on The Prime Anniversary by Jay Wright

Jay Wright’s new collection, The Prime Anniversary, begins with a wedding song for the lost. Borrowing from the Sapphic fragment ὦ καλή, ὦ χαρίεσσα (“o beautiful, o graceful”), its epigraph apostrophizes absence and begins a ceremony whose actors wait in the wings. Through the course of the work, the object of address becomes a variable whose iteration forms the architecture of a text that measures what “remains an indiscernible substance, / the weight of a moving body.” Carrying on the geometric motif that he has woven through the recent work of his long career, Wright asks how the act of demarcation adheres so closely to the world it calls into being. One word for this indeterminacy could be “rhythm,” another “history.” For Wright, both mirror the moments of separation and deferred reconciliation that constitute a poem. 

This play between recognition and silence has been distinctive of Wright’s literary style for the last half-century of its development. Wright’s poetry moves interstitially in borderlands that require careful translation onto the page. These lines are geographic, at the same time that they limn the author’s place within the text. In early works such as The Homecoming Singer (1971) and Soothsayers and Omens (1976), recollections of Wright’s origins in the American Southwest unfold in productive tension with the possibility of collective beginnings on a global scale. Later collections such as The Double Invention of Komo (1980) and Elaine’s Book (1988) refract the personality of the poet in intricate patterns of religious devotion and those rituals that constitute everyday life.

More recently, Wright has focused increasingly on meditative states of dispersal and dissemination in which, as he writes in The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (2008) “all is the relevant case of related moments, / touching and falling apart.” Wright’s most current work falls into two parts. One, “The Prime Anniversary,” is a collection of poems, while the other is a play titled “The Geometry of Rhythm.” Part I is divided into many smaller sections delineated by equations that signify a “third” and “second level.” The products of these equations refer respectively to the number of stanzas per section multiplied by the number of lines in each and to the number of stanzas comprised of five lines multiplied by those that contain three. “Third level” a and b contain gnomic alexandrines that chart Wright’s intellectual world, while the “second level” resolves into epitaphic markers of the “ambiguous estate” in which Wright’s poetry has made a home.

Drawn throughout toward an eponymous irreducibility, “The Prime Anniversary” follows “a transcendental curve / and figured absence.” At the same time that Wright’s poetry feels capacious in a way that “welcomes a stranger,” it is in the paratactic suspension of his diction that “the temper of his garden / can sustain a loss.” Considering the hyssop that populates this garden, Wright reflects:

Consider this finite expression a lost art. 
Can the poet understand such an injury,
the melancholia he can never graph or plot?
Can he contribute to a latent conjury?

This series of provocations brings the act of mourning close to philosophical speculation. On the verge of manifestation, the coiled potential of privation overwhelms the poet with its “perfect silence.” As Wright wrote in the early and programmatic poem “Death as History,” “If they are all dying / the living ones / they charge us with the improbable.” Indistinct, the living and the dead form a chorus that defies the gravity of closure. Inseparable, the graveyard and the garden become sites of metaphysical possibility, where preterition is a law of motion.

Wright’s poetry becomes metaphysical, then, in its resistance to too-easy comparison, more than it does in chains of analogies or layers of allegory. Imagining no single, ideal reader who could be conversant with all the fields that constitute his learning, Wright’s garden eschews the cultivation of the georgic’s pedagogical pull. Marginal and spare, the language of “The Prime Anniversary” resembles the scholia that wreath manuscript copies of texts from Western antiquity. Ensconced in their anonymity, these notes collapse historical distance and become a part of the work they annotate. In Wright’s telling, “Aristoxenus disturbs,” “Propertius suffers,” and Emily Dickinson must “take these errors in trust.” Here, Wright’s literary past thrives in its nearness. The authors of this fragmented canon step out of their accustomed, textual places and wait for us to repeat their steps. Wright’s attachment to what remains alive in the act of reference gives form to a philology that invites us to follow him back to the sources of his words and recast their meanings. 

“The Prime Anniversary” opens with a digest of one of these authors: “names travel a watery route to heaven, / so says Concha Méndez.” A member of the Spanish Generation of ’27, Méndez represents another earth-measuring alignment at play in Wright’s work. Writing on either side of the Atlantic, the Generation of ’27 emerged from a celebration of the tercentenary of the death of the Renaissance poet Luis de Góngora. The tercentenary, as one of the anniversaries that Wright celebrates, opens onto an Atlantic world unmoored from temporal coordinates. When Wright enjoins his readers to “call upon Guillén, his radical confidence / in singing the world’s blossoming transience,” he leaves them wondering whether he meant to invoke Jorge Guillén, the Spanish symbolist, or Nicolás Guillén, the national poet of revolutionary Cuba. Likely both at once—the language of these exiles of revolution and reaction form one of many nodes that constitute a “periodic bouncing between mirror points.” Together, these moments of hybrid affinity alter the bearings of literary history and, at their best, reorient its future. 

The mesh of influences that permeate Wright’s writing are never at rest within the work’s yearning to become total. Unthinkable without the abstractions that sustain it, something like rhythm becomes more vexing than the changing of the seasons, or the beating of a heart. In this vein, Wright asks: “why should those in Mali believe in the systole / and diastole of vernacular too caustic / as a testable state of affairs?” An inoperable metaphor, rhythm refuses to offer a basis for comparison. The motion of the cardiac and the spoken word cause too much friction to form an identity. Without these commonplaces, Wright wonders how poetry sustains the myth that the one can represent the multiple. Working against its own definition, singularity becomes a medium through which “we measure / demand for existence without hope of a cure.”

Abstraction is not a new concern for Wright. In a 1983 interview with Charles H. Rowell, Wright cited Susanne Langer in explaining that “abstraction begins with a real thing and derives a concept; interpretation begins with an empty concept and tries to find some real thing to embody it.” A “speech community” for Wright can only exist between the two pulls as an effort to establish a shared ground. Wright abides in the African American literary tradition in order to find a language that exceeds the habituated terms “line counts, imagery, rhyme, metaphor.” Whereas in his early work, this place beyond form appeared somewhere without us, yet to be found, in his recent work it becomes ever more a point of tension and an impetus for sensuous experimentation. 

The second half of The Prime Anniversary, titled “The Geometry of Rhythm,” dramatizes this process of induction and deduction through a philosophical dialogue that includes stage directions. Although it feels at times like a separate work, there are nevertheless moments within the dialogue that complicate and elucidate “The Prime Anniversary.” Playing out between the characters Bivio and Grogach, the drama involves the efforts of each to find harmony with the other. With the former’s name being Italian for “crossroads” and the latter being the Gaelic name of a tutelary deity, the two characters occupy clear positions in the European history of ideas. Notes of Beckett abound most productively in the playfulness of the motifs that run through the dialogue. When Grogach excoriates “rhetoricians” who “measure the production of their babbling as though they had created el pájaro en la mano [“the bird in the hand”]” he is met several moments later with Bivio’s claim that he keeps “Love and Strife” in his “Enchiridion” (literally, “something at hand,” “a handbook”), where he holds “all feigned appearances.” Faithful to his abstractions, Bivio insists on the durability of the absolute, while Grogach moves with the “multiplicity of changing things.” While it is at times mechanical, their repartee gives flesh to ideas explored in the book’s first half. At its close, the characters’ positions meld and they find fragile reconciliation in the simple act of exchanging names. 

At stake in Wright’s cycling of form—from Bivio’s Khamruya (“wine song”) to the alexandrines of the book’s first half—are the foundations of what the theorist Sylvia Wynter has called “genres of being human.” These are the forms of recognition and affirmation that ratify the given world. Poetically, Wright has worked through these modes with exuberance and exhaustion. Wright enacts these modes in “The Geometry of Rhythm” in scenes where the two characters debate what counts as culture. Responding to Bivio’s search for an essential musicality, Grogach waxes anthropological: “I suppose I should understand this as the derivation of your European soul.” These moments of misrecognition structure the resonance of Wright’s poetry. Having defined ritual in his interview with Rowell as “a consciousness of risk, separation, self-alienation and, ultimately, reconciliation,” Wright roots his poetic practice in cycles of conflict and communion that do not culminate in a return. 

In doing so, his work sits uneasily with the influential reception that it received from the late critic Harold Bloom. According to Bloom, Wright’s poetry overcomes “multiculturalism,” which the canonical critic saw as lesser work, and attains the status of “The American Sublime Ode.” Signifying a fortunate fall from the slave ship to literature, Bloom abstracts from the ode a place outside of history. An essentially European mode of being human, the ode allows Bloom to render Wright as a seer who can speak to the rise and fall of all things. Positioning Wright as a Pindaric agonist against “multiculturalism,” Bloom offers his work as a foil to the supposed doctrine “that says: our bad writers are no worse than your bad writers.” For Bloom, inclusion is tantamount to surrender in a zero-sum game of literary value that maintains the only poems that matter are those that have already been understood. 

Wright’s poetry has always been more interesting than this. Beginning his career at a time when an author such as Wole Soyinka, one of his early influences, was denied a position teaching English at the University of Cambridge because it was thought that black Africans were only capable of ethnographies, Wright’s work has long called the boundaries between forms of knowledge into question. Anticipating Bloom, Wright wrote of his creative powers in “The Navigation of Absences: An Ode on Method,” the first poem of Transformations (1997):

 . . . This false confection 
of souls pursues and endangers me, calls 
me to contradiction. I now address 
the logic of loss, find myself artless.

This “logic of loss” does not exist in some inaccessible past, for an “unseizable wind to fit,” or to fill. Rather, damage beyond calculation remains in what the author cannot say and in the rituals that keep the world securely in its place. The eschatology of Bloom’s sublime odes becomes something more modest and more challenging in Wright’s work. If Wright authors odes, they “speak of the momentary / changeable form of death,” as he tells us in his previous collection, Disorientations: Groundings (2013). Evoking silence without the wish for its finality, Wright’s poetry is both an “epinikion / of suffering” and a celebration of what could come after. Citing Pindar’s φέρων μέλος ἔρχομαι (“I come bearing a song”) in the following lines of this poem from Polynomials and Pollen (2008), Wright sets the stage for “The Prime Anniversary” in which the reception of Pindar is pared down to a βάσις, ἀγλαΐας ἀρχά (“step, the beginning of the celebration”). Throughout his new volume, Wright’s poetry approaches a zero degree of stillness, only to begin again, and more joyously. Writing after his own prime anniversary of eighty-three years, Wright has authored a book that feels more like the start of something than its conclusion. 


The Prime Anniversary. By Jay Wright. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2019. 96 pp. $15.95, paper.


Michael Berlin is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. He is currently writing his dissertation with the support of the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, the Michael J. Connell Foundation at the Huntington Library, and the UCLA Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies at the William A. Clark Memorial Library. His work is forthcoming in Cultural Critique.