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One Big Self: Finding The Noble Vernacular (C.D. Wright / Deborah Luster)
Much of what passes for poetry these days is written by talented pretenders, or pretending talents. They are the products of a system which turns out poets as ably as medieval Italian city-states turned out artisans: legions of well-trained technicians who made careers out of duplicating the brush strokes of their masters. Their task was to insure that production levels were maintained in the ateliers of the day and that the decorative needs of the aristocracy were met. Public buildings, houses and city squares were adorned with works that, in most cases, served to reinforce the status quo by raising the excellent poses and good deeds of a landed and arrogant ruling class to emblematic exaggerations and symbolic heights. Sometimes, by its refusal to stray from the status quo, both in terms of the various formalisms of the day and the subjects (or mere aural content in some cases) that it indefatigably reiterates, contemporary poetry seems to provide this same service, essentially a decorative function, for the dwindling literate classes of our times.
The process of downgrading, which is a re-codification of those same aristocratic requirements, into what might constitute a viable (and politically corrected) discourse for modernity (a kind of retooling of the high-art medium which poetry has been since, well, since it began to be written down instead of recited from memory) for the super-select audience of intellectual elites that constitutes the contemporary readership of poetry today, has largely been managed by a cabal of editors, panels of judges, senior poet-professors and an archipelago of coercion know as the MFA. The young poets themselves, paying dearly to be processed through the mill, seem, at times, almost secondary to the systemic necessity to produce professional poets.
So what happens when one of their greatest talents (for they do exist, these great talents, at a ratio to the general poetic population that great talent has always maintained) decides to go to prison?
C.D. Wright, who, for a long time now, has been patrolling that borderland between the so-called mainstream and its self-regulating experimentalist periphery, has done just that. And what she brings back, in the form of One Big Self (Copper Canyon, 2007) is indeed a challenge to the poetic cold war that still, despite any lack of interest by the general reading public, rages on. Her book shatters the distinctions (simply by ignoring them) that have kept two important factions of American poetry apart since the period of late high modernism – one of which leveled its sites on a mimesis of the vernacular, the line which runs from Whitman to Williams, to Black Mountain and, finally, and dismally, to Buffalo; and the other which, based on an appropriation of three centuries of continental tradition, adopted a mandarin taste for epithet, metaphysics and, in spite of Eliot, or perhaps because of him, the lyrical sublime. The latter tended toward the private world of book-lined studies and summers on the coast. The former lived in Harlem, Brooklyn and Morocco and constructed a faux vernacular.
Only the rare exceptions spent any time in prison: for example, Robert Lowell, for a year, for the crime conscientious objection, not so much against the idea of service but because of his manic enthusiasm, at the time, for Roman Catholicism. While “Memories of West Street and Lepke” from Life Studies, is a description of prison life through the eyes of a Bostonian Brahmin (much in the tradition of Thoreau, the town-dweller turned moral botanist and taking to the woods), C.D. Wright’s One Big Body becomes instead, through a kind of mutli-vocal collage, an embodiment of prison life. It is as though she went to these places and said, “here, use my voice, make it yours and tell your story.” Her poem, by adopting, in part, a documentary approach, by maintaining something of the journalistic distance of classic reportage, at the same time that it makes itself utterly porous, almost to the point of authorial erasure, gives us the deeper picture, the inside story. I can think of no other poem in recent American literature that combines an epic framework with such an intimate regard for subject, or perhaps I should say, for the language of her subjects, incarcerated Americans.
Joseph Brodsky, who was certainly no neophyte when it came to internment, defined prison as “a lack of space compensated by a surplus of time.” Many of the voices embodied in One Big Body would agree. In fact time, what to do with it, becomes the daily weather of incarceration. Wright confronts this dichotomy (lack of freedom/ time on your hands) by showing us how prisoners narrate their experience, how they fill the time by talking about where they are, what they’re missing, and what they’ll do when they get out. Wright’s ability to capture these poignant strategies in a language which is both authentic and arch, exacting in detail and so soulfully clipped, reminds one of a much different case: the late Ashbery: stream-consciousness vernacular. In both cases the American idiom is being used to its fullest. Wright’s textures, explicitly and implicitly loaded, in a political/didactic sense, contrast with Ashbery’s no less serious attempt to portray, in Steinian terms, “everybody’s autobiography”. Yet where Ashbery appropriates the vernacular (just as Byron did in his time) with an expressive mixture of irony and philosophical wonderment, Wright let’s it filter through her. They both owe a great debt to William Carlos Williams. But the similarities perhaps stop there. Ashbery’s more patrician and delicate deployment is much closer to Romantic precedents of self-expression, albeit stripped of the traditional lyrical ego. Wright’s project is documentary. One feels there is a hard fact behind every line. She has, in this sense, found a new use for poetry.
The book starts with an introduction, in prose, called “Stripe for Stripe” (echoing both traditional prison garb and the American flag). It runs about five pages and serves a few different functions, including that of wrenching our heart from our heart-holders and preparing us for what’s to come. The relationship with Deborah Luster, the photographer who drew C.D. Wright into the collaboration, is hinted at; intimations of the language to come (“the soft-spoken cadence of Louisiana speech”) signal that this will be a work with something of an ethnographic cast; and there is also a rough narrative of the fieldwork which foretells a kind of authenticity that American poetry is not used to. That is, the documentary approach that I have mentioned above. The need to accommodate poetry to this particular method, is justified almost in the form of an apologia, in which the poet, C.D. Wright, anatomizes (whether retrospectively on not) the narrator of the poem. For this reason, the introduction is, in traditional terms, perhaps the most intimate part of the book. And yet these five pages prepare us for how explicit the once-removed narrator of the poem itself will be.
From the introduction then: “Driving through this part of Louisiana you can pass four prisons in less than an hour. ‘The spirit of every age,’ writes Eric Schlosser, ‘is manifest in its public works.’ So this is who we are, the jailers, the jailed. This is the spirit of our age.”
The invocatory, to the poet herself, (her way of subtly reassigning narrational angle of view) is mixed with the expository: “Try to remember it the way it was. Try to remember what I wore when I visited the prisons. Trying to remember how tall my boy was then. What books was I teaching. Trying to remember how I hoped to add one true and lonely word to the host of texts that bear upon incarceration….Something about the extra-realism of that peculiar institution caused me to balk, also the resistance of poetry to the conventions of evidentiary writing.”
Quoting from this poem is like quoting a sentence (barring the one that opens the book) from Dickens’ Hard Times, and then expecting that sentence to somehow stand in for the whole. This is a shame, because almost every line in the book could stand on its own in the middle of an otherwise blank page and tell us something. Aphoristic, numinous, down to earth, telescopic – these are just some of the qualities that describe the voice of the hovering, permeable narrator that gradually emerges throughout the development of the poem. There are certain sentences that generalize or echo other internments, “Hopelessness against hopelessness” (p. 79) pays homage to another prison narrative, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope. Time-marking (the true religion of incarceration) is represented nakedly, untitled, informally, on the very first page of the poem. This is our first signal that the book will mix the voice of the narrator with the truth-telling of the subject, the act of witnessing with the naked reality of the witnessed, the aesthetic with its raw and authentic source.
Count your fingers
County your toes
Count your nose holes
Count your blessings
It becomes apparent that the poet (as I-based lyrical narrator) has done something which is, for a lyric poet, counterintuitive. This is where the nexus lies; where the poet crosses with the photographer. My instinct is that in this work, in its original incarnation (The Reappearance of Those Who Have Gone, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, Twin Palms Publishing, 2003), the photographer pulled the poet out of herself, and the poet pulled the photographer, strangely, back into an introspective stance. That is, the meeting between text and image, though it is neither choreographed, nor illustrative, hits a similar focal length, both artists contradicting the natural grain of their proper mediums. In fact, it is the incongruity between Wright’s immersive language, her attempt to master the rawness and the lyricism of her subject’s vernacular and Luster’s theatrical, aestheticized take on traditional documentary portraiture (the ‘mug-shot’ made burlesque) that helps to re-set the dichotomy between inside and outside, internment and freedom, artist and subject. Both photographer and poet are constantly aware of the voyeuristic nature of the work, and part of their story is about the need to offset that, or perhaps to incorporate it truthfully.
The poet’s strategy is to render the voices of her subjects as rawly as possible, with minimum interference (though we never lose our sense that the ear of a master, keen to timbre, register, and combination, is at work in the background); the photographer’s is to snatch her subjects out of their prison setting (she uses the neutralizing backdrop of classic portraiture; her subjects have carefully chosen how to represent themselves – choices as myriad as life itself ). It is the subjects themselves (is this a part of the artifice of photographer and poet?) who in the end tell the story they want to tell.
Deborah Luster is nothing less than meticulous in her reification of photography’s mechanical sublime. Though she says she never spent more than the time necessary to make the photographs with her subjects, and would never presume to have given us some essential reading of their soul; but the process of making these photographs, in its entirety, was, in terms of how things normally move in the world today, a slow one. Just as C.D. Wright creates as sense of slowness, an abidance, through linguistic collage, variations in register, and attention to minutia, Luster’s photographic method, in itself, is an attempt to register this time lapse. Doug MacCash writing for the New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune, describes Luster’s approach like this: “She used a black backdrop to remove any modern prison features from the background. To further remove her photos from the contemporary world, she printed them in black and white on small sheets of metal with an amber colored glaze, reproducing the look of the tintype photos popular during the Civil War….By creating present-day inmate portraits that appear to be antiques, Luster slyly suggests that while the rest of the world has undergone social and technological sea changes, incarceration is essentially the same as it has been for more than a century.” http://blog.nola.com/dougmaccash/2008/01/photos_of_louisiana_prisoners.html – this link is worth following, since it not only contains MacCash’s article in full, but a video-interview he made of the photographer.)
Various modes are adopted and then repeated by the poet throughout One Big Self and these provide familiar islands of language for the reader, stations along the way. For the working of the poem itself, this allows for accretion within the collage, which gradually increases tension and works to create a sense of movement, the feeling that there is a kind of progress or inevitability. One of these devices is the letter, a genre obviously crucial to prison life. The repeated letters enable the poet to amplify this importance and to stress one of the remaining formalities left to people living in the alternative world of incarceration. Language, after all, is the one thing that can’t be taken away from them. Letters are written to the reader, to the prisoners; there is even one called “Dear Dying Town”. These lines, on page 39, not a letter, but about a letter, go straight, like a drill, to the heart.
Mack trapped a spider
Kept in a pepper jar
He named her Iris
Caught roaches to feed her
He loved Iris
When Iris died
He wrote her a letter.