Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Poem: Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess
Several years ago, Tyehimba Jess (1965-), winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his innovative, rich and complex collection Olio (Wave Books), published the following poem on "Poem-a-Day." In it, he calls forth a sculpture by the famous 19th century African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (see below), a pioneering figure in the world of Western art. Lewis was the first Black woman  artist and first woman artist of Native American ancestry to gain international recognition and acclaim, in no small part for artworks that depicted Black subjects, though often with the features tempered for her white patrons and audience.

Jess, a friend and fellow former Cave Canem grad and NYU alum, excavates American and African American history, often in relation to major and lesser known Black figures who are artists and performers, whether working in the fine arts or vernacular and popular forms. The poem below, while differing in form from the page-crossing sonnets in Olio, offers a sense of his poetics, particularly his skillful use of voice and imagery, which also are on vivid display in his award-winning first book, Leadbelly. What I also like about the poem below is how he merges ekphrasis and dramatic monologue; it is the sculpture, as well as Hagar, the Biblical figure serving as a metonymic stand-in for Black women, and Lewis, who speak through the lines, figuratively and literally bringing the art work to life.


by Tyehimba Jess

Carved Marble. Edmonia Lewis, 1875

My God is the living God,
God of the impertinent exile.
An outcast who carved me
into an outcast carved
by sheer and stony will
to wander the desert
in search of deliverance
the way a mother hunts
for her wayward child.
God of each eye fixed to heaven,
God of the fallen water jug,
of all the hope a vessel holds
before spilling to barren sand.
God of flesh hewn from earth
and hammered beneath a will
immaculate with the power
to bear life from the lifeless
like a well in a wasteland.
I’m made in the image of a God
that knows flight but stays me
rock still to tell a story ancient as
slavery, old as the first time
hands clasped together for mercy
and parted to find only their own
salty blessing of sweat.
I have been touched by my God
in my creation, I’ve known her caress
of anointing callus across my face. 
I know the lyric of her pulse
across these lips...  and yes,
I’ve kissed the fingertips
of my dark and mortal God.
She has shown me the truth
behind each chiseled blow
that’s carved me into this life,
the weight any woman might bear 
to stretch her mouth toward her
one true God, her own
beaten, marble song.

Edmonia Lewis (1845-1907) was an African/Native American expatriate sculptor who was phenomenally successful in Rome.

Copyright © 2013 by Tyehimba Jess. All rights reserved. This poem appeared in the Academy of American Poetry's Poem-A-Day on December 26, 2013.

And Lewis's "Hagar," also known as "Hagar in the Wilderness," 1875, carved marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 1983.95.178

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