One Big Self: An Investigation
C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon Press, $15 (paper)

If the decades preceding World War II saw a “great migration” of African Americans from the rural South into urban areas such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, then the past twenty years might have seen as a very different kind of “great” migration for African Americans: from urban environments back to rural ones, specifically to prisons built after the collapse of agricultural and manufacturing economies in the mid-1980s. While the first great migration was mostly voluntary (if motivated by ongoing structural racism in the South), the second has been imposed. And while the first contributed to cultural efflorescences such as the Harlem Renaissance, the evolution of jazz and the blues, and urban-based artistic forms, the legacy of the second is still unfolding. Certainly hip-hop, along with a general urban street culture that permeates nearly every corner of U.S. society (and has an extensive global reach as well), have direct connections to this latest “migration.”

Yet street culture’s appropriation outside of cities hasn’t diminished the conflicts that occur when African Americans and Latinos/as from urban environments encounter prison employees, and especially guards, drawn from a rural, predominantly white, population for whom prisons provide the best jobs around. Founded in 1969 as part of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, the Whitesburg, Kentucky, nonprofit arts-and-education organization Appalshop is developing imaginative ways of addressing this collision of urban and rural, black (and brown) and white. Appalshop is primarily dedicated to the documentation and preservation of Appalachian culture. But in response to maximum-security prisons built nearby, the organization started a project in 1999 called Holler to the Hood, which grew out of a weekly hip-hop music program broadcast on Appalshop’s community radio station, WMMT. After incarcerated listeners sent letters to the station detailing racial discrimination within the prisons, Holler to the Hood was established to include poetry, theater, film, and music. An effort was also made to foster dialogue among inmates, their families, and prison employees.

One of Holler to the Hood’s highlights is its annual Calls From Home program, whereby prisoners’ relatives from around the country can phone the station in December to broadcast holiday messages into area prisons. Holler to the Hood has brought together traditional Appalachian folk musicians and hip-hop artists to create a hybrid musical form called hill-hop or hick-hop. As scholars have shown, Appalachian music in the United States is itself a blend of British, African, and Native American traditions. This idea of hybridity became especially popular in the 1990s as geopolitical walls were demolished, economies and cultures more freely intermixed, and essentialisms of all sorts fell into disrepute. However, in the current decade, hybridity has become more tenuous as a “with us or against us” mentality rooted in the so-called war on terror has engendered a sense of polarization both domestically within the United States and internationally. On a more theoretical level, there are limitations to the discourse of hybridity.

Such limitations appear in a number of ways. For one, recognition of difference (as distinct from political antinomies or a “clash of civilizations”) isn’t inherently negative; in fact, a thriving democracy—and rigorous intellectual discourse in general—depends more on disagreement than on consensus. Yet both the right and the left find it difficult to let go of the notion that everyone will—or should—come around to its way of thinking. Ongoing rifts in democracy’s fabric are what enable it—force it—to encompass previously excluded groups. Furthermore, without an acceptance of existing differences, otherness is a mirage, whatever lip service is paid to multiculturalism. Even hick-hop is less a hybrid form than two musical modes overlaid on each other, as when a banjo’s notes accompany a sampler’s beats. While it’s of course important to search for shared commonalities and cross-cultural connections, the major challenge facing the still-new century is to learn to speak—and, more crucially, to learn to listen—across profound cultural, social, ethnic, religious, and political differences.

The photographer Deborah Luster had already spent a year taking photographs of prisoners in Louisiana when she invited the poet C.D. Wright to accompany her to the minimum-security East Carroll Parish Prison Farm in Transylvania, Louisiana; the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel; and the maximum-security prison at Angola, Louisiana, the largest such facility in the United States. In the end, Wright wrote a series of poems to accompany Luster’s photographic project. Their image-and-text collaboration was published in 2003 by Twin Palms Publishers as a glossy art book with the title One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. Inmates cooperated with Luster in deciding how they might be depicted (within the limits of a prison milieu, obviously); as a result, the photographs range from conventional portraits to images incorporating props, special clothing, or, conversely, degrees of undressing. Tattoos feature prominently in an environment where micro-control over the body is a preeminent struggle between imprisoned and imprisoner. Some of Luster’s subjects wear costumes for Halloween or Mardi Gras celebrations; some are dressed for prison rodeos or culinary classes. Not all are African American, though the majority are. They are divided fairly evenly between women and men.

Copper Canyon Press recently published Wright’s poems separately as One Big Self: An Investigation. By switching the original subtitle to “an investigation,” Wright emphasizes an exploratory descriptive mode that complements and comments on Luster’s more straightforward approach. Luster produced actual documents: she claims to have given nearly 25,000 wallet-size prints back to the prisoners she photographed. While Wright provides plenty of direct testimony—her own and from inmates—accrued during and after her visits, her writing also displays skepticism about poetry’s documentary capacities. After all, there’s more concrete information on the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to be gleaned from relatively short sections in history and reference books than in the 600-plus pages of Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. The transmission of pure information isn’t poetry’s task. But then, there’s no such thing as pure information, which is what almost every type of poetry reminds its audience. Language mediates; and poetry—perhaps more than any literary form—continually materializes its mediations.

Distrusting poetry as unmediated communication doesn’t necessarily hinder its imperative to convey. If anything, it gives it a sense of urgency and instigates creative forms of expression. Similarly, the trajectory of Wright’s poetry over three decades reveals an ongoing development of innovative ways to present precise details. Her writing in One Big Self consists primarily of found and constructed fragments, ambiguous lists, and partial confessions that fail to provide much consolation. “Nothing will be settled or made easy,” she writes near the end of the book where it might be tempting to generate summaries or conclusions. As anyone familiar with the work of Michel Foucault knows, the all-seeing panopticon is a primary means of control within modern prison systems—and in society at large. (Readers of Foucault are less likely to know that the panopticon structure was originally schemed as a way to subjugate not inmates but labor, as Peter Linebaugh points out in The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century.) Wright subverts this totalizing awareness and its dream of omniscience by letting slip what might not be known and what mostly eludes—so far—technology’s unblinking gaze: memory, hope, regret, love, and the fundamental errancy at the heart of what it means to be human.

However, a larger context is never far away from One Big Self’s resonant particulars. This context may be the presentation of hard facts, whether the details of a prisoner’s crime, or her or his earlier life, or the money being made by a privatized prison industry reliant on a merciless feedback cycle in which profit is contingent on maintaining and increasing incarceration levels (Wright refers to this process in her poem “Dialing Dungeons for Dollars: Prison Realty”). For some rural communities, the manufacture and preservation of prisoners is the only industry left. Adding further context, Wright’s introduction briefly sketches the history, flora, fauna, and architecture in which the Angola super-max is situated. Sometimes labeled a regional poet for her engagement with the American South where she was raised and to which her writing regularly returns, Wright portrays landscape as always active, and one of her challenges in this project was to apply this poetic sensibility to the inherently static world of incarceration. In response, her poems arrest time through repetition and a looping of specific phrases and images. Perhaps most significantly for this temporal slowdown, she withholds a sense of redemption that she knows isn’t hers to give.

Many features of One Big Self—both poetry and photographs—seem intended to reflect conditions found in prisons. Like the head counts standard in reenactments of incarceration—from Hogan’s Heroes to any number of films—Wright counts off throughout the book, although it’s not always obvious whether this is done on the inside or the outside: “Count the days of summer ahead / Count the years you finished in school / Count the jobs you don’t qualify to hold / Count the smokes you’ve got left.” Many of the poems take the form of letters—“My Dear Conflicted Reader,” “Dear Dying Town,” “Dear Prisoner,” etc.—always a valued mode of contact for inmates. Luster’s portraits also reflect the immediate circumstances of incarceration, specifically in their loose affiliation with mug shots. In 1886, a collection of New York City mug shots was published as Professional Criminals of America (it’s since been reprinted); it was used to identify the criminal face (and in the age of pseudo-scientific physiognomy, a person might be classified as a criminal without having committed a crime) as well as to instruct the book’s readers how not to compose their appearance. The camera, as John Tagg and other scholars argue, has from its inception served as a crucial tool in designating criminality. It also evinces race, as Coco Fusco writes in the exhibition catalogue Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self: “rather than recording the existence of race, photography produced race as a visualizable fact” (emphasis in original).

This tension and play of sameness and difference is central to the poetry and photography of One Big Self, though not always overtly. The book takes its title from dialogue in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line: “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of—all faces of the same man: One Big Self” (which itself is a partial quotation from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). There’s a basic humanism to Wright’s and Luster’s approaches that distinguishes them from trends in avant-garde poetry and photography since the 1970s. Yet Luster’s mostly conventional renderings still allow for a proliferation of differences, and Wright requests in her poetry “That the eye not be drawn in.” When asked during the course of an interview for Jacket magazine about her collaboration with Luster, Wright said: “The discrepancies between the photographer, writer, viewer and inmate are multiple, blaring.” Although these discrepancies precede the project, it’s important that they be built into it too. When publicly exhibited in a gallery, Luster’s images have been printed to resemble 19th-century tintypes and ambrotypes, a process in which the negative shows as a positive against a dark or black background.

The result is a crisp yet slightly ghostly image. As an inherently looser representational mode, poetry is susceptible to haunting, like the prisoner in Wright’s text to whom a guard mistakenly delivers another inmate’s date and time of execution, or her references to Dostoyevsky’s last-second pardon in front of a firing squad:

Water with a stomach wound is fatal
A jacketed bullet drives faster than a lead bullet
Well what do you know
the former governor has employed
von Bülow’s lawyer
People are bummed about the gag order
Just another miracle at Tickfaw
The pretty one from Natchitoches, her
son is three;
she has not seen him for a year and a
That’s hard
Powder-tattooing, that’s close-range fire,
leaves a circular pattern
of black residue
The pretty one, that does hair, her son
is two,
she’s a natural lifer
That’s hard
Stacked blond with sexy facial cicatrix
Wants the photos for her portfolio
You should see her cakes
Esp. the one of the crucifixion [30]

Although there are a handful of more “traditional” poems in One Big Self, much of the book is written in the style of this excerpt from “Modern Times.” The book’s format as a litany of carefully accumulated and edited fragments is further emphasized by a lack of table of contents and the similarity between Wright’s disjunctive-prose introduction and the poetry that follows. Wright’s montage aesthetic owes more than a little bit to Depression-era populist modernism: early Muriel Rukeyser (especially the documentary-oriented U.S. 1) and the collage-based poetry of Langston Hughes and Kenneth Fearing. However, the project looming largest behind Wright and Luster’s One Big Self is another photo-and-text collaboration documenting disenfranchised Southerners: James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

In the lines quoted above, Wright’s text weaves together a variety of references and voices with a cultivated casualness that both blends subjectivity and objectivity and makes a concerted effort at withholding judgment. For the prisoners and for Wright, judgment is replaced by an inability to forget. Particularly graphic crimes are met with the response: “How can that be shriven.” “For whatever it’s worth” is a rhetorical tic repeated throughout the book, often in reference to a serious topic; here, Wright uses “Well what do you know” to introduce the substantial class differences pertaining to treatment within the U.S. judicial system. If tattoos are self-inscribed marks, One Big Self is also permeated with inflicted injuries and scars such as the “facial cicatrix”—though most of them are hardly “sexy.” “Carlighter burns on [a] cashier’s neck” outside of St. Gabriel force Wright to look away. Her text’s combination of imagined, original, found, and quoted sources are their own set of voluntary and involuntary marks written on a larger social body. This body, in turn, is fractured by institutional racism, just as the disruption of families, and particularly the separation of parents and children, is a primary theme of the book (and Luster’s photo captions as well: the ones for women prisoners usually list their number of children). Along with violence against women, it’s the most heart-wrenching dimension of a remarkably unsentimental work.

In evoking this experience of dislocation, Wright’s text rarely returns home; and whatever home does exist is provisional or suspended. Her poems signify this not only in how she gives form to the materials gathered during her visits but in what is and is not included. Omission haunts the spaces between every line of One Big Self. If Luster provided each prisoner with ten to fifteen prints, then she must have photographed thousands of prisoners (1,500 is the total Wright gives in her introduction). Similarly, reading Wright’s precise mosaic of individual lines, one has a sense of all that must have been left out . . . that went missing. In other words, One Big Self is as much about encounter as its impossibility. This is partly a self-reflexive move confirming Wright’s awareness of the project’s ethical precariousness. She comments in the Jacket interview: “Photographing incarcerated people on a visitor’s pass for an art book is definitely on the brink.” But it’s also the text of One Big Self as metonym for the social. The United States is a country in which significant portions of the population are passed over before they can even reach a point of meaningful aspiration. While Wright’s poems at times explicitly address the racism and classism undergirding U.S. society, the lacunae surrounding each broken line of One Big Self silently attest to what remains unsaid and unacknowledged in the larger culture.

Taryn Simon’s The Innocents project involved photographing prisoners cleared by DNA evidence of alleged crimes. Some had spent decades in prison for wrongful convictions. Simon photographed them near key scenes of the imputed crime: the spot of arrest, the place where the crime was supposedly committed or where the accused claimed to be in her or his alibi. (Simon also took conventional headshot portraits.) In one memorable image, Simon photographed Larry Mayes reenacting his arrest after being found hiding under a mattress. He served eighteen-and-a-half years of an eighty-year sentence before being released. More than a validation of scientific procedures in the courtroom, Simon’s project introduces a necessary element of uncertainty into a penal system that executes potentially—and actually—innocent people. We are all both innocent and guilty, Wright proposes at one point. Whereas Simon’s project concerns overturning the mistaken evidence that led to false convictions, Luster and Wright document a different kind of evidence—evidence of, and more importantly against, forgetting.