C.D. Wright, who died unexpectedly in January of this year, was the author of sixteen published volumes of writing, including this posthumous collection, which, according to the opening page of this beautiful hard-backed edition, she edited shortly before she passed on. As with other of her works, crime is a repeating theme here, corpses, violation—the sacred and profane of life and death. The title of the book itself is a fulcrum, “shall” being for Wright a typically archaic and gentle formulation of human will, and “cross” a word indicative of spiritual transition, neither here nor there, a symbol of self-sacrifice and burden. In much of her work, Wright was taken with prisons, literal and figurative, and the works in ShallCross, particularly the two-columned, crime-procedural section, “Breathtaken,” elaborate upon this central theme. The penitentiary (the derivation from the Latin for “repentance” would not have been lost on Wright’s etymologically sensitive ears), the country, the family, the body—all hold and release, attract and repel (and at times, violently expel). For Wright, life existed in the interstice of death; hers was a ghostly aesthetic, full of people and objects both present and absent, haunting and haunted, captured and in myriad ways attempting to escape. (“Clouds / Wires / A bridle path / Wonders / In the grass / A shoe / A lair, a kind of lair / An obsolete word, meuse / Where an animal had lain / Leaving its impression,” she writes in “Obscurity and an Offering.”) The lines themselves are beautiful—ghostly and suspended—the language three-dimensional and palpable in use:

 

My disappointment sits

Under the Tree of Disappointment

In a dirty skirt in a ruff

Of dirt the color of dirt

If a hand and it could be my hand

Moves over the bark it touches

Where an arrow passed through the trunk

The mind wills it into reverse

That the shaft of the arrow glide

Soundlessly backward

And the hand it could be your hand

Soothes the welt left by its entry

The air turns the blue of a seldom worn

Dress left in a closet by the woman

Who opened a notebook

To what must have been your hand

 

Wright was not especially enamored of Continental theory (she referred to it regularly, but always at arm’s length), but her work is certainly in dialogue with poetic philosophical writers like Jacques Derrida—his sensitivity to the haunted nature of language, his comprehension (and revision) of mourning, as well the apparent joy both thinkers seem to take in the quotidian act of composition. One might say of Wright (as one would say of Derrida) that she was a poet of ambivalence—feeling opposing emotions very strongly and at once—but she never seemed particularly interested in achieving resolution; indeed the contradictions, which at their best become pure paradox, are the sources of the captivating force-fields of her books, perhaps most especially this one, with its uniform titles and variegated bodies, its short and long lines, and its center-page aporias and wounds. (In three of the collection’s six sections a word—“poem,” “obscurity,” or “imaginary”—is repeated in the titles, creating a strong meditative gravity.) 

Contemporary critics have made much of Wright’s content and form, but perhaps not so much of her effects (or affects). Her body of work is a powerful admixture of adulation and disgust (the eviction of the spirit—a literal de-ghosting), pleasure and discomfort, and a deep, abiding reverence for the beauty of the world. One might call Wright regional—indeed many have—but above all she is mystical, taken by the vestiges, the relics and remains. “Important, I believe,” wrote Wright in a prescient piece of poetics from her earlier book, Cooling Time, “to resist finality in one’s own work while assiduously working toward its completeness.” More, “it falls on the sweet neck of poetry to keep the rain-pitted face of love from leaving us once and for all.” 

 

   —Katy Lederer

 
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