Transfigurations: Collected Poems

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Few poets have as much to tell us about the intricate relationship between the African American past and present as Jay Wright. His poems weave a rich fabric of personal history using diverse materials drawn from African, Native American, and European sources. Scholarly, historical, intuitive, and emotional, his work explores territories in which rituals of psychological and spiritual individuation find a new synthesis in the construction of cultural values. Never an ideologue but always a poet of vision, his imagination shows us a way to rejoice and strengthen ourselves in our common humanity.

Here, together for the first time, are Wright's previously published collections — The Homecoming Singer (1971), Soothsayers and Omens (1976), Explications/Interpretations (1984), Dimensions of History (1976), The Double Invention of Komo (1980), Elaine's Book (1988), and Boleros (1991) — along with the new poems of Transformations (1997). By presenting Wright's work as a whole, this collection reveals the powerful consistency of his theme — a spiritual or intellectual quest for personal development — as each book builds solidly upon the previous one.

Wright examines history from a multicultural perspective, attempting to conquer a sense of exclusion — from society and his own cultural identity — and find solace and accord by linking American society to African traditions. He believes that a poem must articulate the vital rhythms of the culture it depicts and is dedicated to a pursuit of poetic forms that embody the cadence of African American culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Onetime jazz musician, minor-league baseball player, member of the U.S. Army, theology and comparative literature student, and college professor, Wright has, since the early '70s, pursued a less institutionally affiliated life and become a major voice in American poetry. After he was chosen for a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986 and his Selected Poems was published a year later by Princeton University Press, Wright's work began to reach a wider readership, though one still smaller than many of his peers. This major edition--rarely do poets have a 700-plus-page collected poems published during their lifetimes--should help further extend the reputation of this remarkable poet. It is Wright's first book of poems since 1991's Boleros and presents all of Wright's previous full-length collections, beginning with The Homecoming Singer (1971), proceeding chronologically by date of composition, and ending with the newer poems, many published here for the first time. The early poems move away from the era's prevalent personal narrative in favor of a heady mix of history and religion, making for an extended unfolding of a cosmology of culture: "High bells and xylophones,/ marimbas, a courteous guitar,/ New England winter in a choir/ of fifteen, dressed in Quechua shawls." Scholars of Wright's work frequently mention his African-American heritage, his upbringing in New Mexico, his bilingualism, and his extensive travels in Mexico and Europe as biographical context for the erudite quality to his verse, but listed attributes cannot account for the work's transformative power: "Below us, our dead/ economic of love has made a left turn,/ and the mollusk must pay for light, a green urn/ and the right to exchange the body's spent shell/ for a feeling so lately struck when love fell." As Wright is also a playwright, poems like "The Abstract of Knowledge / the First Test" and "The Key That Unlocks Performance: Vision as Historical Dimension," to name just two of the scores of poems here, can seem less a movement of isolated modern characters than a timeless drama. Particularly in its movement between Africa and the Americas, Wright's poetry continually insists upon the notion of a diasporic history, but it refuses to allows its characters and speakers be completely determined by it, making this book a true life lesson. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Despite seven previous volumes and several honors, including MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, Wright has never had a book published by one of the major trade publishers. He does not teach at a major university. Yet seen as a whole, as in this volume, his work is daunting in its scope. His is a spiritual quest, which begins in his first volume (The Homecoming Singer) with a focus on the prayer and revival meetings of his youth and then spreads out to include Native American, African, Caribbean, and Mayan sources. In short, he transforms the world into a place where "You come, if not to God,/ near to yourself." Unfortunately, not all his attempts are successful; what we sense in these long poems is the poet striving, searching, but too often arriving at emotionally vacant words. He's best when he stays closer to home, as in his early poems, or when he works with a concrete source, as he does in Elaine's Book. Ultimately, this is not a poet one reads but studies; his collected work has the mythopoetic scope of Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus, or the work of Robert Duncan (minus, for now, the expected cult following). Essential for academic and multicultural libraries.--Rochelle Ratner, formerly with "Soho Weekly News," New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Talk Magazine
Here's the life's work of one of our literature's unacknowledged legislators. Mixin African and Latin American voices and cultures with what he's ingerited from Whitman, Frost, and Pound, Wright has forged an American idiom for this American century.
John Hollander
Jay Wright is a brilliant and original poet, difficult and allusive, beating his own unpredictable path through a variety of terrains. Never denying that he has been told much of how and where to go by great poets of the past, he also seems always to have known that their counsel -- if it is to be taken at all -- cannot be taken literally. This is one of the reasons that his poetry can be so powerfully concerned with roots -- cultural, intellectual and spiritual -- and with journeyings, both of which are often baleful clichés in so much contemporary verse. But a true poet's metaphor of the journey taken by his or her poetic work itself may have a much more complex and -- ultimately -- more universal tale to tell. In Transfigurations, his monumental new complete collection, one can follow Wright's imaginative explorations of a variety of mythopoeic regions. This volume contains all his work, from the fascinating book-length poem called ''The Double Invention of Komo'' -- only a small bit of which was in an earlier collection -- to his most recent book and a good number of previously unpublished recent poems; only a few very early pieces from a 1967 chapbook are not included.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807126295
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 619
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Poet and playwright Jay Wright has received numerous awards, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the International Poetry Forum's Charity Randall Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award. A MacArthur Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wright lives in Vermont.

Poet and playwright Jay Wright has received numerous awards, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the International Poetry Forum's Charity Randall Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award. A MacArthur Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wright lives in Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt


Collected Poems
By Jay Wright

Louisiana State University Press

Copyright © 2000 Jay Wright
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0807126306


An Invitation to Madison County

I ride through Queens,
out to International Airport,
on my way to Jackson, Tougaloo, Mississippi.
I take out a notebook,
write "my southern journal," and the date.
I write something,
but can't get down the apprehension,
the strangeness, the uncertainty
of zipping in over the Sunday streets,
with the bank clock flashing the weather
and time, as if it were a lighthouse
and the crablike cars mistook it
for their own destination.
The air terminal looks
like a city walled in, waiting for war.
The arrivals go down to the basement,
recruits waking at five A.M. to check out their gear,
to be introduced to the business end of the camp.
Fifteen minutes in the city,
and nothing has happened.
No one has asked me to move over
for a small parade of pale women,
or called me nigger, or asked me where I'm from.
Sure only of my destination, I wait.

Now, we move out through the quiet city,
past clean brick supermarkets,
past clean brick houses with nameplates and bushy lawns,
past the sleepy-eyed travelers,
lockedtightly in their cars.
No one speaks. The accent I've been
waiting to hear is still far off,
still only part of that apprehension
I had on the highway, in Queens.

The small campus springs up
out of the brown environment,
half-green, half-brown, covered over
with scaly white wooden houses.
It seems to be fighting this atmosphere,
fighting to bring some beauty
out of the dirt roads, the tense isolation of this place.
Out to Mama T's, where farmers, young instructors
and students scream for hamburgers and beer,
rub each other in the light of the jukebox,
and talk, and talk. I am still
not in Jackson, not in Mississippi,
still not off that highway in Queens,
nor totally out of Harlem, still
have not made it into this place,
where the tables creak, and the crickets
close up Sunday, just at evening,
and people are saying good night early.
Afraid now, I wonder how I'll get into it,
how I can make my hosts forget.
these impatient gestures, the matching socks and tie.
I wonder how long I'll have to listen
to make them feel I listen, wonder
what I can say that will say,
"It's all right. I don't understand ...
a thing. Let me meet you here, in your home.
Teach me what you know,
for I think I'm coming home."

Then I meet a teenaged girl
who knows that I can read.
I ride with her to Madison County,
up back roads that stretch
with half-fulfilled crops,
half-filled houses, half-satisfied
cows, and horses, and dogs.
She does all the talking,
challenging me to name the trees,
the plants, the cities in Mississippi, her dog.
We reach her house,
a shack dominated by an old stove,
with its smoky outline going up the wall
into the Mississippi air, mattresses tossed
around the table, where a small piece of cornbread
and a steaming plate of greens wait for her.
Her mother comes out, hands folded before her
like a madonna. She speaks to me,
moving step by step back into the house,
asking me to come again,
as if I were dismissed,
as if there were nothing more
that I could want from her, from Madison County,
no secret that I could ask her to repeat,
not even ask about the baby resting there on her belly,
nor if she ever knew anyone with my name
in Madison County, in Mississippi.

Since I can't, and will not, move,
she stays, with her head coming up,
finally, in a defiant smile.
She watches me sniff the greens,
look around at the bare trees
heaving up out of the bare ground.
She watches my surprise,
as I look at her manly nine-year-old
drive a tractor through the fields.
I think of how she is preparing him
for death, how one day he'll pack
whatever clothes remain from the generations,
and go off down the road,
her champion, her soldier, her lovable boy,
her grief, into Jackson, and away,
past that lighthouse clock,
past the sleepy streets,
and come up screaming,
perhaps on the highway in Queens,
thinking that he'll find me,
the poet with matching socks and tie,
who will tell him all about the city,
who will drink with him in a bar
where lives are crackling, with the smell
of muddy-rooted bare trees, half-sick cows
and simmering greens still in his nose.

But I'm still not here,
still can't ask an easy question,
or comment on the boy, the bright girl,
the open fields, the smell of the greens;
can't even say, yes, I remember this,
or heard of it, or want to know it;
can't apologize for my clean pages,
or assert that I must change, after being here;
can't say that I'm after spirits in Mississippi,
that I've given up my apprehension
about pale and neatly dressed couples
speeding past the lighthouse clock,
silently going home to their own apprehensions;
can't say, yes, you're what I really came for,
you, your scaly hands, your proud, surreptitious
smile, your commanding glance at your son,
that's what I do not search, but discover.

I stand in Madison County,
where you buy your clothes, your bread,
your very life, from hard-line politicians,
where the inessential cotton still comes up
as if it were king, and belonged to you,
where the only escape is down that road,
with your slim baggage, into war,
into some other town that smells the same,
into a relative's crowded house
in some uncertain city, into the arms
of poets, who would be burned,
who would wake in the Mississippi rain,
listening for your apprehension,
standing at the window in different shadows,
finally able to say, "I don't understand.
But I would be taught your strength."
The father comes down the road,
among his harness bells and dust,
straight and even, slowly, as if each step
on that hard ground were precious.
He passes with a nod,
and stands at the door of his house,
making a final, brief inventory
all around and in it.
His wife goes in, comes out with a spoon,
hands it to you with a gracious little nod,
and says, "Such as ..."

"Such as ...," as I heard
when my mother invited the preacher in,
or some old bum, who had fallen off
a boxcar into our small town
and come looking for bread crumbs,
a soup bowl of dishwater beans,
a glass of tap water, served up
in a murky glass.
"Such as ...," as I heard
when I would walk across the tracks
in Bisbee, or Tucson, or El Paso, or Santa Fe,
bleeding behind the eyes,
cursing the slim-butted waitresses
who could be so polite.
"Such as ...," as I could even hear
in the girded ghettos of New York.
"Such as ...," as I heard
when I was invited behind leaky doors,
into leaky rooms, for my loneliness,
for my hunger, for my blackness.
"Such as ...," as I hear
when people who have only themselves to give
offer you their meal.

Benjamin Banneker Sends His "Almanac" to
Thomas Jefferson

Old now,
your eyes nearly blank
from plotting the light's
movement over the years,
you clean your Almanac
and place it next
to the heart of this letter.
I have you in mind,
giving a final brush and twist
to the difficult pages,
staring down the shape of the numbers
as though you would find a flaw
in their forms.
Solid, these calculations
verify your body on God's earth.
At night,
the stars submit themselves
to the remembered way you turn them;
the moon gloats under your attention.
I, who know so little of stars,
whose only acquaintance with the moon
is to read a myth, or to listen
to the surge
of songs the women know,
sit in your marvelous reading
of all movement,
of all relations.

So you look into what we see
yet cannot see,
and shape and take a language
to give form to one or the other,
believing no form will escape,
no movement appear, nor stop,
without explanation,
believing no reason is only reason,
nor without reason.
I read all of this into your task,
all of this into the uneasy
reproof of your letter.

Surely, there must be a flaw.
These perfect calculations fall apart.
There are silences
that no perfect number can retrieve,
omissions no perfect line could catch.
How could a man but challenge God's
impartial distributions?
How could a man sit among
the free and ordered movements
of stars, and waters, beasts and birds,
each movement seen or accounted for,
and not know God jealous,
and not know that he himself must be?

So you go over the pages again,
looking for the one thing
that will not reveal itself,
judging what you have received,
what you have shaped,
believing it cannot be strange
to the man you address.
But you are strange to him
--your skin, your tongue,
the movement of your body,
even your mysterious ways with stars.
You argue here with the man and God,
and know that no man can be right,
and know that no God will argue right.
Your letter turns on what the man knows,
on what God, you think, would have us know.
All stars will forever move under your gaze,
truthfully, leading you from line to line,
from number to number, from truth to truth,
while the man will read your soul's desire,
searcher, searching yourself,
losing the relations.

Saints' Days

Nuestra Senora de la Paz (January 24th)

At the upper end of this continent,
along the St. Lawrence,
one has to learn to live with winter,
a wood cat with a devouring patience
and a tempered ear for the softest harmonics
of resignation.
Some of us call it an affordable peace,
and tuck the winter in journals
that stand hip to hip with rose bibles,
and string, on midwinter rosaries,
our spring weariness.
Hour to hour,
coquettish January sits in our warm rooms,
undresses, draws near and caresses
the longing within us.
Strange to think of such a virgin,
drawing a midwinter veil over our hearts,
and trying to sound the enharmonic note
that will distinguish peace from death.

The Healing Improvisation of Hair

If you undo your do you would
be strange. Hair has been on my mind.
I used to lean in the doorway
and watch my stony woman wind
the copper through the black, and play
with my understanding, show me she could
take a cup of river water,
and watch it shimmy, watch it change,
turn around and become ash bone.
Wind in the cottonwoods wakes me
to a day so thin its breastbone
shows, so paid out it shakes me free
of its blue dust. I will arrange
that river water, bottom juice.
I conjure my head in the stream
and ride with the silk feel of it
as my woman bathes me, and shaves
away the scorn, sponges the grit
of solitude from my skin, laves
the salt water of self-esteem
over my feathering body.
How like joy to come upon me
in remembering a head of hair
and the way water would caress
it, and stress beauty in the flair
and cut of the only witness
to my dance under sorrow's tree.
This swift darkness is spring's first hour.

I carried my life, like a stone,
in a ragged pocket, but I
had a true weaving song, a sly
way with rhythm, a healing tone.


Excerpted from Transfigurations by Jay Wright Copyright © 2000 by Jay Wright. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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