On Dong Li’s The Orange Tree and the Presence of C.D. Wright

While walking through Washington Park with Dong Li, we had a tough time finding a crosswalk. Li was in Chicago for a reading from The Orange Tree, his first manuscript of original poems published in the United States. I wore scrubs, pager at my hip, grateful for a break from the surgical ward. The night before, Li’s name and new title caught my attention on a flyer announcing a set of gatherings celebrating the Phoenix Poets Book Series. To boot, the poet was on Instagram—and gracious enough to share a walk with a stranger on a path where, we’re told, there should be cherry blossoms in spring.

University students filled the lawns of several quads; the steps of the money church (Saieh Hall for Economics) hosted a young couple holding hands; ambulances cut their sirens as they turned off Cottage Grove into the Trauma Center’s drive-through entrance. Li and I parted ways at 57th and Maryland, steps away from the front doors of the Emergency Department, our afternoon full with the sense of a third presence, my chest humming with the hushed thrill that C.D. Wright, in her work and teaching, is still among us.

April quickly turned cold after that week flirting with warmth. The rate of car crashes slowed; the incidence of penetrating trauma dropped. Opening the vivid red-orange of the Phoenix Poets edition designed by Mint Liu, you can find a clear dedication: “In memory of C.D.” bookended by the final line of acknowledgments, a note of gratitude to Li’s mother that animates each mark and falling line of the text. Before knowing any of this, I cherished the spirit that came through Li, through his time working with Wright. To know Li, even as briefly as I did that afternoon, is to feel Wright’s poetic movement in this world. And to read The Orange Tree is to witness the families and voices living through Li’s touch on the page.

For touch is how his language speaks. Fingertips at the edge of an old photograph, the leaves of the orange tree white with heat. “Genealogy begins to pray / In the new vernacular” (8).  His poem “In Search of Words” gathers in a glossary compound nouns marking moments of pause, transition: the longdead, the familyfire, the driftdream, the augustwoman, the fishermantorchlight, the longrivergrieflake. Words run the length of the page, like fire and water and the strength of genders becoming anything but easy simile or physical metaphor for the water running down the wall, the bullet rain, the river in its worn way to the sea.

Embedded near the work’s latter half, “Event” stands out in its use of abstraction and imperative, drawing readers away from finely stated physical detail to the act of creating impression, object, dream:

imagine the smell

of kudzu, imagine that

kudzu has a smell

myopic edge of night

imagine the impression

of an object, imagine that

object has an impression

swollen hands slowly

over belly

imagine the dream

of birth, imagine that

birth is dream

like insides

imagine the kick

of a rib, a scent of rubber

just whistle (49)

Imagine this, after a requiem dedicated to her, she who was always wearing a purple dress. Imagine this, handle the word “object” followed by a garden covered in snow. Here is the family body, present—dormant if not alive, as Wright might have said several decades ago. Less of a heart cut from pink paper, more of Valentine as suffering love. Turn the page to the following poem “rivers and foreign shores,” find the book’s least allusive statement of violence. The bridge between the two poems might be a description of a newborn, a prose poem extending to five lines, ending “Disappeared. Covered.” In Li’s telling, “Everybody carried fire.” (37)

The collection takes as given the dead as family. At times, its speakers approach desolation. Yet fires in The Orange Tree are too hot, even when quiet, and the rivers too deep for mourning: “[t]ime,” Li observes, “sinks in the river.” (32) The seasons of the family, their gardens, and the orange trees are too real for redemption; the world of The Orange Tree resists that act of semiotic transformation. We are all dead a long time. “Only the crossing counts,” Li quotes Wright. With the photograph, blood-oranges, and history, “their hands were naked and across them hisses a white horse.” (78)

After walking with Li, I turned to Wright’s The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. Walking with Li was such a subtle yet forceful act of walking with Wright that I hoped to connect word and spirit more viscerally in encountering her voice on the page. I was drawn to the text by the panoply of relationships evinced by the title, available selections online, and a sense that Wright may have been at work on the collection during Li’s time studying with her. That—and the honesty of the title’s lilting form. Walmart, William Carlos Williams, the distortions of reflection, the lion without the witch, spring without summer, and the vigorous play of her American scrawl. “In a word, a world.”

Among her many efforts in the text, Wright searches for ways to countenance the quiet horrors that persist after the massacre and precede the next morning’s banal act of cruelty. While measured and emboldened by relationship, The Poet, the Lion…Fire & All often moves with unease, troubled by the distance between poetry and the societal powers that might just have the capacity to halt catastrophe. The voice calls out—not so much in the wilderness as in a crowded grocery store where the beep of the barcode nearly drowns out “what the CIA terms extraordinary rendition and journalist Jane Mayer calls outsourcing torture.” (94) The book’s heart quickens with the recognition that violence is never buried so much as alive in the air at the base of the hill, held by trees planted generations ago as a windscreen. “There is a word,” Wright notes:

meuse, whose obsolete meaning is the form of an animal left by its lying, particularly a hare and other creatures of game. It is imagined that all of the world bears our mark, holds our form, and that the land is reminiscent in detail of all that ever came of its issue, was built on its foundation, or came to great harm on its surface. I met a French poet who lives on the edge of a silent land. Somme, 1916: estimated casualties, over one million. Somme, Celtic in origin, for “tranquility.” (53)

In The Orange Tree, I find an answer to Wright’s yearning for poetry that acts with grace commensurate to the violence of its origins. Li’s is poetry that “[obtains] its essential silence, th[r]ough its movement … to establish a clearing.” Li’s work does not provide a poetics that “meet[s] irrational force with savage insight,” as Wright encourages, nor do the verses “forgo gentle murmurings.” (94) Yet, in this contrast to some of Wright’s more prescriptive ambitions for a poetry of the present, Li’s collection “articulate[s] the possibility of solidarity.” (95)  His poems play the lute, their breath arising in the intimacies of pain, loss, and love that animate acts of listening.

                    Winter comes and goes.

                    Oranges fall and grow.

                    The dead and the living travel through the house.

                    Past the shade of the old orange tree.

                    Its white flowers bloom and wilt, then the oranges turn red.

                    Every year the orange tree turns red.

                    Grandparents never ate any oranges.

                    Last year the orange tree suffered from warm weather.

                    All its leaves were burned white.  (20–21)

Li offers an embrace undisturbed by the impossibility of total resolution. “The mother word, word of words,” Wright notes, “must pull everything in range to its skin if not its core…It must include everyone everywhere. Forever.” (122) In the haptic world of The Orange Tree, in our world, “peace talk sank into silences” (34). Sinking still. Following the sirens, following the talk: more crossings, more silences, more breath. If not words on the wind, perhaps a whistle.

Works Cited

Dong Li. The Orange Tree. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023.

C.D. Wright. The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.             Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Timothy Leo is an editor for DIALOGIST. His writing appears in The Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Lana Turner, Narrative Magazine, Peripheries and elsewhere. He is a member of the surgical housestaff at the University of Chicago. www.timothyleo.com/work.