Towards a Plural Poetics: on C. D. Wright’s “The Poet, The Lion”

The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All
C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon, 2016

Published a week before her death in January, C. D. Wright’s The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All is itself a demonstration of the poetics it proposes to discuss.

Consider its sprawling title. “Poetics,” my dictionary informs me, is a plural noun that’s to be “construed as singular,” which suggests that any given understanding of poetic practice must be somehow cohesive and unified. Wright’s title tells me that my dictionary is wrong: for Wright, a poetic practice worthy of the name will not be reduced to a principle or precept, but is necessarily expansive, plural, and protean. “Less and less am I persuaded by the medium’s essence,” Wright informs us early on, “and more and more I am pulled by its mutability.”

The book consists of brief prose sections—many less than a page—that variously take up the book’s many themes, most of which are indicated by the title. The “lion,” for instance, refers to the eight sections called “Hold Still, Lion” devoted to Robert Creeley’s writing, life, and death. The heading comes from a few lines from his poem “Drawn & Quartered,” cited by Wright: “Hold still, lion! / I am trying / to paint you / while there’s time to.”

Other poets figure prominently in the book: Jean Valentine, Brenda Hillman (she’s the “Fire” in the book’s title, drawn from Hillman’s recent book, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire), and John Taggart (her introduction to his collection Is Music is included in its entirety). Another longish section discusses the studied artlessness of Michael Ondaatje’s poem, “Driving with Dominic.” William Carlos Williams and his circle are explored in the six sections called “Spring & All.”  Sculptor Anne Truitt and painter Agnes Martin are mentioned throughout the book, and, with Valentine, form a kind of personal artistic trinity for Wright:

Anne, Agnes, Jean: theirs is not a system of theories, not a representation of portents, but a commitment to the labor. ‘Writing a word / / changing it.’

Reflections on favorite words and language in general are found under sections headed “In a Word, a World.”  There are several headings that only appear once—”My American Scrawl” or “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal the World’s Biggest Retailer”—but even those sections touch on many of the more visible leitmotivs of the book.

The result is an intricate weave of ideas stated, revisited, extended, explored. Each iteration does not build linearly towards a conclusion, but keeps the subject open and allows it to resonate with other themes. “Poetry moves by indirection,” Wright explains, “Indirection…changes the route, and often the destination.” For the reader, the repetition of terms and themes provides a kind of non-sequential, open-ended coherence.  I’m reminded of a passage Wright cites from Taggart, vis-à-vis his hallmark repetition: “Augustine on repetition: a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his, way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all form arises.”

The Poet, The Lion, then, is not an argument, nor is it an apology, or statement, much less a manifesto. The book would be best described as an anti-manifesto: what is bestowed upon the reader is not a set of sureties and precepts to believe/live by/write by, but a shift towards an open, expansive relationship with language and the world. In this way, the book aspires to engender in its readers a kind of poetic thinking, a contemporary version of Keats’s negative capability. In a central passage, Wright explains:

The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.

Yet this listening is not passive.

On a wall in Whitechapel [Gallery] I saw it written:
I propose to keep looking. I propose
we all keep looking. I propose
it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.

It is responsive, fluid: “One has to be responsive to [poetry’s] movement. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one’s best ear on its retrofitted lyre.” Poetry as dialogue, interaction. The poet is one with others. Speaking of One Big Self, her collaborative book with photographer Deborah Luster, Wright observes, “Collaboration offers an opportunity to break out of the isolation of one’s own overly familiar braincase, an opportunity to have an experience that can’t be got on one’s own.”

It’s not surprising that a book that encourages, through its own example, a plural poetics of listening, mutability, and openness, comes to a close by directly engaging the reader with “Questionnaire in January,” a series of end-stopped questions and writing prompt-like statements. I conclude with a few examples:

Collette said writing leads only to writing. Where does it lead you. And what led you here.

Into what forms do you see poetry poring, morphing, shuddering.

Emily Dickinson said poetry was her letter to the world. Write me.

A Portrait of the Vanishing Subject: On David Ferry’s “Who Is It?”

I am not I if there be such an I…
                               —Romeo and Juliet (3.2)

image
   Portrait. Decayed daguerreotype; artist unknown

I was excited to see a new poem by David Ferry in the latest Threepenny Review:

Who Is It?

Here inside this fiction of myself,
Two voices I always hear, both of them mine,
I guess, one of them telling the truth, I guess.
I don’t know which one it is that’s telling the truth,

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

Always like this. Always it’s been like this.
The one that told my parents who I was,
And told my wife who I was, and told my children,
And told whoever it was I was talking to
So help me god, telling the truth, so help me. 

[link to poem]

I love how this shatters just about every writing workshop bromide I can think of. So many abstract terms: there is not one vivid image or word; even the people mentioned are mere categories: children, parents, wife; it buzzes along in passive voice, is-ing and especially was-ing, employing many verboten expletive constructions. Its pronouns point unconvincingly, like busted weathervanes, at something that seems to have passed.

But these are surface/stylistic considerations. If we continue to look through the workshop/pedagogical lens, and ask “What is the setting?” we see the poem thumbs its nose at that as well: “Here inside the fiction of myself.” “Here” is murky, suggesting merely that the poem is near its subject, which is, it appears, “the subject,” the selfhood of the speaker.

After informing us that that self is a “fiction,” the speaker** goes on to use “I,” as if the poem didn’t just call that very notion into question. In any case, we learn that “the two voices” inside the speaker both belong to him, and that one of them is telling the truth. But each of these claims is followed by a verbal shrug, “I guess,” transforming assertion into shaky surmise.   

I don’t want to belabor this poem—and fear I already have—but I do want to draw your attention to the astonishing second stanza:

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

This reminds me of the extreme abstraction of parts of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas In Meditation, almost anything by William Bronk, or certain passages in Creeley:

it was all now
outside
and in
was oneself again

(from “A Feeling”)

The question is, why does Ferry use such vague, circuitous, and redundant language to say, in effect, “I’m not sure who I am?” (Or, “I am not I” as Sidney concisely put it; see also the Shakespeare cited above). My guess is that Ferry is demonstrating how difficult it is for anyone “to tell the truth” when answering the poem’s title/question, “Who is it?”

Ferry’s poem, then, is a portrait, not of the self, but of the difficulty of “telling” the self. It’s been said that the self is the sum of our memories. And recently, neuroscientists have pointed out that each time we recall a memory, the memory is changed by very act of being recalled. As Daniela Schiller puts it, you don’t “remember the original event; you just remember your last retrieval of it.” What’s left is the memory of a memory of a memory: an umpteenth-generation photocopy, barely legible, and “true” only to the slow drift of its subject’s vanishing. Ultimately, that drift is the subject of Ferry’s poem.

—————-

**This poem demonstrates the limitations of the poem-talk convention, “the speaker”