Remembering Craig Arnold.
By Christian Wiman
Poetry Media Service
It is now seven months since Craig Arnold died—or vanished, as most notices have termed it. We have delayed running an obituary for him partly because of the circumstances of his death. As most people in the poetry world now know, he disappeared while exploring a volcano on a Japanese island, and all indications are that he suffered a fatal fall in such a remote and dense location that his body may never be found. Another part of the delay, though, perhaps the better part of it, is this: I knew Craig, and knew him to be a person in whom life burned so intensely and immediately that not only is his death at 41 a shock, but in some part of my brain it simply will not register.
I first met Craig about 10 years ago at a little college in Virginia, where he was part of a symposium of young poets I had organized. Tall, lean, and with his head shaved, clad in black leather pants and tight white T-shirt, he didn’t “read” his poems: he performed them, strutting elastically about as if he were on stage, whipsawing lines and limbs in precise, rehearsed ways, electrifying that quaint little lecture hall as if it were the Moulin Rouge. I tend to be allergic to this kind of self-dramatization in poetry, but I loved it. All of it: the flair that seemed to arise naturally out of his character rather than being appliquéd on; the mercurial and protean nature of his subjects (and, I would learn, his own life); the hell-bent hungers and raptures kept in check—or at least kept intact, intelligible—by the tough-minded conscience and craft that ran through the poems like a spine.
Those were the poems of Shells, Craig’s first book, which had been selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1998 (published in 1999). The poems hold up, to say the least. In fact, what strikes me when reading them now is how little they need any embellishment of drama or gesture, how absolute their integrity is on the page. “Hot,” a long, tightly wrought narrative that is emblematic of the book as a whole, is about—besides life and death and art, I mean—two friends who share a passion, of a sort, for ever-hotter peppers:
I called in sick
next morning, said I’d like to take
time off. She thinks I’ve hit the bottle.
The high those peppers gave me is more subtle—
I’m lucid, I remember my full name,
my parents’ birthdays, how to win a game
of chess in seven moves, why which and that
mean different things. But what we eat,
why, what it means, it’s all been explained
—Take this curry, this fine-tuned
balance of humors, coconut liquor thinned
by broth, sour pulp of tamarind
cut through by salt, set off by fragrant
galangal, ginger, basil, cilantro, mint,
the warp and woof of texture, aubergines
that barely hold their shape, snap beans
heaped on jasmine, basmati rice
—it’s a lie, all of it—pretext—artifice
—ornament—sugar-coating—for . . .
For what? Well, that’s the whole heart of “Hot,” the whole heart of Craig, really, who seems to me as powerfully present in these poems as when I first heard him perform them all those years ago—and as teasingly elusive.
Nine years would pass between the publication of Shells and the appearance of Craig’s next book, Made Flesh, nine years in which Craig lived in Rome and Bogotá and Wyoming and Utah and I don’t know where else. It was in some ways the typical 21st-century up-and-coming American poet’s life—the pickup jobs and the scramble for publishers, the fellowships and relationships (for the past six years of his life, Craig was very happily partnered with another poet, Rebecca Lindenberg), the constant effort to find a way of staying alive without allowing one’s lifeblood to congeal into a career.
And yet it wasn’t so typical, too: Craig was perhaps the only poet I have known personally—the only good poet, I should say—who seemed completely at ease with being a poet. Don’t get me wrong: Craig had all of the existential friction and psychic disquiet we’ve come to expect from post-Romantic poets—an excess of it, actually. You don’t have to read his poems autobiographically—and they’re too cunningly, winningly imagined to do that—to get a hint of the tempest that was their source. But he also had, right down to his soul (I guess it was his soul), a calm and clarifying equanimity about his purpose on this earth, and always over the years when I would encounter him—a few days in Virginia again, a dinner in San Francisco, a breakfast in Chicago—I would discover my own bristling insecurities melting away in his presence, and would feel my own relationship with poetry renewed. This wasn’t because Craig had achieved some sort of monkish calm with regard to ambition (ha!), and it certainly wasn’t because he was placidly and brainlessly open to everything he encountered (in fact, he could be quite sudden and sharp in his opinions). No, what Craig had, besides his endless and endlessly inclusive charisma, was a capacity to be at once absolutely grounded in the physical world, and in his own body, and yet utterly, mysteriously permeable. I’m not sure how this played out in his daily life, but I know it affected mine, and for the better. I also know that this quality gives the concrete things of his poetry, and especially his later poetry, a powerful sense of being more themselves by being more than themselves:
Here is a small café
opening for breakfast
a zinc counter catching the light
at every angle in bright rings of glitter
A cup of black coffee is placed before you
brimming with rainbow-colored foam
a packet of sugar a pat of butter
a split roll of bread
scored and toasted and still warm
The butter is just soft enough to spread
the coffee hot and sugared to perfect sweetness
the bread grilled to the palest brown
crisp but not quite dry
You tear it neatly into pieces
eat them slowly when you finish
you are exactly full
Here are bread butter and coffee
Here you are your own body
eating and drinking what you are given
as one day you in turn will be devoured
and that is all You were never the lord
of a lightless kingdom any more
than she has ever been its queen
and the world you talked into a prison
suddenly seems to be made of glass
and your eyes see clear to the horizon
and you feel the molecules of air
part like a curtain as if to let you pass
—From “Couple From Hell”
This is from Made Flesh, which is a different sort of book from Shells. Shells is often about the immediacy of experience, but there is just as often a detachment to the poems, a very palpable (and altogether successful) sense of artifice, of talent that is in some way distancing a world even as it brings that world wildly alive. In Made Flesh that distance is gone. The language is sparer, all irony is obliterated, the poems are less obviously “formal,” and their raptures are at once quieter and more complete. There is something both precise and encompassing about these poems, something at the same time piercing and liberating. Time abrades talent. Some poets don’t seem to notice this and continue to make the same ever-thinning sound right on into oblivion. Others lapse into embittered silence. In some, though, the abrasions bloom:
On the fire escape of your rented room
we sat and felt the empty city
sweat and fret we passed a cigarette
back and forth as once we passed
words like these between us without
hope of keeping
Now I write
without hope of answer to say
that what we gave each other nakedly
was too much and not enough
To say that since we last touched
I am not empty I hear you named
and my heart starts the pieces of your voice
you left are interleaved with mine
and to this quick spark in the emptiness
to say Yes I miss how love
may make us otherwise
The bracing, rule-breaking (show, then tell), completely convincing move from detail to abstraction, from sensation to realization; the space-ghosted form of the lines so apt for their subject; the careful, graceful assurance of the poem as it charts an entirely new route through a minefield of emotional and poetic clichés: it takes an enormous amount of skill to speak one’s pain in this way, and it takes a rare, clear heart.
I last saw Craig back in February, when he came into town for the AWP conference. He showed up at the Poetry offices one afternoon and practically lifted me off the floor in a hug. As always, the twitchy intelligence, the solar flares of his energy, surprised me—and, as always, surprised a happiness in me I hadn’t known was there. We locked him in an office all afternoon in hopes that he would write the long-overdue prose note to the translation he had done for our April issue, and for hours he sat there (weird: how suddenly still he could become, how creaturely focused), finally emerging near dusk with a single brilliant and self-revealing page on a poet he had recently met while living in Colombia (“to hit upon such an image requires an intimate acquaintance with all the flavors of pain and persistence and hopelessness—here, I thought, was a conscience to reckon with”). The next day he led—with great kindness, and much to my surprise—a reading he’d shaped as a celebration of the magazine. He’d given up the extravagant reading style of years before because, he said, he began to think it was actually deflecting people’s attention and detracting from the work. Still, even understated (as if that word could ever be used for Craig!), he was searing, mesmerizing, unforgettable.
Craig stayed with my wife and me that week, and somehow in between the dozens of friends he was seeing, or tending to, or shuttling to and from the airport, we found time to talk. I remember most clearly his last morning here, when he made us migas for breakfast, and the conversation turned to something he and I had talked of many times over the years: the necessary but destabilizing intensities of poetry, and the life that one risks by cultivating those intensities, and the life that—in some cases, our cases, we both felt—poetry also rescues. Out in the front yard he gave me another of his no-holds-barred hugs and promised to be back in August. Only as he drove off did I realize I’d forgotten to get him to sign our copy of Made Flesh, which is a shame, since the inscription he wrote for me on Shells all those years ago is a gem. Filling the entire page, and linking quotations from Fight Club and Baudelaire with a self-consciously absurd smiley face, it’s Craig all over. “I hope this stays with you,” he scrawled on the very last bit of space at the end of the page. “I certainly will.”
Christian Wiman is the author of three books, most recently Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. A new book of poetry, Every Riven Thing, is forthcoming in 2011. He has edited Poetry magazine since 2003. This essay originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2009 by Christian Wiman. All rights reserved.