BOOK REVIEW: Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright
1998 Copper Canyon Press, 111 pp. $14.00
Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Fall 2005
“Deepstep” is memory, is deep time; is epiphany; is birth/death; is a Wizard of Oz tornado within whose funnel whirl vignettes and voices of a lifetime. Deepstep Come Shining is an odyssey if not an epic whose thousands of mirrored facets cause it to deconstruct itself in ways that preserve the truth of experience while shattering the stiles of syntax.
A car moving through “magnolialight” in the rural South, the Deep South. We know this thanks to obvious clues: boiled peanuts, Videlia onions, cling peaches, fireworks, red ants, Spanish moss, alligators¾ items often followed by the question: “Now do you know where you are.” This question is the first indication that we are also inside a detective story, following clues scattered all over the landscape; but so is the author following, often herself surprised, as fingerprints suddenly appear in the text, and she reacts to them: “Did you know a ghost has hair”
The narrator presses her head against a cool window remembering a white piano on a black marble floor, “mute swan in a dark room”. But who shot the piano? Who killed the mother? Much later we learn that someone put a pillow over her mother’s head and shot her…the piano strings reverberating to the blast. Violence is never far beneath the surface of shimmering metaphor.
For example: life and death aspects of the spectrum are fused into a fetal tragedy caused by and repudiated by power:
“The baby sister of the color photographer had a baby girl in the hills. Born with scooped-out sockets in the head. Born near the tracks they sprayed with Agent Orange. The railroad’s denials, ditto the army’s.”
Vision and blindness: poles of sight. Photographers, projectionists, writing with light: sensory-clusters with which the poet searches the roots of language. “Peeping into the unseen/Beautiful things fill every vacancy.”
“Once the eye is enucleated. Would you replace it with wood, ivory, bone,
shell, or a precious stone. Who invented the glass eye. Guess. The Vene-
tians. Of course.”
“Inside the iris of time, the iridescent dreaming kicks in. Turn off that
stupid damn machine.”
But there’s no turning off the machine. It runs the length of the book, flinging out starbursts of symbols and images. You can spend several months trying to weave together the scraps, strips and threads into a realistic tapestry; or you can take this reviewer’s lazy alternative of just wandering through Wright’s jungle of metaphors continuously charmed by the figuration and transfiguration of leitmotifs.
Who is the Boneman who keeps a bobcat in a cage? Who is the Snakeman who walked a six-point stag through the pecan orchard? Who is the swamp doctor whose advice you’d better heed whether you’re a believer or not? Who’s Thrasher who has a lapdog in his freezer? Who’s Moss? Who’s Louise? Who’s Clyde? Cf: Stetson, Mr. Eugenides, Hakagawa, Fraulein von Kulp. There are dogs and chickens, blind horses and one-eyed cats. As we read, Wright’s universe quickly fills with mythic personae and variegated fauna.
But even as she glories in the miraculous beauty of the landscape, Wright must constantly parry images of affliction and civil corruption, the soulless laws of the state and the constant pressure of religion:
“SALVATION. DON’T LEAVE EARTH WITHOUT IT.”
Love it Leave Love it Leave it Love it Leave it Love it Leave it Love it Leave it
As the poem moves on, we learn more and more about the narrator’s life: a brief, hopeless romance; a baby is born; “I started to write/I feel lost here/and I’m going to go home”; “As a child I was a kleptomaniac”; “The contours of a man were horrible to her.” Hints, allusions, suggestions: you can put them together in a thousand different ways. But the impact is always maximal.
“When lightning hit the mute swan. In all her glory. The
students were traumatized…She exploded. Her five cygnets
sizzled on the surface.”
I certainly make no claims of understanding this poem. I believe that it involves sight and blindness, searing relationships, a murder, a catastrophic fire, the unwrapping of bandages from a hand, an eye, the heart. The rest, like the fire, is “opaque and revelatory, ceaselessly burning”; as baffling as the gray strip of computer symbols adorning the back cover and many inside pages; but like a pinwheel of sparklers, tossing off enough great lines to make the reputations of ten minor poets.
So I can only suggest the incredible richness of this book: the multiple voices each speaking in his or her unique diction and dialect; the ‘found’ poetry scattered broad-shot throughout; the many moods of the speaker, expressed now in farmyard twang, now in Southern belle refinement, now in literary quotation. I trust that my readers have gathered by now that I think C.D. Wright a remarkable, amazing and very great poet. One of the best employing the language today. A phenomenon. And I don’t say that lightly.