With ambitious manipulations of poetic forms, Tyehimba Jess presents the sweat and story behind America’s blues, worksongs and church hymns. Part fact, part fiction, Jess’s much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. Olio is an effort to understand how they met, resisted, complicated, co-opted, and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them. (from the publisher, Wave Books)
I don’t have the words at this hour to properly articulate the incredible multitudes contained within Tyehimba Jess’s masterpiece, Olio. I was actually enroute to the library just yesterday to pick up the copy I had put on hold when I read the announcement that it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry–and although I’ve only spent a bit of time with it, I can already see why. Here is a poem written in the voice of Edmonia Lewis, considered the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to become a globally acclaimed fine arts sculptor. If you’d like to see the sculpture referenced, Minnehaha, you can view it here.
Edmonia Lewis, Marble, 1868
What part of me is mine that was
not mined from the mind of poets,
artists rewriting the past blow
by blow till it’s pulverized past
the barely recognizable?
I was born when I was written,
then hammered out of a mountain.
I was shattered and then broken,
then sharpened to the human. I’m
carved in marble that never dies,
hardly crumbles; a stubborn queen
who’ll die only with those people
who crave a ruling monarchy
of fictions–tales my sculptor plied
to strike against their pale armies
of indignities. History
is their favorite lie. I found
my face buried in its would-be
pages, then excavated by
a native who fled the country.
Such was her misery at home
in the land where my legend roams
the canonized American
poetry. I’m her stone arrow,
her refusal to bow. I wear
her chisel-sharp aim as my crown.