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C.D. Wright, 67; poet of expansive range, darting delivery

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“Every year the poem I most want to write, the poem that would in effect allow me to stop writing, changes shapes, changes directions,” Ms. Wright said.
“Every year the poem I most want to write, the poem that would in effect allow me to stop writing, changes shapes, changes directions,” Ms. Wright said.Forrest Gander

With each of more than a dozen collections of poetry, C.D. Wright found new writing roads to travel. Critics stepped lively to keep up as she switched from one style to the next, sometimes stepping mid-poem onto an entirely different path.

"Every year the poem I most want to write, the poem that would in effect allow me to stop writing, changes shapes, changes directions," she wrote in "Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil," published in 2005. "It refuses to come forward, to stand still while I move to meet it, embrace and coax it to sit on the porch with me and watch the lightning bugs steal behind the fog's heavy veil, listen for the drag of johnboats through the orchestra of locusts and fog."

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Her Arkansas upbringing echoed through each book and readers could hear her distinct poetic accent in a word, a phrase, a verse. Ms. Wright, who had taught at Brown University since 1983, died in her sleep after going to bed Jan. 12 in her Barrington, R.I., home. She was 67 and tests did not determine a cause.

"She was in the best shape of her life and she was writing the best work of her life," said her husband, Forrest Gander, a poet who also teaches at Brown. "She was just at her prime in every way."

Ms. Wright, he added, "was the most real person that anyone ever met."

In the poem "Re: Happiness, in pursuit thereof," part of the 2009 collection "Rising, Falling, Hovering" that was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize, she wrote:

We will be stardust. Ancient tailings

of nothing. Elapsed breath. No,

we must first be ice. Be nails. Be teeth.

Be lightning.

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She won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for "One With Others [a little book of her days]," a book-length poem about a white woman in a small Arkansas town who joined African-Americans in a protest march. Because she chose to become one with those whom her peers considered "others," the woman Ms. Wright called "V" was shunned by her family and ostracized by her hometown. Ms. Wright based the poem on the experiences of Margaret Kaelin McHugh – "a giant of my imagination, an autodidact, deeply literary, an outraged citizen, a killingly funny, irresistible human."

Ms. Wright's other honors included being named a MacArthur fellow in 2004 and being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences the following year.

Those who knew Ms. Wright, and who studied the poet and her poems close up, had just as difficult a time as critics did in trying to describe her work. Poet and novelist Ben Lerner, who formerly was her student at Brown, wrote in a tribute on the New Yorker magazine website that "she was one of the most formally restless and ambitious writers in the language. Even categorizing her as uncategorizable is too easy."

Reviewing "One With Others" in the New Yorker in 2011, poet Dan Chiasson praised Ms. Wright's "angular strain of postmodern poetry, which draws on refractive techniques now a hundred years old: collage, extensive quotation, multiplicity of voice and tone, found material, and, often, a non-authorial, disinterested stance."

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In "Cooling Time," she wrote: "There is not much poetry from which I feel barred, whether it is arcane or open in the extreme. I attempt to run the gamut because I am pulled by the extremes."

"She also sprinkled poems with elements of humor that were enviable," said Gander, her husband. "She had a very sharp wit, which drew people to her work."

One of two children born to Ernie Wright and the former Ayline Collins, Carolyn D. Wright went by her first two initials because another writer, Carolyne Wright, began publishing at about the same time.

"I was born in a warren of no great distinction in the vicinity of the middle hillbilly class," wrote Ms. Wright, whose father was a chancery judge. Her mother was a hazel-eyed court reporter "who took down his every word."

"These were really deeply country people," Gander said. "Her dad grew up in a shack deep in the woods and, with his brother, sold tomatoes by the ton, and just had a very unusual mind. He sold his cow to get enough money to go to college."

After graduating from Memphis State University, Ms. Wright tried law school before receiving a master's in fine arts in writing from the University of Arkansas, where she met the poet Frank Stanford. They were lovers for a time and operated Lost Roads Press out of her home. He took his life in 1978, just shy of his 30th birthday. Ms. Wright, along with Stanford's wife, Ginny, were co-executors of his literary works.

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"A year after Stanford's death," Ms. Wright wrote, "I moved, in near ruins, to San Francisco."

She met Gander while working in the library at San Francisco State, where he was pursuing an MFA. After reading her first book he sent a note inviting her to dinner. They dined on uncooked octopus, which "was like a rubber tire with milk in it," he recalled. "It was a disastrous first date, but we were interested in each other." They married in 1983 and she brought him to Arkansas, where "we might have stayed, but she applied for jobs and got one at Brown, and that brought us here."

At Brown, Ms. Wright was the Israel J. Kapstein professor of English and a professor of literary arts, and was Rhode Island's poet laureate in the late 1990s. Her first collection, "Room Rented by a Single Woman," was published in 1977. Other books included "Translation of the Gospel Back into Tongues" (1981), "40 Watts" (2009), and "One Big Self," a 2003 collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster that focused the camera's lens and the poet's eye on Louisiana's prisons and prisoners.

"She said, 'I'm not sure poetry is the right vehicle to talk about the politically important issue of incarceration,' " Luster recalled, but Ms. Wright agreed to travel with her to visit prisoners. "We were driving out of Angola prison and I turned to her and said, 'So what do you think?' She said, 'You know, those are some of the nicest people I've ever met.' "

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As she often did in her work, Ms. Wright could turn on a dime at a collaborative juncture. In one poem, she invoked an old love song, writing that black was the color "Of your true love's hair," before adding unsettlingly that black also was the color:

Of the executioner's corduroy hood

hung on an ice hook

in the tool shed

away from the kids

"Her mind was quick and surprising and elusive," said Ms. Wright's longtime friend Penelope Creeley, whose husband, poet Robert Creeley, died in 2005. "You can't pin her down. She was just always surprising, and always her magical self."

A private service has been held for Ms. Wright, who in addition to her husband leaves their son, Brecht Gander of Queens, N.Y.

Ms. Wright, Creeley recalled, "was extraordinary in the most unpretentious way you can imagine."

That was the case when Ms. Wright met members of Creeley's family and offered an assessment afterward that was at once pure Arkansas, and pure poetry.

"She said to me in her southern accent, 'Pen, I knew you came from good mud,' " Creeley said, laughing at the memory. "It was a great phrase, and I think I could say that sincerely of her. She was made of the very best mud."


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.