I think a lot about “unity” in general, and in these days of such extreme polarization and division, it feels urgent to contemplate the concept less sentimentally and more…rigorously, I guess: to consider what it means, and what it asks of us, to serve its ends.
The following is a set of linked reflections, which sample and reflect some of my own dippings and circlings of the subject.
But first, a recommendation (unity-related and general): the must-see documentary Summer of Soul, a powerful, beautiful, soul-stirring education of a concert film if there ever was one.
I can’t stop thinking about it–no: I can’t stop hearing and feeling it.
Not that I would want to.
A text exchange with my friend Susannah a couple of months ago :
Me: I keep meaning to tell you that my first “listen” with my new Airpods was to the Ezra Klein interview with George Saunders that you’d recommended [“What it Means to be Kind in a Cruel World”]. I really, really loved it, most particularly for the genuinely humble way he so gloriously (is the word that comes to mind) reconciles/integrates discourses of kindness, morality, and unconditional curiosity. This seems like the crucial triad for our time, and yet (as evidenced by some of the comments on my own attempts at same in my “Are You With Me Here” posts) these seem to live in a mutually-threatening, binary relationship to each other in our common discourse, each one (kindness, morality, and pure curiosity) seeming to de facto contradict the other. So it was profoundly satisfying to listen to Saunders both speak about and enact holding the tension of those three instead, as the explicit goal.
Susannah: Kindness…morality…curiosity. They all require profound grounding, don’t they? As soon as we get away from a center, one of these suffers.
Me: That’s it, isn’t it? Profound grounding in each is needed for all to remain engaged at once, and to anchor each other.
A kindness, then, that is not sentimental—that does not ignore truth in order to be “nice”
A morality that is the response of kindness, truth and justice to the discreet challenges of each ethical situation we face. A morality of empathy, of compassion, that is, versus a fundamentalist morality of “one size fits all” fixed ideas and judgements. The kind of moral response that in fact is only possible in the presence of unconditional curiosity— which can, in turn, only exist in the absence of judgement.
Making possible a justice that is not judgmental, or vengeful.
Later, when I tell Rich about this exchange, he replies,
This is my major theme; it’s what I constantly think about. And it’s a problem that only poetry — not philosophy— can help us with. We need poets to help us understand this, intimately. Philosophy can help us understand intellectually, but poetry is how understanding actually changes and becomes us.
What Rich said about poetry recalled me to the great discovery, relief, challenge, invitation, opening, mystery and grace of poetry for me, in my twenties (which is when I began reading and writing it), which had to do with the realization that poetry can engage and hold all of what it is to be human, without resolution or judgement– without deciding.
This was the thrill
of the new:
that I didn’t have to decide,
“Love is the original mission of language,”
That I could listen inside of it. 1
Poetry as a kind of container-of-witness for all it considers, all it celebrates, all it laments, even all it convicts.
Which, paradoxically, does not make it weak, it makes it dangerous.
A witness that excludes nothing and no-one: is that not unity, and love?
Imagine if everything and everyone belonged, just as they are?
& i see that what’s meant is the illusion
as though ‘separate’ & ‘conscious’ were one and the same— ?
and if creation began in the explosion of unity—
“—an explosion of fusion, not unity.
When all was still fused, there was no unity possible.
Unity depends on some kind of relationship:
the participation of each with all.
No fragmentation, no unity.”
And the mystery of consciousness is that we can watch our own being…
Which brings me (albeit by the scenic route) to what I had originally meant to write about when I titled this post: the late poet C.D. Wright’s One with Others [a little book of her days] which I have lately been reading and re-reading.
In it, Wright (a white woman) returns to her native Arkansas (quoting now from the jacket description:) to explore homegrown Civil Rights incidents and the critical role her mentor, V. a brilliant and difficult woman [also white], played in the little-known 1969 March Against Fear.
(all text in italics below is from the text of the poem)
The world according to V was full of smoke and void of
She was not an eccentric. She was an original. She was congenitally
incapable of conforming. She was resolutely resistant. 3
The resulting, book-length poem speaks directly from and through the chorus of voices it includes and represents, as Wright deftly weaves together excerpts from oral histories, newspaper articles, interviews and photographic records to create a tour-de-force that is at once history, testimony, journalism and song: proof-positive that poetry can address, contain and express (one might say “unify”) the varied and disparate passions and tensions of, well, everything, even more capaciously than I already knew it could.
It is known that when a blackbird calls in the marsh all sound back and if
one note is missing all take notice. This is the solidarity we are born to 4
It also represents Wright’s deep-dive into a century of writing about race, as the twenty-four books in the bibliography attest– her annotated bibliography itself has been a treasure trove to my growing collection of “racial reckoning” readings.
The town under demolition from within
Color provides a structure, albeit soul-sucking 5
Ultimately, as the poem chronicles (in its narrative dimension), the act that briefly united “V” with others resulted in her being shunned and banished from her hometown. As Dan Chiasson observes in Southern Discomfort: C.D. Wright’s “One With Others” :
Becoming “one with others,” [“V”] ended up a pariah—one with others. She was run out of her home town, all but disowned by her husband (they had seven children together), and eventually she settled in a Memphis fleabag hotel.
That last bit is what has stayed with me especially powerfully, after reading Wright’s book, in the challenge of its reminder that to truly and wholeheartedly be willing to be “one with others” is not simply about self-righteously disavowing racism in the abstract; it is to be willing to give up, in one way or another, one’s life.
The world is not ineluctably finished
though the watchfires have been doused6
For me, it presents the challenge and the question as to my willingness to, as “V” did, give up the actual privileges, belonging and protections conferred by my whiteness, and to be prepared to live with the losses of that.
Can I truly claim to be an anti-racist if I’m not?
You have your life
until you use it. You forfeit the only life you know
or go to your grave with the song curdled inside you.7
- From the poem (mine) “Send Word.”
- One With Others, p. 117
- Ibid, p. 107
- Ibid, p. 128
- Ibid, p. 141
- Ibid, p. 139