C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric sound of an offbeat oracle of the Arkansas Ozarks, where she grew up. So the National Book Critics Circle award last week for her book-length poem One With Others — after a near-miss for the National Book Award — seals a distinctly individual triumph of voice and art.
One With Others is her telling of one small fragment of the Civil Rights epic. The place is Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time is August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event is a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.” But the center of poem is the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — an almost anonymous mother of seven (called V.) whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action set C. D. Wright an example of the provocative life and impelled her to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”
She had a brain like the Reading Room in the old British Museum. She could have donned fingerless gloves and written Das Kapital while hexagons of snowflakes tumbled by the windows…
She loved: Words. Cats. Long-playing records. Laughter. Men.
Alcohol. Cigarettes. The supernatural. It makes for a carnal list. Pointless to rank. Five in diapers at once — a stench, she claimed, she never got used to.
One With Others, p. 19.
Our conversation is about V., about Arkansas then and now, and about the mixed-media of One With Others. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews 40 years later:
The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did.
Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her.
Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong.
Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”
One With Others, pp. 10 – 11
There’s a considered bending of forms here, in the spirit of collage.
Well, for me it’s poetry if I say it’s poetry. The genres are not exactly porous, they’re not exactly fluid. But conventions and genres are shifting, like everything else, and people are increasingly receptive to those changes. I think people who read and write prose miss poetry in their lives. And I think poets are tired of the isolation of poetry. I think the documentary record has a lot to yield that creative writers can explore to put a different lens on those facts.
C. D. Wright in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 16, 2011.
The reader’s impression is less that she has extended her poetry with the authenticity and detail of the documentary record; it’s more that she has lifted an historical account with the breath and cadence of poetry.
The house where my friend once lived, indefinitely empty.
Walnuts turning dark in the grass. Papers collected on the porch.
If I put my face to the glass, I can make out the ghost
of her ironing board, bottle of bourbon on the end.
One With Others, p. 7.