The Reappearance of All Things
The Presentable Art of Reading Absence
By Jay Wright
Here we go again. As with Polynomials and Pollen (the focus of last month’s review), the dust jacket comments for Jay Wright’s The Presentable Art of Reading Absence are at laughable odds with the poems they advertise. On its back page, we learned that Polynomials and Pollen was a “masterwork” of “protophilosophical inquiry” with “dynamically visceral” “feelingtones.” Huh? Now we are told that with Reading Absence “Jay Wright has written the user’s guide to evanescence” and that he has done so “with occult emotionality and analytic brilliance.”
There is so much so wrong with these statements. One consults a “user’s guide” to find specific information to solve a specific problem: for example, to learn what makes a car break down or why an air-conditioning unit is blowing nothing but hot air. Poetry certainly provides solace and balm, but is it merely a means to an end? And who seeking true evanescence—a vanishing or disappearance, a fading away into mist or vapor—really needs a user’s guide, except the magician who hopes to create the appearance of disappearance? Don’t they just pick up and move to rural Vermont or something? Whatever the case, one thing is certain: these jacket comments miss the mark. Their claim that Reading Absence is “the literal removal of a self from noisy, populated ruins and its return to being” implies that being–truly being–is ultimately a silent, solitary act. This blurb may sound good, but it comes to nearly the opposite conclusion that the poem does.
Reading Absence starts by declaring“Here begins the revelation of a kiosk,” a revelation which occurs on a “morning given over to meditation,” in “the place set aside / for creating the body.” The setting seems to be some kind of meditation retreat, but details are scant: the reader sees a “bowl of rice”; the “Dogon doorlock / in that corner”; “the light that strays through the fraying oak.” The reader hears “the clamor of a bare foot upon a bare floor”; “that trilling owl, / or the sharp-noted stream as it passes.” But why has Wright taken himself and us to this place, this “house [that] remains scarred / by the non-initiate’s entry,” this “room [that] is as close as you will get to sorrow”? Why engage in meditation (or poetry, for that matter) when “nothing invites / the silence we require”?
Good questions. Wright’s answers aren’t necessarily forthcoming. Perhaps haunted by a belief that “There will be nothing as tangible as death / when the pulse escapes,” Wright’s “secular mourning” compels him to recognize that “this instant / becomes the smallest unit of meaning / in the universe.” Wright spends the rest of the book exploring what comprises the instant, what makes it meaningful, and if this meaning can ever be indigenous to the moment. Apparently, yes and no. A moment can be spent “wandering along this road” but it is always “a colonization” or “radiant corruption” of “native speech.” There may exist somewhere in the back of the mind some thought that is both “noble” and “savage” in the Rousseauvian sense of the words, but just thinking about it in these terms tames and domesticates it.
So it is not the “trilling owl” or the “bowl of rice” that distracts Wright from his meditation but rather a phenomenon he refers to as “Anámnesis”—the act of recalling something to mind. Over and over again, lines from Donne, Borges, Lorca, and even Hölderlin pop into Wright’s mind, though he wishes they wouldn’t. Consider this passage:
Such clever words
that speak of disapproval,
syllables torn from their consenting
the mind settling here
for the long ride into disdain.
But since I’am dead, and buried, I could frame
no epitaph, which might advance…
Dream of the island
my voice has made of my fame,
the debilitating temper of poor songs
Why uncover a perfect sacrifice
that leads only to a grave of one’s
a punning excuse for abandoning
a great feast,
having no grace to say?
To know and to feele all this,
to make my distemper
part of the bindery of my spirit
and at once the measure of this
structures a deceptive absence.
The curiously spelled “I’am” and “feele,” in conjunction with mention of an “island,” recall John Donne and send one back to the Elizabethan poet’s collected works, where, lo! one finds an epithalamion (or marriage song) entitled “Eclogue: December 26, 1613.” In this poem Allophanes, a nobleman fresh from the Court for the wedding of the Earl of Somerset, discovers another nobleman, Idios, in the countryside and chides him for not attending the marriage and therefore for missing the political favors the king doled out to those who were in attendance. Idios answers his friend’s complaint by insisting:
All this, and only therefore I withdrew.
To know and feel all this, and not to have
Words to express it, makes a man a grave
Of his own thoughts; I would not therefore stay
At a great feast, having no grace to say.
And yet I scaped not here; for being come
Full of the common joy, I uttered some.
Read then this nuptial song, which was not made
Either the Court or men’s hearts to invade;
But since I am dead and buried, I could frame
No epitaph which might advance my fame
So much as this poor song which testifies
I did unto that day some sacrifice.
Donne’s poem shows how one can fully engage—more fully engage, Idios might say—with something even—no, especially—in absentia. Wright’s clever reworking of this passage in the context of his removal from it—remember, he’s put himself in a meditation retreat and so is recalling these lines from memory—shows how his commitment to poetry strengthens the farther he withdraws from it. This passage also shows that Wright’s “literal removal from noisy, populated ruins” is more fully populated with noisy fragments from the past than the jacket comments would have us believe. His “absence” is “deceptive” because it’s less absence than presence (that is to say, anámnesis). No matter how he tries, Wright cannot hide from the poets (Donne, Borges, Lorca) he has known and loved.
Yet this revelation fails to impress. For one thing, isn’t Wright’s exploration just a rehash of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence or T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”? For another, what if a reader misses the references? There’s not enough of external interest in The Presentable Art of Reading Absence to hold the attention of the reader who misses the point. At least Polynomials and Pollen had the twin virtues of being both a nature poem—trees and flowers? We get trees and flowers—and an address to Wright’s wife, which gives us the voyeuristic pleasure of overhearing a couple’s intimate conversation. Reading Reading Absence is like overhearing a person having a conversation with himself.
If the reader has doubts, so, too, does Wright, who seems to lament his inability to overcome influences. Consider the following complaint:
Who is in this house?
And where has the invention gone?
Who cloisters the dense plasma
in the sun’s corona?
Something perhaps sacred will erase
all evidence of ambition.
Ambition—to learn Donne et al. by heart. Ambition—to forget them. Ambition—to make something new, to invent. Of course, by the poem’s end, nothing sacred swoops in like a deus ex machina to erase all evidence of ambition. There is no such erasure possible; there is only a surrendering of ambition, which comes in the form of awareness that one can never completely “make it new.” Wright himself admits this:
What finer thoroughfare for the spirit
than an uncharted path,
or a path that has been transformed
by leading nowhere?
So, if the morning arrives
in an amethyst coach bearing sacred garments,
all is the relevant case of related moments,
touching and falling apart,
reconfigured in the alchemy of a spirit
that would annihilate itself.
The line about the amethyst coach is similar to a line from Wright’s poem “Guadalupe – Tonantzin” from Callalloo No. 26: “Night arrives in an amethyst coach.” So, Donne, Borges, Lorca…and Wright are the biggest influences on Wright. Which is to say, although the uncharted path is good for the spirit and going nowhere may be transformative, more often than not the morning arrives as a rehash of the night—which is to say, matter isn’t created or destroyed; it’s just recycled. So there is no tabula rasa in the back of the human mind, no place where noble and savage thoughts exist separate from corruptive influence of others and oneself. Being is never a “literal removal”; existence—that is, consciousness—is a series of “related moments, touching and falling apart.”
The breath of a person in meditation comes to serve as a figure for this consciousness:
From breath to breath,
the world is disfigured,
Wright wants desperately to have this revelation reverberate with the reader, to have the reader share in this realization:
We arise, you and I,
such fleeting and fearful akusmatoí,
entangled by the breath
the morning counts within us.
But the only sound you’ll hear coming from the reader is a sigh of frustration at not knowing what on earth an “akusmatoí” is.
The utter gravitas with which Wright writes, his unshakable belief that he can reveal “a moment of infinite density” in spite of himself, his ostentatious show of coming to terms with his influences, quoting a line of his own poetry—all of these grate on the reader’s nerves. Like the dust jacket comments that inaccurately reflect this poem, at times Wright seems to be at odds with himself. Wright may have convinced himself by the book’s end that “I have become attuned / to the disappearance of all things / and of my self,” but the reader isn’t fooled. It is either irony or willful ignorance for the speaker to insists this because, if anything, Reading Absence is a testament to reappearance. It is therefore fitting the poem concludes with a line recycled from the beginning of the poem: “Call this wandering along this road / a colonization.” Ideas may be conquered and put to work by newer, stronger ideas, but they have a way of asserting themselves, even in conquest. So The Presentable Art of Reading Absence is not a “user’s guide to evanescence” or an attunement to disappearance, but a warning to those who would attempt to evanesce or disappear: even in solitude, you are not alone. Get used to the noise.
Correction: After the first of these two reviews was published, Open Letters Monthly editor John Cotter received word from Dalkey Archive editor Martin Riker that the author himself had written the dust jacket comments for Polynomials and Pollen. In a subsequent email received after the initial publication of this review, Riker clarifies that Wright had merely written the jacket copy and not the comments, that Dalkey’s editors then altered this copy for their own purposes, and that none of the qualitative comments such as “masterwork” or “analytic brilliance” can be attributable to Wright, as an earlier version of this essay had assumed. Writing copy for one’s own book is more modest than, say, Walt Whitman writing favorable reviews of Leaves of Grass, but there is no indication that Wright also contributed to the jacket copy for The Presentable Art of Reading Absence.
Chad Reynolds was born in Oklahoma and lives in Boston. His poems can be found in Octopus Magazine, RealPoetik, Redivider, Sawbuck, and Verse Daily; other work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in absent magazine and Diagram. His chapbook, Victor in the New World, is just out from Rope-a-Dope Press.