C.D. Wright won the National Book Award for Poetry a week ago for “One With Others”. To celebrate, I offer up this excerpt (which comes from a great site: Poetry Daily) and a link to the whole book.
The New York Times review reads:
In “One With Others” C. D. Wright ranges back home to the Ozarks of her native Arkansas to dig up and wrestle with revenants of racism — and of courage. This ambitious book is a patchwork quilt of oral histories, photographs, hymns, newspaper accounts, fresh interviews and, foremost, poetry that takes the temperature of race relations in 1969. Referring to V, a brave and stubborn white woman who stood up for blacks in the middle of a racial maelstrom, Ms. Wright writes: “Deep down, she may have been as sad as a cover band. She might have felt drier than a clod of Arkansas dirt. Lonely lonely lonely, like the hunter green suitcase that hadn’t been used since her honeymoon.” Grounded in everyday details — the price of peaches, letters to Dear Abby, the fact that the boxer Sonny Liston was born nearby — “One With Others” feels like the furrows of memory itself.
Publisher’s Weekly describes it at such:
In 1969, a Tennessean known as “Sweet Willie Wine” led a small group of African-American men on a “walk against fear” through small-town Arkansas. This event grounds Wright’s most recent blending of poetry and investigative journalism.
Is is this investigative journalism angle that interested me. In this excerpt, I especially like the contrast at the end: both options stink, but your students can debate over which they would prefer. Indeed, I have been hearing a lot about how the black community was stronger when black newspapers and the negro leagues flourished, and how gay organizations and even gay bars have folded because of our society’s greater tolerance (I won’t say acceptance, yet) and the social possibilities of the web. Is this true for your students, too? Ask.
This poem also goes back to the old argument over what is a poem? Is the beginning and the end a poem, or just the verse in the middle? In the end, how do we tell a story? Where does poetry end? Does a poet have a responsiblity to the form, or their voice?
All good stuff. And the civics/history lesson isn’t too bad, either.
One With Others (excerpt)
THE VERY REVEREND PILLOW [at Bedside Baptist]: The injury that the rock-hard lie of inequality performs is unspeakable; it is irremediable, can be insurmountable. And very very thorough. No peculiar feeling to the contrary can be permitted to gain hold. You get my meaning.
Back then, in case of rain, I would be lying if I did not say to you—you would be ill-advised to step under the generous eave of certain stores or [in the unforgiving heat] to take a drink from a cooler or even try to order catfish [at Saturday’s]. And don’t even think about applying for the soda jerk job [at Harmon’s] or playing dominoes [at the Legion Hut].
Back then we could not be having this conversation. You get what I’m getting at.
Back then I would not be at this end of town unless I was pushing a mower or a wheelbarrow, the teacher [retired] told me over a big Coke at the Colonel’s; even at that, back then, I would not be here, if the sun was headed down.
[How far did a man have to walk just to pass his water, back then?]
The river is impounded by
the lake; below the lake the river
enters the lowlands, it slithers
through cypress and willow. And the air
itself, cloudy or clear, stirring
with smoke or dust or malathion,
if you get my drift, must not
be construed to be indivisible. No more
than blood. There is black blood
and white blood. There is black air
and white air; this includes
the air in the tires blowing out
over the interstate between town and
river, the air that riddles the children
when a crop duster buzzes
a schoolyard, the air that bellows
from the choir of robes
when the Very Reverend Pillow
bids, Be seated, and even the air socked
from the jaw of the champ, born
seventeen miles west, in Sand Slough,
when he took that phantom punch
the year in which this particular round
of troubles began.
Today, Gentle Reader,
the sermon once again: “Segregation
After Death.” Showers in the a.m.
The threat they say is moving from the east.
The sheriff’s club says Not now. Not
nokindofhow. Not never. The children’s
minds say Never waver. Air
fanned by a flock of hands in the old
funeral home where the meetings
were called [because Mrs. Oliver
owned it free and clear], and
that selfsame air, sanctified
and doomed, rent with racism, and
it percolates up from the soil itself,
which in these parts is richer than Elvis,
and up on the Ridge is called loess
[pronounced “luss”], off-color, windblown stuff.
This is where Hemingway penned some
of A Farewell to Arms, on the Ridge
[when he was married to Pauline]. Where
the mayor of Memphis moved after
his ill-starred term. After they slew
the dreamer and began to slay
the dream. Once an undulant kingdom
of Elberta and Early Wheeler peaches.
Hot air chopping
through clods of earth with
each stroke of the tenant
boy’s hoe [Dyess Colony] back
when the boy hadn’t an iota
of becoming the Man in Black.
Al Green hailed from here;
Sonny Liston, 12th of 13 kids,
[some say 24th of 25]
born 17 miles west,
in Sand Slough. Head hardened
on hickory sticks. [And Scott Bond,
born a slave, became a millionaire.
Bought a drove of farms
around Big Tree. Planted potatoes.
When the price came back up,
planted cotton. Bought gravel. Felled
his own timber. A buy-and-sell individual.
When you look close at his picture, you
can’t tell if he was white
or black. You can just tell he was a trim,
cross-eyed fellow.] And the Silver Fox,
he started out in Colt.
Mostly up-and-down kind of men.
[Except for Mr. Bond, he went in one
direction when it came around
to making money.]
+ + +
GRADUATE OF THE ALL-NEGRO SCHOOL: Our teacher would tell us, Turn to page 51. That page wouldn’t be there.
GRADUATE OF THE ALL-WHITE SCHOOL, first year of lntegration-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 restroom.