From Publishers Weekly
Onetime jazz musician, minor-league baseball player, member of the U.S. Army, theology and comparative literature student, and college professor, Wright has, since the early '70s, pursued a less institutionally affiliated life and become a major voice in American poetry. After he was chosen for a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986 and his Selected Poems was published a year later by Princeton University Press, Wright's work began to reach a wider readership, though one still smaller than many of his peers. This major editionDrarely do poets have a 700-plus-page collected poems published during their lifetimesDshould help further extend the reputation of this remarkable poet. It is Wright's first book of poems since 1991's Boleros and presents all of Wright's previous full-length collections, beginning with The Homecoming Singer (1971), proceeding chronologically by date of composition, and ending with the newer poems, many published here for the first time. The early poems move away from the era's prevalent personal narrative in favor of a heady mix of history and religion, making for an extended unfolding of a cosmology of culture: "High bells and xylophones,/ marimbas, a courteous guitar,/ New England winter in a choir/ of fifteen, dressed in Quechua shawls." Scholars of Wright's work frequently mention his African-American heritage, his upbringing in New Mexico, his bilingualism, and his extensive travels in Mexico and Europe as biographical context for the erudite quality to his verse, but listed attributes cannot account for the work's transformative power: "Below us, our dead/ economic of love has made a left turn,/ and the mollusk must pay for light, a green urn/ and the right to exchange the body's spent shell/ for a feeling so lately struck when love fell." As Wright is also a playwright, poems like "The Abstract of Knowledge / the First Test" and "The Key That Unlocks Performance: Vision as Historical Dimension," to name just two of the scores of poems here, can seem less a movement of isolated modern characters than a timeless drama. Particularly in its movement between Africa and the Americas, Wright's poetry continually insists upon the notion of a diasporic history, but it refuses to allows its characters and speakers be completely determined by it, making this book a true life lesson. (Nov.)
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Lyric poetry is a way of compressing experience into a heightened moment, but what happens when the experience is one of wanting not to be contained? Wright is an African-American poet who has contended with this dilemma for the last thirty years, and the result is a substantial collection of work. His forcefully musical rhythms drive even poems of everyday experience—such as waiting outside church on a warm night—to a pleasingly contradictory transport. And the later, meditative poems are bound to the world by their attention to the sensual within the spiritual: "How like joy to come upon me / in remembering a head of hair / and the way water would caress / it."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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