inclusion, indeed proliferation, of so many men in public office conveys the power asymmetry and sense of being outnumbered, the dichotomy of citizen and agent of the state. It helps us feel V’s struggle.

 

Wright portrays her individuals’ ordinary lives, at home, at school, or at work, using matter-of-fact statements that ‘pin people’ to the town, and indeed, to the social unrest. She describes the infernal-sounding neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen where V died, across a number of spaced lines:

 

The attending doctors lived upstairs
He and his partner nailed a small brass plaque
To the barren pear outside the window
Her name, date of birth, date of death
The mule train march has been canceled
The preachers are staying home

 

Place – In the preface to One with Others, Wright says: ‘Memories have been tapped, and newspapers consulted, books referenced. Times fused and towns overlaid’. So how sure of place can we be? We are able to locate the work in ‘the towns in the Delta’ where ‘people were stirring’. She uses newspaper stories to fix the action in time and space, as we ‘came in by the old road from Memphis, the old military road’ to see ‘the marchers step off from the jailhouse at Bragg’s Spur, 8:17 am’. We are told of the ‘threat they say is coming from the east [of the six Negroes walking to Little Rock]’. We also know early on that:

 

The river rises from a mountain of granite.
The river receives the water of the little river.

 

Wright builds a sense of place through the layering of locales, and the opposition between urban and rural environments, contrasting the school, hospital, back porch, and specific gathering places like the Legion Hut, and ‘the Colonel’s’, with the river, lake and ridge beyond the town where: ‘I drove around with the windows down. The redbuds in bloom. Sky, a discoloured chenille spread. Weather, generally fair’. We can distinguish between strategies focused on the setting, which serve to paint a décor, and those that narrate the action. In the first instance, the poet uses repetition as a way of positioning us in the human landscape:

 

‘The only sure thing in those days were the prices:
Jack Sprat tea bags only 19¢.
A whole fryer is 59¢.
A half-gallon of Purex, 25¢.
Two pounds of Oleo, 25¢. […]

 

This inventory of common household items embeds us in the geography and economy, even culinary history, of place. We don’t necessarily know, or need to know, what the items are – Purex? Oleo? – but the words create a soundscape of Americana. The poet draws our attention to what we can know easily through archival research, like the temperature that day. The use of ‘sure’ has the double meaning of ‘certain’ and ‘reliable’, what we could count on.

 

In a second instance, Wright describes the immediate countryside but not in a picturesque way. The use of repetition and personification suggest a darker side to the rural Arkansas out beyond the town:

 

Vines support an abandoned shack
Vines conceal abandoned farm implements
People are walking out of the ragged fields
Vines threaten the utility pole
Vines protect the copperhead from the hoe

 

Here we see repetition within repetition as the adjective ‘abandoned’ is used twice to insist on the state of neglect. That vines can ‘threaten’ and ‘protect’ suggests that nature can (choose to) be in conflict and/or harmony with man.

 

Beyond the furniture and props of the city, Wright narrates much of the action by taking us to key locations, from ‘THE PEABODY’ hotel where ‘the lobby is jammed with tweens in designer dresses’, to ‘almost closing time’ at the CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM. At times, even the action is announced in upper case, making movement through the town an event in itself, as with CRUISING DOWN UNION AVE when the unknown narrator observes, ‘why there’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, confident as ever on the one mount out of nearly thirty that didn’t get shot out from under him’ – a small vignette that provide clues as to the everyday and not-so-everyday lives of the town’s inhabitant, suggesting that violence lurks round every corner. Elsewhere, the narrator witnesses what people are saying in less obvious places, creating humour through the opposition of the social and political – a profound statement juxtaposed with a boast of sexual conquest:

 

STOPOVER AT BURKE’S BOOKS:
Graffiti in the bathroom:
What the American public does not know
Is what makes the American public. – Anonymous
I slept with Bill Faulkner. – Anonymous.

 

Encounters – Much of the communicative action occurs through reported speech from interviews or by using written correspondence published in a local newspaper. Wright alternates the form of poetic fragments accordingly. She does away with the usual conventions of grammar such as inverted commas, and omits all reference to when and where the interview was conducted (dates, times, places, numbers, codes). She simply lifts the language (of a former state legislator) and places it down on the page, while spacing the lines to let the language breathe.

 

Got beat by the sheriff who told the kids they were to be […]
Got beat by the sheriff who told the farmers […]
Beat by the sheriff who kept a man’s testicles in a jar on his desk until […]

 

It is unclear if the presentation of language here is accurate, or an act of poetic licence. Certainly, the repetition and long lines heighten the sense of defeat. Chilling detail is conveyed in a colloquial tone and conversational manner.

 

One of Wright’s most surprising and playful forms is the letter. She uses short queries and problems submitted to ‘DEAR ABBY,’ and their curt replies – further humour is achieved through this brevity – to provide a texture of time and place, letting us in on social mores and attitudes. These snippets were presumably written by an agony aunt in the local newspaper. When a woman writes in to complain that her husband expects her ‘to IRON his undershorts’ because ‘his mother always did’, the reply given is:

 

DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pair of shorts once a week.

Everybody has a problem. What’s yours.

 

Wright dispels with the question mark. She does not comment. The reader must decide if the agony aunt is simply no-nonsense in her advice, or if the vignette is meant to explore the strict gender roles and conservatism of 1960s Arkansas.

 

C. D. Wright found a way to curate the past through her own unique cross-genre approach which appropriated textual norms of film script, prose fiction, newspaper reporting and interviews. She juxtaposed different narrators, many of whom we cannot precisely identify. Together, these authentic voices create a true texture of language and a soundscape of place. Rather than using traditional techniques of linear narrative and memoir, Wright weaves a quilt of conversation and correspondence, of observation and opinion. She is a poet of witness to the big issue of civil rights, explored through small items and everyday accounts: prices, temperatures, rules, signposts, and all the linguistic prescriptions that contain, constrain and define us.

 

Wright’s openness to the past sees her take on different roles: on the one hand, diarist, journalist, archivist, local historian, constituent, documentary maker; and on the other, biographer and friend. Not only does she bear witness to the past, but crucially, she bears witness to the witnesses: the agony aunt, the counsellor, the mayor, the prisoner. In so doing, she is a ventriloquist of the past for the past – a past that she concedes cannot be pinned down and is incomplete: ‘This is not a work of history. It is a report full of holes, a little commemorative edition, and it aspires to the borrowed-tuxedo lining of fiction. In the end, it is a welter of associations’.

 

The poet holds back from the intimate anecdotes and reminiscences of friendship one would normally expect. V’s life is told through what mattered most: her political cause. Wright trusts her memories but seeks out found text as stimulus, processing and evaluating her relationship with V through the act of writing. Reading Wright has dispelled any doubts about using collage and embracing other people’s words; in fact she has made clear the valuable opportunities for finding new truths. Bearing witness to Wright’s technique is an invitation to be more ambitious and wide-ranging when using found material: when writing the city, why not bring in weather updates, traffic news, medical records, police reports and testimonials, the films on at the cinema?

 

C. D. Wright makes you more aware of the book as a larger project, and of the experience of reading a book as an experience of processing small composite texts. Recent books such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (Penguin), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet), J. O. Morgan’s Interference Pattern (Cape) and Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (LUP: Pavilion Poetry) – though all pursuing unique projects which may have no commonality of intent – bring into question the intrinsic nature and purpose of a poetry book. In short, Wright went beyond conceiving of a book as a set of poems but rather as a singular poetic gesture. Rather than assembling 60 pages of 60 self-contained pieces, she shows how to achieve a whole by curating fragments, interspersing voices and forms to seek out, through the process of assembly, the holistic value of the parts.

 
 


 

Further Reading

 

Articles (referenced)

 
Berner, Jennie, ‘From Stenotype to Tintype: C. D. Wright’s Technologies of Type’, Postmodern Culture, 22.2 (January 2012) <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/494802>
 
Burt, Stephen, ‘I came to talk you into physical splendour”: on the poetry of C. D. Wright’, Boston Review, 22.6 (December 1997 / January 1998) <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/cdwright/burt.html>
 
Forché, Carolyn, ‘Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness’, American Poetry Review, 22.2 (March-April 1993, 17) <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/forche/witness.htm>
 
Winter, Jessica, ‘It’s not enough to feel like this’: the poet as witness in Wideawake Field and three more collections’, Poetry Foundation (5 November 2007). <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/68968>
 
Wright, C. D. ‘During the Composition of “Rising, Falling, Hovering”: A Personal Document of the War, of Mexico, and an American Family’s Halting Progress’, Chicago Review, 53.4–54.1/2 (Summer 2008), pp. 349-355.
 
Wright, C. D., ‘The Box This Comes In’, The Kenyon Review, 13.2 (Spring, 1991), pp. 132-142.
 
 

Background reading (not referenced in-text)

 
Browne, Laynie, ‘“Lilies” for C. D. Wright (1949-2016)’, Boston Review, online (9 February 2016) <http://bostonreview.net/blog/laynie-browne-c-d-wright>
 
Goodman, Jenny, ‘Politics and the Personal Lyric in the Poetry of Joy Harjo and C. D. Wright’, Melus, 19.2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 35-56.
 
Keller, Lynn, ‘“Ink of eyes and veins and phonemes”: C. D. Wright’s Eclectic Poetries Since the MID-1980s’, Arizona Quarterly, 59.3 (2003), pp. 115-149.
 
Levertov, Denise, ‘On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?’, Light Up the Cave (New York: New Directions, 1981), pp.115-129.
 
Magee, Paul, ‘C. D. Wright: an interview by Paul Magee, Petaluma, California, Petaluma, California, July 20, 2013’, American Poetry Review, 44.6. (2015), pp. 24-27.
 
Wright, C. D., One with Others (Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, 2010).
 
Wright, C. D., Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon: Port Townsend, 2008).
 
Wright, C. D, One Big Self: An Investigation (Copper Canyon: Port Townsend, 2007).
 
Wright, C. D., Deep Step Come Shining (Copper Canyon: Port Townsend, 1998).
 
Wright, C. D., ‘Provisional remarks on being/ a poet/ of Arkansas’, The Southern Review, 30.4 (1994), p. 809.
 
 

Paul Stephenson

About Paul Stephenson

Paul Stephenson grew up in Cambridge. He took part in the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme and has published three pamphlets: 'Those Peopl'e (Smith/Doorstop, 2015), 'The Days that Followed Paris' (HappenStance, 2016) and 'Selfie with Waterlilies' (Paper Swans Press, 2017). He is co-curating Poetry at Aldeburgh 2019 (November 8th-10th) and blogs at paulstep.com.