Three Poems

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

brains, are to be seen in terms of use, dis­use. Lan­guages of care
          & 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 ::

Com­press Pastoral

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.