Just to act, was the glorious thing: C.D. Wright’s ONE WITH OTHERS

BY JESSICA JACOBS

one-with-othersExtended prose poem, documentary, elegy—C.D. Wright’s One With Others is a haunting, genre-defying  reclamation of the past that burns with the need for its readers to know.  Its stark tapestry is woven from a number of interrelated strands: tales of and from the 1969 “Walk Against Fear” from West Memphis through the sundown towns of the Arkansas delta to Little Rock, a walk led by a man known as Sweet Willie Wine and carried out by a small group of African American men flanked by bristling crowds and angry police officers; the story and wisdom of Wright’s mentor Margaret Kaelin McHugh, fondly called “V” by her “student acolytes,” who was the only white person to participate in the march; testimonials and anecdotes of V from several of her seven children and friends; and personal accounts of courageous acts that helped bring integration to a region that found the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. grounds for celebration.

Wright opens with V’s voice, “It smells like home. She said, dying.” With these words and the sense memory that follows, Wright grounds the reader in the years just before and after V’s death in her Hell’s Kitchen apartment in 2004.  This moment of remembrance also lends One With Others its spiraling, accretive structure. Punctuated by repetitions and retellings, as well as inclusions of everything from past grocery prices—“The only sure thing were the prices [and the temperatures]”—to “Dear Abby” letters, it is reminiscent of the storytelling style of an elderly person looking back on a long life, sharing stories as they surface in her memory’s sweeping currents.  And what a long, fascinating life V had.  Self-taught and fiercely independent, though her becoming “one with others,” especially black “others” who had suffered the “thingification” identified by MLK, cost her not only her marriage, but the acceptance of her community, V asserts again and again, “It is the most alive I ever felt. . . To act, just to act.  That is the glorious thing.”

Along with its distinct structure, One With Others is also marked by Wright’s spare, almost conversational style, which moves fluidly between prose blocks; single lines left to linger on the page and in the reader’s consciousness; and shorter, more traditional, “poetic” lines.  Given the intense drama of the events related, a more overtly lyric choice would have been too much.  Instead, the impact of Wright’s  tales constantly take a reader by surprise.  As she writes of a parking lot that once held a bowling alley that was burned down soon after it was integrated, “It could not have looked more ahistorical.” It is with lines like this that Wright reveals the true significance of this brilliant collection.  Just as to a casual onlooker V might have been simply one more little old white lady shuffling along the streets of New York, or the book cover’s image just a concrete block left to rot instead of the witness to a horrific incident of racism that it is, stories of vital importance are hidden everywhere in plain sight.  Thankfully, we have writers like C.D. Wright to helps us see the world for both what it is and what it could be, and the account of a woman like V to let us know the great courage that is available to us all.

One With Others
C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon Press, 2010
168 pages, $18

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jessica-j-150x150Jessica Jacobs is currently teaching and pursuing her MFA at Purdue. Her work has most recently appeared in print in Slice Magazine and online at Swink.