Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
Jeffrey Cyphers Wright is one of the proper heirs to the famed New York City poets of Manhattan’s grittier, exhilarating literary scene. He received an MFA in Poetry having worked with Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College and studied with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley at the legendary St. Mark’s Poetry Project. He also taught there and served on its Board. Wright has been at the helm of several publications and currently produces Live Mag! A visual artist as well as a poet, writer and reviewer, he carries the mantle of respected literary giants upon his shoulders with grace and continued innovative fervor. Radio Poems harkens back to the rhythms of eccentric, challenging city streets, artistic enclaves and cutting edge airwaves. This work is part of The Operating Systems’ Chapbook Series now in its fifth year, and the series rightly encourages experimentation.
These poems operate on multiple levels. They not only entertain us, they work hard to encourage our brain cells to engage with disparate imagery and crossfire perceptions. These concisely compiled pieces remain expansive and rich while employing consistent economy of words. Multiple voices add color and varied perspectives, and each poem stands on its own merit. We can “turn the dial” and find a new revelation on every page, absorbing smart dissections and magical leaps. Still, as a collection, Radio Poems is cohesive, linked in both theory and practice with solid expression both thematically and specifically.
There is a startling combination of reality and surrealistic interpretation in Wright’s work. Think of the postcard snapshot these lines evoke:
Let’s take our love to town,
golden sun-canyoned angles
of Manhattan filling the distance
between unmoving street chasms. (P. 20, ll. 1-4)
We move from station to station with “broadcasts” of advice, announcements, opinions, ads and observations. Some of these poems deliver like musical impressions as in the Gershwinesque “let’s meet” with its light litany of suggestions that banter back and forth like a symphonic tennis match:
Let’s meet in Chinatown
at Confusion Square.
Let’s go shopping for new
fall outfits at Herald Square. (P. 27, ll. 1-4)
Similar to a proverbial DJ, Wright announces, “Spin me. Put your finger/in and dial—like an/old black rotary phone” (P. 16, ll. 11-13). He has a remarkable ability to keep messages clear within a framework of classic, realistic yet imaginary proclamations, rendering them all authentically.
He begins the poem “Al Qaeda on the western front” with these tongue-twisting lines of alliterative mastery that bring us up sharply in the fourth line. There is an ominous feeling lurking between the words like a news anchor’s clever announcement:
The last locust leaves leave
their last lashes of gold
crackling in whip-crisp
blue November glare. (P. 11, ll. 1-4)
There are sparkling and delightful phrases that prompt us to alternately smile or solemnly reflect such as “…a dancer holds her/arms and weaves/the music into shape” (P. 17, ll. 23-25) and “This is how the dead dance/hoping for a second chance” (P. 24, ll. 7-8). There is a serious underpinning to this work, despite often easy top layers of incisive humor. As Wright warns, “The odyssey is not easy./Blows crown every turn” (P. 25, ll. 9-10). Contemporary angst meets ancient myth suggesting a timeless feeling and a summons to seek lofty goals without pretense as in these final lines from “Look. See.” with periods in the title definitive and commanding that ask us to “See if you can be/the one to pull the sword free” (P. 30, ll. 13-14).
Wright can invert meanings succinctly yet with complicated implications as in the terse concluding line of the poem “No Questions Asked” that proclaims, “Always invent the truth” (P. 28, l. 14). It seems less avoidance and more of an imperative to dig for integrity at all costs. Here we have an original voice that seeks liberation through language and challenges our impressions and observations, attempting to decipher how we communicate in the world between the mind and the voice.
There are essential declarations here, and Wright tells us he is “Having my way with/the airwaves” (P. 12, ll. 6-7). We hear familiar phrases with a new ear, often wrought out of context, to bring the customary into the extraordinary thus extracting new meaning. And this is the poet’s obligation, after all, to render the old new, to elicit inventive and ingenious ways to see life afresh. Radio Poems is the work of a cutting-edge contemporary artist who honors history and heritage while keeping beat to a modern tempo with keen observations. It’s an imaginary ride to real places.
You can find the book here https://squareup.com/store/the-operating-system/
Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, reviews and essays. A graduate of Columbia University, she has studied and read with renowned writers Philip Schultz, David Ignatow, John Ashbery and William Packard. Her latest book is Out From Calaboose by Nirala Publications (2017). She lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.