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C.D. Wright – One With Others (A Little Book of Her Days)

(Bloodaxe Books: Tarset, 2013. Paperback, 176pp, £12.)
 
Reviewed by John Muckle 
 
 
Cover of C.D. Wright - One with OthersC. D. Wright’s One With Others (A Little Book of Her Days) finds us in an American South that will be recognisable to readers of William Faulkner: the imaginary but real country of immutable identities and hierarchies, mysterious solidarities around hidden crimes, and stubborn back-looking ghosts hankering after old pains and certainties. The crime in question is an incident during the Civil Rights movement when a group of black high school students were rounded up and herded into an empty public swimming pool by police; the stubborn ghosts are voices of those who remember this shaming incident and in general the violence of the resistance to civil rights in Wright’s childhood Arkansas. 
 
Assembled in long lyric lines of quoted multi-vocal remembrance, this striking book occupies a hinterland between oral history, epic poetry, biography, and the Southern novel, the latter in that it centres on the life and preoccupations of one brave woman, V (Mrs Vittow), an indefatigable activist, lover of romantic literature, and mentor of the poet who has put her back together. Her acerbic point of view, and the arc of her journey from Arkansas to Hell’s Kitchen, hold One With Others together. As a young woman Wright was involved with the Arkansas poet Frank Stanford – she was present in the house when he committed suicide with a shotgun – so in many ways his shade and poetic spirit also hang over this fascinating book (I’m remembering the lyricism, high-flown emotionalism and narrative drive of his poem ‘The Singing Knives’, other poems in his posthumous Selected Poems, The Light the Dead See and his own ambitious multi-vocal epic: The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1978). Wright quotes from this last as one of her epigraphs, also from W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “Herein lie buried many things.” Yes indeed.
 
But Wright is more dialogical than Stanford, less gothicising, less centred on a romantically victimised self. A cooler customer, who with the benefit of distance and self-dispersal in the voices of others, has produced what feels like a genuinely collective (and conflicted) account of the reality of black and white life in a small Arkansas town in the sixties. Her other influences include Olsonian projectivism and, to an extent, language poetry: this is a splintering of voices, unhoused, grammatically cut across, into which an ironising distance has been invited. We are beckoned in, intimately witness, but are held at the thesholds of these lives. A generous use of typographical space helps the reader separate some points of view and put together a text of glimpses and fragments into an intelligible map in his or her head, whilst Wright’s assimilated projectivism also imparts a ‘flung’ quality to something meticulously composed. The ‘Dear Abby’ letters and their replies offer a sense of domestic life and its contexts, racist jokes suggest local responses to dramatic events elsewhere: 
 
           When he worked
 
for Philco they sent him
 
to the Halley Bay. He was shooting
 
little rockets into the aurora
 
borealis. That was the last good time,
 
The International Geophysical Year.
 
The earth, a greenish blue ball
 
streaked with clouds, spun on. The sky
 
filled with streamers of colored light.
 
I never knew what misery was till I came to Arkansas    
 
 
As self-conscious as it is passionate in reollection, this is a gripping book. Recommended wholeheartedly.
 
 
15 March 2014