I may not be the only poet who wishes he could reproduce the vernacular of a two-seater outhouse simultaneously with writing on subjects like capitalism, prison life, art and music, portraitures of America, war, urban and rural neglect, and immigration, as C.D. Wright did. To be able flip these tendencies would be a thrill too:
Who will build the great wall between us, the illegals, the vigilantes, the evangelicals
or the ones who come back from Fallujah with four limbs and attached head.
And the Supercenter in Teotihuacán. It is not quietly being built at the skirt
of the pyramids. Will the great job of the future be The Greeter.
Thus did Montezuma open his arms to Cortés.
We have been extremely fortunate with our Southern poetry icons of late, perhaps for the reason that many of them didn’t stay put. Wright, who was born in Mountain Home, Arkansas, in 1949, and who died last year in Rhode Island, has written very sharply, to say nothing of poignantly and pungently, of the poverty and cultural isolation that marred the region of her birth and the dignity that marks those gully-washed lives.
The story of her influential, complex poetic output, if I had to summarize it, begins with her as a poet who emerges from the need to write from her affection for the classical traditions of American poetry. This was not, in Wright’s hands, high culture. But something more primitive. She was like a musician dedicated to reviving the sounds of roots music—in her case, the poetic roots of “Idiom Ozarkia,” as she famously called it. She came from a climate where anyone found listening to European symphonies, slipping into an art gallery on a rainy afternoon to look at abstract paintings, or thumbing the dusty shelves of a library would be looked at askance for having elitist notions, or—in a Southern turn of phrase—for getting above their raising. Geographical disbandment from the South northward occurred for Robert Penn Warren, A.R. Ammon, Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakka, Rodney Jones, Terrance Hayes, and many others, many of whom have never reconciled with their old grounds in light of the region’s historically reactionary leanings. As an expatriate Texan, I hold similar cultural beefs, and have, at times, found places outside the South more accessible.
And yet, and yet.
“Song of the Gourd” is like an eye roll at this sort of gusto about leaving the Southland. The poem has an appetite for all of life, North and South, and etcetera. To say that Wright throughout her amazing body of work views the South as a wreck she survived would be banal, even if there are moments when she surveys the mangled world there and wonders how she did it. What’s beautiful about “Song of the Gourd” as a poem that shapes a sense of American life from the ground up—a Jeffersonian, agrarian dirt life up—is the exhilaration of the near miss, an enthusiastic populist layering where regrets are on display and, as Thomas Jefferson reminds us, self-interrogation is penetrating, even when simply meant as a symbol for those—
cultivators of the earth…the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it’s liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.
Everybody can recognize the mixed bag of of horror and thrill in Wright’s poem, copied below, in which we are asked to repudiate the moral vapidity in American life; asked to witness American life by someone who has survived it—not by one crippled from it, physically or psychically:
In gardening I continued to sit on my side of the car: to drive whenever possible at the usual level of distraction: in gardening I shat nails glass contaminated dirt and threw up on the new shoots: in gardening I learned to praise things I had dreaded: I pushed the hair out of my face: I felt less responsible for one man’s death one woman’s longterm isolation: my bones softened: in gardening I lost nickels and ring settings I uncovered buttons and marbles: I lay half the worm aside and sought the rest: I sought myself in the bucket and wondered why I came into being in the first place: in gardening I turned away from the television and went around smelling of offal the inedible parts of the chicken: in gardening I said excelsior: in gardening I required no company I had to forgive my own failure to perceive how things were between them since I was not privileged: I went out barelegged at dusk and dug and dug and dug for a better understanding: I hit rock my ovaries softened: in gardening I was protean as in no other realm before or since: I longed to torch my old belongings and belch a little flame of satisfaction: in gardening I longed to stroll farther into soundlessness: I could almost forget what happened many swift years ago in arkansas: I felt like a god from down under: chthonian: in gardening I thought this is it body and soul I am home at last: excelsior: praise the grass: in gardening I fled the fold that supported the war: only in gardening could I stop shrieking: stop: stop the slaughter: only in gardening could I press my ear to the ground to hear my soul let out an unyielding noise: my lines softened: I turned the water onto the joyfilled boychild: only in gardening did I feel fit to partake to go on trembling in the last light: I confess the abject urge to weed your beds while the bittersweet overwhelmed my day lilies: I summoned the courage to grin: I climbed the hill with my bucket and slept like a dipper in the cool of your body besotted with growth infected by green.
This is not a poetry of agony and misery but a poetry of idiomatic confidence by one who thinks no lasting harm was done to her. A “lost nickel,” here, an “offal” there, a few “stop the slaughter” and sleeping “like a dipper in the cool of your body” yonder over there. On the whole the poem is okay saying simultaneously hello and farewell. It is, to extend a cliche, grounded in the American grain of please and vex.
One knows too well that, at the very first opportunity, many men and women leave town, set off for other locales, pay for leisures not found at home, vent about geopolitical politics, refute dogmatic faiths of the past, tumble into art and, if they must, poetry. Many people, like Wright, had a narrow escape from their youths and picked up and pressed on. There may be a death in the rearview mirror but Southern plainspokenness helps you steer away from that, too.
That makes a poem like “Song of the Gourd” both revolutionary and classical. Wright may have discarded youthful pain—to a point—just as Americans try to discard historical pain. But the impulse of digging in the dirt you do know is to force yourself to find out about things you don’t know.
This is part eight of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.