from What No One Could Have Told Them

by C.D. Wright

copyright ©C.D. Wright, 2002

     Once he comes to live on the outside of her, he will not sleep
through the night or the next 400. He sleeps not, they sleep not.
Ergo they steer gradually mad. The dog’s head shifts another
paw under the desk. Over a period of 400 nights.

     You will see, she warns him. Life is full of television sets,
invoices, organs of other animals thawing on counters.

     In her first dream of him, she leaves him sleeping on Mamo’s
salt-bag quilt behind her alma mater. Leaves him to the Golden
Goblins. Sleep, pretty one, sleep.

     … the quilt that comforted her brother’s youthful bed, the
quilt he took to band camp.

     Huh oh, he says, Huh oh. His word for many months.
Merrily pouring a bottle of Pledge over the dog’s dull coat. And
with a round little belly that shakes like jelly.

     Waiting out a shower in the Border Cafe; the bartender
spoons a frozen strawberry into his palm-leaf basket while they
lift their frosted mugs in a grateful click.

     He sits up tall in his grandfather’s lap, waving and waving to
the Blue Bonnet truck. Bye, blue, bye.

     In the next dream he stands on his toes, executes a flawless
flip onto the braided rug. Resprings to crib.

     The salt-bag quilt goes everywhere, the one the bitch
Rosemary bore her litters on. The one they wrap around the
mower, and bundle with black oak leaves.

     How the bowl of Quick Quaker Oats fits his head.

     He will have her milk at 1:42, 3:26, 4 a.m. Again at 6. Bent
over the rail to settle his battling limbs down for an afternoon
nap. Eyes shut, trying to picture what in the world she has on.

     His nightlight – a snow-white pair of porcelain owls.

     They remember him toothless, with one tooth, two tooths,
five or seven scattered around in his head. They can see the day
when he throws open his jaw to display several vicious rows.

     Naked in a splash of sun, he pees into a paper plate the guest
set down in the grass as she reached for potato chips.

Notes on the Poem

The title of this excerpt from C.D. Wright's 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Steal Away has a tinge of the ominous to it: "What No One Could Have Told Them". But we know we're in good hands with Wright, and she will only take us down a treacherous path if necessary and with the utmost care and guidance. There is just as good a chance the foreboding of this title is in service to a tale told humorously and with generous helpings of self-deprecation. And indeed, that's it. Once we launch into this lovingly fractured tale of the fraught discoveries of new motherhood and parenthood, we know each crisp episode with its vivid little moments and drama packs both an underlying punchline and resonant emotional revelations. What no one could have told them - however autobiographical, Wright ruefully holds the parents at third person arm's length - they are finding out for themselves, in spades. Oh, to have had the chance to hear C.D. Wright read this poem, with her signature timing and gently sardonic tone. Such was the privilege of a student audience in 2005, as recounted on the Robert Creeley Foundation web site:
"The first poem she read was ‘What No One Could Have Told Them.’ Students reveled in the humor, and her reading of the poem opened many students' minds to the idea that poetry can be humorous and meaningful and touching and rich with craft. For the remainder of the reading, the students sat mesmerized, understanding poetry's meaningful nature and its accessibility. Her presence and her poetry were gifts to students that day, and the introduction to poetry for so many in attendance proved to compel them to grow to love the art form. Her legacy lives in those students' revelation and through their ongoing appreciation of poetry that she sparked in that encounter."
Wright's down to earth examination of the foibles of motherhood in this poem is cited in a scholarly paper from 2016, Embodied Poetics in Mother Poetry - Dialectics and Discourses of Mothering by Sandra L. Faulkner and Cynthia Nicole. That paper's abstract provides an intriguing approach to the poem as a whole (which readers can enjoy in the 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology or in Steal Away):
"Mothers are evaluated by society and one another based on what they do and don’t do, and even what they think and don’t think about mothering (the action) and being a mother (the role)."
In addition to the meditation on motherhood and the lively, poignant storytelling the poem encapsulated, Wright apparently reveled in playing with individual scenes and elements in the poem. As this critical piece observes:
"C.D. Wright is a collector ... she organizes scraps of memory that seem relevant to whatever feeling she’s trying to capture, then she overlays bits of overheard speech, road signs, song titles, newspaper headlines, and sets them one after the other on the page, separated by spaces like courtroom exhibits."
Read further in this piece to find out which scrap from this poem fascinated her ...!

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