Tyehimba Jess reads from his latest poetry collection, Olio, published in April by Wave Books.
Hagar in the Wilderness
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.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Marble, 1864. Edmonia Lewis
The enemy buried me with my brothers
in blue. Our bloodlines mingled
in the mangled, makeshift ditch,
burrowed beneath sand and grit
to huddle in Earth's quarried
memory. We lay head to head,
bone to bone with eternity.
Then, her hands summoned me:
bade marble limn these eyes,
speak these lips. So, I face the world
again, wishing I could call my men,
once more, to stand at attention...
Rigby, who'd drawl curses on Rebs
while drawing Colt revolvers;
Alison, who'd sworn not to die
'til whipping his old master, his father,
before his freed mother's eyes;
Roper, his every inch mapped with lash-
marks that branded his route through hell...
and 1100 more in the '54
with 1100 blue-black stories to tell.
Her hands somehow searched out
each tale those men carved into my face,
Scraping away marmoreal
myths that define which race
might rule. She cut dark witness
into this bust that carries forth
my image: proof that, in the end,
it's immortal stone that wins
when we're all dead and
Blind Boone's Blessings
John William "Blind" Boone caught encephalitis at six months.
The treatment was removal of the eyes.
Bless the fever in that night
in the sixth month of my life.
Bless the fever, for it gave me sight;
it swole my brain to fit God's gift.
It brought the hand that would lift
each eye from my infant skull.
Bless the sweat; my baby bawl.
Bless the horse that hauled
the surgeon through dusk's dark,
half drunk and swearing, into mine.
Bless the flame—it sterilized
the metal of the spoon. Bless
the path between lid and bone,
slipped and slid by that instrument
of my deliverance from sight. Bless
the handling of the knife. Bless
that night that gave me night,
wrapped it 'round my bloody
face, whispered how I could be
grace notes, arpeggios, a piano roll
of sound copying each note
from everything around me.
You see, I'm sure at first
there was the hurt
and the scalding pain.
But then again, bless
an infant's too short
memory. All I know is
what lies beyond light.
I've learned this is what's right
for this one right here. Yes, bless
the fever, then listen close.
Spare an ear to this piano
and shut your eyes closed...
Blind Boone's Pianola Blues
They said I wasn't smooth enough
to beat their sharp machine.
That my style was obsolete,
that old rags had lost their gleam
and lunge. That all I had
left was a sucker punch
that couldn't touch
their invisible piano man
with his wind up gut-
less guts of paper rolls.
And so, I went and told them
that before the night was through
I'd prove what the son of an ex-
slave could do: I dared them
to put on their most twisty
tune. To play it double-time
while I listened from another
room past the traffic sounds
of the avenue below.
To play it only once,
then to let me show
note for note how that scroll
made its roll through Chopin
or Bach or Beethoven's best.
And if I failed to match my fingers
and ears with the spinning gears
of their invisible pneumatic piano
scholar, I'd pay them the price
of a thousand dollars.
And what was in it for Boone?
you might ask...
Might be the same thing that drives men
through mountains at heart attack pace.
Might be just to prove some tasks
ain't meant to be neatly played
out on paper and into air,
but rather should tear
out from lung, heart and brain
with a flair of flicked wrists
and sly smile above the 88's...
and, of course, that ever-human
weight of pride that swallows us
when a thing's done just right...
But they were eager to prove me wrong.
They chose their fastest machine
with their trickiest song and stuck it
in a room far down the hall from me.
They didn't know how sharp
I can see with these ears of mine—
I caught every note even though
they played it in triple time.
And when I played it back to them
even faster, I could feel the violent
stares... heard one mutter
Lucky black bastard...
and that was my cue to rise,
to take a bow in their smoldering
silence and say Not luck,
my friend, but the science
of touch and sweat and
stubborn old toil. I'd bet
these ten fingers against any coil
of wire and parchment and pump.
And I left them there to ponder
the wonders of blindness
as I walked out the door
into the heat of the sun.
From Olio, copyright © 2016 by Tyehimba Jess. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.