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I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes

By: Robert Gray
Reviewed by: Michael Marberry
Negative Capability Press, 2008
$14, Paperback

The premise seems simple enough: say what you like about someone’s poetry. That sounds all well and good, but those of us who have attempted this in the past—whether in the classroom or in an article, perhaps over a cup of coffee—know that, in reality, pinpointing what exactly draws us to a poet or a poem can be anything but easy. For many of us, poetry is a mysterious thing (perhaps that’s even the appeal). We enjoy poetry on an intuitive level—insomuch as we recognize some artistry at work, that we feel it does something to us—though, when put on the spot, we have difficulty expressing just how and why it evokes a response.

In his new collection of poetry I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes, Robert Gray, over the course of thirty-two poems, attempts to do what so many of us cannot: pay precise and appropriate homage to those classic, influential wordsmiths.

Whether praising John Donne (“he held holiness at arm’s length yet firmly in his hand”), Langston Hughes (“[he] awoke the power pain and beauty that springs from blues”) or U2’s Bono (“he sings a new song / one man struggling to find what he’s looking for”), Gray dives right into the thick of it—losing punctuation and capitalization along the way, meditating on and incorporating these poets’ own sentiments into his praise of them. Gray’s admiration is palpable. Here, we have a poet who has immersed himself in the words and worlds of others and, having emerged, hopes to express his awe and gratitude.

In this sense, I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes is less of a lecture than a love poem: direct, intentional, and remarkably sincere.

In fact, this notion of the love poem helps dispel perhaps the greatest criticism of Gray’s collection—that the author is curiously absent for the most part. Upon an initial read, one wonders: Where is Gray? He pulls so much from the poets that he admires that we hardly get a sense of him as an individual, aside from the first and last poems of the collection (“I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes” and “When I Sing,” respectively).

However, in the proper context of love poetry, Gray’s absence makes perfect sense. After all, I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes is working within a genre marked by a focus on the object of affection (the poets Gray admires) rather than the source (Gray himself).

What results is a worthy collection—one that honors the past while living in the present, rewarding its readers again and again. March 2009

Michael Marberry lives in Northport, Ala.

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