In Memory of C. D. Wright by Brenda Hillman, Arthur Sze, Naomi Shihab Nye
PostedFebruary 12, 2016
A collection of tributes by our Chancellors and other writers touched by the life and work of C. D. Wright.
Deep Step Come Shine
"Grief ran through me like wildfire when I heard the news of C. D. Wright’s death. I knew C. D. for almost thirty years and loved her intrepid spirit, her humor, her passionate commitment to poetry. She lived and breathed poetry. She was one of the poets I read and reread and couldn’t wait to see what she would do next. Her long book-length poems are renowned, but C. D. could also condense her expansively braided lyric-narrative-documentary mode into short lyrics of breathtaking intensity. The opening poem to Tremble starts:
a bed is left open to a mirror
a mirror gazes long and hard at a bed
light fingers the house with its own acoustics
Who else could write like this? In a few lines, C. D.’s voice, singular vision and embrace of mystery are all there. And, as I think of the title 'Floating Trees,' I recall a warm morning in early May 2014 when C. D. drove me around Providence to look at beech trees. In Bristol, she drove into the Juniper Hill Cemetery and parked. We walked around tombstones, admiring the copper beech and weeping beech trees, and talked about the living force of nature. And, now, as I look at her last email, I stop at her words: 'Where to live—how to live is an old question.' I have lost a guiding spirit; we have lost a brilliant and utterly original American poet; but the work continues to live, and may it deep step come shine."
—Arthur Sze, Academy of American Poets Chancellor
"I always wanted to sit next to her. Everybody probably wanted to sit next to her. Once she said to me, 'Just don’t be too cheery, ok?' We all probably hoped her dazzling intellect and creative brilliance might be contagious. She had a gift of listening for the undercurrent, the startling weave, in the crossing of voices. Listen to all the voices in her poems. The whole world is in there. She cannot be gone."
—Naomi Shihab Nye, Academy of American Poets Chancellor, 2000-2016
"C. D. Wright is such an irreplaceable human being it seems impossible to think of her work without her person, without her presence. She had such a larger-than-life life, and yet she got her astonishing work written. People have said that there are great writers who have one tremendous style and great writers who develop in stages and I think C. D. is the latter kind of writer, with each stage of her instinctual and uncanny development having a different importance. Her poetry and prose unfolded from the earth, from the body of her experience, from human relationships, from language and literature itself. The early books show her to be an exacting lyricist, cutting to the core of situations. While she became increasingly drawn to the innovative poetry experiments of the ’80s and ’90s, her work derived from many sources—obviously from the many strains of late modernism; from Black Mountain and Objectivist poetry that foregrounded process over product; and from what lots of women experimenters were doing based on the work of Gertrude Stein and other influential models. C. D.’s nonlinear methods, her layering, her transgenre and hybridizing collages, brought these models together, brought the threads of her emotional and intellectual interests together. She was among those maverick workers who were doing this collectively, boldly, without apology to the dominant forms and also drawing on the many skills of postmodernist play to make poetry exciting. Her work was particularly feminist and daring and irreverent in works like Just Whistle (Kelsey Street Press, 1993) and Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon Press, 1998) and she supported women’s writing in ways that took a lot of guts.
"She could show so much intimate spirit with her rare and penetrating intelligence, though her work grew exponentially to make longer projects, creating "one big self" of language in her later books. Unflinchingly, often connecting beauty with the unacceptable or ugly, she found fascination in the quotidian. Her poems draw their energy from paradoxes: they are not conventionally autobiographical, yet they are personal and often excruciatingly deep, enacting oblique forms of being alive. She critiques the culture with quirky, wry, or pithy phrases. Her geographies are informed by Southern or Eastern or Western or International scenery. Understanding that language is abstract but that we enter the world with intense feeling, Wright renders a world in each book that is simultaneously metaphoric and full of recognizable events. If her books sometimes detail our lives with fierce dismay, including the ways in which human behavior can be subtly or overtly terrible, the books are primarily hopeful and redemptive. Her political writing is searing, and her engagement with her subjects is full of compassion for the microinstances of ignorant suffering. There are a few writers who know what it means to be hip but not bounded by trends, full of individual feeling and largely visionary, modeling courage for adventurous writers who seek not to be trapped in limited definitions of current poetry, and C. D. Wright was one of those.
"She knew how to look at the work of other artists—in visual art, dance, music—and to collaborate with her artist friends, notably Deborah Luster; she was an unapologetic iconoclast and a Whitmanic democrat. She expanded sentences and lines and never compromised heart or head in the composition. With her much beloved life partner Forrest Gander, she made a memorable press, Lost Roads. She was funny as hell. She is deeply mourned by her contemporaries and younger writers and older writers; she is deeply mourned by the students whom she helped; she is deeply mourned by strangers for whom she opened possibilities; she is mourned most deeply by Forrest and their son, Brecht, and her family and those of us who knew her closely. She had a knifelike wit and self-deprecating style, but I never heard her say a cruel or false thing about another person. We shared many of the same roots, and I am deeply grateful to have spent some time on earth with this beautiful sister-comrade. The loss is unbearable, even though she has left artifacts of her consciousness in her phenomenal poems that will keep us company."
—Brenda Hillman, Academy of American Poets Chancellor
"I walk tenderly and respectfully on the earth this morning as I ponder our friend C. D. Wright, and her place within the circle. She’s still in the circle, but not physically. And therein is one of our largest human mysteries."
—Joy Harjo, 2015 Wallace Stevens Award Winner
In Memoriam: C. D. Wright, 1949-2016
by Matthew Henriksen
"C. D. Wright could be two things at once. In her poetry, she was a voice from very far away that spoke directly and intimately to our secret interiors. In her life, she was a venerable genius who shocked younger generations of poets by constantly championing our work and encouraging us to write ferociously on our own terms."
C. D. Wright (1949-2016)
by David Biespiel
"C. D. Wright, who passed away this week at the age of 67, was always willing to confront the most savage and tender parts of American life—from the brutality of racism to the banality of death to the dangerous bravura of the erotic. Because she was a true original—a poet who sounded like no one else, framed her poems like no one else, called forth the psyche’s archetypes and addressed the most difficult civic issues like no one else—she is being mourned by those who reject the repetitiousness, and self-righteousness, of poetic fad. But because she chafed at the limitations of the late-twentieth-century American lyric poem of anecdote—a form she mastered and toyed with in her early books—she is also being mourned by those who strive to retool its most traditional elements: emotional urgency, narrative memory, and the sanctification of the singular poetic utterance. If you write poems in the United States today, your poems owe something to C.D. Wright’s vision. And yet she was one of those poets—like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich—it’s dangerous to imitate."
Elegant and Cruel and True: The Life and Death of Poet C. D. Wright
by Craig Morgan Teicher
"The poet C. D. Wright died in her sleep on Tuesday night at the age of 67. She was a well-known writer, a winner of a MacArthur 'genius' grant, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a longtime teacher at Brown University. She'll be grieved in the public ways well-known writers are, but within the poetry community—on Facebook, Twitter, via text and email and phone — a kind of keening wail has sounded since the news of her death began to spread. Wright was beloved to many of us, a model poet and person."
Postscript: C. D. Wright, 1949-2016
by Ben Lerner
Page-Turner, The New Yorker
"I first saw C. D. Wright when I was a seventeen-year-old high-school senior enrolled in a pre-college writing program at Brown University. It took about five minutes of her reading in her distinctly Arkansan accent from her most recent book—I believe it was “Tremble”—before I realized I was in the presence of an utterly original American artist."