Jim Schley's Essays

Virtuoso of an Ecstatic Heartbreak: C. D. Wright

C. D. Wright, Steal Away: Selected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press, $25.00).

After a succession of tantalizing books from various small presses, in Steal Away C. D. Wright takes center stage with a monumental volume, drawing together a wild diversity of poems from more than two decades and clinching a place as one of our most daring practitioners of her art. 

Wright may be seen as one of a triumvirate of populist innovators, along with Ann Carson and Jorie Graham. Less comical and erudite than Carson, and less earnest and liturgical than Graham, what Wright shares with the others is a vast vocabulary and tonal range and a ceaselessly inventive formal ingenuity. 

There are varieties of contemporary poetry that cannot be comprehended by reason alone, eschewing as they do anecdotal narrative and conventional characterization. Some advocates of a more abstract poetics appear to be trying to provoke readers into alertness with fractured syntax and an agitated, highly textured surface. For years Wright’s poems have tapped the sonic and visual energy of such renegade poetics while not forgoing recognizable situations and a strongly compelling "voice." Wright uses hybrid — she might prefer the term "mongrel" — effects to get at the crux of living: the jeopardized body swaying and skidding through a very dangerous world. In these poems the drama of existence is carnal, catastrophic, and outright ecstatic in its constantly arriving sensations.

The new book is gorgeous — handsomely designed, sculptural in its interplay of elements on the page. 

Steal Away . . . the title embodies these poems’ mixture of southern gospel and creepy criminality, with overtones of hymn cadences and undercurrents of love gone bad with sudden, brutal force. Many of these poems are peopled by ciphers and phantoms, accidental bandits and the lurking murderers of old ballads and today’s news. 


Something about a hazy afternoon — a long drive 

about no purse no stockings

Something about unfolding the map

about a cemetery that isn’t kept up

about grasshoppers — their knack for surprise

Something about finding a full set of clothes in the weeds

Wright’s poems can be difficult. What’s required is concentration, a wide-open memory that attends to details and gleans recurring phrases and images in an overlapping cacophony of perceptions. Raw in reference and exalted in tone, the voice demands belief: "I was there. I know. // I remember. I was there."

Since the 1970s, Wright has changed styles frequently and radically. The poems in Steal Away progress over time from a packed density and block-like forms to a rangier and more engulfing scope. The reader who pays attention will be repaid in spades. Section by section, the work instructs us in how to read, and the effect can be a revelation, like breaking code. 

Several sequences here originated (or coexist) as collaborations with the photographer Debra Luster. For example, the book culminates in "One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana" from 2002, published here for the first time, a devastating, echo-chambered conversation or "correspondence" between the poet free in the outside world and convicts "inside."

Dear Prisoner,

I too love.   Faces.   Hands.   The circumference

Of the oaks.   I confess.   To nothing

You could use.   In a court of law.   I found.

The sickly sweet ambrosia of hope.   Unmendable

Seine of sadness.   Experience taken away . . .

Ferocity, with staggering veracity, then a loopy aside or trip-wire pun. Wright has a touch that stings like nettles.

My only disappointment with Steal Away is in its paltry (and surely bewildering) sampling of the 1998 book Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon, 1998), one of the strangest and strongest individual collections of poems produced by anyone in the past decade. This is a choral work, rich with the sounds of speaking voices, tough as nuts and bolts but also very funny. That book is still in print and waiting for anyone who encounters Wright for the first time here and feels compelled to follow the trail back to earlier work as well as forward to what comes next. 

While poetry now resides in the hinterlands, as far as many people are concerned, there are writers like C. D. Wright who have found actual words — stripped of sentiment but suffused with feeling — for what would otherwise seem inexplicable. What more can we ask of literature?

― Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 22, 2002