(Scroll down to Part I, or click here to download all my posts on Jay Wright)
Whereas the last post focused on Wright’s overcoming of the dissociative spatial paradigms found in Modernist poetry—a paradigm that bifurcates the performance experience and/or encounter into performers, on the one hand, and observers, on the other hand—this post will deal with the synesthetic events scattered throughout Wright’s poetry. These events require a spatial reading since the unification of different sensing apparatuses amounts to a synthesis of an individual’s being in the (poem) world. Wright, for example, allocates sound to color and sight to skin in order, I would argue, to help us all learn to read what he calls the “coherent grammar” of our surroundings.
When thinking about what to call the gesture of invitation tucked within the synesthetic realm of Wright’s poetry, an invitation that provides an opportunity to read the entire world all at once and, ultimately, to know what love is, I return time and again to the magic circle. Let’s briefly visit the world of Christopher Marlowe and Dr. Faustus where he famously writes:
Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th’abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform. (1.3.8-15)
Offering a user-friendly history of the magic circle, Jon Kaneko-James reminds us that the magic circle served two purposes. First, it protected the magician from whatever he or she conjured. The space within the circle offered sanctuary from the demons without. Second, the circle produced a field of energy and functioned as a conductive space, “the magical words and symbols filter[ed] specific kinds of mystical power into the circle to be used by the magician.” In fact, the second attribute of the magic circle leads us to question whether or not the inner space within the circles’ arcs are indeed safe or whether, instead, the energy conducted to the magician from the signs and symbols inscribed around the circle actually empowered the magician to stop whatever force attempted to assail him/her.
Without attempting to resolve that dispute here, I would suggest that both are true. The space of the inner circle is an ancient form of critical distance, something that allows the magician to be, simultaneously, near and far to the action transpiring in the scene. At the same time, the space within the circle, buttressed and enhanced by magical symbols gathered around it, transmits powers to the magician. Transposing this formula to Wright and his poetry, I propose that we think of his poetic equations—as he calls them in Music’s Mask and Measure—as the symbols that form the magic circle around Wright and produce the powerful critical distance necessary for conjuring into being a reading of the world’s coherent grammar, a reading that leads to a necessary naming.
Look at this excerpt from Equation 2 (which I’ve reproduced here in such a way as to mimic the page layout of the book itself):
The red roof tiles The oriole has established
slip into the morning fog. an evasive coherence,
There is a red silence infinite, exact,
all around us. with its place, there where
It will take years to learn the day seems set to honor
this coherent grammar. the bird's expressive deceit
In the stanza on the left, Wright’s equation rewires the sensorium of things surrounding us such that the redness of the present but muted visual tile-field enacts an audible silence, not dissimilar (in my mind) to the sound of the Summer Sun at its zenith. From within the circle of his poetry, Wright enters into the rewired scene and, perhaps because it is foreign and new, declares that it will take years to learn the coherent grammar of what surrounds him. His poetry, in other words, doesn’t reveal everything at all once. His poetry, instead, offers a glimpse and a bodily sense of all that hides behind daily appearances. This “coherent grammar” amounts to the order of the world presented by and present within each individual thing. I find it interesting that an etymological definition of grammar traces the word back to the late 14th-century: “‘Latin grammar, rules of Latin,’ from Old French gramaire ‘grammar; learning,’ especially Latin and philology, also ‘(magic) incantation, spells, mumbo-jumbo.’” It will take years to learn these rules, to attune ourselves to the incantations of things that sound like mumbo-jumbo upon first encounter but soon, once appraised with care, speak clearly of hidden (occult) truths.
While it will take Wright years to attune himself to this grammar—not to mention you, me, humans generally—it takes no time for the oriole who, being of this grammar, speaks it fluently. The “oriole has established an evasive coherence.” Either its being-in-the-world requires evasiveness, or its apparent evasiveness actually masks the coherence of the grammar. I’m not sure which it is – maybe both. But I do know that the oriole’s participation in the world’s grammar comes not only from its song, which, note, Wright doesn’t mention here, but also from its correspondence with world’s colors, sounds, and other senses. Wright conjures the bird “there where the day seems set to honor the bird’s expressive deceit,” which to me means there, in front of the setting sun, whose evening coloration mimics the oriole’s orange, that is, the bird’s expressive outwardness that, despite its seeming ostentation, serves to camouflage it and keep it safe. Oriole, setting sun, red roof tiles :: (silent) song bird, thronging light and distant heat, red silence all around us. The continuum of color, sound, and silence, indeed the continuum of music’s mask and measure, indexes Wright’s brief foray into the world normally hidden by inattentive business.
He lingers on another bird—to be precise, the Carolina wren—before revealing the aim of this conjuration, this poetical work:
Love is ancient
evidence, an instrument
constrained, jealous of its
in awe of its own death;
every name embraces it.
The purpose behind Wright’s poetry is the desire to conjure love. Love: perhaps another way of saying “this coherent grammar.” Every name embraces it, he says. Is poetry not the daring attempt to name that which either cannot be named or that which wishes to remain unnamable? Each name bracketed, deduced, possibly discerned from within life’s belligerent symphony brings love closer to the caller, the poet. The purpose of all this magic is to call love close, and the space produced by the poem is that which provides the means for embracing love. The word-equations summon; the space of the magic circle conducts the orchestra into the embrace.
Will Daddario is a historiographer, philosopher, and teacher. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.