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One Big Self: An Investigation

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  247 ratings  ·  25 reviews
"For a long while now, C. D. Wright has been writing some of the greatest poetry-cum-prose you can find in American literature. One Big Self does to the contemporary prison-industrial complex what James Agee did to poverty — it reacts passionately and lyrically (and idiosyncratically) to a sociopolitical abomination. This book, while angry and sorrowful and bewildered, has ...more
Paperback, 96 pages
Published April 1st 2007 by Copper Canyon Press (first published 2003)
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Witness. Wright allows the reader to witness these convicts, these Louisiana jails, the experience of entering and being able to leave them, and feel the confusion and strength of such witnessing. She refrains from moralizing, instead giving the fragments. Arranging the fragments in such a way as to let the voices circle into themselves and amplify into "One Big Self." The big pages, the long lengths of her lines, the phrases dangling in space, and the spaces between lines also aid in this sense ...more
Sep 06, 2011 Mia rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: poetry
Benjamin says something about how all masterpieces obliterate a genre, no? My favorite books tend to, at the least, mess with them. This book, like most of Wright's, isn't quite here or there. It's documentary (like Agee!); it's conversational. It's not as splendid as DEEP STEP COME SHINING (ah ah ah!), but it's gorgeously clear-eyed and strange. It's the sort of book that works wonderfully but would be a disaster to imitate. (And so many poets are writing books "on" something today and proceedi ...more
written in a similar style to deepstep come shining. that headless floating voice feeling. quotes from prisoners, sign posts, posters. lousiana heavy as a bell in the heat and driving around the backroads with the windows down. what i found most interesting is thinking about when something clicks together and when it doesn't. i'm not sure i could say exactly why deepstep does. the styles are so similar. the difference between very very good and stunning.
Patrick Gaughan
One Big Self is a brilliant exercise in form: Wright draws on conversation snippets, street signs, and personal rumination, arranging them into cohesive poems that orbit a central event: Wright & photographer Deborah Lester spent significant time at three prisons in Louisiana. Wright is a sponge, a master observer. In lesser hands, this is a standard victim narrative. Academic white woman interviews predominantly black prison culture & exposes atrocities. Yet Wright finds humor here, she ...more
Don't like the format of this book. Prefer the poems by themselves (published in 2007 by copper canyon). The glossy pages of the photo book seem to detract from the texture of the poetry, and the photos while inventive do not feel nearly as powerful as wrights verse. The result for me was a frustrating overload of unpleasant visual data.
Aug 29, 2007 K rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: the best people in the world
I've always loved C.D. Wright. She writes in a way that is emotional and experimental at the same time. She uses a lot of space in this book of poems and that works well with the subject matter. Repetition, heat, and the constant question about the worth of prisoners returns throughout each section. The reader is almost unsure where one poem ends, another begins, or if it is all one poem. You feel trapped, but get the sense of being able to escape, which is how CD Wright must have felt in the pr ...more
K. Euler
I get the impression that the interviews almost poignant enough to be poems, and C.D. Wright seems to agree. She’s become an editor more than a writer, but she does it so beautifully—she is essentially the photographer (capturing something that was never hers as best she can) but through words. These poems are vignettes, simple lines that are given their enough space to linger with the reader. There is a version with the photographs in it, and the reading experience between the two editions (the ...more
I don't know if you can bear witness for prisons-worth of inmates.

Still, I learned more from this book than from my limited interaction at the Angola Prison Rodeo. And any attempt at witness and empathy-building is needed. There are more than 2 million people in the prison system whom we hardly ever see or think of.

I read, and enjoyed, this collection in an afternoon. The collage form flowed fairly smoothly and built on itself. There are certainly neat voices in it. And at least it didn't read
Nov 18, 2008 Elizabeth added it
Shelves: poetry
This was an interesting book -- the poem that originally accompanied photographs by Deborah Luster of prison inmates in Louisiana. It ranges and returns, a thing I love about her -- she’s got this ability to traverse vast distances in her images/metaphor, yet still maintain a thread through repetition and, in that repetition, amplification. I wonder if I’d have been more wowed if the photos were here, too. The poem feels very emotional, but also thin -- it’s a reaction, and the subject that’s be ...more
One Big Self was an amazing torrent of bits and pieces of people's lives, those of prisoners in three Louisiana prisons. Wright shifts expertly between the voices of the prisoners and the voice of the narrator, creating a tapestry of sometimes haunting personal snapshots, lives before and during incarceration, and her own reflections on her visit and the state of the prison system in the US. This format is a perfect fit for Wright's style - a combination of vernacular and lyrical language.
Do yourself a favor and read this - and when reading it, listen along to the author reciting it here.

Wright paints a picture of life inside the southern prison system. She immerses you in that particular way of life in a very human yet spooky poetic verse. It's been a few months since I've really appreciated a poem, and this was a nice fresh start. Sometimes, the English language is just goddamn mesmerizing.
what i love most about this book is the collage of actual voices, sign quotes and thoughts from the speaker/interviewer. this choice has heft; it really goes for the gut and i love that. i listened to a (fascinating!) interview with C.D. Wright about her process and it reminded me so much of the social science research we do at my day job. now i am stoked about data collection/poetry research overlap!
This collection is moving, and is a kind of approach to poetry - experimental, honest, discursive - that I feel compelled to support. For this reason alone, the book is worth reading. None of the pieces were particularly startling or beautiful, and you got the feel that it was more a poetic diary than a composition
A book that takes a snapshot look at the Louisiana prison system and the faces that comprise this system. The book portrays the complexity of situations that exist. What to think of a person, and a society, that imprisons more people of one person's immediate family then live outside the prison complex?
This book-length poem is based on CD Wright's visits to prisons in the South. There's a lot of discussion of the desire for more objectivity in poetry, or less self. That's exactly what this book brings about, a sense of being immersed in an almost authorless, yet beautifully voiced reality.
A total immersion into the idiom/grit/ache of Louisiana prisons; the photo edition by Deborah Luster is an overwhelming compilation of inmate portraits; I taught the poems in my intro class--50% loved it, 50% hated it--no doubt this book is about encounter.
This was incredibly compelling and needs to be read in one sitting. I'm still puzzling through the method of it, how it works as dependent on so much pastiche...but it's finally very moving in its documentary effect.
A sad and touching many-voiced long poem. An admirable and interesting project, but it didn't completely cohere for me and I'm not sure I would pick it up again.
I love this book. The language and images fall into me, disturbing and wondrous. I'd love to own the volume that is both the photos and poetry.
Aug 26, 2007 Michael rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: strange
a story from southern jails written as abstracted poetry and found words. i read it for the love of something new. i found something new.
Interesting what she does with language, lots of repeated phrases with variations. Always continues to delight the reader.
I'd like to re-read this with the pictures, but it's about as good as "elliptical poetry" gets for me.
Kate Gale
When I read poetry, it is to inhabit this place. Where Wright lives always.
Aug 04, 2009 Ian rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: poetry
Some good honey, but the comb is a shambles.
Typically, fragmented work washes over me; I enjoy the sensation but leave the book dazed, unable to recall the details of any single poem. Not the case here: the clarity of thought, deliberate repetition of key motifs, and the music of it all make for not just a memorable read but a truly meditative experience. Wright takes the extra step to keep the subject matter, the American penal system (which could easily have been didactic or melodramatic), insightful, emotional, and presents it without ...more
Wert marked it as to-read
Mar 17, 2015
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Vincent Scarpa marked it as to-read
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