July 12, 2013

If One Note Is Missing: C. D. Wright’s One With Others

– Published in Literary Matters

During a short period a number of years ago when I corresponded with Robert Graves, the poet and classicist, he declared in a letter with considerable certitude and a touch of impish hyperbole that he had never won any literary prize of any kind in his entire life. While this pronouncement wasn’t completely true, he nevertheless solidified a valuable point: one does not need to rely on prizes to justify works of art. Notwithstanding Graves’s cautionary note on the subject, C. D. Wright's One With Others (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010) deserves all the notice and prizes it has thus far received, including its selection as the winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize in 2011.

I attend many poetry readings, from those convened in cramped taprooms to those sponsored by any one of the several national poetry organizations located here in New York City. I also read a good deal of contemporary verse. One flaw I discover among some current verse more often than I would like is the absence of big ideas in favor of what one literary critic terms “regretful isolation.” This fault will not be detected in One With Others. Never steeping herself in subjective ambience and private revelation, Wright forges ahead in establishing for the reader an environment in which both writer and reader face translucent choices for responsible attention, if not action. Thus, the poet acknowledges and confirms her and the reader’s role as citizens in and of the world.

At the outset, the reader should know One With Others is a story—actually, three stories told in tandem. Of course, the work has features of a long poem, but it would be a mistake to come to this book expecting the conventions typical of a long piece of verse. First, it is part of the story of the 1960s’ civil rights movement in the American South at a time when many whites there responded manically, “with fear and trembling,” and, on occasion, violently to the threat of compulsory integration and an imminent end to Jim Crow. Second, One With Others is a narrative, reflected in memories, ruminations and testimonials, about the March Against Fear that occurred in the summer of 1969, with protesters walking from West Memphis, Arkansas to Little Rock, Arkansas. Indeed, I remember the end of that summer well. I had begun, in an effort to help black students become more familiar with whites in advance of desegregation, to teach in an all–African American public school on the cusp of the Arkansas delta along the Mississippi River, south of where the march took place, the last year before school integration; the region was on the verge of embarking on a new way of life, and harsh predictions were pervasive everywhere, among both blacks and whites. Third, One With Others is intrinsically the story of a Wright mentor, Margaret Kaelin McHugh—a white woman, a mother and wife— who lived at the time along the route of the march. She carried the moniker of “V” for Wright—drawn from Thomas Pynchon’s title for his debut novel—and joined the march only to be expulsed from her Arkansas town and family. Multidimensional in its reach, One With Others is a social commentary on the endangered and affronted racism of the 1960s in the South, a carefully assembled diorama of the March Against Fear, and a buoyant and memorable biography of McHugh all enveloped in a saga told with cogency, élan, humor, and unrelenting and unforgettable verse.

The challenge Wright places on herself as guide for a citizen’s journey is surely not inchoate for her. She previously tasked herself with similar undertakings in One Big Self (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), her long witness poem about those persons who endure substantial stretches of confinement in the Louisiana state prisons, and in Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), her cross-border outreach to evince the limits, controls, and effects outside the United States of recent versions of Pax Americana.

Although unfair and amiss to characterize C. D. Wright as a distinctly Southern writer, she nonetheless does continue to rely on a transported treasure trove and sundry accoutrements from her Arkansas roots as inspiration for vivid incidents and vivid characters to fuel her art. In this respect, she and James Joyce, with his transmutation of Dublin to Europe, share a bit of a common, homespun Muse. References to Arkansas, locations within the State, and vignettes of Arkansas events emerge in both her short and long poems. In One With Others, she also inserts a little Southern gothic, such as the matter-of- fact comment about a sheriff who always kept a man’s testicles in a jar on his desk. In this work, Wright ventures back into this Southern territory— both geographic and existential—fraught with the consequential forebodings of memory through expressed and ineffable, arresting and evading, words.

Though akin to the poetic design of certain other long pieces by Wright, especially to that of One Big Self, the line structure in One With Others is often, however, more truncated, with thoughts and recalls becoming virtual snippets in much of the poem. This occurs most frequently in depictions and recollections of various aspects of the march and in the exposition and evidence of the vicinal racism. I wonder whether Wright, either consciously or not, employs more abbreviated lines to communicate the strain, the qualms, the intimidation, and the risks of disclosure—that is, the telling, the verbal exposure, in a precarious, easily conflagrant environment that insists little be said publicly about the racial dysfunctions, domination, and duress.

Another technique, present in One With Others and utilized in prior Wright poems, is the repetition, the recycling of moments, remembrances, impressions, and phrases that appear early in the poem and rise again recognizably at another later time or phase. I cannot help but think that this echoing style of Wright’s derives from William Faulkner’s technique of manipulating time intervals and gamboling around with interludes, reacquainted consciousness, and resurrections of scene and language. This feature of One With Others adds comfort and familiarity to the reader engaged in a story that contains a multiplicity of voices, sources, and episodes.

Auden once defined poetry as “memorable speech.” A number of lines from One With Others—quotes from individuals in the story or passages from Wright’s own poetry—happen to be quite “memorable” for me. At the least, several lines insisted I remember them well after I closed the book. Here are a few: “If religion is the opiate of the masses fundamentalism is the amphetamine” (p. 35); “Mind on fire, body confined” (18); “Nothing is not integral” (149); “Any simple problem can be made insoluble” (75); “Whoever rides into the scene changes it” (116). Of course, some readers may consider these simply aphorisms; even if that is true, I still do not wish to forget them.

One With Others takes on big issues, and the reader— the citizen, if you will—departs from a work about unusual times and people with incontrovertible insights and sensibilities. In exploring a book of verse, I often search for the right excerpt that can summarize both the poet’s intent and much of the volume. The idiom of Wright’s voice for the citizen in One With Others is, I believe, largely embodied in this one short melodic selection: “It is known that when a blackbird calls in the marsh all sound back and if one note is missing all take notice. This is the solidarity we are born to” (107). And so we are.

About the Author
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist, and translator. He has published twelve books of poetry, the most recent of which is St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 2006). His work has been published in the New York Times, Best American Poetry, International Poetry Review, Twin Space (Italy), and elsewhere. Johnson has also composed numerous pieces on the American Civil Rights Movement, five of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College. In February, his article “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre” was featured in Green Mountain Review.

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