I was born when I was written

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.

we knew the heaviness of each other’s hearts

Music becomes even more resplendent, commanding, and at times spiritual in the capable hands of Anne-Marie Thompson, a pianist herself whose love of music–and those who play–echoes throughout the pages of her first book, Audiation.

“Siberia, 1986”

Clutched in a fist of dust    a halo of dust
    the track ramshackled up the road from nowhere
    from some other nowhere    and    as if all this were
written down     written in dust     and to it you shall return
as if we made a mark on any map at all
    pulled over to my father and me    and he
    familiar    leaned out the window saying come
and there would be a concert at the church
I will be playing a concert at the church
and so we followed him and there was a crowd
already gathered    neighbors    some were strangers
but like us    they were strangers but poor like us
and we were quiet together and the twilight was quiet
    the twilight waited with us      and we all watched
as he stepped down and someone helped him loosen
the locks and straps    like untethering a bear
                                                                        the piano
growled and squeaked as they guided it      a whisper
    Richter    Sviatoslav Richter from the radio
they said
     and he sat down and we understood
    the actual weight of gravity        remembered
what the earth looks like     sounds like     from heaven
    and we were quiet together     and the man
was serious     was serious as his hands were serious
    bear hands    iron hands     but gentle as a man
can be gentle and he knew the actual weight
of our sorrows     and we were quiet together
                                                                     and when
my father and I walked home      walked in silence home
we knew the heaviness of each other’s hearts    the heaviness
of those gentleman hands    hard hands and we were quiet
and heard    something    a coming and a going
    a breath or a raising up     the whisper of a sickle
the lifting     of a page     the lifting of hands