Poetry / Alicia Wright
:: Compress Pastoral ::
for Jude Walters, operator at Rome Cotton Compress Company Not another one like it for a hundred-odd miles This cotton compress’s so efficient it needs only one operator No spider men darting around iron legs losing fingers The oldest one still in operation also owned by the same man Whose customary reticence shortened threads we have left Jude who runs the big machine while its owner hunts in Nova Scotia Selling bale by bale in Boston bale by bale 500 lbs a bale Stated commission: 50 cents per bale when local sourcing These bales the preference of the surrounding mills Prices shift per telegram: 5 1/8, 5 5/8 4s you don’t care Top crop or small fruit which makes the grade Even disinterested experts confirm the plant’s superior Whether or not the cotton’s injured or will have a bad showing Harbor (meaning wait and do nothing) as spots don’t respond To decline in futures Jude you are full of care moving under the belly The machine like a ladder too high to picture with its bell dome Crushing the cotton you confirmed was of quality not slipping In thinning gradients these distinctions to you the most clear
The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 20: Almighty God will answer well for all those who choose not to give up their devotion to loving him in order to justify themselves.
:: Buckshot ::
from Anecdotes and Reminiscences in A History of Rome and Floyd County by George Macruder Battey Jr. (1922)
The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 53: Various kinds of unseemly behaviour that attend those who disregard the work discussed in this book.
:: Irradiation ::
Harbin Clinic, Rome, Georgia
The cotton broker could afford 100 grams of radium,
which he purchased, in consultation with his doctor,
in the summer of 1919. Two facilities produced a quantity
enough to be considered for philanthropic acquisition:
one in Pittsburgh, another Denver. Because the one
out west was cheaper, perhaps speculatively, the broker
placed his order there. It arrived to Rome’s medical clinic
intended for the treatment of those who could not
otherwise afford it. Some side effects were beginning
to be charted: laceration, reddening of skin, small burns,
deterioration & weakness overall, but the cotton broker
pressed his business. The cotton broker named himself,
a record shows, a capitalist, & in Boston mediated sales of bales
grown from the upland soil tilled by pennied Reconstruction
labor. He was overcompensated handsomely. He built schools.
He upheld codes. He owned a textile mill himself, through
his wife’s family’s tragedy: one brother shot a fiancé, but
that’s another angle—a mark way down a barrel. Or is it, as
the deep therapy X‑ray machine the broker bought for the
emanation of irradiate luminous metal into superficial
dermis shows otherwise developing cells, discolorations, protrusions,
tumors? The excrescence of a body willed mysteriously away.
The X‑ray is a vehicle for sight into tissue, for secrets kept
by bodies until cut, or split, whose cracks or seepages would
self-expire. They activated radium into an idea so they’d contact
the insides of themselves, & blast through killing parts.
The results reported back to the broker justified expense:
During the month of March, we had nine cases for Radium. These cases,
with one exception, were small localized carcinomas, which
usually respond quite readily to Radium treatment, and several
of these have disappeared already. One was an extensive carcinoma
of the breast in which Radium was post-operative, and in which
operation itself would not have been attempted, had not possessed
Radium to follow it up. Four were carcinomas about the head and face
in which surgical measures would have been impossible and where
the only relief lay in the use of Radium. The doctor, cautious
with the application of his source, the Radium Fund, added
on, appreciatively: You may be interested to know that one of the
first cases upon which we used the Radium, in a fibroid tumor, returned
several days ago and the tumor has entirely disappeared.
The broker & the doctor understood each other, understood
the fragility & impact, the work of local use. Two knowledge
systems overlay, begin to blur to one action: a funded fund,
a store of possibility. The possibility itself makes bodies glow,
brains glow imagining their work: direct a tube conducting
voltage, at low wattage—& point the brain toward the body, watch
no, feel the work begin. The necessary burning through, though
internal tumors could not be reached without irrecoverable sear,
& if the X‑ray’s effects were not enough, poison radium drops beading
from a metal tube tip would be touched to tumor, to affected area.
The capital of skin condensed by their formal dialogue. The capital
of who’s attritional—some bodies, say the blasting tubes, inflaming
& capital mutate, brokering, raying out from the limits of what
could be known, of what the two men could & would be willing
to be shown. The story here is not an elegy, attending to a death,
though some patients did die despite treatment: Dead, four; cured,
twenty-six; under treatment, twenty-four; and hopeless, seven, wrote the
doctor some months later. There are quite a number of these who are
now under treatment who I feel sure we will be able to transfer to the group
of cured. Those which I have classified as hopeless are ones which presented an impossible condition when they first came and for whom we used
the radium with the hope of relief. What grows from living bodies
helps us measure distance? What then when a body’s dead?
Care’s capital displaced into outcome, professionally detached—
how if we care to determine good from bad, bad from worse,
& good from better shapes into, from history’s lens, narrative
abscesses. From external beam what can be seen, which samples
ought be held to light? Letters & accounts come radiating selves—
archival resonance—through contact, brought to sight, illumined
structures, the damage in material, a body’s segment layered into shapes
& scanned for meaning. To look at someone like a ray. To see
their body stark, backlit, holding self, curvatures of messages distended,
how healing is a silhouette of power in technology applied
to voices—past this half life each one a separate sound, a sanctity.
The question of who speaks, and if one speaks, one must attune
through laying self aside, let work work its way to heal or recombine.
The question’s if these, their forms, have been, will be benign.
From the writer
:: Account ::
The relationship between the writer and the archive is, in a sense, a constant, as is the idea of having interacted with that archival material that changes both the writer and the extant information reshaped into the poem’s present. Or, I saw a picture, which exists within my family’s archive, of a man identified as Jude, standing before this massive, monstrous machine called a cotton compress, which compacted bales of cotton into incredibly dense segments of material. I want to memorialize Jude’s skill and labor, and think about the meaning of his skill in relation to poetic form, while also considering the impact that industrial farm equipment—strange, now esoteric, then-new, cutting-edge technology—was beginning to have on labor, skill, and whether and how this reoriented or attenuated our relationship both to landscape and to action itself. Rather than sentimentalize the past and those who lived in it, I try to think about conditions, distributions, autonomy, refusals, and enactments through both form and content.
So often when I’m working with historical material from my hometown, a small town in the U.S. South, it’s as though I’m working through the past’s dirt and detritus, trying to get my hands into the root systems of thinking, trying to find the rhizomes of violence and violent thinking, to uproot them, pull them apart. One text cluster at a time. As a poet I’m not beyond satire, nor humor, and the attendant fears that undergird them. Form, here, always, being taken deadly seriously.
What would it mean for a narrative poem to consider that very perspective it occupies? What does it mean to [be honest] look, continually, at history, with the double vision of objectivity and hermeneutic instinct, working through accounts and information, inevitably, as a poet? Can one have X ray vision, really, the fantasy of true objectivity, and from which temporal position would this be the most accurate method of seeing—and, what happens, really, to local thinking, local stories, once they’re situated in narrative? Can topographical poetry—lyric, in a sense—and topological poetry—narrative, by contrast—work in tandem, and would that very practice itself pose risk? In a way, this is my foray into writing into questions that a poet I learn from and admire, Robyn Schiff, poses in her work and teaching.
Alicia Wright is originally from Rome, Georgia, and she has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Poems appear or are forthcoming in Ecotone, West Branch, The Literary Review, Poetry Northwest, Flag + Void, and The Southeast Review, among others. The winner of the 2017 Wabash Prize from Sycamore Review, Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize, and of New South’s 2015 New Writing Contest, she is at present working toward a PhD in Literary Arts at the University of Denver, where she serves as conversations editor for Denver Quarterly.