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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Stanford’

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

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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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Love Poem With Toast

by Miller Williams

Some of what we do, we do

to make things happen,

the alarm to wake us up, the coffee to perc,

the car to start.

The rest of what we do, we do

trying to keep something from doing something,

the skin from aging, the hoe from rusting,

the truth from getting out.

With yes and no like the poles of a battery

powering our passage through the days,

we move, as we call it, forward,

wanting to be wanted,

wanting not to lose the rain forest,

wanting the water to boil,

wanting not to have cancer,

wanting to be home by dark,

wanting not to run out of gas,

as each of us wants the other

watching at the end,

as both want not to leave the other alone,

as wanting to love beyond this meat and bone,

we gaze across breakfast and pretend.

 

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And one more by Williams:

poem is on revolving door, right-hand side

poem is on revolving door, right-hand side

 

Something That Meant to Be a Sonnet for an Anniversary Evening

by Miller Williams

 

I walk around them in silence, those who say

that making ourselves ready for judgment day

is the one reason we’re here, and those who insist

that we’re no ore than water with a twist.

Sometimes they take my arm. I tell them, “Okay,

that makes sense to me,” and move away.

Clearly there’s something somewhere that I’ve missed.

Somehow we probably do and don’t exist,

but all these finer subtleties fell to the floor

the night you opened the window and closed the door

and smiled in a frozen curve that burned to be kissed.

 

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Image 1If in a parallel and cuckoo universe there were a Poem Elf Academy and I were a trainee, I would have failed my latest mission.  The target was my husband, the objective to wish him a happy 26th anniversary.  I left “Love Poem With Toast” on the revolving door of his office building but found out later he always exits through the back.  Then, because we swim together Thursday nights, which was the night of our anniversary, I hid “Something That Was Meant to Be a Sonnet” in his bathing cap but I couldn’t get my hands on his daggone cap until after we swam.  He didn’t see either poem until this moment, as he reads this post.  Hello, my dear, I’ll try to not say anything more personal than the fact that you swim on Thursday nights.

 

ImageMy father, who married the most wonderful and fertile woman in all of Denver, liked to give his eleven children advice on choosing a mate.  “Choose a woman with child-bearing hips,” he told my brothers.  Dubious advice, given that the width of a woman’s hips are no guarantee of fertility or ease of delivery, and my mother has always been slender.  Much better advice was his admonition to marry someone with a good heart.  Thirty-three years ago, if you had asked me why I was dating my husband, “red hair” would have ranked much higher than “kind heart,” and yet here I am today, grateful that in this instance at least I listened to my dad.

 

Poet Miller Williams seems like a kind-hearted man, too.  His voice is so easygoing and genial, you hardly think you’re reading a poem. You could be listening to someone telling a good story or mulling over life questions. Rhyme slips in, a pleasant surprise, not calling attention to itself. I always appreciate poems that are (the dreaded word) “accessible,” and Miller doesn’t run away from that. In a recent interview in Oxford American, Williams mentioned a reviewer’s assessment of his work that pleased him: “Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry because, though his poems are discussed in classrooms at Princeton and Harvard, they’re read, understood, and appreciated by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.”

 

The first poem, “Love Poem With Toast,” meanders around, musing over ideas about wanting and not wanting. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with love or toast, until the end (pardon the pun) when we see the couple’s dilemma:  who should die first, and who is best left alone when the other goes. My husband and I often have this conversation in jest—a lot of couples do–but what’s underneath is the soulful and profound desire Miller states so simply:  wanting to love beyond this meat and bone.

 

The second poem, “Something That Meant to Be a Sonnet,” gives me more reason to like Williams. I like how he reacts to people with strong opinions.  “Okay, that makes sense to me,” he says kindly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, knowing that people with agendas will not be convinced to change their minds.  I wish I could do that instead of boiling inside with the urge to pontificate, or worse, actually pontificating.  What holds him back besides his good nature is love.  Once the image of his beloved wife comes to mind, nothing else matters, least of all writing three more lines to complete his sonnet.

 

Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930.  His father was a Methodist minister, and the family often moved around small towns in Arkansas.  Although he loved poetry and enrolled in college to study it, he was told he had shown no verbal aptitude in his entrance exam and was urged to study science.  He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and his masters in zoology.  Later he taught biology at a small college in Georgia, where he met and befriended Flannery O’Connor who lived nearby.  There’s a great story about how O’Connor wrote to the English department at Louisiana State University and told them that the poet they wanted to hire at present was teaching biology at Wesleyan College. Williams sent them some of his work and got the job. He taught at various universities in his long career, eventually coming back to teach at the University of Arkansas.

 

Williams is father to the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and was mentor to her ex-boyfriend and poet Frank Stanford.  Williams gave the inaugural poem at fellow-Arkansian Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, which you can watch here.

 

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