• Andrew Field

The Exiled Sky and the Vibrating Seed: Thylias Moss, Jay Wright, and the Neglect of Difficult Poetry

Thylias Moss

Jay Wright


This is a question that bothers me. I remember one time, speaking to a white woman and poet on Twitter about Jay Wright's poetry, and she confessed to me that she just didn't understand it. And I think of an essay, written all the way back in the 90s, when Kevin Young, the poet, professor, essayist, and editor, wrote something to the effect that Wright's poems were not difficult but, if I remember this correctly, "simple and elegant." Why is there such dire and tragic misunderstanding on both sides, from a white woman and an African-American man? What are we missing in Wright's poetry, and why do more people not read him?

To read a Jay Wright poem is to enter a kind of unhurried tonic atmosphere, a poetry that never rushes itself, that builds and builds and, in building, creates an altogether different sort of tradition, while honoring those poets who came before him, like Wallace Stevens, or Hart Crane, or Rilke, while infusing the works and voices of these authors with an astounding depth culled from West African religious traditions. I had this interesting experience once, where a woman on Twitter posted a picture of a wooden block used to stamp the image of a fish into dough to bake on Purim (I"m Jewish). I looked at the image, and I thought to myself, this image of a fish does not mean what it means in Christianity. It had a Chagall flavor, something particular to Judaism and Jewishness, and it alluded to the fish in the Hebrew Bible, and to marriage in interesting ways, rather than discipleship. The actual meaning was different, because the tradition was different, and so the symbology, the folkness of it, the rituals and rites we ascribed to it - how we read and saw and understood and valued it - was different, and if we wanted to understand it, we had to enter into that different tradition, or be welcomed into it, rather.

To enter into a community involves a form of initiation, and every human encounter is in some sense anthropological. We are always witnesses and participants in the Geetzian sense, and we "watch and wonder" at what we seen like Whitmans in a world of descriptions begging to be thicker, of symbols we have no names for without context, without the rugged enveloping thirst for meanings and the traditions that bear those meanings, that rip them apart, that harvest them, that bring them to fruition. Symbolic anthropology, like that practiced by Victor Turner or Marcel Griaule, is anthropology that proceeds with the awareness of the importance of frameworks and social ontologies. Like the work of Richard Brandom, Turner, Geetz, and Griaule know that meaning is created socially, and that, at the end of the day, critics, poets, artists, politicians, shamans, musicians, singer-songwriters, cartoonists, we are all invested non-stop in what Richard Rorty called "cultural politics," and we should be honest about this.

I think we do not read Wright more because of a pernicious form of cultural politics. How do I mean? We are lazy, and we like our poetry in a certain form, but not in a different form. We are happy to read Ashbery - I love Ashbery, too - or Elizabeth Bishop, whose poetry I also love, or Wallace Stevens, ditto. And this makes sense - these poets are original, and they have a certain sensibility - something cosmopolitan in Ashbery's work, and its endless allusiveness to other art forms; something New Englandy about Bishop's stern hard descriptions of humorous seals and building-scaling manmoths; something grand and baroque and bursting and New Haven-y about Stevens' rolling phrases and tollings of mountains and arabesques and bassoons and pears. We are speaking of master poets, and I don't say this slight criticisms lightly, for I have grown up as a writer and reader reading Bishop, Ashbery, and Stevens, and they shaped how I think about poetry.

But sometimes we give them too much attention, and because cultural politics is endless, we need to think about where our attention goes and why. Why don't we read more Wright, or Thylias Moss, who are just as strong poets as Ashbery, Bishop, or Stevens? I think it's because they draw on different traditions, and we feel uncomfortable about how we are seen in their eyes. We don't want to read Thylias Moss's "Interpretation of a Poem by Frost," and the understated anguish of how every single thing in this world tries to get between not only a woman and her man, or a man and his woman, but a Black woman and her man, because white people, most of them, don't like Black people, and they don't want to see them in loving relationships, because that would reflect poorly on their own insecurities and mangled attachments. Or look at this poem by Moss, "The Blue Territory of Sissies," from Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems, and notice how utterly original her work with metaphor is, how there is no one writing poems today who does something even close.

The Blue Territory of Sissies

The sky's wild secret

is behind a blue as fixed and stable

as judgment just to look at it

but the sky is not even solid,

is just air made visible in light,

scattering like bugs in light's

sudden intrusion. Hysterical air

is all around. It can't stop.

It knows it is spinning though

it looks still to everything below.

The wildness that is frenzy that is

not adventure. That goes no further

than gravity. To crave it is

not to want much, and to be a fan of

the nervous breakdown that will not

fall apart alone, so the breaking out

of twisters, breaking up of houses

and towns.

At night the sky is not limited

to kindergarten exile above

a blue line. Exile resumes

when day breaks the dream. Darkness

only seems continuous and too soft

to crack. Then

in the lake's silver underneath,

the sky can see itself

holding trout and walleye.

It can see men walking into it

with cords and lines so kin

to what the lion tamer cracks

and doing so curls manes.

Despite this fish grab and suck

the lozenges at line ends as if

the men were fish doctors.

The sky can see this yet not feel

its skin ripping, its blue draining,

it soul ascending into the black

beyond and crashing into stars, a game

of pinball.

A jet stream surely is the purest

flowing yet isn't the bluest. And

for all the turbulent posturing

it would take much more than a sky

has done to shake the planes

out of it, it would take rebellion.

Sometimes it is as necessary as it is easy

to forget there is such a thing

as blue alert, issued

when it hasn't happened yet but

likely will, an air attack, some

unseen pushing escorting

the seventh wife of Bluebeard into

the forbidden room, turning Chicken

Little into barnyard Nostradamus

while the kites and flags flutter,

while in Kittyhawk

Orville and Wilbur sing unexceptionally.

The poem is about hysteria and how it is handled; or, the poem is a mature act of poetic violence, and therefore representational violence, rather than actual violence; and the manner in which Moss creates with such power is a reflection of the need for justice via the unprecedented metaphorical originality of the poem. We could read it as one Black woman writing a poem against the murderers of Tamir Rice, or Emmett Till, or Medgar Evers, the white women who accuse Black men of rape, in order to satisfy a terrifying lack of empathy, and a narcissistic hunger for bodies to rape, for bodies to manipulate out of these white women's hysteria, fear, and complete vicious unreflecting banality. The sky's wild secret is the vision of the poem, or the poet's Beloved; and all around is the "hysterical air," "the wildness that is frenzy that is / not adventure." To fight this frenzy is to build a poem as powerful as a twister, and in that image we also see echoes of "The Wizard of Oz," appropriate because we are talking about black and white and color, and the manner in which Moss uses these accustomed chestnuts of white popular culture as tropes to push back against white popular culture, just as she does in a different way in the Frost poem. It is an enormously accomplished example of how a Black poet would deal with an American and European influence and tradition that could feel impossibly and ponderous to a poet less powerful. But Moss makes the tradition her own, and therefore not a white tradition, but something that honors Black traditions, Black cultures, Black rituals, and therefore the contribution, every day, by Black people to the lifeblood of this country, even as this country attempts every single day to murder and rape its Black citizens and imprison them.

The poem is in some sense about a shattering of childhood, and, following the shattering, a reimagining of the world, and therefore the sky, through metaphor. "At night, the sky is not limited / to kindergarten exile above / a blue line." We could read this as a description of a child's drawing, simplistic, a white girl's, say, oblivious of racism, who goes on to live her life and perpetuating the fear mongering of the racists in our communities. But for Moss, the sky is not limited to that, because she grew up as a person and a poet, and so she sees the children masquerading as adults more clearly and with greater acumen and insight. It is a poem that enacts a form of justice through the most authentic, poetic, and religious rite imaginable: an act of adventurous imagination, that refuses to stop growing, even as it recognizes that, to do so, one has to push back through representation against those forces that get between us and our legitimate and rightful needs.


We find this same question haunting Jay Wright's poetry. What to do with the European and American influence, as an African-American? How does one find oneself in those traditions, if those traditions are somehow mine but not mine? Who am I, or how do I describe myself in a form that is the distillation of language, the very thing we use to identify us, those who have the privilege to speak, who can speak and use words? How does one convert one's invisibility to visibility, in a world that only wants to make one invisible or visible in the most tawdry and hateful and murderous way imaginable? How does one keep one's heart alive in that situation that is not even impossible, that is dangerous?

Wright's poetry answers these questions, like Moss's, through its own enactments. His poetry, like Moss's, is extraordinarily difficult, but it is also an adventure, and we should begin to read him without any assumptions about what poetry should mean or be, how it should signify, and simply read - especially if we have some training in language or poetry - with an appreciation of the profundity and unbelievably powerful and original metaphorical thinking, which is to say Wright's work with traditions and symbols. One feels, reading Wright, that he has absorbed everything and transfigured everything into a new key, a new chord, like jazz.

There is also a kind of process that occurs as we read Wright sequentially, beginning with poems more rooted in narrative and moving into higher and deeper layers and levels of a kind of embodied abstraction or abstracted embodiment, as all poems are. Wright's poems move differently from Ashbery's, say, or Ammon's, or Merrill's. Ashbery's are a kind of nimbleness; Ammon's a sort of drawl; Merrill's the height of sophistication. Wright's are more grounded, even in this more abstract work. They are strong, and fearless, and have a wry humor. We feel we are in the presence of someone whose consciousness is capacious, and we feel introduced to and welcomed into traditions, with their images, and songs, and folk motifs and rituals, their passages into different forms of thinking and imagining, their creation stories, their manners of teaching and instruction, their daily rites, like a stranger walking into an entirely new community and, after a time, being admitted.

For it is - I'm thinking right now of the Dogon religion, from which Wright's poetry takes much sustenance - a different form of thinking, a different kind of foundation. For example, in the Dogon religion, the ancestral spirits are not God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, or some alien monotheistic God so distant we can only sense it with a kind of blip of the heart's radar, but amphibious, hermaphroditic Gods, called Nommo, that look nothing like our cosmic looming men with long earth-touching beards and our suffering man child in the waiting lap of his mother. This is not to say there is anything wrong with Christianity or Judaism, but to point out that there are different religions that help people just as much as the monotheistic ones (if they do help), and we know nothing about them, and that is our fault, not their's. The white women and poet who didn't understand Wright's poems probably didn't take the time to understand them. I think she probably read a few, didn't understand them, and then shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

Let's look at a poem by Wright, to get a sense of his work. Although I love his later abstract work, let's start with something a bit more grounded in narrative. This is "Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City," from Soothsayers and Omens. (Banneker was an African-American naturalist, mathematician, astronomer, and almanac author who helped through a land survey to establish the borders of Washington D.C. and became a kind of folk hero.)

Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City

In a morning coat,

hands locked behind your back,

you walk gravely along the lines in your head.

These others stand with you,

squinting the city into place,

yet cannot see what you see,

what you would see

- a vision of these paths,

laid out like a star,

or like a body,

the seed vibrating within itself,

breaking into the open,

dancing up to stop at the end of the universe.

I say your vision goes as far as this,

the egg of the world,

where everything remains, and moves,

holding what is most against it against itself,

moving, as though it knew its end, against death.

In that order,

the smallest life, the small event take shape.

Yes, even here at this point,

Amma's plan consumes you,

the prefigured man, Nommo, the son of God.

I call you into this time,

back to that spot,

and read these prefigurations

into your mind,

and know it could not be strange to you

to stand in the dark and emptiness

of a city not your vision alone.

Now, I have searched the texts

and forms of cities that burned,

that decayed, or gave their children away,

have been picking at my skin,

watching my hand move,

feeling the weight and shuttle of my body,

listening with an ear as large as God's

to catch some familiar tone in my voice.

Now, I am here in your city,

trying to find that spot

where the vibration starts.

There must be some mistake.

Over the earth,

in an open space,

you and I step to the time

of another ceremony.

These people, changed,

but still ours,

shake another myth

from that egg.

Some will tell you

that beginnings are only

possible here,

that only the clamor of these drums

could bring our God to earth.

A city, like a life,

must be made in purity.

So they call you,

knowing you are intimate with stars,

to create this city, this body.

So they call you,

knowing you must purge the ground.

"Sir, suffer me to recall to your mind that time, in which the arms and tyranny of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful effort, in order to reduce you to a state of servitude: look back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed, reflect on the time, in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preservation; you cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of Heaven."

"Reflect on that time."

The spirits move, even

in the events of men,

hidden in a language

that cannot hide it.

You were never lost

in the language of number alone;

you were never lost

to the seed vibrating alone,

holding all contradictions within it.

"Look back, I entreat you,"

over your own painful escapes.

The seed now vibrates into a city,

and a man now walks where you walked.

Wind and rain must assault him,

and a man must build against them.

We know now, too, that the house

must take the form of a man

- warmth at his head, movement at his feet,

his needs and his shrine at his hands.

Image of shelter, image of man,

pulled back into himself,

into the seed before the movement,

into the silence before the sound

of movement, into stillness,

which may be self-regard,

or only stillness.

Recall number.

Recall your calculations,

your sight, at night,

into the secrets of stars.

But still you must exorcise this ground.

"Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature; but, Sir, how pitiable it is to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity, and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves."

Can we say now

that it is the god

who chains us to this place?

Is it this god

who requires the movement,

the absence of movement,

the prefiguration of movement

only under his control?

If so,

what then is the reason

for these dancers,

these invocations,

the sight of these lesser gods

lining out the land?

How pitiable it is to reflect

upon that god, without grace,

without the sense of that small

beginning of movement,

where even the god

becomes another and not himself,

himself and not another.

So they must call you,

knowing you are intimate with stars;

so they must call you,

knowing different resolutions.

You sit in contemplations,

moving from line to line,

struggling for a city

free of that criminal act,

free of anything but that small,

imperceptible act, which itself becomes free.

Free. Free. How will the lines fall

into that configuration?

How will you clear this uneasiness,

posting your calculations and forecasts

into a world you yourself cannot enter?

Uneasy, at night,

you follow the stars and lines to their limits,

sure of yourself, sure of the harmony

of everything, and yet you moan

for the lost harmony, the crack in the universe.

Your twin, I invoke

the descent of Nommo.

I say your vision goes as far as this.

And so you, Benjamin Banneker,

walk gravely along these lines,

the city a star, a body,

the seed vibrating within you,

and vibrating still,

beyond your power,

beyond mine.

The poem is about the act of creation as a form of justice, and justice through creation as a form of exorcism, which can be read as a form of catharsis. Wright speaks to Banneker, and through Banneker to us, or to us through Banneker, or through us and Banneker to Wright's own vision, the vibrating seed and the paths created by the shaking of that egg. The poems comes out of Wright's need, his need to understand himself through his own traditions, the value, the worth - in the form of the poem - of his searching "the texts / and forms of cities that burned / that decayed". Like Moss's poem, Wright's comes after a shattering, what Harold Bloom called "the breaking of the vessels," and what we could call something traumatic, something that breaks a person, but in its breaking leads to fresh acts of creation. Wright does not cite the quoted passages, which makes sense - he is not interested here in the architecture of scholarship, but in the spiritual and aesthetic and ethical and religious qualities of what it means to see, to plan the birth of a city, to be at the forefront of that, like a great figure whose shadow falls down over cities and towns, villages and fields.

How are things created? Poems, cities, even worlds? Lives? Wright's poem suggests they come from seeds, which we could read as thoughts, intentions, ideas, not abstract and oblivious jargon-laded concepts, but the purity of wanting to help, and the strength to be able to do so. What does it mean to want to help? Who are we, and who do we help, and how? "Can we say now / that it is the god / who chains us to this place?" Where are we, and why? And what impelled this poem? Why am I chosen to help others, if everyone is chosen, too? What am I chosen for? "You sit in contemplations, / moving from line to line, / struggling for a city / free of that criminal act, / free of anything but that small, / imperceptible act, which itself becomes free. / Free. Free. How will the lines fall / into that configuration?" What does it mean, to be free? How do we become free, and what does freedom have to do with writing a poem, or a song, or hip-hop lyrics, or drawing something, or painting something, or making anything at all? Do we create our own lives, and are our lives like cities? How? Wright's poem, one poem, tries to answer these questions. And he succeeds, in the poem's enactment, to offering a kind of template of a city, the feeling and sense and movement of the seed vibrating into itself, the stuttering burning heart needing succor, and finding it in the unfurling blueprints of an imagined city that become real.

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