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poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

 

Privacy

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

Image

 

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.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.12.46 PMC.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.

 

 

 

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Stanford's 15,000-line epic poem

My last post on poet Frank Stanford (I just typed in “Frank Suicide,” which shows you where my head is) was overly long for a blog entry, so I cut myself off before I finished exploring his life.  I’ll finish today and hopefully will put him and his dark charms behind me because this guy has a grip on me.  No wonder he’s a cult figure.  Not only is his poetry arresting and fresh even 33 years after his death, his life is just waiting for a movie script.

 

I can’t say that I would have liked him—a guy whose idea of party fun is to point at each person in a circle saying, “I like you,” and “I don’t like you,” is someone I would avoid.  But I feel the pull. The restless energy behind his good looks comes through in the few available photographs of him.  Stanford was “handsome as the sun,” poet C.D. Wright said of him.  Poet (and Stanford mentor) Miller Williams said he looked like a young Charlton Heston.  And Stanford’s friend novelist Ellen Gilchrist has said that to know him was to understand how Jesus got his followers.

 

(Confession:  I’ve spent much more time digging into his life than reading his poems.  As I keep saying, I’m not an academic, I just dress like one.)

 

Actually, the lives surrounding Stanford fascinate me as much as his own, and those are the lives I’m going to write about today.

 

Stanford’s suicide was precipitated by a confrontation with his wife, painter Ginny Stanford (Crouch) and his lover, poet C.D. Wright.  He lived with Wright even as he visited his wife every week, promising they’d get back together.  After an argument with Crouch and possibly with Wright (she was in the house but it’s unclear to me whether she was part of the fight), Stanford walked back into his bedroom, closed the door, unbuttoned his shirt and shot himself three times in the heart.

 

Shooting oneself three times in the heart when just one would do speaks of an outsized passion and ambition.  That passion and ambition extended to his love life.  Stanford was more than a mere two-timing husband.  At the time of his death he was juggling at least six women.  One of them, I’ve discovered, was the great singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams.   (My husband has long been a huge fan of Lucinda Williams.  I’m just getting to know her and have found that her life and talent seem as big and colorful as Stanford’s.)

 

Williams’ relationship with Stanford was just a fling, she said in an interview I read.  She seemed ashamed of it, ashamed of being taken in by his charm.   She wrote a beautiful song, “Pineola,” about hearing the news of Stanford’s suicide from her father Miller Williams.  (Miller Williams, by the way, delivered the poem at Clinton’s second inauguration.)  A sampling of the lyrics (listen to the song here) gives an idea of the numbness that follows such news:

I could not speak a single word

No tears streamed down my face

I just sat there on the living room couch

Starin’ off into space

 

and later at the cemetery:

 

Some of us, we stood in silence

Some bowed their heads and prayed

I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust

And let it fall over his grave

 

Stanford’s philandering is not to his credit, but the type of women he pursued is.  Unlike another notorious womanizer, Tiger Williams, he seems to have liked the company of equals, artists and creative types.  His wife Ginny Crouch, an Arkansas native as was he, is a painter of note.  She painted the official portrait of another one-time Arkansas resident, Hillary Clinton, and several of one of my favorite writers, M.F.K. Fisher. Clinton’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and Fisher’s in the Smithsonian.

Senator Hillary Clinton by sftrajanM.F.K. Fisher, 1991 by Maulleigh

Crouch has also illustrated book covers for writer Ellen Gilchrist, a close friend of Frank Stanford’s and someone he mentored.  Gilchrist has written extensively about a character who strongly resembles Stanford.

C.D. Wright by anthologist

 

His lover of the last three years of his life, C.D. Wright, yet another Arkansian, is a poet in her own right.  She and Stanford started Lost Roads Publishing, and she continued to direct it after his death.  I like her poetry more and more.  Here’s an excerpt from Wright’s “Our Dust,” a poem that gives a strong sense of the place all these Arkansas characters come from:

 

 

 

 

I was the poet

of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch

phone books, of failed

roadside zoos. The poet of yard eggs and

sharpening shops,

jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline

factory on the penitentiary road.

 

Lucinda Williams, Ginny Stanford, C.D. Wright, Ellen Gilchrist—these women’s careers have outlasted Stanford’s, and dare I say outshined it.  At least for the moment.  A biography, a re-issue of his books, more work printed in anthologies, and hopefully a movie someday will give him the cultural presence he deserves.  Meanwhile he waits in relative obscurity to be resurrected as the women in his life continue creating.

 

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