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.
HAGAR IN THE WILDERNESS 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