Sunday, February 22, 2004

C.D. Wright - Barrington, RI

C.D. Wright's work is a miracle to me. For as long as I've been reading her, I've wanted to get inside her work and pull it apart, finding the secret invisible threads that hold it all together. Unlike my own work, which remains fraught with the narrative tools left over from my start as a fiction writer, Wright's work succeeds so beautifully because of what she leaves out.

The work is still dense, consuming. But in her best work, her most vital work, it is free of unnecessary connective devices. The poetry is evocative. The reader is left to construct part of the poetic world, and therefore asked to be a better reader.

I can never stop myself from trying to sum things up, reveal a tidy ending, to screw my courage up to deliver a last line that is the key to the puzzle above. I'm an ignormaus in these matters. Wright's work cascades. It's alternately shimmering and stony. Each word, phrase, absolutely integral to the final piece. No excessive movement or braying.

It's free of things "poetic," it is rich in things that are real.

None of what I've written above is necessary. Go buy Steal Away, her "new and selected" collection from Copper Canyon to see for yourself.

In the planning for this visit, C.D. was unsure that she had much to say about place - it's already in her work. And I respect that. Many poets I've met on this trip have wanted to hold back part of their process or their art. None of us - entirely - knows what the secret ingredient is to our work. For some it's the transfer of scattered lines out of a notebook onto a computer screen that is magical. For others, it's that "trance" we sometimes find as we channel the work from some unknown location. All through these months I've discovered forbidden zones, places where poets won't let themselves travel with me alongside.

While we were sorting out a visit to Rhode Island, C.D. wondered if she was the right person for my project. I knew - because of this trip - that I was likely asking about matters that are too much "hers," keys to the puzzles of her own work. Born in the Ozarks of Arkansas, she has two distinct homes, that place, and now this place in Rhode Island, a state she calls her adopted home. In her poems and essays, she's mined much of the landscape of both. Not overtly, not merely as accoutrements to some other tale, but as the metaphorical underpinning of the poems themselves. It's easy to see place in something like "The Ozark Odes," but it's tougher (more rewarding) to find it in something like the book-length poem Deepstep Come Shining.

So it is with the weight of all that that I arrive at her home just blocks from Narragansett Bay, south and east of Providence, Rhode Island. The story home is red, with a matching barn, on a gigantic sweeping lot that has a growing wall of bamboo to one of the side streets. She lives here with her husband (the poet Forest Gander - who planted the bamboo and cares for it), and her son (Brecht). Brecht eats a giant bowl of cereal while C.D. and I talk nearby in the muted living room.

She's fairly recently finished a book about Louisiana prisoners with a photographer friend of hers, and the selections of text I've seen are stark, jarring, and moving. But she doesn't feel she's far enough away from the experience - or those places - to have fully "digested" what they all mean yet.

We move quickly through some questions, which she answers carefully and thougtfully. She grins modestly when it's clear her son is listening in to the interview. Brecht is quite happy to deal with the cereal and hear us talk about his mother's work. When we're done, C.D. urges me to look up a writer in Colorado who's work she thinks fits my project well. Brecht comes along into the study and together the three of us page through some books. I get an address and a phone number for someone new for the project.

We go outside for some photos in the crisp February morning, and I say goodbye.