The news of C. D. Wright’s sudden passing on January 12 shocked and saddened the poetry world. The countless readers, colleagues, students, and friends who have been touched by her life and work continue to mourn this loss. Poet Laynie Browne offers this lyric essay and poem in tribute. —The editors
Before the unthinkable news of your passing, I was meditating on your enviable title, Translation of the Gospel Back into Tongues. I was searching for a title for a new work and decided to begin a book dedicated to you, with a title in homage to yours. This was mid-December. I had gained some early momentum and was thinking of writing to you. By the tenth of January I was telling a friend about the project and composing a letter to you in my head.
Your title Translation of the Gospel Back into Tongues recalls poetry as primal, a language before conventions of language, a transmission that concerns itself with accessing the inexplicable. We, the reader, may find comfort in recovering lost passages, clear reckonings in verse. We don’t know how to return to a world speaking in tongues. We struggle to find authentic language before it is effaced, stripped, or covered over with fruitless effort. Yet your title and your work speak to this ability to be genuine and original, this capacity for retrievals, for the inexplicable, and for a refusal to shy away from the difficult. When I think of your writing, I think of unadorned truths wrought in an unmistakably unique voice, a peerless acuity, sharpness. Poetry that is unafraid, text that does not hesitate to unveil. Innards of landscapes and incongruities exposed.
Soon after I first encountered your books, held them in my hands, amazed, I was a student in your classroom, and in your office asking questions you patiently answered. I remember my sense of dislocation. I had arrived from California, never having lived on the East Coast. I was searching for a friend. You sagely advised me to find my contemporaries. I remember looking at the walls of your office and focusing on a framed image, the cover of Fanny Howe’s The Vineyard. Howe was one of many writers whose work I had not yet met, who became essential to me. In your presence began the recognition, beyond any doubt, that I am made entirely of the words of others. That living writers are oxygen for living writers. And for me you will always be a living writer. In the photograph on Howe’s book, by Ben E. Watkins, we see a hand extended, and half a figure connected to the hand, no head. In my memory, it was always one hand clasping another.
Later I stood in your basement, stuffing envelopes for Lost Roads Press. Each weekend I would arrive at your welcoming home—a home for poetry and an insistence upon poetry being home. There I was kindly fed, by you and Forrest, bookish feasts. Everything appeared lavish to me, a student living on possibility. Could one make a life, a home, in poetry? Tables were set and guests entered. In conversation possibility arose, stood, became real. In you I found an inspiring poet fiercely dedicated to verse, editing, and teaching, a tireless worker, investigator, mother, and mentor. Over the quarter-century since we met, there was never a time when you did not make yourself available to me. Your support, as your impulse to write, was unwavering, firmly generous.
I remember you writing lists, sweeping your kitchen, standing on the hillside outside your home, discussing a window hung mid-room in the space separating your desk from the rest of the room (a close consolation to a room of one’s own). I saw you invent space where no space existed. I see you now, talking to me amid piles of books and notes, wrapped in a telephone cord in your basement, as Brecht (then a toddler) playfully entangles your legs. You are paying attention to everything at the same time. You aren’t missing any of it.
Simultaneously you are explaining or expounding upon limits, incapacity, what still must be done. You are roving and working, endlessly considering what next, what else must be attended. I remember your advice on mothering and writing and your encouragement of me as a young mother and writer in a time when none of my peers had yet become mothers. I thought we had time ahead of us, as well as time behind us. If only I could increase and redistribute some of that time. My mind keeps wanting to ask how to make such a future possible. I am left with the impossibility of translating the past into the future, and yet by your example I know many things that seem impossible may be imagined and then manifested.
This writing is a first tributary—an homage, tears on paper, salt marks to meld a map ahead. There is more, so much more to say for you, to you, and from you. I want to meditate especially on your persistence and your willingness to go boldly to places that do not yet exist, your insistence on being various, real, and continually new.
How I wish I had sent the letter I was writing in my head on the day it began to emerge. And yet we are all writing in the words given to us from others. And in this ongoing exchange I assume my concentration has been received. All writing is in proximity and in relation. And so I write in the generous lanes made by your insight, your being, your lines. By your example I sought a way to use the given, to take restrictions into account as formal constraints. By your example I sought not to edit out the unseemly but always to ask if I had an adequate reason to write through various circumstances.
I have much more to say about your poetry, but at the moment I go to my shelf, touch the spines of your books, and retreat in tears. I am grateful to others who are able to read and comment upon your work, quickly and astutely, but I am not ready. I could not have possibly thanked you enough, and this is not the first time I have felt the weight of gratitude and understood that from some we receive so much that the only way we could conceive of any balance is to make a life practice of offering all we can to others, including those we have yet to encounter. Here I pause this remembrance, to be continued, with a poem written for you, words that only exist precisely because of yours.
from Translation of the Lilies Back into Lists.
1. If you forget to send your self you’ll never arrive.
2. Place the book in front of you. Inside examine a night of blue stars—dangling—up.
3. Consider the way an artist employs gravity. What falls, hangs, protrudes? Doubled-over, do tips of fingers brush ground?
4. Place leaves on eyes to commemorate crying.
5. Gather a spoonful of snow. Install in aisles below eyes.
6. I’ll always miss you.
7. I began this for you but I hadn’t yet told you. I’m telling you now but you can’t hear me.
8. Of course you can hear me, but the place you exist cannot be gathered in spoonfuls of snow.
9. In one of your letters you annunciate who I am in my wildest dreams. I remember reading and rereading this letter when it arrived, but my memory pales in comparison to your words.
10. I still use present tense because I must.
11. In public your writing is a gift. In private I also guard and brood over your advice, remembering a primal sharpness, and personhood.
12. You introduced me to the selves I had not yet met.
13. You introduced me to my mother and instructed me to spend spring break in the stacks reading her work.
14. You set me up with my own best friend.
15. A librarian showed me a photograph of the last quarter-century.
16. The same crescent fits into hovering.