Poems from Olio

By TYEHIMBA JESS

These poems are excerpted from Olio by Tyehimba Jess, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest. Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.

Headshot of Tyehimba JessCover of Olio

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.

 

Alabaster Hands
Edmonia Lewis, 1862

Let me tell you how
white hands kilned me
in the moonless middle
of night. How they stripped
and spittled and smeared me
in an open field hardened
with ice. How they worked so
diligently upon me with palm
and fist and angry sweat,
with knuckle and dirty nail,
until I was struck still as stone,
until I was one with the dust
of the Earth that called my name,
whispered to me from its labyrinth
of lava and buried bone. My truth
was honed there, deep in the fated
crease between life and loss.
It willed me to rise from the dirt
and staggered me home.
I claimed for my own
what they’d strived to strike
from me. I scraped myself
up from what they’d tried
to beat down. And now
I let them witness how
artfully their curses fold;
how ruthlessly I mastered
their death-less hands
beneath the weight
of my mercy-fraught mold.

 

Indian Combat
Edmonia Lewis, Marble, 1868

We three warriors
were called forth
to be, forever, enemies.
Stolen from marble,
pressed into slaughter,
we never weary. We
seek no asylum except
the perpetual hatchet,
the eternal blade,
the never-ending arrow,
our fists that swallow
our senses till we’ve carved
ourselves into memorials
for causes long forgotten.
Our fight was forged
by a free brown woman’s
brunt, her design for
all our fates entwined
like fingers laced in prayer
for victory, then mercy,
then dug into the Earth
to resurrect our embattled
lives lived just as her own:
pounded into memory
with mettle on stone.

 

These poems are from Olio, copyright © 2016 by Tyehimba Jess. “Hagar in the Wilderness” also appears at poets.org, and “Alabaster Hands” and “Indian Combat” appear at Granta. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Tyehimba Jess is the author of two books of poetry, Leadbelly and Olio, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Society of Midland Authors’ Award in Poetry and an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Jessʼ fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Jess has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor of English at the College of Staten Island.

Poems from Olio

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