by C. D. Wright
Copper Canyon Press 2010
Reviewed by Steven Karl
“So they slew the dreamer, and ever since they’ve been trying to slay the dream”
C.D. Wright’s dazzling new book, One with Others, can be seen as a thematic continuation of two previous books, Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which consist of many voices and narratives that expose the corrupt underbelly of the South’s systems of power. In One With Others, Wright focuses on the civil rights movement in the South, specifically Arkansas. She weaves narratives of those that survived the vicious polarizations of hatred and those who did not.
Although the bracketed title is [a little book of her days], there is nothing “little” about this book. It is more than 150 pages long, and is formatted as one extended sequence (continuing, and perhaps paying homage to the book-length Southern poem tradition of Frank Stanford). It is full of voices, stories and fragments, and closes with 10 pages listing source material and notes. Wright provides real voices of the Civil Rights-era South. The South at its best — “Then she shocked me saying, They have souls just like us.” — but mostly, at its worst:
The assistant warden, at 300 pounds, is the one identified for administering the
strap at the Arkansas pen [a self-sustaining institution]. Several say they were
beaten for failing [to meet cotton quotas]. Others more often than not did not
know why [they were beaten]. One testified to more than 70 [beatings].
The strap is not in question. In question is when it is to be administered.
Wright collects various forms of narrative: reportage, news accounts, stories passed on through oral traditions of hymn and gossip, and varieties of lists. She uses the points of view of witnesses, activists, racists, crooked law enforcement officers, survivors, and those who have survived in spirit. With this collage, Wright reaches a more personal and lived history of Arkansas during the Civil Rights era and exposes some of its secrets. One narrative thread presents experiences of black children who were integrated into “white” schools. They are often accounts of alienation and fear. Here are two examples:
GRADUATE OF THE ALL-WHITE SCHOOL, first year of Integration-
By-Choice: Spent a year in classes by myself. They had spotters on the
trampoline. I knew they would not spot me. You timed your trips to the
GRADUATE FROM ALL-WHITE HIGH SCHOOL, First Year of Choice:
When MLK died kids were laughing and talking about how they should have
killed that [N-word] a long time ago.
Did you hear the one about the [N word] that…
Do you know why the colored want to send their children to the white
So they can learn to read and riot.
Do you know what they sang at King’s funeral.
Memphis has one up on Dallas.
They got a president. We got a king.
So they slew the dreamer, and ever since they’ve been trying to slay the dream.
One with Others is potent because it is alive with voices, alive with suffering, alive with a language which earmarks an era, but also a message which seeks to persist. It is also alive with an ideology of hatred that still courses through the United States today. Wright’s book gives the voices of the oppressors a place to be shamed and provides a place for the voices of the oppressed to be heard. Wright’s rolling blend of voices helps the reader to access the psychic landscape of Civil Rights Era-Arkansas in a way that non-fiction and news reports do not. You will find yourself connected to her characters. You will root for some; others will break your heart with their ignorance and arrogance. These are voices retransmitted, American voices perceptive to a present which is suddenly the past:
The river rises from a mountain of granite.
The river receives the water of the little river.
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.
Recalling Langston Hughes, Wright draws upon the river for constant movement. This river begins in the mountains and subsumes smaller rivers on its way to the sea. It becomes an example of nature’s continual rush. Wright then shifts to a human construct, “the house where my friend once lived.” Unlike the river, people physically cease to continue, so Wright continues to build the tension between the bucolic (river, house of a friend, walnuts, ironing board) and the “ghost,” or the persistence of memory which continues long after a life has stopped. One With Others is the reckoning of ghosts.