(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)