Deep Coordinates: A Letter1
For C.D. Wright
By Dana Levin
C.D. Wright I remember your prefaces.
The etymology of preface is of some note, in that it has the sense of a preliminary prayer, as well as personal introduction to the facts of the case.
Preface. Pre-face. Before you face something, don’t you want to know where you are?
“When the aim,” you said, “is to feel wholeness itself.”
Here’s from the preface to 2010’s One with Others, where you tell us the story of V., your mentor, her true terrible Tall Tale journey fighting for Civil Rights in 1969:
Up and down the towns in the Delta, people were stirring. Cotton
was right about shoe top. Day lilies hung from their withering
necks. Temperatures started out in the ʼ90s with no promise of a
good soaking. School was almost out. The farm bells slowly rang
for freedom. The King lay moldering in the ground over a year.
The scent of liberation stayed on, but it was hard to bring the
trophy home. Hard to know what came next; one thing, and one
thing only was known, no one wanted to go home dragging their
tow sack; no one wanted to go home empty-handed.2
I read that, and I hear you say, as you do in Deepstep Come Shining: “Now do you know where you are?”3
When you ask me that question it is another way of saying WAKE UP.
Of saying, “Get your bearings. Hear the trees.”
Itself a command with a new ring of sound, here in the momentary age of Trump.
Momentary. No one lasts forever. Everything rises, hovers, and falls. “Nothing in the world beats
time,” you said.
You said, “The light murdered, that the truth become apparent.”
I’m feeling that today, on the tenth day of the first one hundred, of America’s new mad king.
All of us hurtling into the year of the Fire Rooster. Which is like saying Mars x Mars. Which is to say combustible. But also the purifying fire embedded in the Greek conception of “crisis” (In a word, as you’d say, a world).
When we met, ten years ago, we talked about getting located. You were a practitioner of deep coordinates, writing from the intersection where eternal forces met history and place. Where the soul and the body pressed against and into one another—so many bodies a soul had to press through: personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic—
Now do you know where you are?
I’ve been hearing you say that for months. You say it at three different junctures, in Deepstep Come Shining.
Dear C.D. Wright, I don’t know where I am, but you are helping me to get there.
Spirit I only met once.
When I met you, over ten years ago, we were in a college classroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You had agreed to visit my students! All the other big deal visiting poets usually went over to the prep school.
I met you once, and I asked you one question, with a preface.
“The thing about your books that I prize,” I said, “that I don’t often encounter in work called ‘experimental,’ is that no matter how unusual the form, I always know where I AM. Is helping a reader get located in your work important to you?”
And you looked at me with some alarm, eyes widening. You put your hand to your chest and said, “My, yes—“Then you looked at the students.
You encouraged them to write about home. You encouraged them to write about right where they were right then, New Mexico, with its enormous skies and adobe houses and blood history and nukes and robber-baron artists.
Then something more psychological and aesthetic. We talked about the importance of the Speaker in poems, but what you said (forgive me!) has gone the way of a brain cell.
Now I think: you help me see how things are positioned. Spatially. Culturally. Politically. Spiritually. You don’t want me to lose my place, as you render complexity. You’re the Speaker of the House, bringing your gavel down in a noisy world so there can be a hearing.
Here’s the opening to a chorus of speakers, from 2003’s One Big Self, a chronicle of inmates in the Louisiana prison system, whom you visited with photographer Deborah Luster. It’s a reckoning up, of rules and games, action and consequence, of real lives incarcerated, of those who have been banished from the Mansion of Happiness: the first board game published in America, in 1843:
Count heads. Count the men’s. Count the women’s. There are five
main counts in the cell or work area. 4:45 first morning count. Inmate
must stand for the count. The count takes as long as it takes. Control
Center knows how many should be in what area. No one moves from area
A to area B without Control knowing. If i/m is stuck out for the count i/m
receives a write-up. Three write-ups, and i/m goes to lockdown. Once
in lockdown, you will relinquish your things:
plastic soapdish, jar of vaseline, comb or hairpick, paperback
Upon return to your unit the inventory officer
will return your things:
soapdish, vaseline, comb, hairpick, paperback
Upon release you may have your possessions:
soapdish, vaseline, comb, pick, book
Whereupon your True Happiness can begin…
…I want to go home, Patricia whispered.
I won’t say I like being in prison, but I have learned a
lot, and I like experiences. The terriblest part is being away from your
I miss my screenporch.
I know every word to every song on Purple Rain.—Willie
I’m never leaving here.—Grasshopper, in front of the
woodshop, posing beside a coffin he built4
C.D. Wright, you were a radical listener. To lives. To speakers and speech. To the whole panoply of the English language, dictions and rhetoric and idioms, because the language brings us the NEWS, doesn’t it, tells us where we are:
“alternative facts”— “the ban is not a ban”—
“Poets,” you said, in 2016’s The Poet, The Lion, “will have to summon a fierceness equal to the current environment. We will have to meet irrational force with savage insight.”
Dear C.D. Wright, here is my secret:
After you died, you entered my head with fervor. You were Blake’s innocent experiencer, wise to the world but not jaded by it. Now you’re the spirit inside something I’m working on, set in the cemeteries of St. Louis.
I think about Ginsberg having Blake visions in 1949, year of your birth, where he realized something I think you’d agree with:
“… that poetry had a definite effect, it wasn’t just pretty, or just
beautiful—it was something basic to human existence, or it reached
something, it reached the bottom of human existence—”5
Ginsberg said that he realized poetry was like a time machine through which a poet could transmit their basic consciousness. Later, he was advised by a Hindu woman saint to take Blake as his spiritual guru: you could have one who was dead—
I was telling someone about you leading me through the cemeteries of St. Louis and they said, “She’s your Virgil!”
I bet you’re a lot of people’s Virgil. As we progress, at such halting and slow and thorny a pace, through Inferno.
“Salvation,” you said in Deepstep Come Shining. “Don’t leave earth without it. Or your glasses. There is so much to see.”
Magnolialight, onionlight, leglight, cornlight—
Now do we know where you are?
1This essay was originally delivered as part of School of Exactly One: C.D. Wright Memorial, a featured event at the 2017 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference.
2Wright, C. D. One with Others. Copper Canyon Press, 2010.
3Wright, C.D. Deepstep Come Shining. Copper Canyon Press. 1998. This essay quotes liberally from the book throughout.
4Wright, C.D. One Big Self. Copper Canyon Press. 2003.
5Ginsberg, Allen. Interview with Thomas Clark. Paris Review, Issue 37, 1966.
Dana Levin’s fourth book is Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). Previous collections include In the Surgical Theatre, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial, which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” A grateful recipient of many honors, including those from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations, Levin serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.