Loitering in the Wrong Places

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wright-coverThe book, with its halting, unbeautiful, disjointed lines, proves her awareness of the difficulty of writing poetry about war, trade, immigration, Hurricane Katrina, and George Bush. These are intensely politicized issues, claimed by a blunt, politicized language.

In 1915, during the first World War, Britain was battening down the hatches, tightening its borders, and sternly discouraging travel by canceling trains and plastering placards inside the cars of those that remained on their routes—“Unnecessary traveling uses coal required to heat your homes.” Rationing was strictly observed, movement curtailed, but England’s greater loss, as Paul Fussell notes in his study of early twentieth century travel writing, Abroad, was “a loss of amplitude, a decay of imaginative and intellectual possibility…. The very theater of thought and feeling contracted; the horizons closed in.” Literature, then, was not in the forefront of the minds of the populace. Still, Augustine Birrell, England’s Chief Secretary for Ireland, was riled enough by its pesky persistence to proclaim that he, for one, “would forbid the use, during the war, of poetry.”

The statement feels remarkably familiar today, in another wartime era. Poetry stands, as usual, on the outer margin of the national discussion. The public sentiment may be that poetry doesn’t matter, but, of course, in its not mattering lies its freedom to hop trains, to transcend borders, to speak from behind enemy lines. Poetry’s trickery is interpreted in two simultaneous ways: one, it is difficult, and two, it is unreliable, questioning the way things are—and therefore it is possibly dangerous.

In her thirteenth book, Rising, Falling, Hovering, published in the final months of the Bush Administration, C. D. Wright commits just such an offense as her title suggests—she loiters in all the wrong places. The book, with its halting, unbeautiful, disjointed lines, proves her awareness of the difficulty of writing poetry about war, trade, immigration, Hurricane Katrina, and George Bush. These are intensely politicized issues, claimed by a blunt, politicized language. And so a book on these subjects is a constant tugging between poetry and prose statement, between lyric and document. She levels accusations at herself for her own project: “Poetry/ Doesn’t/ Protect/ You/ Anymore,” making clear the increasing psychological weight of the decision simply to write poems when one is aware of the magnitude of the problems surrounding her in the world.

But this is not an overwhelmingly self-conscious or self-referential book. In addition to Wright’s own persona, there is a chorus of other characters—written as he, she, I, yo, Juan and Juana Doe—Mexicans and Americans who are presented in passing as strangers, friends, and family members. Unnamed characters occasionally narrate whole sections, but mostly they are recorded in partial ways, clipped, as if Wright is photographically trying to document as many people’s lives as she can through these brief interactions, with the goal that the accumulation of moments and glimpses will create a fuller, more human picture than national generalizations and government policy-speak ever could. For example, we see, on the other side of the border, this scene:

wright1Smoking husks

The macho with an ulcerated back

One of us with dysentery y yo embarazada

A woman con pistola y cuchillo

Wears his trousers for comfort

Riding low

A boy the señora says

Fifty pesos

Hands washed with mescal

He will pass out

In the corn crib

He will cut the cord he will

Cut it with his teeth

And back in Wright’s own life in Providence (a city whose symbolic name she repeatedly calls to our attention), we get this view:

At the level           of policy           their kids           don’t exist

never did           never will reach           the sun-drenched shore

                                        and now it’s Monday again

I have been to Pilates           I found my old coat

I took my will to the notary           I found my good glasses

I have filled my tank           I am going to the market

Then I think I’ll cut my hair off with a broken bottle

                                        As of three hours ago

2,311 of our members are to remain           Forever Young

While the contrast between the lives of the Mexican “yo” and American “I” is stark, their direct, honest accounts echo each other. They both see and report their circumstances, with each detail made strange and more human by what it accompanies. A woman carrying a pistol and knife wears a man’s trousers for comfort; another woman, having heard the new count of American war dead in the Middle East, activates her will at the notary, then buys gasoline for her car in order to do the shopping. Such images could degenerate into dogma on the evils of desperation and war and the inability of the modern citizen to disentangle herself, but Wright is not interested in synthesis. In all her books, Wright’s project—one which has had varying and increasing degrees of success over her career—has been to make her language come as close as possible to the physicality of the places she portrays. This is not a romance with the subjects, a beautification—her lines are often strident, cut-off, even anti-lyrical—and it is always multiple, conflicted, messy. Her poetics is one of mirroring. She shows the dailiness of experience through a style and structure that capture it as closely as possible, particularly in its flawed and awkward moments. But, because her mastery lies in juxtaposition, placing charged objects in such relation to each other that their meanings change, what we see reflected is never quite as we thought.

All poets worth their salt struggle with the difficulty of representation—how to be accurate to the subject or feeling through both language and form—but few are so explicit about the process as Wright is. The effort itself becomes a large part of the subject matter, with the result being that we as readers feel we are stepping into her mind. And it is not a quiet mind. It is a modern mind, filled with airplane flights, marital squabbles, fury at the television news. As a poetic documentary-maker (which may be a more accurate term, anyhow, for someone who fights poetic convention and describes her books with terms such as “A Valentine,” “A Walk-In Book of Arkansas,” “An American Poetry Vigil,” and “An Investigation”), Wright is kin to James Agee, who agonized in his 1939 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,

If I could do it, I’d do no writing here at all. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement…. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

The desire is for an organic medium, one that will be severe enough, and intimate enough, to wake the reader into understanding and action. In times of war and hunger, the obvious and immediate yearning is for afflictions to be ameliorated—to stop the firing of guns, to bandage the wounds, to feed the starving. The writer taking such a subject, then, is tormented by the choice she has made—and she has made it—to document the situation, and therefore be a witness instead of an actor. But Wright doesn’t allow guilt to consume her entirely. “I want you to burn every notebook, every disk,/ Every ream, every scratch of my improvident pen,” she directs a confidante, but then also, understanding a reason and finding a community for her loathing, she contextualizes: “to be ashamed is to be American.” She levels her anger at those who have the most agency to inflict harm—big corporations like Wal-Mart and Wal-Mex, and the Bush Administration.

At one point she speaks directly, almost obsessively, about her feelings toward the 2008 “occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania,” admitting, cheekily, “Rage could be my issue.” But mostly she works by implication, allowing images and politicized rhetoric to spark off of each other, and letting that proximity elucidate the loaded relationships between them. In adjacent sections, we move from the U.S. to Iraq to Mexico:

phosphorusAccording to the Gaia hypothesis, the earth is alive;

According to Lieutenant Colonel Venable white phosphorus
is not a chemical weapon, it’s an incendiary.

It is an obscurant, it is for illumination;
nor are we a signatory of any treaty restricting its use.

And then:

Elsewhere a suicide car bomber struck a police station.
Killing at least one and wounding seven.
Gunmen also killed a teacher near his home.
The bakeries become targets. The saints removed from the walls.
For protection. One who was kidnapped and tortured.

And then:

If a body makes 1 centavo per chile picked or
5 cents for 50 chiles can Walmex get it down to 3 cents. Pass the savings on to US.
Will they open a Supercenter in Fallujah once it is pacified.

In such a poetry, with such a broad and public subject, the reader must participate in the completion of the book. A poetry of cultural implication requires readers to recognize their involvement—first, in the act of piecing Wright’s fragments, notes, and echoes together, picking up on her suggestions and drawing the connections between them, and second, in the fact that most of us have witnessed the same war, the same desperation and hunger, from the safety of towns like Providence.

With political leaders who have mastered the art of the passive voice (“Mistakes were made”), a media that perpetuates such blamelessness, and a mass consumer culture increasingly detached from the manufacture and disposal of the products it demands, a book that so directly seeks sources is a serious reckoning. Even though she says “This is no time for poetry,” we don’t quite believe her. Wright knows one of the major battles to be fought in our time is a linguistic one.

The book lists facetious war names several times, such as “Operation product endorsement” and “Operation it depends/ upon how you define the word torture,” playing on the capitalistic and linguistic sleights-of-hand that have become so familiar. If we are to call people “souls,” as Wright does, and if we try to remember and document names and stories instead of numbers of the dead and balance sheets of profit and expense, our understanding of our actions changes. Perhaps, doing so, we could not operate as easily in the way that we have done.

Within days of Birrell’s 1915 declamation of poetry during wartime, Britain instituted the photo passport as a new requirement for travel abroad, including travel to the rest of Europe, which had previously been seen as neighboring ground in which one could roam freely. Fussell explains that it was a wartime convenience for the state to restrict travel, but it also had the effect of making citizens feel like replaceable parts in the national machine, and making outsiders suddenly aliens.

In our country, which doesn’t have the natural oceanic barriers that Britain does, this division by borders—patrol agents, checkpoints, high fences—is even more contrived. Wright comments, in that clipped manner of hers that takes shape as a political statement as well as a description of her poetic problem: “breath chopped in half by a border.” The belief in borders is a belief in limitations, and she steadily refuses it—“These are not the limits of my world/ but the limits of my words tonight.”

Though the book is long for its genre, there are only a handful of titled poems within it, and most of these titles begin with the word “Like,” as if Wright, in sitting down to her problem of “breath chopped in half,” is determined to parallel everything. “Is this the war of all against all,” she says, and it isn’t a question. Her response to such a war is that no subject she enters will be allowed to remain foreign or unconnected. Many poems end “to be cont.”, refusing even the inherent border of the book’s page. The remaining, untitled stretches of language that stitch the book together act less as individual, enclosed poems, and more like jotted notes and detached poetic lines—they drift, hover in open space, and, instead of finishing, just pause from time to time for breath.

The biggest success of Rising, Falling, Hovering is in its subtle but persistent linguistic pairings, which shift the typical framework of what we are accustomed to, rehumanizing civilians, workers, “aliens,” Mexicans, Iraqis, American soldiers. Wright’s lines skitter across borders, uncomfortable with the “surround-sound” smoothness of singular public proclamation. They insist on a stumbling, multiple, intimate accounting for our strange new century. In so doing, the Administration, whose constant buzz we heard on the news and saw in the morning papers for so many years, becomes the foreign entity, while those they would call foreign seem increasingly familiar. The horizon expands, inch by inch.

Rachel Richardson's poems have appeared in the New England Review, Southern Review, Ninth Letter, Memorious, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. A recent Stegner Fellow, she has led poetry workshops in prisons, elementary schools, and universities, and currently teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. More from this author →