Jay Wright’s “Sources (1)”

 

Jay Wright is a master poet.  In this blog post I want to interrogate some reasons why I feel Wright is a master.  Most of my argument is going to pivot around notions of voice, cadence, rhythm, tonality, and mood, although in a later post (or maybe for my dissertation) I want to talk about Wright’s “development” or evolution, the way in which his poems unfold from each other in a kind of languorous steady haunting style, how much and how intensely they hold the reader in a kind of enormously caring and careful embrace, a very powerful progression.  For the purposes of this blog post, however, I want to look at Wright’s sequences of poems called “Sources,” which contains six sections.  I might not have time to delve into all of the sections here today, but perhaps in a later blog post I will.  The “Sources” poems, to my mind, are about a form of initiation, and the questions that attend this initiation.  As Wright’s vocation is as (among other things) a poet, I read this initiation as poetic in nature, a form of beginning where he is, of speaking, and of wondering about the meaning of beginning and speaking poetry.  “Sources (1)” reads,

And what if the god

should send me as a messenger

adorned with quetzal feathers?

In the light,

I have seen that pink and white

flower, at the top of the thorns,

float up, a feathered arrow,

or move, an embellished body,

to drink the rhythm of drums.

But this is the House of the Eagle,

the House of the Night of the Tigers.

This is the place where the spring

itself lies garlanded by kings.

When the rain falls,

when only these quetzal feathers

light the house,

I kneel in the only light it gives,

needing no light

to catch the dark, sweet smell

of this intoxicating god.

This poem seems to have four symphonic movements within it, beginning with a question, continuing with a vision, extending into a qualification and extension of the vision, and ending with a summary entailing an action that the vision brings to fruition.  The poem begins with a Rilkean question: “And what if the god / should send me as a messenger, / adorned with quetzal feathers?”  Quetzal feathers are resplendent colors, iridescent and varying from green-gold to blue-violet.  The sense is therefore that Wright is asking his audience, “And what if the god should choose me as his messenger, his gleaming glowing voice, his medium?”  The question seems to entail a certain sense of terror, along with a sense of the importance of the vocation and initiation.  

In the next movement, which begins, “In the light,” Wright describes in a wonderfully unhurried way (notice how much space “In the light” takes up in that line, how loudly it speaks, how solidly it stands) a vision of a flower seen from various metaphorical angles: floating vertically up, a “feathered arrow,” or moving perhaps more horizontally, “an embellished body.”  It is an organic vision that doubles as a metaphysical sort of miracle, a flower “at the top of the thorns” that rises up like an arrow, or moves like a body dancing.  One feels that Wright is here describing his own flourishing voice, floating up to the heavens like a flower, or moving abundantly to the rhythm of a dance.  What is the appropriate image, he seems to be asking; What is the appropriate metaphor to contain the image of the poet creating or finding his voice?  He finds then an image that draws from nature and culture, a flower that moves like “an embellished body.”  When Wright writes, “But this is the House of the Eagle, / the House of the Night of the Tigers,” the qualification seems to be in a form in and by which Wright doubts his choice of image, doubts where the image is appropriate for the place in which Wright speaks.  It is as though Wright wished to make his flower-image more snarling, more vicious, more aggressive?  But then he hits upon a different image, and writes, “This is the place where the spring / itself lies garlanded by kings.”  Whether we read “spring” as the season itself or a spring of water, what is clear is that something benevolent is happening, a kind of blessing that Wright as a poet is receiving, and the blessing is represented through the trope of the land and the bestowal of a gift.  The poem ends marvelously, with the lines,

When the rain falls,

when only these quetzal feathers

light the house,

I kneel in the only light it gives,

needing no light

to catch the dark, sweet smell

of this intoxicating god.

When light is snuffed out and rain falls, Wright as poet sees by the dusky murmuring light of the quetzal feathers’ iridescence.  This light is a metaphor for the poem itself, its language, which is also pared back to the minimum amount of words needed, just as the quetzal feathers give off the minimum amount of light needed.  Yet Wright doesn’t even need light in order “to catch the dark, sweet smell / of this intoxicating god.”  The poem ends with image of smell and taste, as though in the blindness and darkness lit only by the iridescence of feathers, Wright might find the words sufficient for the grueling but ennobling task of his vocation.           

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