Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (C. D. Wright Tribute—Issue 62, March 2016)

Kate Bernheimer
Encounters with C. D. Wright


I was in my twenties and finishing the first draft of my first novel at my friend’s house, on thirty acres in the Sonoran desert. We were young. We were single. We were not mothers. We had not yet gotten tattoos. At sunset we’d meet on the balcony overlooking the mountains and my friend would smoke a cigarette and have a lite beer. All day from my desk upstairs I could hear her chortling downstairs at her desk down the hall. She enjoys writing her novels. One day, I got a phone call. It was from a professor at a university where I had — foolishly — sent a letter asking if they would consider me for a job. I worked as a secretary, on the night shift. A job as a professor seemed glamorous to me. The university wanted me to come for a visit. My friend chortled.

I flew to my parents’ house the next week, and took the train to the city. I dressed for my interview in a long leather skirt, wearing a shawl and knee-high black boots. I had no idea what I was doing. I was introduced to one of my chaperones. This was before the Internet and I had not realized I would be taken around by not only an actual poet, but this poet, a woman whose poems I revered. She was dressed in slacks, a sharp jacket. She wore low-heeled ankle boots. She had on leather gloves. She drove me in the traffic, in the dark, in her station wagon, to a very fancy Italian restaurant. She ordered a glass of white wine, and opened the menu. Another person joined us, who was or was not a faculty member. I was stupefied in her presence. I could not even speak. Every once in a while during the meal she would get up and go over to another table near us, and chat with a young person there. I was not familiar with the ages of children back then and only thought of him as a child; now I would know immediately he was nine or ten years of age.

“My son,” she murmured once, as she returned to the table.

The next day I was settled into her office before I was to read from my novel (strange, incomplete, and unpublished). I am sure my smile was nervous. What did the poet have in her office? She had many books. She had a comfortable chair. Wall radiator, three windows, some plants. And on the desk a photograph by an Arkansas artist whose work I also revered. I found myself exclaiming the photographer’s name. “You know her work?” the poet asked me. “I do,” I said. “She’s one of my best friends,” the poet said. Again I was stupefied. Poets, photographers: what did one do in their presence? I clutched at my manuscript, wondering why I was there. “You’ll do great,” she said warmly. “You’ll be wonderful. I am so glad you are here. Do not worry. You will do fine. I know that you will.” She left the room, and I did not have a chance to say goodbye to her before I left for the train station again.


I was in an elevator at a gathering of thousands, in a stuffy hotel. I was miserable. My friend from high school, a poet, also was there. She was a few months from killing herself. I did not know. I had become a mother only ten months before this. I was in the elevator with my friend, the blond poet. My daughter wore green fuzzy pajamas, and she was hot, we all were too hot, the hotel was stifling and horrid. There were too many authors crammed into there — some craned their necks to try to read name tags. Some chatted about contracts, agents, and panels. My friend, the poet, elbowed my waist. “Can you f-ing believe it,” she said. “We’re authors!” She was radiant. Her first book was gorgeous. It was for sale. Some of the people in the elevator stared stonily at the doors as they closed, as if they were being sent somewhere awful, not up to luxurious rooms. Two black, leather-gloved hands forced their way through the doors. The doors that had been closing — tight — fast. The doors ached open, and an annoyed author in the elevator let out a groan. The poet appeared, fluorescent light behind her, illuminating her blond hair, that luminous skin. “I just had to tell you,” she said, reaching out for my arm, which she clutched a brief moment. “Your daughter is gorgeous.” The doors shut again. “C. D. Wright just blurbed your baby!” my friend yelped with glee.


We were at a conference two decades later. We were on a panel. I was terrified to be in her presence. I approached the table where we were to sit. I reached out my hand and said my name, said I had met her years ago, when I had interviewed for a — “I know who you are,” she interrupted me then. “I love you.” My voice caught in my throat. “No, no,” I stammered. “I love what you do.”


She visited the campus where I now teach. She read for an hour at night. Hundreds had gathered under the stars. I could not make it up to the table after, to thank her. There were too many fans. Many wept during her reading. She mesmerized us. “She doesn’t know me,” I said to my companion, “She probably would rather people not bother her after readings, people like me.”


Her books, all of them. Her books. That mind, flooring me with its ethics and beauty. Making me weep. Her books. Her words on the pages. That song — one long song walking toward light and toward knowledge. Sublime.


If I had understood then what I understand now — so it goes. A working mother, dragging a nervous job interviewee out to dinner on a school night. The son doing homework, desultory, alone at a table at a fusty Italian restaurant (tablecloths, dim lighting, stale bread). Alone at a table, her son. Me staring in awe at her, like she was a god. In an elevator, miserable, new mother, invisible, with a friend jangling with happiness so extreme it only could end, my daughter asleep in my arms — she, an angel, bothering to land where I stood — mother-to-mother. Conference, reading, whatever the place — I saw only the author. I set her apart. But she never did that. C. D. Wright was one of the kindest people I ever have met.