January 21, 2016

"'Just to act,' V. liked to say, 'was the glorious thing'..."

For C.D. Wright, Poet of the Ozarks

We lost C.D. Wright, our Ozarkian friend and poet, who put the history around her into verse so we might hold it in more beautiful detail — as in her nostalgic Ozark Odes and in One With Others, Wright’s much-admired narrative poem rendering the Arkansas theater of our continuing Civil Rights epic.

Listening back to our 2011 conversation, we’re hearing Wright’s portrait of ‘V.’, her hero in life and in One With Others. The place was Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time was August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event was 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.”

V., the center of Wright’s poem, was the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — a mother of seven whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action showed Wright the provocative life and a reason to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

Shortly after she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Wright told us about V. and her native Arkansas, then and now. One With Others renders home in mixed-media detail. 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 — about her V.:

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.”
— from One With Others.

We first met C.D. Wright at Brown University in 2008. As the Bush era ended, the playful Southern poetess had already turned urgently political, and angry, in her art. But she reminded us that mirth and anger, the personal and the historical are fused in the average human lifespan. As in the protestations of her grumpy subject in “Why Ralph Refuses to Dance”. As in the mountains she left and didn’t:

The Ozarks are a fixture in my mindscape, but I did not stay local in every respect. I always think of Miles Davis, “People who don’t change end up like folk musicians playing in museums, local as a motherfucker.” I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked by so many other tongues.
— from Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil.

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