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The Beauty of Failure

Polynomials and Pollen

Jay Wright
Dalkey Archive, 2008

Jay Wright has enjoyed a long and successful life in poetry, and yet he refuses to go gently into that good night. Thirteen books of poetry, over thirty plays, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Bollingen Prize in 2005—major accomplishments all, but this time Wright has outdone himself by simultaneously publishing not one but two book-length poems, each of which takes an unflinching look at a poet’s aspirations to produce authentic work and to rise above influence. Though Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, Paradigms, and Praise for Lois and The Presentable Art of Reading Absence examine “the great order of nature” and the act of meditation, respectively, they can be read as companion pieces. This month’s review will concentrate on the former, next month’s the latter.

A nature poem having an identity crisis, Polynomials and Pollen finds that a poet hoping to recreate the “native syntax” of the natural world can only create a “synthetic language.” Wright may doubt poetry’s authenticity; fortunately, he never despairs in the art form itself. If “nowhere / will the habitation we required / recall our presence,” if poetry “is south of everywhere, / a map of meanderings,” then we must adjust our expectations to see it as a noble process that necessarily, beautifully fails. As Wright admits, “sacred days impress me / only in their imperfection.” Although such an admission may be intended to stave off criticism (criticism itself is a form of imperfection), it is unclear what dark night of the soul has led Wright to put poetry to the test and then become its apologist. One wonders if the complex calculus of his equations—and Dalkey Archive’s heavy-handed presentation of them—might not push the average reader away.

 
Polynomials and Pollen clearly wasn’t intended for the average reader, if you trust its dust jacket comments:

A gift for his wife, Jay Wright’s Polynomials and Pollen explores the complementary exigencies of abstraction and physicality. In five sections, each arranged under the aegis of a tutelary concept—from the Yoruba, Akan, Bamana, and Náhuatl—the book is a constellation of protophilosophical inquiry into notions of order, disarray, evidence, flowering, and return; it is also a dynamically visceral work whose feelingtones register rage as well as devotion and whose form is masterwork. [emphasis mine]

Jargon (“complementary exigencies”), nonsense word (“feelingtones”), redundancy (“dynamically visceral”), and empty praise (“masterwork”) aside, this blurb paints Wright as the unifier of two dominant strains of Modernist tradition: on one hand, the emotional directness of William Carlos Williams, who also dedicated a long poem late in life to his wife (“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”); and on the other, the densely woven allusiveness and hybridity of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The comments also serve to help the reader make sense of the curious section titles (“One / Imùlẹ,” “Two / Sasa,” “Three / Bólí,” “Four / Ilhuitl,” and “Five / Kúmú”), by pointing out that they are tutelary concepts from different world cultures. But unless one is a cultural anthropologist who has studied West African or Mesoamerican societies, knowing the source of these concepts adds little to the experience of reading the poem, other than to advertise Wright’s erudition.

But even if one were a cultural anthropologist with knowledge of the Yoruba, Bamana, etc., would one read Polynomials and Pollen as a poem or an artifact? Ought we to Google these terms? Should we use an online Akan-English dictionary to determine A) which section title comes from the Akan, B) what it means, and C) whether this “tutelary concept” clarifies our understanding of the poem? Eliot published “The Waste Land” with a few incomplete or misleading notes; Pound published each book of his Cantos without explanatory notes; and Wright offers no help for us here either. For Dalkey Archive (or whoever wrote the back comments) to fill in Wright’s blanks reminds me of what contemporary poet Simeon Berry pokes fun at in his poem “Ampersand”: “When he asks what you’ve been doing, you reply, / Thinking about the Sumerians, / because you don’t want to seem lazy.”

The real problem with the dust jacket comments is that in their effort not to seem lazy, in all their grandeur and jargon (“feelingtones”? “feelingtones”!), they become hopelessly pretentious and precious—and contrary to Dalkey founder John O’Brien’s stated goal “to be able to spend what’s necessary to find the readership for these books” that he agrees to publish and that “with an endowment, we would be able to double or triple our readership.” If Dalkey has marketed this book to poets and scholars, it is because fewer and fewer non-poets read poetry nowadays—and even fewer read difficult poetry. Critics since Edmund Wilson in the 1930s (“Is Verse a Dying Technique?”) have been scratching their heads to figure out why. Perhaps they should shift their pointed fingers from poems and to a publisher’s sales pitch.

Dalkey’s marketing strategy is a shame because Polynomials and Pollen, although an examination of poetry itself, could appeal to both broad and narrow audiences. Consider the clarity and density of the opening lines of the first section:

The fothergilla major

becomes

an acceptable

device for spring.

The poet

measures his anxiety

in the glabrous leaf

or the conspicuous white of May.

So much is a dream

of orange yellow autumn

mountains,

so much is the inconspicuous

nerve rending of solitude

where the garden begins, or ends

—the shrub teaching

the exhilaration of retreat,

perhaps a rest,

perhaps the deciduous

invention of time.

One must carefully walk

these paths,

for the color burns,

and the acid underfoot

commemorates

an ethereal disappearance.

Nothing speaks easily—

of possession

or of the authentic river

and that special case,

that indeterminate event

beyond the light of darkness.

So the shrub awakens

a spontaneous proof

of kinship in moist

soil, shadows and sun,

and every resolution

can only be true

false.

Clarity, in the careful meting out of the lines (a nod to Williams’s stepped triadic line), the deft handling of pace found in the tension between syntax and line break, the blend of concrete image and abstracted assertion. Density, in the obtuseness of the botanical references (“fothergilla major” is a deciduous shrub indigenous to the Allegheny Mountains), the sound effects, the puns (e.g., “color burns”—“calor” being the Spanish word for “heat”), the slow accretion of the assertions into a zero-sum declamation at the passage’s end.

But mostly the above passage establishes a poet’s dilemma: anxious to find an external device or literary figure to help sublimate his fear of death or loneliness, the poet looks to nature for “spontaneous proof” and dupes himself into believing pat generalizations (“every resolution / can only be true / or false”) when he ought to know “nothing speaks easily.” Although it’s normal to seek echoes of oneself in nature, here Wright says it can be dangerous to do so. Another danger is the naïveté that overlooks nature’s impermanence, or what Wright might call its “deciduousness.” Why would a poet afraid of “orange yellow autumn”—of dying, death—or of the “nerve rending of solitude” seek confirmation of his existence in something that each year undergoes “an ethereal disappearance”?

Awareness of this dilemma and these dangers breeds doubt in poetry’s power and purpose. Wright admits:

I began this arrangement

to tell you

how I had threaded my way

from the Great Basin

to stand, eye to eye,

with the Vermilion flycatcher,

and had come to understand

my skin’s vermilion cast.

Yet what began as an act of travelogue, reportage, a mere field poem, has become “distracted / from devastation, / and every note that reminds me of loss”—has become something else entirely.
But what? Wright asks,

Why should I bother
to match the great order of nature
or feel compelled
to live
in the geometric
contradiction some lily intends?

Why speak at all if “Clever figures lie in wait” to wreck original thought and if, like pastoral or Romantic poets before him, “One must speak sweetly of ambrosial / springs”? Any poet can appreciate the pitfalls of morbid thoughts, his own cleverness, or the ornamental traditions of his trade—but so too will the non-poet readers who will recognize something universal in Wright’s frustration and resignation.

Nonetheless, Wright springs to action with the knowledge that his wife, too, is part of “the great order of nature.” So he must look for an “acceptable device” in her, “measure his anxiety” by her as he does in the leaf of the fothergilla shrub. Wright’s efforts to take measure of himself by another involve painful observations (“you / are capable of hemlock’s presence”); frustrations (“there must be a line of sparrows / who have broken / the code of your name”); and tender insights (“I lean into your hair, / and whisper / that I have seen a solitary / leaf / where once there were trees”). What, ultimately, has Wright learned? That he needs “death / to figure the dance”; that he is “a chronicler of shadows.” That, rather than searching for timeless devices of spring in “the gaudiest of birds” or obscure bushes,

One must go out,
nevertheless,
from that absolute ground
in search of a contradiction.

In Polynomials and Pollen Wright seeks out these contradictions. Transforming what could have been his very own Ivan Ilych moment—a complete and damning account of his life’s work forced by the approach of death—instead he delivers an acceptance of poetry’s limitations, a recognition that

Deformation becomes me,

a figure upon a vase,

an instrument without

measure.

Because he has listened to “the incidental music / that comes when death / sounds its leading tone,” Wright can confidently say that “No one will dispute / the harmony emptiness brings.” If this book begins as an “inquiry into notions” as the dust jackets tells us it does, it ends with an impassioned defense of the idea of notions, an argument for the value of having notions, even wrong ones.

Polynomials and Pollen is not perfect by any means. It bogs down in the weight and frequency of its allusions and ambitions, as most acutely represented by the “tutelary concepts” of its section titles that will have no significance to the majority of readers. It suffers from extreme tonal vacillations that range from the silly and playful (“Ah, but now go tell, / if you may and if you might”) to the ponderous and vatic (“One must believe / in the slender pod of existence / that speaks / softly / to the blessed / bereavement of bones”). At times its philosophizing reminds one of Randall Jarrell’s critique of Wallace Stevens’s later poetry: “the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing machine that also plays the piano.” There are traces of this forlornness and absurdity in Polynomials and Pollen.

But one is willing to overlook these hiccups in part because Wright is willing to admit them. Who can resent the self-effacing poet who says of his work,

A book like this

grows from twigs and incense,

the kinds of things you can buy

in bunches,

and never understand.

Its lines get tangled

in the transumptive misdirection

of bird calls.

Owning up to the tangled lines and the misdirected metaphors, Wright has done all of us, writers and non-writers alike, a favor: having failed to find the perfect device for spring, having failed even to find the perfect device for winter, he has given us the freedom to create our own imperfect devices, the freedom to fail. Lifting poetry from its own exacting jaws, he has shown us beauty and truth in “deciduous ambiguity.” Far from raging against the dying of the light, Polynomials and Pollen encourages us to turn off our flashlights, get outside, and practice our night vision.

____
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.