It is a melancholy iron that the greatest African-American poet is one of the least read, because of the cognitive and imaginative difficulty that is essential to his best work.Jay Wright is a culmination of many strains in poetic tradition: Dogon mythology, Southwestern American and Mexican legend, Hölderlin, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Robert Hayden, Paul Celan, amidst much else. He is an immensely learned poet, both in African culture and in European literature and philosophy. And yet he is frequently direct and passionate, the master of an invocatory strain that partly derives from Crane's The Bridge and Hayden's "Middle Passage." Wright's work is heroic in scope and intensity, so that in this brief introduction I will limit myself to the group of five grand odes that conclude Elaine's Book (1988), my favorite among his volumes to date. Taking their starting points from Hölderlin, Celan, and Aztec poetry, these odes establish themselves as permanent achievements in several traditions, yet return always to "an Ethiopian will that contends / with light's flaring cloth / in a logic that clothes the self with another self."
The sequence begins with "The Anatomy of Resonance," a series of variations upon a great metaphor of Hölderlin's: "And the bird of the night whirs / Down, so close that you shield your eyes." Wright's emphasis is upon that shielding away from poetic vision: "and the way we have come to terms / with our failure / to see anything but the blue point of desire / that leads us home." This subtle evasion is surmounted by "Journey to the Place of Ghosts," where a descent to the dead involves a rekindling of the soul, at considerable psychic expense. "Saltos" follows, in a majestic recuperation of the poetic self, a movement that is enhanced in "The Power of Reeds," an ode of "retrieved connections," the most crucial coming when: "Out of Africa, / the song's loom draws the maiden / into a new legend." All this prepares for the transcendent fifth ode, "Desire's Persistence," one of the finest contemporary American poems. The title itself derives from Aztec poetry, as does the marvelous line that organizes the ode: "I lift the red flower of winter into the wind." Following a structural pattern that he established in "The Anatomy of Resonance,"Wright divides his poem into an invocation and six sections, each of which takes a work of the epigraph as title: I, Lift, Red, Flower, Winter, Wind. The lyric speaker (rather, a chanter) appears to be Desire itself, in the ambivalent guise . . .