Thursday, June 28, 2007

 

Jay Wright is not the sort of poet you would expect to see publishing with a post-avant house like Flood Editions. Although The Homecoming Singer was published by Corinth Press in 1971, Wright’s generally published with historically black presses or academic houses, such as Princeton, which issued a selected poems in 1987, or Louisiana State University, which published his collected poems, Transfigurations, in 2000. Too young to appear in the classic Arna Bontemps anthologies of black writing, Wright doesn’t show up at all in Nielsen & Ramey’s Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans. Of the mentions he receives in Aldon Nielsen’s earlier Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism, only one is not as part of a list, and that consists of three sentences in a passage about Corinth Press informing us that Wright was raised in the Southwest and was the subject of a special issue of Callaloo in 1983. Yet Arnold Adoff’s anthology, The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century, affords Wright more pages than it does Audre Lord, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez or Michael Harper. Wright has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and, in 2005, received the Bollingen Prize, which has gone to Ashbery, Creeley & Pound, but more typically is given to the likes of Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, W.S. Merwin or Richard Wilbur, representing the spectrum of American poetry from A to B. But if Jay Wright the poet isn’t usual fare for Flood Editions, publishers of Ron Johnson, Robert Duncan, Graham Foust & William Fuller, Music’s Mask and Measure certainly is.

The volume consists of five sequences, entitled “Equation One” through “Five,” each consisting of a number of short, formally consistent poems. If you saw them on the page without reading them, your first impression might be that they were the work of Flood author John Taggart. Readers familiar with the expansive first-person poetics of Wright may be surprised to read, complete on a single page:

This ordinary language finds
rhythm in ambiguous flame,
that stable density of one
and one, the urgent displacement
that nurtures light.

Save for the fact that Robert Creeley would never deploy four adjectives within five lines – just drop them and this really feels like his work – the poem here, and throughout this sequence, seems to call to mind the entire line of the short poem from Zukofsky forward. I hear Taggart, for example, in the name of the flower here:

Fall unveils the acute
aconitum, blue
light against the garden’s
edge. You might hear
a greenish bird in flight.

Here too there is a word choice – greenish – I can’t imagine Taggart making, even as I wonder what bird that possibly might be, anything from a mallard to a feral parrot. Does it change the poem to know that aconitum is poisonous?

There’s not as much narrative distance from one page to the next as there would be with Zukofsky, Creeley or Taggart – you could reasonably print these equations as poems in a journal, running the eleven stanzas of the first, for instant, onto two or three pages. But that approach would surrender the sharp focus on each stanza as a work-in-itself:

Silence structures a fragile
world; the little day
passes; darkness descends.
The expansive touch of prayer
makes love a random walk.

If what Wright wanted to accomplish was to demonstrate that he could have been a completely different poet & still have been a superb one, this book proves the point again & again. Yet I doubt actually if Wright was much interested in that at all. The five “equations” do ultimately tell a kind of story & the form very much reflects the content.

So maybe it’s the publishers of Flood who deserve the credit here, since this book is going to bring Wright to an audience that maybe hasn’t paid him much heed in a long time – that Corinth Press volume, after all, was 36 years ago. Wright absolutely stands up to the requirements of a poetry very different from his best known works, and we’re fortunate that they’re aimed right at readers who are going to respond deeply to these seemingly simple texts.

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