Dimensions of Jay Wright: An Appreciation

Neil Arditi

Forty years have passed since the appearance of Jay Wright’s first book of poems, The Homecoming Singer (1971), time enough for eleven more volumes remarkable for their originality and artistry, and yet his work remains little known, even among seasoned readers of contemporary verse. Not that claims haven’t been made on his behalf: Harold Bloom, for instance, has called Wright the best African-American poet in our history (I’m inclined to agree), and he has won both a MacArthur Fellowhip and the Bollingen Prize. Why then has his reception been so spotty? No doubt his considerable erudition has intimidated some readers. Those in search of easier pleasures will balk at what may seem too high a price for admission, for Wright combines the modernist workload of an Eliot and a Pound with a personal myth that can seem, at times, as comprehensive and idiosyncratic as William Blake’s. He is also difficult to categorize. I first encountered his work in the Selected Poems (1987) brought out by Princeton, with an introduction by the scholar Robert Stepto that associated Wright with Ralph Ellison and Robert Hayden, as well as an afterword by Bloom, who aligned him with Hölderlin, Rilke, and Hart Crane. Other critics have claimed him for “the Americas,” and placed him in the company of Nicolás Guillén, Wilson Harris, and the great Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. It would have been helpful if these houses had feuded over Wright’s affinities loudly enough to draw a crowd. Instead, his work has largely fallen between the cracks of the (for the most part) mutually exclusive communities of readers to whom it would surely appeal.

Wright was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1934, to a prodigal father who worked for a time in the shipyards in San Diego, and who is depicted in The Homecoming Singer “drinking and rolling in the snow / with heavy women who could be Indian, / or at least bragged that they were.” After graduating from high school, Wright pursued a career in baseball, playing briefly with the San Diego Padres of the old Pacific Coast League. He served three years in the Army— stationed in Germany, he read modernist drama and wrote plays in his free time—before attending U.C. Berkeley on the G.I. Bill and then doing graduate work in Theology and Comparative Literature. He went on to teach at several schools, including Talledega, Tougaloo, Yale, and the University of Dundee in Scotland. For the last thirty-five years, however, he has lived with his wife in rural New England, and has gained a reputation for being reclusive, although he was perfectly sociable when I met him at a reading in the late Nineties. On the same occasion, I discovered yet another side to the man: Though past sixty at the time, he was still performing as a jazz bassist.

Like any really interesting poet, Wright both is and is not of his generation. Born in the same year as the notorious Amiri Baraka, he came of age in the early years of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), the aesthetic arm, as it’s often called, of Black Power. In his study of BAM, James Smethurst considers only Wright’s first book relevant, and observes that he has sought to distance himself from the movement. But that oversimplifies the matter. Around 1965, when Baraka (then still known as LeRoi Jones) moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theater, Wright made his own turn toward Africa. He did this largely by studying the cosmology of the Dogon and Bambara people of present- day Mali, which he began to deploy in his poetry with shamanistic intensity. But that is to get ahead of the story, if only a bit. Wright had already written a virtual declaration of independence from BAM in The Homecoming Singer, in the epistolary poem “Idiotic and Politic.” I can only assume that it is addressed to Baraka, for it follows a poem called “Variations on a Theme by LeRoi Jones” and addresses a fellow poet who has entered politics and become “a ghetto Solon.” Neither Wright nor Baraka (if he is indeed the poet addressed) escape the charge of being both “idiotic”— a corrosive cipher for “poetic”—and “politic,” terms that Wright recycles like the teleutons of an abandoned sestina. Always the gentleman, Wright begins by ridiculing his own high poetic aspirations, portraying himself as an overwrought, self-deluded Romantic stomping about his garret:

Your letter reached me
in the darkness of my fever,
when all my dawns
were some corrupt play of shadows,
when I was pulsing with the banal discoveries
we come to with such idiotic exhilaration.

“Your candidacy is a fear I never held,” Wright adds, with the precision of a paradox—not “fear” but “hope” is what we expect. He later returns to the word “fear” as he will often do with central words in his poems: “Now I fear your timid power / brushing against the locks of our diffidence.” “Timid power” is a biting oxymoron, and soon Baraka’s afflatus is fully in the crosshairs:

Holding your last statement
I see your flippant breast cocking its way
into the canons of a careful city,
certain now of the creed’s flexibility,
taking the ordered gestures as some sign
of consent.

With its crisp diction, firm sense of genre and decorum, strong second- person address, and complex meditation on poetry vs. politics, “Idiotic and Politic” is a poem that Yeats might have warmed to. But the Yeatsian virtue it makes of sprezzatura should not blind us to the art and intelligence of its choices. “Canons” suggests, of course, “cannons,” and, by way of association, a militarized zone, in which breasts and guns are cocked. But it also denotes measurements (from the Greek), cultural values, and laws: The “creed” that his fellow poet, this new Solon, has taken the measure of and now manipulates, “taking” (and mistaking) his martial success for popular “consent.” “Careful city” is the most haunting phrase in the passage, conveying a sense of both vigilance and of heavy burdens, the state of being “full of cares.”

Such punning implications keep us on our toes, and the whole poem is taut and compelling in the way it speaks within our earshot, almost. We intuit the missing pieces of a common history and enterprise, even a coming-of-age friendship (“Remember this. / Those nights we lingered / over the boldness of a dime not spent”). Around 1974, Baraka would break with Black Nationalism and declare his conversion to Marxism, a caprice perhaps anticipated by Wright’s poem: “and you, no longer a part / of the idiocy you engendered. / How politic. / But how like you, to find your historic form so soon.” As for Wright, historic and mythic form would come to dominate his art, and he approaches them even here, in his first book. The cylinders of satire still pumping, Wright envisions Baraka in contexts far removed from the present—ones that are tribal, archaic, and (in a brilliantly ironic twist) European and medieval. It is hardly the sort of portrait a Black Power poet would commission for himself:

Celtic kings would have smoked the night at your death.
Trumpet-tongued Roland would forget the art of hesitation.
You would have held assemblies enthralled,
menacing the care of wives.

What is the ratio, here, of mockery to wary respect? The memorable phrase “menacing the care of wives” takes us inside the walls of “a careful city,” which might as well be Newark as Troy. The poem closes with a rejection of one of the would-be elect (“Let this rest, and count no vote of mine”), and a recognition that “There is something paradoxical, and too true, / in the static flux of a life.”

Fully to appreciate Wright’s poetry, one must have a penchant for puzzles and obscurity. Wordsworth would whisper his Lucy poems into “the lover’s ear alone”; Wright, one sometimes feels, would whisper his own poems into the scholar’s ear alone. Even in an early poem like “Idiotic and Politic” there are riddles. Consider this passage:

Here I sit in the stolid temper of my study
fidgeting with the system of a myopic Frenchman,
trying to find my politic self.
But this perversion mocks the Florentine,
would have stung the Philosopher to mockery.

Only Wright’s later work would help identify the figures so offhandedly alluded to here. But let the games begin. For “the Philosopher,” read Plato, whose critique of poetry could indeed be said to reduce it to “a corrupt play of shadows.” “The Florentine” is easy in retrospect: This is the first instance of a tag for Dante that recurs throughout Wright’s poetry. As for “the system of a myopic Frenchman,” it refers, I take it, to the ethnographic studies of Marcel Griaule, a French anthropologist famous for his work on the Dogon. The allusion to Griaule ratchets up the irony: Not only is Wright deluded by shadows merely by virtue of being a poet, even his “politic” search for origins is “idiotic,” for he glimpses Africa only through the reading glasses, as it were, of European scholarship.

A bitter pill, one would think, for a poet who wants to be Afrocentric. But Wright’s conception was always too large for that label. It would seem that he was already planning some version of his “Second Conversations with Ogotemelli,” the sequence that closes Soothsayers and Omens (1976), in which he chooses Dante and Virgil (“the Florentine and his Roman guide”) as models for his apprenticeship to West African cosmology. His primary source was Griaule’s Dieu d’Eau, translated as Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. (The book is based on Griaule’s interviews with a blind totemic priest, the former hunter Ogotemelli.) “Second Conversations with Ogotemelli” introduces us to an esoteric cast: the Nummo, “green and serpent” twins associated with water and language; the Jackal, born of the first, defective coupling between God and earth; and the Smithy, who uncannily resembles Los, the eternal artisan of Blake’s epics. These figures, or “emblems,” never entirely leave Wright’s poetry once they’ve entered it, and they bring with them a tendency toward incantatory verse. Near the end of the last poem of the sequence, “The Dead,” modeled on Virgil’s abandonment of Dante at the threshold of Paradise, Wright crosses a threshold of his own:

The masks dance
on this small point, and lead
this soul, these souls,
into the rhythm
of the eye stripped of sight,
the hand stripped of touch,
the heart stripped of its own beginning,
into the rhythm
of emptiness and return,
into the self
moving against itself,
into the self
moving into itself,
the word, and the first design.

Out of context, some of these lines might be mistaken for a commentary on the Kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, God’s initial act of contraction, performed in order to create an empty space outside Himself in which creation could unfold. No doubt Wright was also trying to make room for something new in his poetry, something latent in the invocations and visionary interludes of The Homecoming Singer. But this passage seems itself to calculate the price the poet pays for his transport: a stripping down of language to some essential paradox or underlying axiom—skeletal, rhythmic. Such poetry approaches, at considerable risk, the austerity of a mantra.

Happily, this poverty is redressed in Wright’s subsequent work, which also features ever more surprising cultural importations. For an example of both Wright’s renewed linguistic exuberance and his penchant for intellectual travel, consider “MacIntyre, the Captain, and the Saints,” from Explications/Interpretations (1984), Wright’s third book in order of composition, although published later. Here he imagines himself throwing back a few (“Ale in the close. / Whiskey to wash away / the stain of the rose”) with three Scots: the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, the philosopher David Hume, and Capt. R. S. Rattray, a colonial administrator and author of several books on the Ashanti. Wright, who may have been teaching in Dundee at the time, summons his interlocutors to a visionary symposium, like some Scottish Faust invoking Mephistopheles, as the walls of his “dungeon” (his study, perhaps) turn to “glass,” and “bubble under / the heathenish touch.” By what rights has an African-American poet donned a kilt and kicked off this occult Highland fling? Wright considers the question himself (“Yet I am not Pict by Scot; / great Kenneth is not my king. / I take my concepts and my kin / from desert waters”), but such concerns fall by the wayside as he wallows in Caledoniana:

I call great John O’Groats,
the Hill O’ Many Stanes,
Gray Cairns of Camster,
Craigiever,
the Temple of Carinish,
Elgin Cathedral,
Lantern of the North,
victim of Wolf of Badenoch.
I call my David
for the rights of trading;
I posit my burghs—
Dunfermline, Perth, Stirling
and Aberdeen.

Wright is a poet committed to continually reinventing himself, and his career is still unfolding. But I suspect that his book-length sequence The Double Invention of Komo (1980) will end up being regarded as his masterpiece. Komo is the apotheosis of his Malian mythmaking, and surely one of the most unique and ambitious books in contemporary American poetry. Reading Komo, I sometimes feel as if the stars were being rearranged by a theological action painter. Like Blake’s Los, Wright feels he must hammer out his own system rather than be enslaved by another man’s, even if he is heavily indebted to Griaule and his colleagues Germaine Dieterlen and Youssouf Tata Cissé, authors of Les fondements de la société d’initiation du Komo, a study of Bambara initiation rituals that Wright in an afterword acknowledges as his “well-spring and base.” But no ethnographic text could fully prepare a reader for Komo, with its intricate weavings of spiritual and literary histories as diverse as St. Augustine’s and Wright’s own. (It also includes his most beautiful homage to Dante, whose Commedia he memorably calls “a true bleeding of the world.”)

Komo is a very difficult poem to quote from effectively, because its form is dynamic and fluid, however rigorously modeled on a ritual order. But if it has a central voice or style, it is Wright’s incantatory mode; he is always breaking into reiteration and anaphora, usually in order to heighten intensity. Here is a cento of examples, taken from all over the book:

On my bed,
I am fused to my brother’s steel spine.
The wind’s bugle covers my day’s death.

When will I know the form of my own childhood?

My mother calls me
child of winter,
child of the cold,
child of the dry season,
child of the warmth.

*

Weary of the light’s miserere,
weary of the dancer’s elevation,
weary of my wally and wagtail
claims,
weary of my scarified entry
into purity and self-knowledge,
I scar the cloth’s design.

*

I order your allegiance now:
to the signs’ immaculate
appearance, a sortie
into divinity’s turbulence;
to the irruption of desire’s cocoon,
and its emerging;
to the spirit’s turning and return
to the master’s voice;
to the token of divine serenity;
to love’s conception, birth
and revelation.

*

We stand in the comprehensive pool.
We are fish,
lifted on its wave
to the stars’ ladder.
We are birds,
tucking its salt under our wings,
caught in the moon’s alleluia.
We are weavers,
carding our souls’ fabric in the sand.
Twilight, pecking at the kelp and berries,
glides in on its heron legs.

There is something particularly lovely about that last modulation, from weavers to twilight, figured as a heron—the metaphor almost seems to glide into the poem from the last stanza of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.”

After Komo, the collection of Wright’s I most frequently return to is Boleros (1991), which is less Dogon-Dante and more Tex-Mex (“Chaparrita, / morenita / y parece una mexicanita. / How’s that for sauce / on your langostinos?”). It includes a remarkable sequence of poems based on the Mexican calendar of saints’ days. But we also get figures from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a sequence titled “New England Days,” and a poem about a layover at Gatwick, as urbane in its way as something by James Merrill:

No one else seems to mind the fog that must lift
before we do, though we do
and hoe a row of vinyl to the window.
England is a middle age, dark,
bursting with sleeping bags,
upon which
the young lie sleeping their halfpenny tastes away
if we take this terminal for the terminus of social form.

Boleros also contains one of my favorite contemporary love poems, “Boleros 1,” a flawless extension of the troubadour tradition that is reminiscent of Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse.” The poem places Wright’s wife Lois at the center of village life in an unnamed Latin American country. Her art of being beautiful, of creating beauty in her surroundings, has that same apparent effortlessness hymned by Yeats. Wright laments that she has eclipsed his art, baffled his powers of description, but this does not stop him from trying:

When Marcelo comes,
with his water glass demonstration
of overflown friendship,
or Miguel,
pricked with the bandarillas
of his latest gringa,
or Emilia brings her Homero,
who will cheat at cards,
nothing explains the centered
chime in your voice,
the exuberant stillness
as you rock harmonically
in your chair.

This globe of a little town goes round
our lives with such swiftness.

Tonight, again,
I will climb the obtuse-angled street
to the bodega at the top,
and come back,
sheltering my tortas,
past the fires of the witches
in the vivienda.
Come back and sit,
with my serrano-laced lomo,
near the soft pearl of your sadness,
and hope somehow to see
the naked stone.

Any love poem must negotiate the charged territory between public and private disclosures, and Wright’s does so with enviable tact. The sensuality of love’s feast is implied by “serrano-laced lomo” and the importuning refrain “come back” as Wright imagines his approach— “Tonight, again”—to the object of desire. But his language is at once erotic and chaste, a duality compressed in the poem’s final phrase, “the naked stone.” As for his posture in the poem, it is not new, exactly, but a combination of previous ones: the poet as flâneur and as devotee.

After Boleros, Wright didn’t publish another book for almost a decade, and that was a new and collected poems, aptly titled Transfigurations (2000). Another long pause followed, and then suddenly there came a flurry of four volumes: The Guide Signs: Book One and Book Two (2007), Music’s Mask and Measure (2007), Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, Paradigms, and Praise for Lois (2008) and The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (2008). Each is, as Wright’s readers have come to expect, unique. As a physical object, Music’s Mask and Measure, from Flood Press, is the loveliest, but I’m still trying to get my head around this minimalist tractatus, with its riddles and paradoxes—its mix of pre-Socratic philosophy, modern physics, and medieval theology—built around (as the back cover tells us) “five equations in a cosmic algebra.” The Presentable Art of Reading Absence is, by contrast, a long, loose rumination, haunted by allusions to Borges and punctuated by a one-act absurdist play featuring three matadors.

Some of Wright’s prior elective affinities have faded into the background in these recent volumes, although they make the occasional curtain call (“what would my Mali sage say”; “you will notice that the Florentine has remained silent”). New heroes have emerged, for instance Democritus, the well-traveled father of atomism—an interesting choice for so spirit-gifted a poet:

Shaggy Democritus appeals to me
with his wanderlust
and his eye, attuned to meteors
and eclipses, fishes and whirlwinds,
with his estrangement
from Athens
and his own passion.

What remains from Wright’s earlier books, however, is a wry self-irony, which runs alongside his transcendental divinations like a dueling banjo. You can hear him pluck it loudly at the opening of Book Two of The Guide Signs (which, incidentally, is meant to complete Transfigurations, forming a ten-book cycle):

The old poet limps about his room
dressing it with tutelary favors.
The room has darkened with light
that catches him scrambling to propel a page
into starlight, a seeming ingenuity
given with age and ambition….
He would be silent, deny his publicatio sui, curry
his own injury at a depth too impossible
to sound.

Such a negative impression
should only arise at his funeral,
and the aten open a perfect redemption.
Thus would he speak
to les cavaliers de la morte,
and dwell with death and its magical power,
and arise, finished, a canonical authority.

Fine as this is, it is not where Wright leaves us at the end of the poem, and not where I would wish to leave off my discussion. But it is no easy task to choose a coda for such a multidimensional poet—a fact that Wright has observed, inversely, by writing nine: three for the end of Boleros, three for Transfigurations, and three more for The Guide Signs. These short codas are, for the most part, whimsical and insouciant riffs on the “Go little booke” tradition. (“Goodbye I’m on my way / No I cannot stay,” begins the final coda of The Guide Signs, a poem written “after” the jazz musician Horace Silver.) But at least one of them, “Coda IV,” is far more than a wink, and indeed is among my favorite of Wright’s more formal verse experiments. “Coda IV” sounds almost like a song fallen out of an Elizabethan play, or the epilogue of a Prospero-like magus as he resigns the stage. It will serve here to send off Wright himself:

Hummingbird of hummingbird
wing of air no one has heard.
Now the wing contains a flaw,
red lines on a box of straw,
threaded veil, bone root or shale,
bred of a corrupted tail.
All bereft, you are death’s tree.
Nothing here remembers me.
How I marvel that your bill
has incensed my tongue and will.

 

 

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