poet Jay Wright
How is it possible to be simultaneously singular and plural? How does one, to paraphrase Judith Butler, maintain the integrity and complexity of one’s identity, without kowtowing to unhelpful classifications? And how, as Gloria Anzaldua writes, does one learn how to “operate in a pluralistic mode”? (n.p.) These questions are vital, both in the world of, and the world outside, literature – and they are seen to be grappled with, with tremendous integrity and complexity, by Jay Wright. In this essay, through the exegesis of Wright’s poem “The Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” I argue that Wright’s poetry constitutes the enactment of the “pluralistic mode” that Anzaldua speaks of; that he provides us with a template for how to think about and wrestle with identity, classification and tradition; and that Wright’s poetry, through its unfolding and interest in names, provides us with a deep understanding about the benefits and limits of naming and classification.
One way to discuss the benefits and limits of naming and classification is to write a poem that gives us a familiar scene; but the scene, as it unfolds, becomes progressively more unfamiliar (though still somewhat familiar), so that we as readers begin to question, interrogate and scrutinize our early assumed understanding of what exactly is going on in the scene. By questioning our initial assumptions, we get closer to a certain strangeness, an unfamiliar difference we had not counted on in our earlier attempts at classification. And this strangeness, in problematizing our assumed familiarity, serves as a perplexing agent that paints for us a more complex and nuanced scene, a scene that is more pluralistic in its manifestation. That is what happens in Wright’s poem, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” the first poem in his first book, The Homecoming Singer. “Wednesday Night” starts like this:
On Wednesday night,
the church still opens at seven,
and the boys and girls have to come in
from their flirting games of tag,
with the prayers they’ve memorized,
the hymns they have to start.
Some will even go down front,
with funky bibles,
to read verses from Luke,
where Jesus triumphs, or Revelations,
where we all come to no good end.
One can sense Wright smiling here – he is reciting the typical architecture of a prayer meeting in a tone halfway between a grin and a yawn. There is a sly knowingness to the passage, for the “church still opens at seven,” the boys and girls come in with the “prayers they’ve memorized,” and they will read Revelations, “where we all come to no good end.” That last line, in its diction and tonality, sums up this first section – religion here is tangled up with what we consider both boring and familiar – with the rote, the expected, the memorized, the unreflective.
This changes as we continue reading and the poem unfolds. The poem deepens, as we are introduced to more characters, as well as a more nuanced complexion of the setting, scene and tone. Indeed, after the first four lines of the excerpt below, there is a turn away from the gentle satire, into something different, more sentimental, meaningful, and pathos-filled. Wright writes,
Outside, the pagan kids
scramble in the darkness,
kissing each other with a sly humility,
or urinating boldly against the trees.
The older people linger
in the freshly lit night,
not in a hurry to enter,
having been in the battle of voices
far too long, knowing that the night
will stretch and end only
when some new voice rises
in ecstasy, or deceit, only
when some arrogant youth
comes cringing down front,
screaming about sin, begging
the indifferent-faced women
for a hand, for a touch,
for a kiss, for help,
for forgiveness, for being young
and untouched by the grace
of pain, innocent of the insoluble
mysteries of being black
and sinned against, black
and sinning in the compliant cities.
Wright’s tone of bemused recognition continues in those first four lines of the excerpt above, but then something happens: we are introduced to a new perspective, that of the “older people.” What is happening? Wright is empowering us to “recognize multiple experiences of black identity,” not only the relatively un-complex experiences of those church members – the boys and girls – who go to church for “the prayers they’ve memorized / the hymns they have to start,” but also the complex experiences of those church members who’ve had more time to think about the meaning of their religion and the rituals that go along with it. These older people do not “have to come in,” compelled by their parents; therefore they linger in the “freshly lit night, / not in a hurry to enter, / having been in the battle of voices / far too long”. As the perspective has shifted from the younger to the older people, Wright’s perspective on the people he is describing has also shifted, and the tone is no longer half-knowing, half-satirical, but more empathetic, compassionate, un-ironic. These people have been “in the battle of voices / far too long.” They have suffered enough not to need to rush into church, not to need to hurry; and they have seen the hysterics that sometimes go on in that church, enough to know that “some arrogant youth” will probably come “cringing down front, / screaming about sin, begging / the indifferent-faced women / for a hand, for a touch, / for a kiss, for help, / for forgiveness”. Yet up until now, we do not know anything more about these people, until Wright writes, “for being young / and untouched by the grace / of pain, innocent of the insoluble / mysteries of being black / and sinned against, black / and sinning in the compliant cities.” Then we learn that these boys, girls, and elderly men and women are most likely African-American, and so their pain and suffering takes on an historical and cultural importance that had not been gleaned before. Here, Wright, like Morrison, has constructed his poem in such a way as to welcome any and everybody. It is only once we have been welcomed into the poem that we learn about the culturally specific nature of the people – an interesting strategy that seems to helpfully universalize as oppose to pigeon-hole his people with classifications.
Wright stays with these elderly people. In the questions that ensue, we begin to hear about these elderly Black folk’s indignation, melancholy and pain. Through the setting of the church and the feelings of the elderly folk, Wright deepens our understanding of the subjectivity of these specific people, which is to say, he enacts through his poetry the pluralistic mode that Anzaldua speaks of. In doing so, in making us aware of the suffering and pain of others, Wright gives us a more complex picture of these elderly African-Americans. We are not given cliché’s about church, religion, or age:
What do the young know
about some corpulent theologian,
sitting under his lamp,
his clammy face wet,
his stomach trying to give up
the taste of a moderate wine,
kissing God away with a labored
toss of his pen?
How would these small black singers
know which Jesus is riding
there over the pulpit,
in the folds of the banner
left over from Sunday,
where the winners were the ones
who came, who dropped their nickels
into the felted platters with a flourish?
And how can they be expected
to remember the cadences
that will come again,
the same heart-rending release
of the same pain, as the clock turns
toward the certainty
of melancholic afternoons,
roast and leftover prayers,
the dampened hours that last through the night?
It is a depressing picture of religion: the banner “left over from Sunday,” the “melancholic afternoons” of “roast and leftover prayers,” which might remind the reader of his or her own experiences with and in a stale religion. But it is also an uncompromising and unflinching look at religion. Rather than give us some exuberant chronicle of ecstatic religion, Wright humanizes the experience of these elderly folk, through the representation of their church, despite how depressing it looks and feels. “This is another aspect of the Black and universal experience,” he seems to be saying, “so why not depict
As Wright humanizes the elderly folk, giving us a sympathetic and empathetic portrayal of them which enlists our own empathy and broadens or deepens our understanding of their subjectivity, so does Wright also humanize the figure of Jesus Christ. But what does this accomplish? How is this related to Anzaldua’s pluralistic mode, to tradition, naming and classification? Let’s read the beginning of the passage:
But Christ will come,
feeling injured, having gone
where beds were busy without him,
having seen pimps cane their number-running boys,
the televisions flicker over heaped up bodies,
having heard some disheveled man
shout down an empty street, where women
slither in plastic boots, toward light,
their eyes dilated and empty;
will come like a tired workman
and sit on a creaky bench,
in hope, in fear, wanting to be pleased again,
so anxious that his hands move,
his head tilts for any lost accent.
This section – which is one long sentence – gives us a tragic vision of Christ, come unto the modern world to witness our daily “transgressions”; a Christ who feels “injured,” who sees pimps beating their boys, homeless men shouting down empty streets, prostitutes walking lonely down concrete strips. What happens is, this Christ figure turns into one of us, “so anxious that his hands move, / his head tilts for any lost accent.” Is Wright arguing that there is no place or need in the world now for religion? Just the opposite? Either way, what’s clear is that Wright is updating tradition, shaking it from its worn foundations in order to say, “this is what Christ would see if he came back – not redemptive glory, but the sad fate we live in, the pimps and prostitutes, the tired men and the fear.” It is not an easy vision to swallow. But even here, Wright is enacting Anzaldua’s pluralistic mode, by giving us an un-idealized picture of religion, one that makes our own take on religion more complex and ambiguous.
Complexity and ambiguity cannot be served up without an honesty that acknowledges pain and challenges assumed universalities. As bell hooks writes,
The critique of essentialism encouraged by postmodernist thought is useful for African-Americans concerned with reformulating outmoded notions of identity. We have too long had imposed upon us from both the outside and inside a narrow, constricting notion of blackness. Postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency. (n.p.)
This “critique of essentialism which challenges notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness” is not exempt, Wright seems to be saying, from a critique of religion. Thus we read of the Christ figure, as the poem unfolds,
He seems to be home,
where he’s always been.
His intense smile is fixed
to the rhythm of hands,
to the unhurried intensity
of this improvised singing.
He seems not to know
the danger of being here,
among these lonely singers,
in the middle of a war
of spirits who will not wair for him,
who cannot take his intense glare
to heart anymore, who cannot justify
the Wednesday night given up
in these stuffy, titled rooms,
while the work piles up for Thursday,
and the dogs mope around empty garbage pails,
and the swingers swing into the night
with a different ecstasy.
Religion in this poem has lost its relevance. It is like a dusty exhalation, some tired sigh. But Wright does not seem to be bringing this up solely to gloat overzealously about religion’s demise or decline, but rather to open up new portals for performing our identities, by, as it were, sloughing off the dead skin of rituals that have themselves ossified over time. It is a form of, as Butler writes, “affirmative resistance.” (n.p.)
Perhaps this is why, as the poem nears its end, the Christ figure in the poem becomes analogous to the “arrogant youth” at the beginning of the poem, who “comes cringing down front, / screaming about sin, begging / the indifferent-faced women / for a hand, for a touch, / for a kiss, for help, / for forgiveness”. It is a supremely ironic swerve on the part of Wright, for he is reversing the dichotomy, and it is Christ himself who “caught in this unlovely music, / [….] spills to the floor.” As Wright writes,
The sisters circle him,
and their hands leap from bone to bone,
as if their touch could change him,
would make him see
the crooked lights like stars.
The bible-reading boy tags him with verses,
and he writhes like a boy
giving up stolen kisses,
the free play of his hand on his own body,
the unholy clarity of his worldly speech.
This is a recapitulation of earlier themes in the poem, but made more dramatic by their repetition. Christ has turned into the earlier “arrogant youth.” Rather than saving the people, the people are attempting to save him. This dynamic continues until the poem ends, for we read,
He writhes as if he would be black,
on Wednesday, under the uncompromising
need of old black men and women,
who know that pain is what
you carry in the mind,
in the solemn memory of small triumphs,
that you get, here,
as the master of your pain.
He stands up to sing,
but a young girl,
getting up from the mourner’s bench,
tosses her head in a wail.
The women rise,
the men collect the banners
and the boys dorp their eyes,
listening to the unearthly wind
whisper to the peeping-tom trees.
This is the end of the night,
and he has not come there yet,
has not made it into the stillness
of himself, or the flagrant uncertainty
of all these other singers.
They have taken his strangeness,
and given it back, the way a lover
will return the rings and letters
of a lover who hurts him.
They have closed their night
with what certainty they could,
unwilling to exchange their freedom for a god.
In this poem, strangely but understandably, the people turn out to be the heroes, and Christ turns out to be the dupe. Christ attempts to sing, but a young girl beats him to it. Then the older people pack up and leave, leaving Christ there to ask, basically, “What just happened?” It is a poem that completely un-idealizes religion. In so doing, it reverses the familiar dichotomy between redeemer and redeemed. By upturning this naming and this classification, Wright begins the reinvention of himself that continues in his later poems, in which he seeks “to clear the encumbrances in the path of his journey to self-discovery.” (Okpewho)