115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Now Do You Know Where You Are”: C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining and (Post-)Southern Visuality

Marty Cain, Cornell University

C.D. Wright’s 1998 text, Deepstep Come Shining, presents a fragmented depiction of rural Arkansas, challenging the tendency in Southern narrative verse towards legible and easily assimilable representations of Southernness. By foregrounding Wright’s depiction of visuality, this essay argues that Deepstep Come Shining illuminates the anachronisms of regional identity in the late capitalist American South.


C.D. Wright’s poetic oeuvre can be roughly divided into two phases. First, her poems from the 1980s and 90s, which, in their generally stable narratorial perspective, tend to more closely adhere to the conventions of the American institutional lyric; second, her works from the 2000s onward, which tend to have a more documentary impulse, synthesizing found texts and divergent voices. Inhabiting the space between these periods is Wright’s 1998 text Deepstep Come Shining, a book-length poem which Stephen Burt describes as an example of “elliptical” poetry, challenging the conventions of the mainstream lyric while refusing to fully relinquish its defining functions. In its depiction of poverty, environmental degradation, and racism in rural Arkansas, Deepstep Come Shining gestures towards a more fragmented, experimental poetic form than that of Wright’s earlier work—one that Robert Baker describes as a “brilliant version of disjunctive collage.” If, through the work of the Fugitives and postwar poets like James Dickey, we might assume some characteristics of a prototypically “Southern” narrative verse—e.g., a stable poetic narrator, a linear understanding of time, and a bemoaning of urban industrialization—Deepstep Come Shining ultimately challenges and rewrites these tendencies. Rather than theorizing regional identity through a linear narrative, Wright presents a fragmented vision of cultural memory—one which problematizes transparent, assimilable, and easily legible representations of Southernness. Ultimately, Wright's presentation of regional identity functions through a kind of oracular visuality. While Deepstep Come Shining is decidedly oriented around “seeing,” Wright’s poetic images are never readily accessible or assimilable; rather, they foreground the materiality of the signifier, gesturing towards a form of perceptual knowledge that is synesthetic, blurring the line between orality and visuality. We might consider the opening epigraph of the text, which Wright borrows from King Lear—“I see it feelingly.” Within the realm of Deepstep Come Shining, regional identity is the product of affective, perceptual experience. In its rejection of totalizing, pastoralizing depictions of place, might Deepstep Come Shining be considered post-Southern? Further, how might an experimental poetic text—with its opaque relationship to form, identity, and historicity—present the anachronisms of regionalism in late capitalism? 

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