by C.D. Wright
The animals are leaving
the safety of the trees
Light sensors respond
to the footfall of every guest
To retard the growth of algae
The fishes must be moved
from the window
Stiller than water she lies
As in a glass dress
As if all life might come to its end
within the radius of her bed
Beyond the reef of trees a beach cannot be seen
the bay itself barely breathing
In the other wing of the house
a small boat awaits elucidation
Poet C.D. Wright died last week. That’s when I found out just how revered she is. The L.A. Times calls her “one of the great ones,” and every other major paper in the country devoted inches and inches of column space to her obituary, which is, in and of itself, a notable accomplishment for a poet. NPR went so far as to say that her unexpected death sent up a “keening wail” among poets.
So I’m understandably cautious in approaching this poem. I don’t want to get it wrong, mark it up, make a mess of it like someone trying to eat a plate of pork ribs on an heirloom tablecloth. Or to say it another way, writing about her poetry feels like telling someone about a dream and only being able to communicate the incidents of the dream and not the ineffable elements where the true import of the dream lies.
Let me add to that disclaimer another one. I don’t really understand this poem. But it’s under my skin. So I’m moving forward.
“Privacy” slows the pulse. There is sunlight everywhere, water and warmth. The rush of movement at the beginning—the animals leaving the trees, the visitors tiptoeing through the house—gives way to stillness. A woman is dying. It seems to be morning.
There are reflective surfaces—the (unmentioned) glass bowl holding the fish, the imagined glass dress the woman wears, the still skin of the bay—-and images that reflect each other. It’s so subtle, so carefully and intuitively crafted. We picture the fish in a round bowl which mirrors the roundness of the radius of death that surrounds the woman. She is still, the bay is still, and like her, barely breathing. By unseen hands the fish and the woman are being protected, the fish from algae, the woman from the wrong visitors or visitors getting too close. The little beach by the bay is a private one, screened off by a protective reef of trees.
Into this peace, into this stillness comes a quiet note of menace. The glass dress calls to mind Sleeping Beauty. A woman immobile in glass. Was I the only child who found that existentially horrifying?
And then there’s that small boat in the house awaiting elucidation. At my first reading I pictured a stored boat in a west wing of a house belonging to a woman of a certain class, and the morning light gradually coming to that wing. (One meaning of elucidation: “to throw light on, make clear.”) But any boat mentioned in conjunction with a death brings to mind the mythological figure Charon ferrying the dead across the Rivers Styx and Acheron. Awaiting elucidation could mean the boat waits for her death to take her to places unknown.
But it’s a mistake with any poem, and especially with a poem of Wright’s, to say this means that. Wright is a master of the evocative, of mood, creating with just a few startling images a world, an impression that can’t be reduced to paraphrase, to logic or any linear structure. She relies on the imagination of readers to fill in the blanks of her fragmentary style. It’s less important that I understand this poem than I experience it.
I left “Privacy” on a fence guarding a country club mostly because I passed by on my walk and happened to have the poem in my pocket. But I like to justify my actions, so I thought, people find all kinds of ways to achieve privacy. Fences and members-only clubs are two such ways. Death is another, perhaps the ultimate privacy.
C.D. Wright was born in 1949 in the southern Ozarks of Arkansas. She and her brother were the children of a judge and a court reporter. So it’s no wonder that after studying French at Memphis State University, she considered becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the world of poetry, she left law school after a brief stint and went on to get her MFA from University of Arkansas.
Poet Frank Stanford’s press, Lost Roads, published her first book of poetry. She took over the press after he killed himself. Strange that Frank Stanford, whom she knew well, was supposed to be the next big thing, but it ended up that she, the less flamboyant one, the steadier person, is now heralded as a true American original, in a “a school of exactly one” (from poet Joel Brouwer, as quoted in the New York Times).
Of her original sytle, Wright said this in an interview with Jacket Magazine in 2001:
As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.
She married poet Forest Gander. Together they had a son Brecht and ran Lost Roads. She taught at Brown University and published over a dozen books, one of them a collaboration with a photographer to document the lives of women in prison.
She was awarded a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim fellowship.
She died January 12 at age 67 in her sleep of a blod clot.
Link here for an excellent obituary from the L.A. Times.
Many of the other obits re-printed a death poem of hers, “only the crossing counts.” Let me post that here to give you a better idea of her work.
only the crossing counts
by C.D. Wright
It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off
the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready
for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really
not. The genesis of an ending, nothing
but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting
of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.
Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn
away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.
O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer
will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more
shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.
Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left
the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove
the butterflies home. You must know
how it goes, known all along what to expect,
sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.
Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly
And I can’t resist including these lines from “Everything Good Between Men and Women”
Bless it. We have so little time
to learn, so much… The river
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.
R.I.P. Carolyn Delores Wright. Flow on.
Thanks for posting this.
Thanks for reading
I always learn so much from your posts. Thank you.
Nice post and certainly fitting in light of Wright’s passing. I also find “Privacy” mysterious and deeply enchanting. However, I approach it from another point of view, which is how death becomes the ultimate exposure of our life. So all the scenes in the poem reflect this: animals leaving the safety of their customary abode, exposing them to the dangers of the civilized life; the fish tank exposing the fish to eyes that would not otherwise see them; the female character’s image (historically honored as demure) now laid bare for all to see; perhaps her image is reflected in the fish tank (ironic), but in any event in a glass dress that exposes her to the prying eyes of the “guests” (who are similarly exposed by the light sensors); and even the boat that “awaits elucidation.” Not one facet of the her body and last effects remains concealed. So the title of the poem is an example of Wright’s black irony, darkly humorous and tragic. Thank you for your post.
What a great reading. I’ve often thought that serious illness is a great invasion of privacy….everyone wanting to know your prognosis, how you’re handling “the fight”–in what is an extremely personal experience of vulnerability. Hadn’t really thought of death that way, but yes, you’re dead-on (sorry, bad pun)……how the dead person/dying person lived is laid out for everyone to see….how that person accepted or didn’t accept death. Nothing is more personal than this, not someone’s life or income or hygiene habits.
Thanks for sending me back to the poem and opening it up all over again.