Friday, July 17, 2009

Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess has mined the agony and suffering that flows through the Blues. Someone once told me, “The Blues are not about feeling good; they’re about feeling bad.” Reading these poems the “feeling bad” aspect comes through almost every line.

No question these poems are tied together by the chains of suffering in the African-American community. The poems are filled with clever images, however, unfortunately, most of them are lost on me. For example, in “John Wesley Ledbetter,” he writes, “it shrieks up a crop of cancelled debt into your wagon” (Jess 14), and in “Colt Protection Special,” the poem seems to be about a gun, or a visit to a prostitute, or, possibly even suicide.

his daddy brings him to me
fresh and fifteen, a boy beggin’
to know me like a virgin
wind risin’ to fuck a hurricane.

While his fist cloaks me
with the hush of broken youth,
I singe my bullet-toothed birth-
right into his fingertips. he hefts
my black powdered blue steel
mass, aims high to heaven,
wonders how easy it is to slip
into god’s dirty clothes. (15)

After a couple of dozen readings – literally – I feel the agony, and frustration, but what is this poem about? Too many of Jess’ poems leave me bewildered.

My confusion might have abated some, had the book contained an introduction to the poet and the characters mentioned. For example, I figured out that “Stella” was his guitar, but who is Martha Promise? Exactly who is John Lomax? Perhaps more knowledge of the Blues, jazz guitarist Leadbelly, and Lomax might have made this volume more enjoyable.

I recently reviewed Meadowlands by Louise Glück, which I really enjoyed. The difference between these two volumes is enormous. The fact of my familiarity with Homer’s Odyssey widens that chasm. Since I know the story, the characters, the epithets and images of Homer’s epic work, I can bridge the gap between Homer and Glück. However, when it comes to Jess, I can only stare across the great divide and wonder what he meant and what he must have suffered to cause him such agony.

Poetry should not, in my opinion, involve such a struggle; it should not require so much effort. I simply could not get my mind around Jess’ work. I felt the sadness, the anger, the hurt, the frustration, but that arose from the lack of clear, positive images. The constant struggle, the negative words and ideas – while absolutely real to the poet, and, I might add, more than justified – made connecting to them on any more than a thin, cursory level not possible for me at the moment. I will save this book, and when I have some time, I will research Leadbelly, the Blues, and John Lomax and try again. Hopefully, I can then cross the space dividing me from this work. 3 stars

--Chiron, 7/16/09

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