Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1838
Jay Wright’s poetry is a compelling invitation to take up residence in uncertain multiplicities. Boleros, his seventh book of poetry, is no exception in this regard. That this poet, a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is sure neither of his birth date nor of his family name, should have a passion for pursuing the hidden logic of origins both personal and collective is hardly surprising. What may come as a surprise, however, to those unaccustomed to Wright’s densely textured writing is his erudite familiarity and challenging engagement with a wide variety of literary and cultural traditions, ranging from the pre-Columbian Americas to medieval and Renaissance Europe, West Africa, Egypt, and India. Throughout all of his poetry, Wright’s autobiographical personae embark on ambitious journeys across the uncharted territories of his uncompromisingly cross-cultural imagination. Fragments from many different historical and cultural settings come together in an intricate weave of historical and mythological allusions that seeks to articulate the spiritual and intellectual resources available to the twentieth century African-American artist. “Confident,/ cocky,/ still uncomforted,” Wright insists that cultural boundaries need not separate peoples; they are in fact places where communication and communities become possible.
That there is nothing simple about Wright’s poetic procedure, which he elucidates in his essay “Desire’s Design, Vision’s Resonance: Black Poetry’s Ritual and Historical Voice” (1987), is evident even from the dedication page in Boleros. Part of the dedication to his wife, Lois, is a phonetic representation of one of the 266 Great Signs that organize Dogon/Bambara cosmology. These signs or ideograms are of central importance to Wright’s earlier writings, especially to The Double Invention of Komo (1980). “Dyee—la connaissance de l’étoile” appropriately signifies union, wholeness, and harmony achieved through knowledge, through a sense of order. In addition to signaling Wright’s abiding interest in traditional African societies and their theologies, this translated “sign” also calls attention to the overall project that organizes and energizes Boleros’ forty-two poems: to reconstruct or reinvent obscured ties between the “West” and its “others.” Wright’s focus on names and naming is well suited to that gargantuan task. In the volume’s fifth poem (known simply as “5”), he writes:
All names are invocations, or curses.
One must imagine the fictive event that leads to
or Andrew Golightly, or Theodore, or Sally.
In the case of Boleros, these fictive events point not only to the tales of his own ancestry Wright was accustomed to hearing from his father, George Murphy, also known as Mercer Murphy Wright, who claimed Cherokee, African, and Irish descent; they also encompass and probe the entire history of so-called Western civilization: “All these silences, all these intimations/ or something still to be constructed” (“14”).
What, for instance, were the events that led to the names of the nine Greek muses Wright recalls in the first part of Boleros? What “invocations” or “curses” inspired the names of the twelve “Saint’s Days” adorned with “graces and the seasons” in the poem’s second part? What stories lie buried in the names of the various places scattered throughout the book, places such as California’s San Pedro, Florida’s St. Augustine, New Mexico’s Santa Fe, Mexico’s Oaxaca and Xalapa?
Wright’s poetic parade of Greek muses—Erato, Calliope, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Clio, Terpsichore, and Urania—is particularly striking given the usually all-male composition of his imaginary communities and especially the emphasis on male initiation rituals in The Double Invention of Komo. Though women are never entirely absent from Wright’s poetry, which frequently identifies creativity as a female principle, it is not until Elaine’s Book (1988) that female voices assume historical rather than purely mythic stature in his poetry. While the construction of female muses is a worn convention among male poets, Wright’s invocations are perplexing. Following his premise that “All names are false,” he worries the presumably stable Greek identities of these muses by correlating each with a concept taken from one of his favorite cultural archives, the Egyptian Book of the Dead: for instance, “(ERATO/KHAT)”. It is important to note that the relation between these two terms or “names” is not one of equation. Rather than simply replacing Western identities with African ones, Wright creates a situation of transculturation. Each of these poems acknowledges and pays tribute to the cross-cultural possibilities opened up by Herodotus’ claim that the names of almost all the Greek gods came from Egypt, and hence from Africa. It is not surprising, then, to find that the Akan deity Odomankoma “guides Urania’s hand” (“21”), or that Clio communes with both the Dogon god Nommo and the African-American pianist Art Tatum in the “cloth of the Word” (“19”).
Like Martin Bernal’s compelling philological research in Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1987), no doubt one of Wright’s inspirations, these syncretic constructs are designed to challenge Romantic scholarship’s systematic discrediting of the probable existence of Egyptian/African and Semitic influences on Greek culture. As Bernal points out, with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and “scientific” racism, the very idea of such cultural “impurities” at the heart of Western civilization became increasingly intolerable to late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Europe’s academic establishment and its fiercely nationalist ideology. Those included to dismiss Wright’s reconstructions as the fanciful labor of a nonexpert challenging established scholarly paradigms may do well to remember his extensive research in world literatures, philosophy, music, anthropology, the history of religions, and the history of science.
In “Saints’ Days,” twelve poems that progress from January to December, other presences and voices enter as the poet moves from his “ancient theater” to “a new world.” “Santa Bárbara (December 4th),” for instance, brings together Greek Hera, Akan Oya, and former slave Jarena Lee. The latter’s religious autobiographies, from which Wright quotes liberally in this poem, are now part of Oxford University Press’s voluminous collection of writing by nineteenth century black women. Two lines from “Santa Bárbara” provide a succinct summary of Wright’s poetic ruminations: “My gift is in the ceaseless journey from moment to moment,/ from place to place, places given in dreams and clothed by the Spirit.” Perhaps the most powerful poem in this sequence, however, is “Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (September 24th),” a dramatic meditation on racial violence and redemption that turns on the wordremedios: “Time now to reconstruct salvation.” Poems like this one bring to mind another important ancestral figure, the Robert Hayden of “Middle Passage,” one of the finest pieces of writing in African-American literature.
Boleros moves rapidly between both historical and geographic locations. Many of these places, redolent with personal memories, are familiar from Wright’s earlier poems, most notably San Pedro, California, where he grew up in the 1950’s; Jalapa, where he stayed from 1969 to 1971 before moving to the Scotland of Hugh MacDiarmid, the old poet “whose gift is the mist of tongues” (“7”); and New Hampshire, where he and his wife settled in 1973. The poet also takes up a number of new imaginary residences, most significant among them St. Augustine, Florida, the first city the Spanish founded on the North American continent, and Benares, or Ban res, in Uttar Pradesh, known as the “City of the Sun” and one of the intellectual and cultural centers of traditional India. The persistent, sudden shifts from Guadalajara to Glasgow, from eastern Canada to Santa Fe, from Salt Lake City to Piermont, New Hampshire, to Egypt, and to West Africa are at times disorienting and almost dizzying. It is as if one were caught in an intricate ritualistic dance that transforms ordinary landscapes into an elaborate symbolic geography where temporal and spatial divides become increasingly tenuous and ultimately fluid. Appropriately, the crossroads at which the poet-traveler intermittently comes to rest are figured as rivers such as the Rio Grande and the Ganges: “Black spirits such as mine will always come/ to a crossroads such as this, where the water moves/ with enabling force” (“17”). Langston Hughes’s famous “I have known rivers…” resonates in these lines.
Wright’s poetic language is as rich as his symbolic geography is varied and expansive. As always, the poet’s travels become explorations of poetic form. Most striking in this regard are the two trios of poems that follow the hushed “New England Days” and make up Boleros’ fourth and fifth sections. As it turns out, “Sources and Roots” and “Coda” are the title’s most concrete reference points. These relatively brief poems, most of which open with lines from popular Latin American tunes (such as “Un siglo de ausencia”), are daring in their use of Spanish lyric conventions in an English-language environment. The results of such unexpected contacts are marvelously slung and rounded couplets that mischievously wreak havoc with English patterns of accentuation.
Dime en donde encontrar-
te, disposable heart, red star
by which I set my course and flow
a vessel marked by the dim glow
of pride. I am a song that cleaves
to its Guinea way, stops, deceives
itself, falls through a lowered tone
and returns, enhanced by its own
failure, to the key it sustains. (“39”)
Such a virtuoso Afro-Latin performance, that “[picks] the composer’s pocket” in the spirit of Art Tatum and other great jazz musicians, places Wright’s work squarely at the crossroads of poetry and music and shows him at his very best.
Much has been said and written about modern and contemporary African-American poetry’s distinctive musical idiom. The most frequently cited examples in this regard are the blues poems of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown and the jazz poetry of Michael S. Harper and Amiri Baraka. Yet the question of what improvisation, the core of both jazz and the blues, might really mean to poetic practice has rarely been considered. What Wright’s poems show quite clearly is that improvisation as a creative principle is neither a form of imitation nor spontaneous composition. To Wright, an accomplished bass player and poet, successful, innovative improvisation presupposes knowledge of and respect for sets of formal rules, even as those rules are stretched, bent, and even broken. In other words, it requires a rigorous sense of limits and of order. It is from such intellectual discipline that new possibilities begin to emerge, in music as well as in poetry. Wright’s poems are carefully crafted improvisations that respect “original” procedures, that is, prior performances, by systematically pushing them beyond their limits and enhancing them. One difficulty is knowing what those “sources” are, and in his case there are many, since Boleros, like Wright’s other work, assimilates a vast body of cultural knowledge. More important, perhaps, is a willingness to relinquish consumerist attitudes toward literature and listen attentively to the “healing music of my head,/ my soul’s improvisation” (“19”). After reading Boleros, one ought seriously to reconsider the notion that the musical feats of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have no equivalent in African-American poetry. They do now.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXVI, May 15, 1991, p. 86.
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