I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it. … Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world. Not in my lifetime.
She didn’t have to. When Wright passed away unexpectedly in January, she left behind one final, magnificent collection of poems with a title Fiona Apple would envy: The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. Even that mouthful—to which I’m going to refer as The Poet for clarity’s sake—doesn’t do justice to the scope of the work, which resembles the Doctor’s TARDIS: it’s much, much bigger on the inside.
One blog post can’t do justice to all the goodness in this volume, but there are recurring themes a reader can latch on to and explore. One of these is Wright’s joy in words, which circles back around again and again in a series of poems called “In a Word, a World” which appear at intervals throughout The Poet. We know this sequence is important because Wright uses its first poem to kick off the volume:
I love them all.
I love that a handful, a mouthful, gets you by, a satcheful can land you a job, a well-chosen clutch of them could get you laid, and that a solitary word can initiate a stampede… (3).
This intimate sense of relationship mirrors John 1:1: “In the beginning was the word,” and infuses The Poet with a joyful sense of the sacred right off the bat. Subsequent poems in this cycle make similar confessions about Wright’s close relationship to words in language this is often passionate, but never merely sentimental:
I love the nouns of a time in a place, where a sack once was a poke and native skag was junk glass not junk and junk was just junk not smack and smack entailed eating with your mouth open… (72).
Other sequences include “Hold Still, Lion,” in which Wright reminisces about Robert Creeley; “Jean Valentine, Abridged,” which examines her fellow poet’s aesthetics and body of work; “Spring and All,” a close reading of William Carlos Williams’s first foray into poetry; and “Purgatorio,” a study of the first volume of Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s epic trilogy. That these sequences don’t appear in order, but are instead wound in and around each other, encourages the reader to make connections between these—and other—poetic sets, and to the stand-alone poems that separate them. It’s all good, Wright seems to be saying. It’s all connected. Check it out.
The value of poetry in our contemporary world is something else Wright muses on at length in The Poet. Musings like “A Plague of Poets,” “The not knowing whether what you’ve set down is any good,” and “If one were to try to describe the heed that poetry requires” interrogate the writer, the writing process, the reader, and the world that creates the reader (even as the reader her/himself creates the world). The best of these is “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer,” a long piece that begs to be read out loud and contains wry observations like, “…what if this is just middle capitalism?” (32). Dry humor aside, however, the author has some definite goals that poems should achieve if poets want to stay relevant:
That they enlarge the circle.
That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.
That they rectify the names.
That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.
That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.
That they clear the air (39).
The Poet is knocking me out with its obvious deep joy, its loving acknowledgment of the long, global poetic tradition in which it’s situated, and the touches of snark that surface here and there like the fish at Pymatuming hustling for tourist breadcrumbs. If it sounds a bit too much like a book for seasoned poetry veterans only, I’ve done my job wrong; The Poet is more like a block party to which everybody’s invited, whether you’ve lived in the neighborhood forever or just moved in yesterday. My only regret is that I came to the party so late, after the hostess had quietly slipped away.
Click here to get to know The Poet, and let us know in the comments section whether you’re a poetry lifer, a curious bystander or something else altogether. All voices are welcome, and needed, for the party to be a success.