What Is Good

By Jay Wright b. 1935 Jay Wright
Out of the water call
my luminous breath,
into the bird, intending serpent, red,
who shakes himself, white,
out of that forest body, black.

Red gourd head spirit of the bush,
your breath is speech;
your speech is ordinary, pure.
I take you from the blue
glass of my sacred windows,
I ring you cold upon my father’s weights.

I would cook and save you
in my body’s house alone, light
you in the useless prism of my own desires.
I hold you in the yellow
parchment of my soul’s hand.
Once I took your body for the shape
of all I walked upon, your god’s voice
for the second of all my light.
But now I count my sins against
the ordinary syntax of my days.

Bird of the hard wood,
I would transcend the dog
and fox of my father’s prayers,
the corn, the monkey, lion and the seed
cut crudely by the cross in gold,
the black figures of a Christian death.

Bird, so you would change,
and flutter in my mother’s eyes.
And in my mother’s eyes
still bodies have rhythms of their own.
The light of dead hearts, my governors,
leads my body to a stillness.
I speak of stillness, and you see
I still grip your rhythm to my body.

Rhythm of my shade, an elephant skin.
Rhythm of my hat, the llama’s hair.
Rhythm of my coat, the cactus’ beard.
Rhythm of my trousers, silkworm web.
Rhythm of my shoes, pig hips.
Rhytm of my seat, the heart of a tree.
Rhythm of my hands in the beads.
Rhythm of my hands in the cleansing water,
of my eye in the perfect form of stillness,
the perfect light of my mother’s ecstasy.

Composed, I am saved
by my mother’s reason,
my neighbors’ needs,
my will to go beyond the stillness
of my gods’ dreams.
Luminous breath,
teach me compassion for this
my complex body.

Jay Wright, “What Is Good” from Transfigurations: Collected Poems. Copyright © 2000 by Jay Wright. Reprinted by permission of Jay Wright.

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

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Jay Wright b. 1935

Subjects Living, The Body, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Nature, Animals, Religion, God & the Divine, The Spiritual

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Jay  Wright

Biography

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 . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, The Body, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Nature, Animals, Religion, God & the Divine, The Spiritual

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.