Yesterday I asked the front desk associate at my local library, which I’ve been going to since I was 10 years old, for a copy of all the books I’ve checked out in the last two years. She printed out 28 pages worth of titles, ranging from Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game to The Sopranos Family Cookbook: As Compiled by Artie Bucco.
I immediately felt a pang of guilt for wasting so many sheets and convinced myself that the library was responsible enough to use recycled paper. I scanned through the list and noticed one title that frequently made an appearance: Transfigurations: collected poems by Jay Wright. I’ve checked out that particular book a total of eleven times; more than any other titles in the past couple of years.
I went back to the library and checked it out one more time, drove home, and immediately plunged headfirst into the familiar vivid, hypnotic verse of Jay Wright, trying to come up with a logical explanation for my infatuation. The first poem in the entire collection is called Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, which contains memorable lines that mix humor with accurate portraits of youth:
Outside, the pagan kids
scramble in the darkness,
kissing each other with a sly humility,
or urinating boldly against the trees.
Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting reveals Jay Wright’s delicate balancing act between spiritual pursuit, in which he’s the participant, and his observations on the humanity behind such pursuits of personal growth. But he also affirms his role as a poet who takes it all in, like a kind of photosynthesis, and then redistributing what he has absorbed in the form of verse.
That poem was from one of his earliest collections, The Homecoming Singer (1971), which illustrated Jay Wright’s talent at melting religious symbolism, sociopolitical reportage, and cultural studies. In his eyes, all three of these were interconnected on a deep level.
I flipped through the pages and landed on another poem, titled Reflections Before the Charity Hospital, which starts out with these economical but razor-sharp lines:
I live almost within this hospital.
All day someone grumbles
through the speaker system.
Whey-faced doctors give consultations
to the poor, outside the doors.
Few are ever admitted.
This is the power of Jay Wright’s poetry. His ability to observe and empathize with people of different backgrounds can be traced back to his roots. The African-American poet grew up in a multicultural environment in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was exposed to Mexican and Native American cultures. This conglomeration of different cultural values, along with his own, clearly shows in his writings.
His poetry is distinctively American: a melting pot of different perspectives. Though he’s not as widely read as some of his contemporaries, he is a literary gem in the American cultural landscape, and it’s about time we celebrate his legacy.