C.D. Wright’s book-length poem, One with Others, is a powerful meditation on a town and it’s people’s memories of racial strife and the civil rights movement. Though much of the poem focuses on Wright’s friend and mentor, V, the poem ranges broadly over events that took place in the small Arkansas town, from the high school that was segregated to the bowling alley that was burned down after some African Americans entered it to a group of black school children kept imprisoned in an empty in-ground pool for 3 days by the sheriff. Each of these events, and others even more harrowing, are returned to time and again like a refrain, sometimes in repeated words and sometimes in a new voice remembering the same event.
Wright interviewed numerous people for this work, and she is able to weave their words into a poetic retelling of events: “There were four of us. And when we came over the rise to where you see the bowling alley on your left, there were more white people than I ever saw in my life. // Someone knew, someone told.” This is not standard lyric poetry, but neither is it all prose poetry. It is an innovative mixture of modes just as it mixes voices into a unique blend that makes this a mesmerizing book to read.
Like any book that is willing to be truthful about the south during the civil rights era, there are brutalities that must be reported. Wright brings us again and again to the bridge where the lynchings occurred, and we me time and again the man who lost his eye when he was beaten by 70 men, every one of whom he knew by name. These are the facts of the town:
People study the dingy chenille clouds for a sign.
People did what they have done.
A town, a time, and a woman who lived there.
And left undone what they ought not to have did.
The woman, V, who is at the middle of this wonderful book, is a strong white woman who stood with her conscience and joined the civil rights movement, against her town, her neighbors, her friends. So against each act of horror, there is this beacon of hope and strength. Against each victim, there are others (like the man imported from Memphis) who are there to make sure that civil rights make it to this town and to every town.