A Review of C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade — May 3, 2019
It’s been three years since C.D. Wright passed away at the beginning of 2016. The trajectory of work she left us with is just that: a trajectory, its forward momentum felt in her insistence on enlarging her scope, each book seeming to attain higher ground than its predecessor. At the same time, the particularity of place she’d rendered even in her earliest poems were felt, to the end of her career, through an inimitable style. Add to this list of works the posthumously published and no less ambitious Casting Deep Shade, recently released from Copper Canyon Press. While the book offers us technically no closure per se, its openness is not out of step with the mode of investigation on display; that is, of following one’s nose, watching what connections take hold.
What we have in Casting, then, is more like an artifact of imagination, the poet immersed in her fieldwork. At its core, the book is an extensively researched examination, meditation, or love letter to the beech tree. “Obsession” might be the right word, though that sounds too fatalistic, which this book is not, and undermines the ambulatory course through science, history, photography, and family this book makes. Wright’s prose is easy on the ear, not unserious but also not afraid to be funny, and lightened by a kind of confidence you find, one might assume, after decades of writing without subscribing to any particular school:
Warmer winters aren’t good for beeches.
Warmer winters are upon us. (Polar vortex notwithstanding.)
In Maine the beeches soldier on in spite of the bark-feeding scale whose populations explode with the warmer winters,
but they don’t produce much mast for the bears.
Photographs show the Maine bears leaving puncture marks going up the trees, and parallel marks coming down
in an effort to put the hard brakes on their weight.
There is airiness to the prose. We can watch Wright find her music, how we move from the more straightforward “warmer winters aren’t good for beeches” to the adjusted, nearly trochaic “warmer winters are upon us.” At the same time, Wright’s sentences are taut, sometimes playfully so: “Trees live long lives. Anything can happen.” In other places, as if to feel out an excursive conversation through other means, the prose breaks into skinny, columnar lines:
river of stones
Its water source
on an access
The later years of Wright’s career saw her travelling throughout South America, as a book like Rising, Falling, Hovering will show, shot through as it is with scenes of political upheaval, violence, and war-torn city streets. So there’s something special about finding these lines here, years later, and to be reminded that, despite her commitment to witnessing and writing the injustices around her, Wright still tended to her beech appreciation. Why would this surprise us? Every interest need not have such immediate, political application. Indeed, much of this book’s pleasure is in the patience with which it makes contact with the political. There’s a sense of leisure, though it’s never undirected.
In taking as its subject something so abundant the book is not only a study but a meditation on the way geographic features give shape to and center our memories. Remembering a childhood home, we may find that something as inert as the oak on the lawn is imbued with a certain animacy:
No climbing trees since Mother was vigilant of anyone getting up in the magnolia, and the oaks had no lower limbs.
I did have a long-chained tree swing on one of the big oaks, and I made up many a wandering off-key song as the monarchs
flitted around me and I pumped my bony legs to go higher. When one of the chains broke, a tire swing had to serve as no one
was going up the big tree to hang another chain. Dank water often sloshed in the bottom of the tire up against my shorts. The
dogwoods were squat, flouncy things, and I thought of them on my level as if they were other children.
The tree becomes a fixed description, or the known around which the camera of description scans, the details piling up. Is this how memory works? Here, and in Wright’s work in general, looking is priority. At times, it enters the book as its own subject:
Another minor tree-related matter was that I was very nearsighted. So much so that the tall trees were impressionistic creations
to my eyes. Their leaves individuated upon whirling to the ground or upon my climbing to their level.
(The buds of tree consciousness.)
In part because of the surety in CD’s voice—loose, regional, and tuned to the erotic—what carries us along is curiosity and genuine feeling for place. To say the book is researched—though it certainly is—sounds wrong, only because so many of the links between topics are folkloric or anecdotal, the best encounters happened upon. As when, walking with a poet friend in some New Hampshire woods,
We passed an old soul, not falling but leaning in the direction of hitting the ground. He said when he’d had cancer he often
came to this tree, and I could hug it if I wanted. Embarrassed to hug it then and there, but tentatively, I did. Who knows when
an otherwise inexplicable transference of strength might strike.
It’s these kinds of off-road encounters where snatches of wisdom are delivered, like a cure for asthma that calls for you to “core out a hole in trunk, put lock of asthmatic’s hair in hole. Plug hole. When child has reached height of hole, asthma will be all gone.” As in all of Wright’s work, Casting Deep Shade has its ear to the ground, its toes in the grass, and its flirtations with the occult.
We might expect that a book about the beech make contact with ecological questions, and it does, though more often than not these moments seem to surface as a result of the sheer push in the prose:
I once crouched in the Cortona cell where the mendicant Saint Francis spent his last deathward winter, and his no-thermostat-
coarse-wool-tunic demise is not an alternative I would choose, but the pressing necessity of conserving resources, curbing
consumption, functioning in an economy shifted closer to the source gathers force with each extinguished specimen.
Like setting politics to music, to the rhythm of the sentence, Wright’s ability to move from personal memory, say, to direct engagement with ecology is astonishing, if only because she makes it sound so easy.
This book is multi-modal, with maps, hand-written letters, and photographs peppered throughout. Photos are taken by Denny Moers, who is also responsible for several of the images used for Wright’s book covers (among them the hauntingly beautiful “Ladder over Fauna Wall,” the image on the cover of C.D.’s 2002 Steal Away: New and Selected Poems). You can spend time with Moers’ monoprints on his website, and maybe you should. Here, too, are photos used for some of Robert Creeley’s covers. (Moers took workshops with Creeley and credits him with being one of the best teachers he’d ever had.) Moers’ process, as he describes it in “Art Is Seeing What You Haven’t Felt Before”—a sort of midway intermission in the book—is partly attributed to Charles Olson’s ‘composition by field’ notes. Working on each sheet directly, Moers seeks “to transform from the literal to the imagined with accident and design vying for [his] attention.” What emerges are gothic images, many of them black and white, unpeopled landscapes, with a wide range of tonalities. Like Wright’s language, they shimmer but not in a holy way, or at least not in a way that makes the holy feel safe. Their “dirtiness” is pleasurably recalled in a conversation Moers had with C.D. while compiling the book:
She needed to know whether I was going to “do my mojo thing” on the pictures I was taking, that I wasn’t planning to present
her with just black-and-white prints. I reassured her that she would get her mojo as desired. Later on, after the prints started
appearing from my darkroom, I felt that perhaps they were coming out too dark and I might be missing another side to things.
She answered that she always liked things dark and dirty and not to worry about it. Solid advice.
Two pages later, we’re confronted with one of Moers’ images: a black and white close-up of a knotty beech trunk. There’s something strange, maybe even humbling, about looking at pictures of things that are very much alive but can’t move or speak. Bone-pale, splitting in places, and overlaid with a geometry of shadows thrown by leaves, this gnarled trunk turns primal. You can appreciate its age. Look long enough and the shadows feel like markings on the inside of a cave, as your eye loses track of what it’s looking at and contrasts recategorize. Moers makes mention of how, surrounding you, beeches come to have an animal presence, and you can see that fact borne out. The next image spreads across two pages: In a reversal of the first, we’re looking up at dense canopy, dark synapses of branches and twigs, and a white sky swarming with leaves. You might like it here.
As Ben Lerner remarks in the book’s introduction, this book is, like its subject, “in a state of perpetual becoming, … [a] live graph of (Wright’s) process.” That very openness and transparency of process is fitting for a body of work that never stood still. The angle of approach was always shifting. Casting reminds us that the shift comes from a lifetime of attention and is not without pleasure.