BooksWeekend

Rhythm, Divination, and Naming in Jay Wright’s Poetry

In Wright’s poems the name of the absolute is scrawled in a host of esoteric tongues.

Critics often treat the bibliography of a poet like a phone number, chunking the output into smaller units, marking shifts that occur over the arc of a life. There is the early work, the mature work, and, for some, the late stage. But is there such a thing as poetry after the late stage? From a common sense perspective, the question seems ridiculous. Late poetry is last poetry. Nevertheless, Jay Wright, in his most recent collection, The Prime Anniversary, dispenses with common sense and conceits, imagining a post-late poetics, enthralled with the notion of carrying on beyond all reasonable bounds.

If such a conceit sounds heady, that’s because it is. The book is the latest installment in Wright’s ongoing effort to write a poetry of ideas, wherein matter takes on ritual proportions and Afro-Caribbean ritual thought responds to the exclusionary history of Western rationalism. His corpus is a formalist fantasia the way most rituals are. Every aspect of the page — layout, typography, illustration, tense, soud, and symbol — holds value in the divination process. To read Wright is to adopt the position, often thematized in his work, of the “postulant, trembling into knowledge of God’s body, knowledge of his naming” (Transfigurations 148). But if Wright’s reader is a candidate seeking entrance into a rarified order, it is an ecumenical one, diasporic in scope. The name of the absolute is not written in the language of any single denomination or intellectual province. It is scrawled in a host of esoteric tongues—tribal icon, variable equation, philosophical abstraction—making the name less a stable thing and more an echo of entangled ideology.

Within this corpus one finds all the clear markings of phone-number chunking. There is the early, narrative-driven work of The Homecoming Singer (1971), the mature eight-book cycle collected in Transfigurations: Collected Poems (2000), and the prolific late-career output — five books following Transfigurations. (Surely a collected late poems is in the works.) The premise for The Prime Anniversary is laid out in the preceding volume, Disorientations: Groundings (2013). There, we find Wright adopting the familiar posture of the late poet: “I ask you now to consider the old poet / as he sits in his Bradford garden” (6). From this vantage, the venerable poet of Vermont takes stock: “The old poet has done a study / of exploration, of rhythm as ethos.” If rhythm is ethos, its message is perseverance. “I would fasten myself to that rhythm,” says Wright, “an anniversary of salt and serenity.” This is the anniversary referred to in the title of Wright’s recent collection. Rhythm, for the poet, becomes transportive, carrying him into an ethereal plane.

The opening long poem delineates the prospect of a post-late poetics.

Truth: names travel a watery route to heaven,

so says Concha Méndez, or so she would have said,

if she had any regard for physics. Seven

witnesses report that ether surely has failed,

a small erasure hardly noticed at Quito;

lines in that atmosphere seem to circle and flow

tangent to themselves. What does geometry know?

In the past Wright has identified a single biographical figure or perhaps two to guide him through a collection. Here no single figure rises above the others. We have references like the one in this poem to Concha Mendez, which point back to the poets and musicians of Spain’s Generation of 27. These names run up against the names of Greek natural philosophers—Empedocles, Ptolemy, and Cleonides—in paratactic fashion, demanding the reader play along by offering some interpretation of their relation. One such interpretation might be that what connects these figures is their shared status as explorers. Wright, after all, described himself in the previous collection as conducting a study of exploration. Another interpretation is that they all exist as names, and thus build upon Wright’s fascination with nominalization. If there is a truthfulness to poetry, the opening line suggests that it lies in the function names have in life and in the watery beyond. The names reference distinct individuals, but the poem celebrates them in the light of their ongoing contribution to human understanding. By virtue of their names, these explorers exceed earthly expiration. They endure in the language of the poem at hand; where, against a sea of abstractions, they stand out like shimmering buoys, enticing the reader to set keel to breakers and depart on their own exploratory study.

One may think this is a long way of saying that poets attain immortality through virtue of their reputations. But Wright is up to something different. He is less concerned with the name in and of itself, its referential function, than in the medium through which names pass on their path to perpetuity. As the poem above suggests, if one is to understand infinity — as heavenly afterlife, literary pantheon, or mathematical concept — one must first understand the milieu through which a projective phenomenon passes. Taking Wright’s lead, we recall that the failure of ether was the failure of scientific consensus in the 19th century, when physicists assumed that since sound waves pass through air, and ocean waves pass through water, light must travel through some similar atmospheric jelly, which they dubbed “ether.” While little is obvious in this poem, the profound presence of measure and rhyme suggests that Wright considers rhythm to be the milieu of continuity. Less jelly, more Jelly Roll. Each return of the beat is an anniversary, as the title would suggest, and with each anniversary comes an encounter with that which makes a post-late poetics possible: a transition overtaking a terminus.

When describing rhythm and its folding of finite sensory experience into infinity, Wright reaches for evidence in the objective realm — physics, geometry, and chemistry — finding in such propositions a parallel to world mythology.

           Do not be astonished if you hear a drumming,

            or meet an unattended leopard in the bush.

            The mask — half in shadow, half in sunlight — will bring

            you through death; you might think of this as pull and push

            of an electron, orbiting its own demise.

            We know our scholars speak too often in disguise,

                     embrace Abakuá, always sit to improvise.

Here the death ritual of the Abakuá dramatizes scientific thought. The images at the opening refer at least in part to the belief that when a sovereign dies in the Cuban initiatory fraternity, his body is buried without any announcement to the members. Once the death is announced, the members go out in search of the body, which, the ritual insists, has been transformed into a leopard. When the leopard goes undiscovered, the animal’s spirit is said to find its way into the form of the sovereign’s successor. The dance of the members and their masking rhymes with the staggered route of the diminished electron. Scattered insights and embodied belief come together over a beat. The essential pulse of the body lives on through the pulse of the drum, which is the pulse of the poem, as Wright extolls, “Nothing overcomes the radiant iambic; / no one forgets the geometry of lyric.”

In another sense altogether, the book suggests that what lies beyond late poetics is that very thing that existed before lyric became the poetic norm. Recalling the Greek conception of poetry as largely a dramatic genre, modern poets have for some time been interested in recovering the lost dialogic basis of poetic expression. This is evidenced by the numerous poets who embed playwriting within their concept of poetic practice. Amiri Baraka, T.S. Eliot, Robert Duncan, and Lorine Niedecker are but a few examples. The second half of Wright’s book features one of the many theatrical works he has written over his career. Entitled “The Geometry of Rhythm,” the one-act play returns us to the foundational question that undergirds the book: in what ways does poetry survive the poet?

            Grogach: You taught me the fragile geometry of self

            Bivio: And you have taught me to live with my ambiguous rhythm

            Grogach: Shall we exchange names?

            Bivio: Let’s do.

The various threads of the book are here woven into a light, yet taut, textile. Selfhood is not particularly well-suited for perpetuity, rhythm is not mere regularity, and names find their meaning in the ongoing exchange.

The Prime Anniversary (2019) by Jay Wright is published by Flood Editions.

comments (0)