Wednesday, May 02, 2007

C.D. Wright's One Big Self: an investigation
My Dear Conflicted Reader,

If you will grant me that most of us have an equivocal nature, and that when we waken we have not made up our minds which direction we're headed; so that — you might see a man driving to work in a perfume- and dye-free shirt, and a woman with an overdone tan hold up an orange flag in one hand, a Virginia Slim in the other — as if this were their predestination. Grant me that both of them were likely contemplating a different scheme of things. WHERE DO YOU WANT TO SPEND ETERNITY the church marquee demands on the way to my boy's school, SMOKING OR NON-SMOKING. I admit I had not thought of where or which direction in exactly those terms. The radio ministry says g-o-d has a wrong-answer button and we are all waiting for it to go off…

Count your grey hairs

Count your chigger bites

Count your pills

Count the times the phone rings

Count your T cells

Count your mosquito bites

Count the days since your last menses

Count the chickens you've eaten

Count your cankers

Count the storm candles

Count your stitches

Count your broken bones

Count the flies you killed before noon
In this new edition of her collaboration with friend and photographer Deborah Luster, American poet C.D. Wright works an intricate and heartstrong long poem about prison life through visits with inmates in three American prisons, and working through prison literature, road signs, correspondence, "the growth industry of incarceration" and everything else she manages to weave in to this magnificent piece, One Big Self: an investigation (Port Townsend WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007). Originally built as a collaborative effort between Wright's texts and Luster's photographs and published as such in 2003 by Lost Roads, this new edition, republished by Copper Canyon Press in 2007, is just the poem; how I envy those readers who were able to experience the edition that carried both. The author of a dozen previous poetry collections including Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon, 2005), Steal Away: Selected and New Poems (Copper Canyon, 2002) and Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon, 1998), C.D. Wright's One Big Self: an investigation incorporates the best elements of what she has worked in her poetry and prose for years, including an extended range of style that weaves collage-like into a quilt of many fabrics, shapes and colours. With only the single photo on the front cover and another on the back, this is a single poem that not only comes out of prison life but seems to live within it, within all the heartbreak of women who leave for a day to give birth and then return, some of whom never see their children again; women with families they've been cut off from, cut off by and cut off because. As Wright writes in her opening prose piece, "Stripe for Stripe":
I remember an afternoon at the iron pile at Transylvania watching the men plait each other's hair between sets at the weight bench. When I asked about a man whose face was severely scarred, a very specific face, with large, direct aquamarine eyes, a guard told me that the man's brother had thrown a tire over his head and set it on fire. This I did not know how to absorb. It was a steaming day; the men were lifting weights and plaiting their hair.

I remember Easter weekend at the women's prison. The day before, a long line formed outside the prison-run beauty shop. Inside, the women having their hair fixed were talking back to the soap operas on the small snowy screen. By visiting day the inner courtyard had been transformed into a theme park for the children. A trampoline had been rented, a cotton-candy machine; someone dressed in a bunny suit was organizing an egg hunt. The little girls wore starched, flouncy dresses, and the boys white jackets and black, clip-on bow ties. The women were dressed up, too, even the ones shackled at the ankle and waist. Deborah photographed all day, nonstop. Identifiable pictures of children would have to be excluded from publication, but people wanted a keepsake. We left before visiting hours ended. It wasn’t our place to be there. It wasn’t really in us to be there.
Subtitled "an investigation," her One Big Self writes and explores the incarcerated individual (and exploring through the text, as opposed to simply writing her results), which through incarceration, replaces the myriad of individualities into a common, maintained and silent single unit. C.D. Wright is one of the few poets writing today who is capable of such enviable lines that you not only wish they could have been yours, but they manage to somehow overtake you before any kind of jealousy can set in. In this collection, Wright has managed poems that bring out the humanity and dehumanizing aspects of women living in the American prison system, and give them back the dignity that, perhaps, even some of them might not have known they already had.
Did you ever have your own room
Did you wet the bed
Did you pour salt on slugs
Did he touch you there
Did you ever make anyone something you were proud of
Can you carry a tune
Do you like okra
Have you ever been scared to the core

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