Unnatural Narration and Social Good in C.D. Wright’s “Our Dust”

In C.D. Wright’s poem “Our Dust,” published in 1988 in The Paris Review, the homodiegetic, unnatural speaker addresses and engages readers to consider a particular life spent writing poetry. Wright’s speaker fosters intimacy, modeling vigorous self-examination and depicting small town imagery from her life as a poet, to convey the value of such self-reflection. Though narrative theorists have addressed how poets might use unnatural narrators and thereby heighten or decrease reader engagement or absorption by drawing attention to artifice, I argue that to read a poem like “Our Dust” is to measure not only meaning and artifice, but to understand oneself as likewise implicated in its political potential. As Wright balances unnatural narrative techniques with place-based language, she provides commentary on both the poetics and socio-economic conditions of that place. While Wright employs traditional narrative techniques, such as colloquial and realistic referential detail, the voice of the speaker in “Our Dust” addresses readers from beyond the grave—reflecting on a personal life, and qualifying a commitment to integrity—to implore readers to act towards common good.

As Gérard Genette conceives them, homodiegetic narrators operate from the same level of action as the first narrative; [1] they are a character in the story being told. [2] In a narrative poetic context we can read our first-person speaker in “Our Dust” as existing in the world of the poem; she is a homodiegetic speaker. And because the speaker describes her own life as if she is no longer alive, this narrative style is furthermore unnatural. In an extensive examination of how some unnatural narratives can be naturalized, Brian Richardson offers a useful definition: “[i]n a phrase, unnatural narratives produce a defamiliarization of the basic elements of narrative.” [3] Though there are different narratological definitions of “unnatural,” and some narrators can be more unnatural than others, the posthumous narrative style of “Our Dust” subtly violates such conventional narrative markers. By taking an unnatural position from within her most natural setting, Wright allows readers to see the decency driving social tethers of small-town place.

The speaker’s approach is both personal and communal, starting from an inclusive “our” in the title and continuing into the first line, which declares: “I am your ancestor.” [4] A dead speaker is a little surprising to encounter in a poem, and using one offers benefits beyond just the subversive. Diana Fuss confirms that "[a]ttributing consciousness and voice to an inanimate body, these writers irretrievably breach the boundary between the place where language intensifies (the poem) and the place where language vanishes (the corpse).” [5] “Our Dust”’s speaker attempts to compel the attention of the reader through an intensification of disclosures as the poem addresses “you,” the reader, intimately. An urgency builds: “You know next-to-nothing / about me,” it reads; “There is no reason for you to imagine / the rooms I occupied or my heavy hair.” Not only is the idea of death itself intriguing, but so are the dead speaker’s messages for the living. Yet this disembodied speaker reaches for something beyond commiseration, or to be a spectacle/specter among the living: “You didn’t know my weariness, error, incapacity” puts the focus on both the living and the dead—on the speaker’s weaknesses and the reader’s ignorance of the speaker. Through the list of qualities unseen, readers learn that the speaker reflected, especially on her flaws of “weariness, error, and incapacity,” and this models the kind of self-reflection the poem aims to inspire.

One distinguishable aspect of any Wright poem, but especially of “Our Dust,” is the illumination of words through unexpected syntactical arrangement or their appearance in lists; words that appear simple yet are unfamiliar because they are specific to a particular place or people. The careful placement of language and articulation of anti-mimetic techniques serve the poem’s goal of presenting instances of the speaker’s reflection on her life as a poet before it ends with a push for readers to do the same reflective work.

Wright’s particular combination of the personal with political reference is achieved through such localized word choice. Though she was definitely interested in language’s material and non-discursive capacities, Wright included discernable arguments in poems. In an interview with Paul Magee in 2013, she attests to the importance of meaning making in poetry: “Argument is part of the fabric of my writing, an argument with the conditions of the world as given,” adding that writing puts forth, “meaningful articulated awareness.” [6] When Magee asks her to clarify whether she means to make the reader go through an experience of discovery she responds, “It would make me happy for them to learn whatever it is I think I have learned.” [7] The use of present perfect tense in her response reflects her vision of learning as an ongoing process, as one that is always unfinished.

Tools in the poem, including a “trowel” and “whetstones,” foreshadow interpretation of the craft related to the speaker’s occupation as a writer and they connect the local and natural imagery to the writing process. A “trowel” can be used to unearth roots or artifacts from the dirt and “whetstones” are used to sharpen knives. In essence, these tools enable discovery and sharpening; verbs which are analogous to actions related to writing, so the words double as figurative language that symbolize poetic craft. The detail of “martin houses” characterizes the people of certain “vernacular parts,” as “martin houses” are placed to attract purple martin birds, and this image of hospitality is also echoed by the image of a fair landlord that appears later. At the end of the poem the speaker tells readers she “used to medium to say: “Arise and / come together.” This word choice could be scriptural as “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it,” seems to match thematically with the pastoral elements in the poem.

Another significant shift at the end informs the reader of the speaker’s vision. The speaker declares she has seen “the black car” and “the retreat / of “the black car.” The black car seems to signify death, and therefore the anecdote might be included as a way to tell readers to continue to pursue reflection even in the face of the possibility of death because sometimes the “black car” of death retreats. This experiential detail is actually an admonition disguised as a confession. The speaker does not tell the reader to be brave explicitly, but uses her own experience as inspiration, one that seems more credible from a voice from beyond the grave looking back. The present perfect tense adds a solemn and formal closure to the poem. “I have seen myself / in the black car. I have seen the retreat / of the black car.” [8]

The penultimate stanza makes the most overt social commentary as the speaker suddenly takes on the role of a landlord and this introduces engagement with socio-economic conditions:

I never raised your rent. Or anyone else’s by God.
Never said I loved you. The future gave me chills.
I used the medium to say: Arise arise and
come together.
Free your children. Come on everybody. Let’s start
with Baltimore.

Since “Never said I loved you” follows “never raised your rent,” emphasis is given to “rent.” The idea that the speaker was a landlord who was good, or at least who did not raise rent, highlights the message of consciously choosing social good. The phrase “Never said I loved you” spotlights the importance of economic consequences and realities of living over sentiment. Considering the movement in “Our Dust” from relaying discoveries to the reader then to a collective “everybody,” inclusivity underwrites Wright’s use of an unnatural narrative mode.

While C.D. Wright does employ traditional narrative techniques, the voice of the homodiegetic speaker is addressing readers intimately, balancing unnatural and traditional conventions to push poetics to political realms and all readers toward personal integrity by encouraging self-examination. She includes in the world of her poem a landlord character, local gossip, and various pastoral elements that depict towns where people struggle economically. Such details support her commitment to inspire people to examine themselves honestly and to come together for the benefit of society at large. In her life of practicing writing, Wright continually investigated the human condition, a curiosity perfectly aligned with her reach for the language of poetry.


[1] Gèrard Genette. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University, 1980), 51.

[2] Genette, 245.

[3] Brian Richardson. "What Is Unnatural Narrative Theory?" In Unnatural Narratives—Unnatural Narratology edited by Jan Alber and Rüdiger Heinze, 23-40. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, (2011): 34. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110229042.23.

[4] C. D. Wright, Steal Away: Selected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2003), 73.

[5] Diana Fuss. “Corpse Poem.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 1, (2003):1.  https://doi.org/10.1086/380805.

[6] C.D Wright and Paul Magee. “An Interview by Paul Magee: Petaluma, California, July 20, 2013.” The American Poetry Review 44, no. 6 (2015): 25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24595654.

[7] C.D Wright and Paul Magee. “An Interview by Paul Magee: Petaluma, California, July 20, 2013,” 25.

[8] Wright, 74.

Brooke Harries work has appeared in Salamander, Sixth Finch, Laurel Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the University of California Irvine and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she serves as Associate Editor for Mississippi Review