November 16, 2011
I never thought his career would end in this way: thousands of these 17-syllable poems, with no narrative, nothing that adds up, just a passing thought, the briefest of observations, seemingly going nowhere:
The cat licks dew-wet cobwebs
From between his toes.
This isn’t my idea of Richard Wright. I’d read Native Son and Black Boy a while back; they remain fresh in my mind partly because they seem so securely framed and centered, opening out so readily onto an analytic grid. They come with an invitation, with directives, and maybe even directionals. With the haiku, there is no such thing. The poem seems to be about a cat, doing something that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen being done by a cat. Maybe a cat formalized by a set of conventions? But that doesn’t seem quite right either. The poem seems non-referential in a deep sense, not needing anything, not depending on anything else — gesturing to no physical cat, no generic conventions, and no particular reader either.
Recently I’ve been looking at some of Wright’s photographs, many of them taken when he was in Ghana, in the 1950’s – pictures of boats, buildings, geometrical compositions, also not needy or referential. The haiku poems do seem to me closer to these photos than to any of his narrative fiction. Together, these two make me think about the shape of his corpus, the shape of his life, neither self-evident or predictable, not even at the very end.