by Tyehimba Jess
A National Poetry Series Selection
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
Isn't it a thrill to learn that someone you hung out with in the saloon poetry scene has actually created an important piece of literature?
Face it. I know you all love writing and sharing your poetry, but from now until the time in which you die, how many of you will have actually created something significant, something that people will remember--I mean people beyond your own inner circle? Some of you will get inspired watching spoken word on HBO and you'll say, hey, I can do that, but your words will go no farther than the ears of a half baked audience at a slam. Sure, for fifteen minutes you will feel like a celebrity, but sooner or later real life will kick in and, tell me, who will remember your signature shout twenty or thirty years from now? Some of you will leave your legacy in the form of chapbooks or CDs, which might be discovered under the dust of a bookshelf in the distant future, but you will otherwise not make a major mark on the history of literature. Less than a third of you will actually get a major title published by someone other than yourself or a friend, but even these publishers will only run two to four hundred copies, certainly not enough to inspire a nation of millions into making yours a household name. Don't get me wrong. I'm not ripping on you. I'm just telling you the way it is, and if you pause to think, you'll realize that's it's true. And I'm well aware that I'm likely to be one of the people who will not be remembered way down the road.
My point is, only a few diamonds will rise out of the rough called the Chicago Poetry Scene. So when one does, we should embrace it with all we have, because in a way, those diamonds represent us all.
It seemed like one day this poet was winning the Guild Complex's Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award (an achievement in and of itself), and then the next he got his manuscript selected into a bona fide poetry series, a series that is edited by poets such as Campbell McGrath and Stephen Dunn, with titles published by houses such as HarperCollins and Penguin Books. Of course, I'm talking about former Green Mill Slam team member Tyehimba Jess, whose book leadbelly was selected by Brigit Pegeen Kelly to be included in the prestigious National Poetry Series, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
leadbelly is hands down an important piece of literature. It's as if history and poetry became two locamotives, slamming into each other in a head-on collison, and out of the flames came the book leadbelly. Like Quraysh Ali Lansana's They Shall Run, the book leadbelly concentrates on the theme of a single, real life character, and uses the art of poetry to create a biography filled with varying points of view. As you probably know, Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was not only an American folk and blues legend, but was one tough ass mofo as well. Jess delves deeply and relentlessly into Ledbetter's life, with a poetic voice created straight from the gut:
when the black boy climbs out of my womb:
how to peel dynamite from his bones?
how to strip tornado's hum from his ears?
how to weed graveyard from his garden of tongue?
The voice of the poetry in leadbelly is ever metamorphosing from one character into the next. Magically, many of the characters are objects, such as a weapon or, most notably, Leadbelly's twelve-string guitar:
you think he is master of all
my twelve tongues, spreading notes
thick as a starless night, strangling spine
till my voice is a jungle of chords.
Throughout this highly researched poetic epic, Jess offers an unflinching portrait of a man defying the racist society he finds himself in, often paying the price for his dissent with prison time. Jess doesn't merely tell the story, though. Instead he crafts powerful metaphors ("his fingertips supple winged blackbirds") and convincing dialects ("songsterizin'") so that the story develops in our mind's eye from the inside out. Jess also uses a variety of very inventive poetic styles, including some prose poetry that moves with an angry momentum:
i will tell you now and only once: only one way out. past bloodhound and 20:20 gunshot, past swamp and gator tooth, past lynch rope and lash: work these muthafuckas down. outsweat and outshine even the hardest cracker smile, 'til they think you death's scarecrow, 'til your grin tilts itself into their daydreams . . .
Like Leadbelly's music, the poetry in the book leadbelly covers a wide range of subjects, spanning the musician's life, from his birth on in a plantation to his death from Lou Gehrig's disease. This poetry takes us on a journey through the years, as Leadbelly goes in and out of prison on various charges including murder, and through his relationships with various women.
Eventually, Leadbelly became the topic of myth and legend, and his music lived on after his death, inspiring a wide variety of groups, such as The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and the list goes on and on. Even this fact, of how Leadbelly's music lives on, comes to life in Tyehimba Jess' remarkable book:
an ex-con finds me
when he's statue still,
"thinkin' his heart,"
summoning his bones
the way a gambler whispers
luck to the die he's clenched
and hurled from his palm.
a professor embalms me
in electrified wax,
then exhumes me a 78 rpm
with needle and wire,
tattooing my breath—
less body into wind.
(from "the song speaks")
Take it from a man who has reviewed more Chicago poetry titles than anyone else on the face of this earth. Your Chicago poetry collection, or American poetry collection for that matter, is not complete without a copy of leadbelly in it. I give Tyehimba Jess' wonderful book leadbelly two big quills up.
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Note: Here is a review of Tyehimba Jess' book leadbelly.