Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
At seventy-four, Jay Wright has forged an important, if under-celebrated, career. He is a challenging poet, and the challenge his work offers does not comfortably align with the dominant poetic trends on the present American scene. The writing is dense and project-oriented in a way that distinguishes it from the more accessible work of poets laureate. At the same time, it takes little interest in big postmodern legacies. It would be a mistake, however, to characterize Wright as a poetic isolato; instead, we might fruitfully imagine him moving through contested zones. “[S]uch,” Wright says of meditation (and implicitly of his writing), “is the inexact profession / of a pilgrim proceeding / toward the point of his own / erasure.” Like Thoreau’s anti-nomian saunterer (or “Holy-Lander”), Wright’s project blurs journey and destination in ways that confound conventional attitudes about successful identity formation and poetic means to that end.
Wright’s personal peregrinations during the last several decades have tended to merge with broader themes of racial and/or existential displacement in his poetry. From his first book, The Homecoming Singer (1971), to the visionary tours de force of The Double Invention of Komo (1980) and Dimensions of History (1984), Wright has forged intensely intellectual poetry from the search for habitation in a world that ultimately—as the poet continually rediscovers—complicates every homecoming. These thematic trends align Wright’s work with a tradition that includes, in no particular order, Kamau Brathwaite, W. B. Yeats, Robert Duncan, Michael Harper, Harryette Mullen, and Nathaniel Mackey, to name just a few. And like them, Wright subjects his readers to formal and conceptual contortionism in order to make a new place in language.
Such places are always contingent because the language constituting them is always on the move. Although the settings of Wright’s poems float through a habitual blend of New Mexico, California, the American Northeast, South America, Europe, and Africa, grammar and prosody themselves serve as their own renewable frontier locales in his poems. “What would you give,” he asks in Polynomials and Pollen,
the sanction you disapprove?
speaking of return there where
the counterpoint of breath
contrary to its use
a necessary stream,
or the point incidental
to its trace,
the light its only
intention, steered or stewed
by the moment’s breviary?
In his care, the sentence typically maintains its grammatical integrity despite eccentric syntax, diction, and rhythm. The cumulative effect is at once a bold opacity in the relationship between object and concept and also a surprising clarity in idiom.
It is no great stretch to say that the African-American experience is always a creole experience; certainly, the contemporary African-American cultural and linguistic universe inherits a genius for synthesis and syncresis. Slavery and its aftermath proved a crucible for merging numerous distinct African languages with English. Linguistic retentions still demonstrate how the process managed not only to preserve features from its speakers’ prior lives but also to tailor new systems for thinking, saying, and being in the midst of harsh New World realities. In one way or another, Wright has interrogated the logic of this creolization for the last forty years. In his most recent work, he continues this trend by looking back across his career as a way of going forward, by unbinding and recombining the strands of his own poetic history. Wright’s poetic career has been defined by personal, late–twentieth century versions of the same demands that creole languages autogenetically emerged to address. Again and again, his work has striven to find balance between the romance of origin and the exigencies of life ultimately disconnected from such romance. With questions of personal and cultural authenticity, Wright has always found interesting ways to mix skepticism with approval.
In Wright’s ouevre, the poetics of creolization is also a poetics of restlessness. How fitting, then, that his new book-length poem, The Presentable Art of Reading Absence, operates as a long dispatch from a Western mind attempting (and often struggling) to practice transcendental meditation. Equally fitting, Polynomials and Pollen is a sequence of “parables, proverbs, paradigms, and praise” engaged with the pleasures and travails of married life. These subjects seem pedestrian compared to the mythic display of The Double Invention of Komo, which is widely considered Wright’s masterpiece, but subject matter has never really been what makes Wright’s work tick. Restlessness, particularly the restlessness of dialectic, drives it at every level. Where his early poems emphasized the tensions of forging a self, this later work emphasizes similar tensions in anticipation of the self’s unraveling. In both the early and the later poems, these emphases are nevertheless mediated through the restlessness of the language. The Presentable Art of Reading Absence opens thus:
Here begins the revelation of a kiosk
beside the road: the white eggs
nestled there in straw
turn blue in the amber light.
Make of that what you will,
say, what you desire,
a secular mourning,
a morning given over to meditation.
This is the place set aside
for creating the body,
a source of fluctuations, unmarked
Call this wandering along this road
Grammar and syntax stagger forward, trying—perversely enough—to capture detachment. Voice and image do likewise. The identities of and distinctions between addressee and addresser are unclear. The “revelation of a kiosk” disappears before it really takes shape. All of the energy of the language is directed forward, a meditative practice of self-observation that is at once “pilgrimage” and “colonization.” In other words, the mind’s wandering undermines stable certainties about self-knowledge and at the same time begins to assert alternative, equally unstable grounds for certainty. Crucially, the book ends with a repetition of this same final line, “Call this wandering along this road / a colonization.” Freedom of movement, “wandering,” doesn’t always feel like freedom at all; often, it feels like bondage to inertia. The speaker’s uneasiness toward the ownership of his wandering and the association of any ownership—even self-possession—with imperial ambition extends questions that have haunted this poet from the beginning. Even an unraveling self, the work suggests, is stable long enough to be exploited for some “certain” purpose; in this case, for poetry.
Wright is always approaching and crossing thresholds, especially the sacramental kind.
In The Presentable Art of Reading Absence, the problem of empire merges with the most basic practices of attentiveness. Meditation ends up folding the ethno-mythic sacramentalism that informs much of Wright’s poetry (“What do you bring to the door? / A Sonoran mud turtle”) with a detached materialism and a sense of finality (“There will be nothing as tangible as death / when the pulse escapes”). The poem oscillates between these facets of attention; the speaker must remind himself incessantly to let go of the world of multiplicities at the heart of previous books: “I must be less attentive / to the black shawl my lover misplaced / in Cartagena / . . . . that singer no longer belongs / to me.” Such reminders serve to recall and “present” the very plenitude the speaker means to release. Even death (or its close cousin, detachment) must be figured as a kind of triumph, as in John Donne’s “Obsequies to the Lord Harrington,” a poem to which The Presentable Art alludes: “Surely, we have arrived. / . . . So the two of us sit, / mov’d with reverentiall anger, / no longer at rest.”
Reverence, anger, and restlessness are also leitmotifs of Polynomials and Pollen, but they appear and disappear even more elliptically. “A book like this,” says the speaker, “grows from twigs and incense, / the kinds of things you can buy / in bunches, / and never understand.” The accumulation of lyric fragments in this book implies another wandering mode, one the speaker calls “circumferential.” He is preoccupied by notions of change and irretrievable states, and he often ends up circling the remnants of past thoughts or feelings on his way to forging new ones. Bodily experience, especially as a measure of married life, is the most explicit terrain of inquiry, but Wright’s account of the domestic cosmos is framed by wild shifts between microscopic and macroscopic perspectives. Some engine of dislocation or super-imposition lingers behind every screen of existence, quietly altering the trajectory of the speaker’s self-presentation.
The domestic and mythic spheres meet as Wright sounds the idea of the authentic self against broader tutelary influences. Each section of the book bears the title of a concept from traditional West African and South American cultures, and as these titles seem to demarcate facets of life with his wife Lois, to whom the book is dedicated, they also convey a trace of the ancient, non-Western atmosphere Wright’s work has always invoked. Democritus, the Epicurean philosopher who gave us the concept of the atom, is equally significant, as are a host of Western philosophical counterpoints. Even Pauline discourses on bondage enter to fuse the conceptual freight of slavery with marriage and spiritual discipline:
it must be an affliction
that sits heavy on the ear.
I have taken a Paulish
call it, if you will,
through the shaggy court.
My nave and navel
an inventive solitude,
you have me croned
by fallacious fervor
with a gift
Wright is always approaching and crossing thresholds, especially the sacramental kind. Here, the “entablature”—the horizontal top of a classical façade—marks the entry of domestic and sacred selves. As “a name,” it might suggest some means to identify, stabilize, and control these selves. But the poem’s hectic wordplay erodes this sense. Allusion to St. Paul’s “kurioi” opens the poem on a note of bewildering semantic polyvalence, expanding to complicate the relationships that follow. At once a reference to the slave, the devotee, and the female spouse, Paul’s word addresses itself to a human life-world utterly enslaved by sin, a state he describes as a living death.
Wright’s speaker identifies himself as enslaved, but he then proceeds to shrug off the loathsomeness of this state with play. The speaker mocks the disciplines of physical and mystical bodies (“My nave and navel / sympathies”) by mocking the narcissism—or “inventive solitude”—he imagines they “betray.” At the same time, he pokes fun at the conjugal servitude that has him “croned” (hen-pecked and/or bewitched) and which inclines him to a competing, “fallacious fervor.” In order to be himself, Wright’s speaker finds he must follow more than two masters and, thereby, finds himself always caught in contradictions of burden and freedom, fidelity and abandon: “fraught / with a gift / of faithful / forgetting.”
The Presentable Art of Reading Absence and Polynomials and Pollen represent part of the “late phase” of Jay Wright’s poetic project. They effectively, even magisterially, extend and complicate the tense self-fashioning labors of his prior output. Both books are rewarding efforts on their own, certainly, but they prove most legible as part of the larger whole, as modes of reckoning the self of the early work, founded in play against the textures of social life, with increasing cognizance of life’s mortal constraints. The process is a strange, often beautiful, attempt at transforming the desire for return into the liberty of oblivion: “I lift this turbulent spirit / into the morning air, / and release the temperate iron / bird within me.” Insofar as such a process must always remain unfinished, we may rejoice that Jay Wright’s wandering continues.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.