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Book Review: Transfigurations

Steven Meyer

Transfigurations: Collected Poems
Jay Wright
Lousiana State University Press, $24.95 (paper)

8 Jay Wright is an unsung wonder of contemporary American poetry. To be sure, he has received some choice acknowledgments: he's been a MacArthur Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Hodder Fellow, as well as the recipient of awards from the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Still, each of his seven previous volumes has quickly gone out of print or, due to the obscurity of the press, been all but impossible to find. As a result, Wright has barely registered with the broader poetry audience. If this means that most readers will experience Transfigurations as a first book, then what a first book—displaying both the proverbial promise and the astonishing fulfillment of that promise.

Jay Wright has been writing Transfigurations for more than thirty years. Volumes of collected poems often force together earlier collections which cohere only because they were written by the same person, not because of any internal logic. With Wright, things are very different. In 1983—after he had published five of the eight volumes included here—Wright said that he had initially conceived of a series of volumes that would take the dynamic form of "an octave progression." Having completed the first five volumes, however, he realized that what he actually had was "a dominant one" and that he was "working toward the tonic in a new progression." Translated, this means that Wright's first book, The Homecoming Singer, set the basic tone for his eight-volume sequence; that the fifth volume, The Double Invention of Komo, stands in an especially close relationship to the first; and that the eighth volume, Transformations, which collects thirty-three new poems, returns at a higher pitch to the matter initially introduced by the tonic (even as, in conjunction with volumes six and seven of the sequence, Elaine's Book and Boleros, it resolves tensions introduced by the dominant).

Wright recalls having "discovered the pattern" of The Homecoming Singer "almost a posteriori. I had, as I looked at it, the record of my developing black African-American life in the United States, but I also saw that I had the beginning of forms to express lives that transcended that particular life." From early to late, Wright has been concerned to express "black people acting in history." As he put it memorably in "The Albuquerque Graveyard," in his second volume, Soothsayers and Omens,

I am going back
to the Black limbo,
an unwritten history
of our own tensions.
The dead lie here
in a hierarchy of small defeats.

These defeats ("small") match the triumphs ("small") he celebrated in "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," the poem that opened The Homecoming Singer and consequently opens Transfigurations, articulating

             the uncompromising
need of old black men and women,
who know that pain is what
you carry in the mind,
in the solemn memory of small triumphs,
that you get, here,
as the master of your pain.

So uncompromising are these adepts of "the insoluble / mysteries of being black / and sinned against, black / and sinning in the compliant cities," that Christ himself, who joins them, writhing "as if he would be black," is ignored. "He stands up to sing, / but a young girl, / getting up from the mourner's bench, / tosses her head in a wail." The poem concludes "This is the end of the night," and thus opens the way for the persistent questing of the poems still to come:

and he has not come there yet,
has not made it into the stillness
of himself, or the flagrant uncertainty
of all these other singers.
They have taken his strangeness,
and given it back, the way a lover
will return the rings and letters
of a lover who hurts him.
They have closed their night
with what certainty they could,
unwilling to exchange their freedom for a god.

They are unwilling, that is, to compromise the small triumphs of self-mastery, the freedom that inheres in "the small, / imperceptible act" ("Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City"), for the sake of a "god / who chains us to this place"—a master enslaved to himself, "pitiable," "without grace, / without the sense of that small / beginning of movement, / where even the god / becomes another and not himself, / himself and not another." In place of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, we are presented, as we progress across Wright's octave, with many, many transfigurations, as Wright seeks to define in his poetry "a new and capable personality at home in the transformative and transformed world."

This last remark, closing his 1987 manifesto, "Desire's Design, Vision's Resonance: Black Poetry's Ritual and Historical Voice," designates the task that distinguishes "Afro-American poetry" from its African counterpart, even as "black experience in the Americas…challenges the African world to examine itself." Although Wright meticulously reconstructs the initiation ceremonies of the Komo cult among the Bambara people of West Africa in The Double Invention of Komo, he does not do so in the spirit of returning to some putative origin. On the contrary, he aims to contribute to a New World "redefinition of the person" through the "formal juxtaposition" of "African, European, and American…voices and persons" in the book-length poem.1 Poetry's "extreme manipulative consciousness" fits this task of redefinition: because it "handles its 'facts'" with a certain "disdain" and "its spiritual domain" with a degree of "critical detachment," poetry is especially well suited to creating the sort of "awareness of differing and seemingly incompatible relationships" demanded by such redefinition, or transfiguration.

As Wright suggests, a pretty fair "record of [his] developing black African-American life in the United States" may be gleaned from the poems he chose to include in The Homecoming Singer. Born in Albuquerque, he was raised by guardians—see "The Hunting Trip Cook" as well as "The Faithful One" in Soothsayers and Omens—after his parents separated when he was three years old. At fourteen, he joined his father (who was light-skinned enough to pass for white) in the "naval city" of San Pedro, California. (See "Jason's One Command" and "A Non-Birthday Poem for my Father.") Poems about summer and winter jobs ("The Fisherman's Fiesta," "Two House Painters Take Stock of the Fog," "Track Cleaning") are concerned with a young man's growing awareness of what it means to be black in the United States at mid-century, as, more obviously, are "W. E. B. Du Bois at Harvard" and "Crispus Attucks." So, too, the poems about Mexico, where Wright taught in 1964 ("You come, black and bilingual, / to a passage of feeling, / to a hall of remembered tones, / to the acrylic colors of your own death"), about visiting New Hampshire ("I amble in this New England reticence, / cocksure of my blackness, / unsure of just how white / and afraid my neighbors are"), or about living in New York—where he moved in 1961 after three years in the army and three more as an older undergraduate at Berkeley ("I wait, here near the ocean, for the north wind, / and the waves breaking up on ships. / At this point, the slave ships would dock, / creeping up the shoreline, / with their bloody cargo intact…").

In his stunningly intransigent "Sketch for an Aesthetic Project," Wright says: "I have made a log for passage, / out there, where some still live, / and pluck my bones. / There are parchments of blood / sunk where I cannot walk. / But when there is silence here, / I hear a mythic shriek." In these lines, Wright sketches the shape of the "aesthetic project" he hears reverberating in that shriek. Call it Transfigurations: a work of neither fixed ends nor established beginnings, but of "passage" and "beginning again," as the title of The Homecoming Singer's final poem has it. If the volumes collected in Transfigurations proceed rhythmically by means of rigorous renewals, in the end they form an astonishing New World epic—or anti-epic, since this is no tale of founding but of re-founding, of continuing re-creation, of creative juxtaposition. The victor may get the spoils, but the vanquished don't vanish. This multicultural engine—which Wright characterized in the early 1980s as "the fundamental process of human history"—has always been at work, even in the most isolated communities, but its recognition has been broadly resisted. For Wright (and he is surely not alone in this impression) the fact of an ever-widening community of humankind required the peculiar dynamics of the New World in order to be articulated and acknowledged. For this reason, "the African world," for instance, is challenged to self-examination by black experience in the Americas; and for this reason, Transfigurations may be viewed as a work of genuinely epic proportions and ambitions, albeit with a very different sort of hero: that "new and capable personality at home in the transformative and transformed world," seeking to understand what Wright refers to in the book-length poem Dimensions of History as "our life among ourselves."

Wright's progressive definition of this new personality may be charted in a series of poems that transfigure his basic device of "beginning again" in the terms and imagery of baptism. These include both "The Baptism" and "Baptism in the Lead Avenue Ditch" in his first two volumes, followed by the remarkable "MacIntyre, the Captain and the Saints" in Explications/Interpretations, in which Wright elects a Scottish heritage for himself; by "Landscapes: The Physical Dimension," suturing Mexico and the United States with Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama, in Dimensions of History; by "The Opening of the Ceremony / the Coming Out of Komo" ("I will be written in water, / measured in my body's curative syntax"); by "The Lake in Central Park" in Elaine's Book ("It should have a woman's name"); by "17 / [Melpomene <-> ba]" in Boleros ("When, tonight, under a new moon, / the soul's calendar turns another page, / I will go down, ash laden, and walk / the transforming light of Banaras," the great North India pilgrimage destination on the Ganges); and, in Transformations, by "The Anti-Fabliau of Saturnino Orestes 'Minnie' Miñoso" ("I had heard reports of a sanctified / woman in the town, one who could provide / hope in a dry season…/ But how could I bring myself to confide / in one who would bathe me in a flood tide / of improprieties…").

Wright has always been exceptionally attentive to the formal possibilities of poetry, but he usually avoids traditional forms of versification. In Transformations, however, he embraces a broad range of rhyme and syllabic schemes. There are seguidillas and zejels, redondillas and sonnets, sextillas, dactylic hexameter, and a villancico to match the earlier "Villancico" in Dimensions of History, as well as the unique transformations that he works on a Keats ode ("The Navigation of Absences: An Ode on Method"), on the Spenserian stanza ("Intuition: Figure and Act"), on Donne's "Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day" ("Love's Augustine or, What's Done is Donne"), on blues rhythm ("The Healing Improvisation of Hair"), on both the Provençal retroencha ("The Hieroglyph of Irrational Force") and the dansa Provençal ("Lichens and Oranges"), on the busy bees of Oulipo, the late-twentieth-century "workshop of potential literature" ("Coda V"), and on Thelonious Monk ("Coda VI"). These are all remarkable works, but no less remarkable is the way that Wright, by placing them at the close of so substantial a volume of intricate formal patterning, enables his readers to experience these formal schemes as chosen rather than imposed, emergent rather than imitated.

In 1969 Wright published an article in Sports Illustrated on baseball, the "diamond-bright art form." Partly autobiographical—Wright played minor-league ball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization after he graduated from high school—and partly analytic, the article ends with a commentary on a third-strike pitch to a close friend who was then home-run champion of the Mexican league:

That pitch, more than any other, bothered me. It was such a blatant challenge, such a perverse reward for 15 years….And at that moment I could think of baseball as the realization, the summit of a masculine esthetic—an esthetic, which, as in the highest art, summarizes a man's life, sets him in a historical context where he measures himself against the highest achievement and where he feels that he is perpetuating the spirit of the best of his chosen work. Aggressive, at times mean, at times petty and foolish, the ballplayer still tries to transcend, by the perfection of his craft, the limitations that are inherent in it, and in himself….Where we end is in the seemingly absurd realization that, for a good many, the game looks like life….Our Yankee scout would say that is the American way. I would say it is something more, that baseball offers the ballplayer what any man can learn of art, and of his life as art.

In the thirty-odd years since he wrote these words, Jay Wright has written poetry in a similar spirit. He has composed an extraordinary epic of human transfiguration and transformation, of nothing less than the great work of art that is "our life among ourselves." <


Steven Meyer teaches at Washington University. His study, Irresistable Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science, was published last year.

Note

1This description comes from the "Afterword" appended to the original edition of Double Invention; unfortunately, like explanatory material in several of the volumes, it does not appear in the present edition.


Originally published in the April/May 2002 issue of Boston Review



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