The Albuquerque Graveyard

by Jay Wright

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“The Albuquerque Graveyard” comes from the middle section of Wright’s third book, Soothsayers and Omens, a volume that marks his first steps toward defining a spiritual order and his place in it. In these poems, Wright explores African creation myths that have become a part of the cross-cultural collective memory. Using this new perspective, he revisits the Mexico and New Mexico of his earlier work.

“The Albuquerque Graveyard” is typical of the transitional poems in the second and third parts of the four-part volume. In it, the poet returns to a cemetery he has visited many times, but this time with a new challenge: understanding himself in the context of past generations of African Americans.

He begins the poem by commenting about the difficulty of getting to the cemetery: “It would be easier/ to bury our dead/ at the corner lot”; that way, he would not have to get up before dawn and take several buses. The search follows a familiar routine. On the way to the rear of the cemetery, he passes the opulent graves of white people and remarks that “the pattern of the place is clear to me.”

The poet articulates what that pattern means in the next four lines: “I am going back/ to the Black limbo,/ an unwritten history/ of our own tensions.” He refers not only to the cemetery’s physical layout but also to a historical pattern. In the poem, “limbo” has two meanings: Blacks are in limbo, an area of uncertainty and neglect where their struggles have not been articulated; moreover, they must consciously maintain a tense balance, as a person does when doing the limbo, the dance created on the crowded slave ships. The poet wants to write the history that has been forgotten and to unwrite that which has been done in error. He wants to solidify the place of the African American—the dead as well as the living—in Western culture.

The poet sees the cemetery’s occupants lying “in a hierarchy of small defeats.” He stops by individual graves and recalls the people buried there: a man who saved pictures of the actor and singer Paul Robeson and who dreamed of acting the part of Othello; a woman who taught him to spell so that he would become the writer she could never be. Yet the memories of these “small heroes” bother him, because he cannot put them and himself in a larger, more significant context.

He ends the poem by describing the uneasy search for his relatives, the “simple mounds I call my own.” He finds them, drops his flowers on the graves, and heads for home. He confronts his relatives’ graves still feeling alienated. The experience of connecting with his personal past is pivotal in Wright’s poetic development, however; it paves the way for his process of conversion by enabling him to see himself as an integral part of an order in the world rather than an unconnected life.

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