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Selected Commentary on Wright’s Work: Three Reviewers

Sandra Gilbert (1992)

[Wright’s String Light is under review by Sandra Gilbert, co-author with Susan Gubar of critical studies of American women writers.]

[T]he same unswerving directness that impels "Our Dust" also marks a number of other poems in String Light. "Mons Venus," for example, becomes, among other things, a kind of sardonic credo for the new "homegirls" of America:

We are the single women: we work to support our cars.
We come home to a good robe, a loofah for the backbone.
It’s a short walk to the water from the tracks.
No one mans the caboose. Whatever the weather,
the pulp mills smell like bodies rotting in the rain.
If we put our foot in childhood’s shoe, the small stays the same.
Who could count the animals we’ve swerved to avoids
or particles of sand scrubbed from our cracks.

Remember Williams’s "To Elsie" – Elsie who proved that "The pure products of America / go crazy," especially when they’re "young slatterns" from Appalachia? Well, what a relief it is to find her here, talking back to the good doctor!

Elsewhere in String Light – for instance, in the subtly (and comically) political :Living" and the coolly nostalgic "Ozark Odes" – Wright writes more sparely, though with qual vividness. Williams, in fact, might have admired her "Porch" (from "The Ozark Odes"), which reads in its entirety:

I can still see Cuddihy’s sisters
trimming the red tufts
under one another’s arms.

But he might have admired, too, the frank and yearning nativism of "Lake Return," which provides in two lines a summary of Wright’s project at its most ambitious: "Why I come here: need for a bottom, something to refer to; / where all things visible and invisible commence to swarm."

From Sandra Gilbert, "How These Homegirls Sing," Poetry 160:5 (August 1992), 300-301.

Carol Muske (1999)

[Wright’s long poem Deepstep Come Shining (1999) is here reviewed by poet Carol Muske who begins by admitting that "Readers who have followed her Arkansas soul-wanderings from the southern gothic days of the poet-genius Frank Stanford (who influenced Wright and her Lost Roads Press enormously) to the present have never known exactly how to describe her or her work." Note: Wright’s mother was a court reporter.]

In the back of the book, Wright lists (quite showily) "Stimulants, Poultices, Goads" – but this list is meant to be taken seriously. It is a kind of court reporter’s log of "all who spoke." Sir Isaac Newton on "Opticks," her husband (the poet Forrest Gander), Alyce Collins Wright, court reporter, rural "ghost" characters called Bone Man and Snake Man, James Agee (Georgia: The WPA Guide to Its Towns and Countryside), Norman Schwarzkopf, James Dickey, Frank Stanford, Roger Fry, Bob Dylan, Flannery O’Connor, and so on. (Many of these voices make up the weaving chorus of observations and exhortations.)

The elements of what the ears "hear" (as the eye "reads"), then imagines into "sight," make a startling collage: "Just stay quiet. Listen awhile. The white piano misses us. The / white dog dreaming under the white beach is catching up with the cotton-tail" ("Deepstep Come Shining"). The reader participates in this demonstration of ear-eye-brain orchestra of sensory perception. The senses play their own music in Deepstep, as voices and tricks of light assemble then dissolve.


"Deepstep" is death, a kind of death – but also a floating ghostly progress toward a new life. The sense of sight "dies," then is restored slowly, re-created from infancy. Such self-conscious development, such apperceptive cake-walking, could go very wrong (and in a few places it does get a bit corny), but the reader, taken up into this quick-blink impressionistic phrasing, stays taken. The blurring of interior and exterior landscapes in ultimately convincing.

From Carol Muske, "Poetry in Review," Yale Review 87: 4 (October 1999). 160-161

F. D. Reeve (2000)

[This is an excerpt from a review of Wright’s long poem, Deepstep Come Shining (1999). Wright’s poem takes the form of a road trip, inviting Reeve’s comparison with Rukeyser’s "The Book of the Dead" which begins as a road trip. F. D. Reeve is an English poet who looks at America from the distance of his native land. His recent collaboration with composer T. L. Read, entitled "Alcyone," is a verse narrative dramatized for stage performance.]

… Sixty years have passed since Muriel Rukeyser published U.S. 1, which included "The Book of the Dead," a book-length poem of America, a poem of the road, filled with the cries of people’s voices and depiction of the daily war between the rich and the poor. It remains a classic literary construct, shaped by moral commitment and, in its call for social justice, dedicated to the liberation of what Wright calls "those zones inside us that would be free" [a quote from Wright on the jacket of Deepstep Come Shining, which reads in its totality: "In my book poetry is a necessity of life. It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so."] The absence of political engagement in Wright’s work shows how much both the inner and outer landscapes have changed since mid-century. Poetry comes to us now as entertainment, or commentary, not as engagement, or exhortation, by a skillful poet who accepts a disjunction between herself and her readers, between herself and her people. … No question but the present dominant American temper is hostile to reform. Everything is for sale, including the highest public office. A gray cynicism seems to have overcome the general will, so that, to have relevance to a readership, a poet like Wright, asking that the Veronica be removed from the face of consciousness and looking for a way out of contradictions, must distance herself from her subject by scholarship and literary reference. Goodness, hard work, and transformation of the spirit through the community of suffering no longer characterize America. The poet’s spirit is willing, her words are strong, but even the language seems hardly to hold the country together. Like stars, the work of our best artists is remote, but how it dazzles.

From F. D. Reeve, "Short Takes," Poetry 176:4 (July 2000), 236-238.

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