Journey to the Place of Ghosts

By Jay Wright b. 1934 Jay Wright

Wolbe dich, Welt:
Wenn die Totenmuschel heranschwimmt,
will es hier läuten.

Vault over, world:
when the seashell of death washes up
there will be a knelling.

—Paul Celan, Stimmen (Voices)

Death knocks all night at my door.
The soul answers,
and runs from the water in my throat.   
Water will sustain me when I climb   
                                  the steep hill
that leads to a now familiar place.
I began, even as a child, to learn water's order,   
and, as I grew intact, the feel of its warmth
in a new sponge, of its weight in a virgin towel.   
I have earned my wine in another's misery,   
when rum bathed a sealed throat
and cast its seal on the ground.
I will be bound, to the one who leads me away,   
by the ornaments on my wrists, the gold dust   
in my ears, below my eye and tied to my
                        loincloth in a leather pouch.   
They dress me now in my best cloth,   
and fold my hands, adorned with silk,
                            against my left cheek.   
Gold lies with me on my left side.
Gold has become the color of distance,   
                              and of your sorrow.

Sorrow lies, red clay on my brow.
Red pepper caresses my temples.
I am adorned in the russet-brown message   
the soul brings from its coming-to-be.   
There is a silken despair in my body
that grief shakes from it,
a cat's voice, controlled by palm wine
                                 and a widow's passion.
It is time to feed the soul
         —a hen, eggs, mashed yams—
and encourage the thirst resting
near the right hand I see before me.
                  Always I think of death.
                            I cannot eat.
                  I walk in sadness, and I die.
Yet life is the invocation sealed in the coffin,   
and will walk through our wall,
passing and passing and passing,
                     until it is set down,
to be lifted from this body's habitation.   
I now assume the widow's pot,
the lamp that will lead me through solitude,   
to the edge of my husband's journey.
I hold three stones upon my head,
darkness I will release when I run
from the dead,
with my eyes turned away
                     toward another light.

This is the day of rising.
A hut sits in the bush, sheltered by summe,   
standing on four forked ends.
We have prepared for the soul's feast   
with pestle, mortar, a strainer, three   
hearthstones, a new pot and new spoon.   
Someone has stripped the hut's body   
and dressed it with the edowa.
Now, when the wine speaks
and the fire has lifted its voice,
the dead will be clothed in hair,
                        the signs of our grief.
Sun closes down on an intensity of ghosts.   
It is time to close the path.
It is time for the snail's pace
of coming again into life,
               with the world swept clean,
               the crying done,
and our ordinary garments decent in the dead one's eyes.

Jay Wright, “Journey to the Place of Ghosts” from Transfigurations: Collected Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by Jay Wright. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Transfigurations: Collected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2000)

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Poet Jay Wright b. 1934

Subjects Death, Ghosts & the Supernatural, Travels & Journeys, Living, Activities, Mythology & Folklore

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Jay  Wright


Frequently described as a “poet’s poet,” Jay Wright has quietly built an impressive career as one of America’s leading African-American voices. His work, praised for its evocative language, introspective tone, and mythological imagery, has won many honors, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, and Yale’s prestigious Bollingen Prize. Wright’s plays, essays, and poetry generally . . .

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SUBJECT Death, Ghosts & the Supernatural, Travels & Journeys, Living, Activities, Mythology & Folklore

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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