Turns out, it took a while for God to die. He lingered, barely coherent, through the first years of the last century, until He understood that modern poetry would happen. Then He seemed at peace and let go, knowing the universe would soon fill with imaginative new forms as poets reinvented the divine. Generations of twentieth-century poets did just that. And among contemporaries, no one has made so much of heaven’s silence as Jay Wright, whose verse constitutes a humane, enduring, and fiercely thought-out redivination of the world. His work evokes the fervor that underlies the creation of myths, as we hear the almost nostalgic voice of some primordial shaping force:
I had the language of the solar wind
at hand, a force set seething with desire;
I thought of myself, invisible, twinned
to a magnetic wave, to the higher
intent of being nothing could rescind,
to a braid of compassion set afire.
For Wright, African religious thought, culled by ethnographers such as Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, has offered what Wallace Stevens called a supreme fiction. Untainted by the failures of Western belief systems, these myths, rituals, and images, and, crucially, the anthropological exegesis surrounding them, have become means of reconnecting to the cosmos. In over ten books since 1971, Wright has woven together personal and cultural exploration. In a just world, headlines would shout: “African-American poet (and onetime professional baseball player) finds in mythic world of Dogon basis of all-inclusive hermeneutics that addresses history, art, and the self.”
Approaching The Guide Signs: Book One and Book Two, it may help to recall a lesson from your school days: Modern poetry loves unfamiliar source material. (Remember reading Yeats for the first time? Remember gyres, Spiritus Mundi, rough beast? Remember, in the margins, your own handwritten equivalent of “WTF?”?) What sweeter seduction, to draw the hesitant neophyte into a world of strange new hermetic pleasure? Book One speaks of ritual masks, primordial foxes, and mythic twins with an irresistible eloquence. Through his “ecstacy of contemplation,” the poet makes of tribal lore a lingua franca of modernity. Through cadences that fuse philosophical reflection with incantation and song, Wright lets us feel for a moment the last great romance, that life has intrinsic purpose:
I would be a seed set in densely ordered space,
keeper of an ancient covenant,
a determinate body with a solitary place,
bounded and secure, a postulant,
explication of limits—not for me this
of boundaries, a dislocation that calls
for an awareness of an in-between state.
My state might be an estrangement,
an emergence into a rare resplendent
transformative urge, an ornate
conception of being.
Book One reimagines how we come to know a world: surface, color, volume, tone, and cultural memory, what Wright calls that “ambiguous archive.” Some jazz poems are slipped in, so that we not be denied an Ornette sense of being (“epistrophes of bemusement and delight / who is the one to smoke a tune in three? / That’s Ornette”) or one that comes about in devotion to Sonny Rollins: “absence of starlight on Avenue C Yes I have you / (say) in that one bridging step that you hear / (say) close to the tone of the serpent’s breath.”
Book Two is essentially a single poem, one of considerable philosophical and dramatic power. We see the poet as if in his study, amid his tropes, like the artist in his studio, amid his paints and brushes. Here, as if in direct contradiction of Book One, Wright means not to assert the creative power of the imagination, but to strip it bare. Intermittently summoning the specter of Jonathan Swift, Wright follows what he calls the “grammar of distraction” where it leads, musing on death in a flow of prayer, self-scrutiny, and cultural inquiry, pitching out words from what could be the stage of an inner theater: “The room has darkened with light / that catches him scrabbling to propel a page / Into starlight.”
The Western canon looms, how else but large? Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, John Donne, and many others find a place within the still-pressing African metaphysics. Though we discern a rich range of reference throughout, our attention is on the drama of the mind’s turning, on the poet ransacking the past for “the shattered tokens of a tutelary god.” The speaker could almost be Faust, round about midnight, pursuing magic arts, or late Beckett, abed, interrogating the phantoms of lost selves. But neither demons nor despair win out. They flare up, but they flee, since the miraculous, in Wright’s world, is always about to happen:
I have grown unpredictable
in my thirst for blessedness, almost
willing to deny the earth
its spin upon its axis,
deceptive in my perfect submission
to measure and substance.
So this might be the night
and a thorough awakening,
that ordinary practice that prepares
a water gift
arising from a desert dryness.
For Wright, some version of rebirth is always possible. Again and again throughout an irradiative body of work, Wright presents the story of an initiate who prepares himself for troubles and trials, who submits, suffers, and ultimately wins a glimpse of a hidden order. This tale appears in such a dazzling array of tellings that it seems new each time, a new turn on a winding staircase. The Guide Signs continues Wright’s epic of spiritual ascent, his skeptic’s quest for communion with spirits, for the whisper that modernity has never forgotten, that tells us there is a higher, a greater, a perhaps undying, life.
Joseph Donahue teaches poetry at Duke University. His most recent book is Incidental Eclipse (Talisman House, 2003).