Spring & All
Between great hails to the imagination and salvos of opprobrium, William Carlos Williams set one sharp-edged poem after another into the composition of an unframed original. So the one who did not cast off his roots chose the eldest trope in the book, SPRING, to push and pull American poetry into the present tense. Not before he had initiated a willful number of false starts, cranking up anticipation and repeatedly sabotaging expectations. Not before the hectored reader was fetched up “by the road to the contagious hospital,” only then would the first glimpse of grass and “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf” be permitted—at the precise point at which every stick in the refuse emerged particular. Terrifying, as Robert Creeley was given to say.
Reminiscent of the work of Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall for his own take on the essay-poem comes American poet C.D. Wright’s (1949-2016) posthumous collection of prose poem-essays, 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 (Port Townsend WA: Copper Canyon, 2016). Given this collection appears mere weeks after Wright’s unexpected death in January gives the book an extra edge: a twinge of grief, of wondering what might-else-have-come (one can be heartened, slightly, by a 2015 interview in which she mentions two other forthcoming works, as she offered: “A book of poetry ShallCross will be out next year and then Casting Deep Shade, also in prose (with photographer Denny Moers)”). The pieces in the expansively-titled 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 blend a boundary between and through the prose poem and short essay, weave in and out of a variety of books and authors, with repeated sketches on the work of Jean Valentine, William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All (1923), Robert Creeley, Brenda Hillman, Gale Nelson, Michael Ondaatje’s Handwriting (1999), René Char and photographer and Wright-collaborator Deborah Luster, as she composes thoughtful, witty, deeply personal and utterly charming poem-essays on craft, style and subject. The ease in which Wright offers insight and commentary are intoxicating, as she seems to explain herself in the short piece “My American Scrawl,” a poem set near the beginning of the book: “Increasingly indecisive, about matters both big and little, I have found that poetry is the one arena where I am not inclined to crank up the fog machine, to palter or dissemble or quaver or hastily reverse myself. This is the one scene where I advance determined, if not precisely ready, to do battle with what an overly cited Jungian described as the anesthetized heart, the heart that does not react.”
In a Word,
I love the nouns of a time in a place, where a sack once was a poke and native skag was junk glass not junk and junk was just junk not smack and smack entailed eating with your mouth open, and an Egyptian one-eye was an egg, sunny-side up, and a nation sack was a flannel amulet, worn only by women, to be touched only by women, especially around Memphis. Red sacks for love and green for money. Of course the qualifying adjective nation does exercise an otherwise eventful noun.
As her title, a collage of multiple references, hints, 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 a bricolage from a lively, engaged reader pulling at strands from a variety of corners of American poetry and stitching them together into a comprehensive through-line, one that only she could have constructed. The repetitions of title, subject and author throughout allow for some intriguing movements, such as the half-dozen poems referencing Jean Valentine, for example, that, instead of attempting to contain the complexity of an author’s work in a single piece, expand into a series of facets, each exploring another element or idea in Valentine’s writing. 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 showcases the depth of what we have lost through the author’s sudden death: a restless curiosity, a thoroughly engaged mind, and heart as large as the continent. As Wright writes to open one of the “Jean Valentine, Abridged” poems: “The poems stay resolutely strange. When I say the writing is strange, I mean the writing resides on the positive side of the strangeness axis.” An earlier piece with the same title opens: “When I read Jean Valentine’s poems I fill up with questions, flow over with emotion. I cease, in some ways, to think.” She continues:
It is not that the writing is hermetic; in fact, I believe its entire pitch and purpose is openness. I grasp that the whole life—of loving and losing, erring and righting, reading and thinking, saying and seeing—is faithfully recorded, word for word, and submerged under each elliptic dot. She is “shy of words but desperately true to them,” wrote Seamus Heaney. “Looking into a Jean Valentine poem is like looking into a lake,” wrote Adrienne Rich. I think I see what Valentine sees: her own outline and what has settled below. But I am wary of describing it.