Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jay Wright, American Baroque

The Baroque as experienced in a mission church in New Mexico or California  is suffused with spiritual properties. Pain is lucid in the gleam of the gold altar pieces. The suffering of mission Indians exists in overlay with both ancient tribal practices and new cross-border line traffic in drug, contraband, exploited labor and prostitution. The history is both Mexican and Native American. Contemporary policed issues related to the borderlands obscure a necessary spiritualism and the whole earth principles that are immanent to American spirituality.

The title Jay Wright’s recent work, Disorientations: Groundings (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2013) engages a form of trance, as if the disorientation produced by sacred experience were a necessary grounding. His application of numbers, like that of Leibniz, also signals a baroque expressivity. Experiences of disorientation with respect to grounding principles (variation with respect to metrics) are central to the exercises elaborated here. I am unable to register a false step in the measures inscribed. The reader learns to trust the wisdom that filters through Wright’s purposefully obscure sources. Therein lies a difficult necessity. Wright’s propositions are not deductive arguments; they are articles of faith, expressed in rhythmic meters and drawing on the language of scientific inquiry. The text most helpful to me in isolating the variables that apply to the social drama in which I feel I am asked to be engaged is Wright’s sequence, “Second Conversations with Ogotemmeli.”[1] Of these conversations, he writes, “You have me in your hands. / I trust you. I intend to echo that gesture of trust in discussing Disorientations. My analysis will be descriptive.

Several personages with mysterious identities, one addressed as Baca, serve a function in Disorientations similar to that of Ogotemmeli. Baca is identified with “a star-fed music that will not shine” (92). The notion of an appearance that is not visible proves crucial, as is a music that is a silence. Ogotemmeli is associated with rites of initiation and purification; Baca embodies an inscrutable silence identified with knowledge. Who is Baca? He is a guide with whom one might examine the puzzles that inform an intriguing situation and its liminal properties.

In a volume on Tewa religion, a certain Baca, perhaps not Wright’s, acts as a guide to the anthropologist, Elsie Worthington Clews Parson. He maintains an incommunicative silence when asked to comment on the construction of a sacred chamber with an “impression of a woman’s hand on the plaster of the north wall.” The Tewa live in Wright’s New Mexican homeland. Baca is a frequent partner in the discourse that constitutes the pages of Disorientations: Groundings, one of several ancestor figures who are invoked. Others include an enigmatic Diana; the Argentine poet Ricardo Eufemio Molinari (1898- 1996 who is associated with the Spanish poets of the Generation of 27 and the early modern Argentine avant-garde), the Mexican poet José Gorostiza (1901-73, author of melancholic elegies); Stratis Thalassinos (a figure who is found in Girogio Seferis’s poem “Among the Agapanthi”). Other ancestors include Propertius, Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén and Luis Cernuda. I’d like to nominate nostalgic Emilio Prados for this company. The use of personae descends from Ezra Pound’s Vorticism.

Disorientations: Groundings is a series of colloquies in which ancestors offer instruction, some, like Baca, making several appearances. Four lessons, the four books within the volume, bear titles that originate in a Dogon purification ritual. The first level is preparatory, giri so; the second, benne so, presents words identified as “side-words” (tangential or parallel to illumination); the third, bolo so, “back-words,” groundings perhaps; the fourth, so dayi, “clear words,” where knowledge may be thought to have come into the possession of the transformed student or neophyte, perhaps Wright himself, the poetry being a record of his labor. Illumination lies in the process of instruction itself. No words for ultimate knowledge are given. Such secret words, if they exist, are absent. Formulas remain. In the ritual process, as presented by Victor Turner for instance, the neophyte becomes an adept through participation in repeated iterations of a ritual. The neophyte learns the motions as a dancer might. For Wright clarity resides in pattern, not contents. The instructions at the level of so dayi are associated with the edifice of knowledge as an ordered complexity.[2]

Wright’s project is to explore “the absolute density” at the core of poetry. Paradoxically “absolute density has never appeared” (5). This is the thread to be unwound through the four stages of this deeply coherent book. There are grieving poems, absent the melancholy, that haunts personal mourning. “What does the initiate seek, if not / his own death? Think of this as the first day / the sun upon the dolaba, the way / the dancers command the terrace and plot / the world’s umbilical cord” (40). Wright’s is a poem of birth and rebirth in which the initiate ascends to a new status, marked by the emblem of the dolaba.  The terrace of stars or syllables hosts a ritual dance, freely enjambing, all the while rhyming verse—all in testimony to the value of prosody as index of the truth that lies within complex systems.

Wright’s work is therapeutic for those who will trust its constructions and articulations. Many are poems are hybrid or macaronic, combing several languages. “Our dust and meter fall / in campo abierto, logical / field without substance” (13). The words invoke a field poetics defined by logic and measure, not substance. The cluster of images forming a radiant node has long been the sine qua non of modern poetry. Here the accent falls on radiance. Often the poems read with exceptional limpidity:
Morning now appears, a green sari on a lake—
the actuality of it –a quantum field,
a biological satire always concealed
by coherence, revealed by the perfect mistake.

I would keep me where the garment goes, contrary
to my promises. All these small term misconstrue
my prophesies, confound my syntax, and argue
that all contingent light becomes an adversary.
Does grief haunt these lines? The poem evokes a feminine presence dressed in her sari, an apparition with sources at the quantum level. Disorientations presents evidence of the wedding of poetics and physics. The reader learns to appreciate end rhyme and internal rhyme, the meters and enjambments of a transcendent art.  In a book of initiations and lessons, the object is to transcend the registers of melancholy and grieve purely. For a woman? for a world?
The tutelary spirit who presides over so dayi, the fourth section of Disorientations: Groundings, is Eboussi Boulaga, an African philosopher, trained as a Jesuit priest, who wrote in Christianisme sans fêtiche against the radical imposition of Christianity upon African thought. He is joined by the cryptic Baca and other emissaries from among the roster of ancestor poets in a celebration of love as “the first and most frightening language” (86), a celebration at the river’s edge guided by “the biblical Baca.” Rivers are indisputably cosmic, celestial, and earthly, cites of birth, death, and rebirth. Flow without beginning or end. Densities unpacked:
I have been instructed to forget
                                    an inauthentic birth,
and compelled to see in the resonant light
a binding of bodies that will not move,
or cannot be compelled to move, toward their death.
What is the quarrel,
the metrical proposition that will not admit
a beginning, will not sustain a symmetry? (86)
The liminal state is not itself a death state or a simulacrum of death in its transfixing immobility. It is one in which the body is at rest between two alternative modes of being, self and not self. The liminal self, a not-not self, according to Turner and Richard Schechener. It is the state evoked by Wilson Harris when he writes of “the cross-cultural imagination.”
Prosody, with its multiple forms of articulation shapes the poet’s language. It is found in superpositions among fragments: “Follow my language / through this sacred chain: / sesame / serpent mask / albarga / calabash /neutron / proton singularity. All is superposition” (90). “Love,” accompanied by “acceptable silence,” is the subject of Disorientations: Groundings.

Donald Wellman

[1] Transfigurations (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U Press, 2000): 139.
[2] Wright’s source is M. Griaule and G. Deterlen, The Pale Fox (Chino Valley AZ: Continuum, 1986): 69-70.