The ultimate price of life is death. Each individual ultimately works toward living a life that is worthy of death. This, however, takes on a dual meaning. Living a life worthy of death can be one lived in either a positive or negative in manner. In her book-length poem One Big Self: An Investigation, C. D. Wright asserts, “when all is said or unsaid, done or left undone, shriven or unforgiven, this business of dying is our most commonly held goal” (24). Which is to say that death, indeed, is inescapable. What truly matters are the lives carried out between birth and death.
In two book-length poems, C. D. Wright ruminates on the concept of death in light of two very common, and very different, struggles. In her book One Big Self, Wright explores the tumultuous world of the Louisiana prison system. Her goal, among other things, is to bring to light the raw human power of prisoners: those who still possess life, but are largely shut off from the real world. She portrays prison as a confined space, which shows the death of freedom and the individual.
Recurrent dream of freedom: You are outside. It rains. The water turns you transparent and sexual – like electricity caught in a jar. Suddenly you are wide awake and everything you ever wanted is here. You will never need gloves again, never be out-of-date. Harm or be harmed, take or be taken. You can cry and creature here. So quietly can you die (p. 56).
The tragedy of dreaming of freedom, for the prisoner and freeman alike, is that they are necessarily bound to an inescapable whole. The larger picture of humanity is shrouded in death. In death there is no individuality. Everything is simply an object awaiting the darkness that comes after life. There is no individual flesh, consciousness, or freedom, just the chains of death. Wright describes this confinement through the perspective of a Death Row inmate: Your only mirror is one of stainless steel. The image it affords will not tell whether you are young still or even real. In a claustral space. Hours of lead, air of lead. The sound, metallic and amped. You will know the force of this confinement as none other. You have been sentenced for worthlessness. In other eyes, crucifixion is barely good enough. The strapdown team is on its way. (p. 38).
This all can seem rather bleak, but a slight altering of perspective makes way for a real beam of hope in life: all things perpetuate change. Change is a necessary part of life, but it only comes from those who act. Another book-length poem by Wright, acts as an elegy to those who suffered in misery during the Civil Rights movement in Arkansas. The book, One With Others, traces the life of Wright’s friend, called V. A social outcast who sided with the ‘black blood’ in order to enact true change in the southern race culture. Wright exudes: There is black blood and white blood. There is black air and white air. And this selfsame lie takes aim, even if by indirection, at the stifled lives of those inflicting the harm, the lives of witting and of unwitting ignorance, and those who must live among the stiflers, as if one of them, by all outward and visible signs one of them, but on the reverse side of their lie awake in the scratchy dark, burning to cross over, Not to become one of the harmed but to shed the skin, you get my meaning, the tainted skin of the injuring party (p. 25-26).
At this point, death takes on a different meaning. It is no longer attached to the passing away of the physical, but instead acts as a propellant for continual change in society. Each social movement is a death. It is a death for an outgrown way of life, which gives birth to an enduring progressive humanity. However, Wright’s poetry does not allow that this progressive humanity is without flaw.
She notes that there are those “who cannot forgive the harm done because they have borne it since they opened their eyes,” adding that this harm “feeds on a lie that appears to be alive and marked for service into perpetuity” (p. 32). In these lines, Wright acknowledges that the biggest hindrances of progress are those who are apathetic to change. For every individual that desires progress, there is one whose feet are stuck in the mud. Therefore, in our society today, there are certain individuals who have felt inequality their entire lives, and are incapable of forgiving.
I cannot pretend to put my feet in their shoes, but what I can say, and what Wright seems to claim, is that in order for us to grow as a nation, we must try to mend these wounds. The injuring party must acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. The injured party must try to forgive. The process of give-and-take will ultimately aid the healing process of our broken societal flesh. The biggest statement Wright makes in her poetic examinations of American life is that our adopted way of doing things has been exhausted.
In One Big Self, Wright uses a recurring line: It gets old / the way we do things (p. 19). Change is a byproduct of stagnation. The way to live a life that endures beyond death is to live one that helps progress society. The stories of those in the Louisiana penitentiaries, and those involved the Civil Rights movement in Arkansas, are the same: lack of progress is the death of humanity.
Wright notes: The world is not ineluctably finished / though the watchfires have been doused (One With Others, p.141). We as Americans falsely believe that we have progressed past violence and wretched behavior. Though disorder is, in fact, a cyclical disease that infects us. We must never waver in acknowledging the stagnation in the way we mold our society, and we must continually push ourselves toward growth. Humanity is never beyond progress. Or, as Wright concludes: Forever forward / Backwards never (p. 69).
Submitted by @TripStarkey