It’s not often I pick up a book of poetry and discover it’s a page-turner; poetry is enlivening, strange, wild, challenging, and often beautiful, but it doesn’t always compel me to move from one page to the next the way novels do. One With Others by C. D. Wright (Copper Canyon Press 2010) is an exception—I couldn’t wait to see how the book would unfold.
In an extended elegy that explores the life of Wright’s friend and mentor V, One With Others circles around a pivotal moment in V’s life, the 1969 March Against Fear. Wright uses this event to explore V’s participation in the Civil Rights movement, and the repercussions of her choice to participate. The book tells the story not just of V, but also of a small town in Arkansas, as Wright draws upon newspapers, oral histories, photographs and interviews with witnesses, policemen, neighbors, activist and students to recreate the climate of the summer of 1969.
At the heart of this book are the voices that Wright has collected. Opening the book is like switching on the radio; all the different voices get airtime as if the reader is moving from station to station, jumps in narrative becoming the static of the airwaves. As each of the characters (students, neighbors, activist, and more) offer their piece of the story, the collection brings V. into focus—the reader discovers her unique personality and the particularly difficult life she lived. The refrain “To act. Just to act. That was a glorious thing” depicts V’s vitality and courage in the face of prejudice and hate.
Although Wright is careful to note that this book is closer to fiction than fact, describing it as “a welter of associations,” it is her ability to evoke credible characters and the shocking or unexpected things they say, like “She was right. We were wrong […] They have souls just like us” or “Hardest part to come back [from Vietnam] and see signs that said [N-word]” that makes the collection so powerful. Together the characters provide a startlingly clear picture of racism in small town in the Deep South. Readers are able to hear the events of the summer and to understand how they affected the town and its inhabitants. As C. D. Wright writes at the beginning of the collection, “It was the start of another cacophonous summer.”
Lucy Burns is a third-year MFA candidate in poetry. She is the Associate Editor for Blue Mesa Review.