7 Tyehimba Jess Poems To Read Once You've Finished His Pulitzer Prize-Winning Collection
Joining the 101st class of Pulitzer Prize winners is Tyehimba Jess with his book, Olio. In two books, Jess, a writer from Detroit, has married poetry with history and music, giving voice to the formative names in Blues and folk music. His work is expansive and formal, slangy and genre-bending, the sort of poetry you can share with poetry and non-poetry readers alike. Now that you've ordered your copy of Olio (you've done that, right?), you'll want to nerd out on the best of Jess.
Fortunately, Jess — who was honored with a Whiting Award and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts prior to winning the Pulitzer — is as fascinating an interviewee as he is a poet. You might start by reading this interview in Lit Hub. Jess talks with Adam Fitzgerald about the process of writing Olio, as well as the work of shaking — and building — a voice. Jess reveals the way he wove history into the construction of Olio:
Using primary documents really helps tell a story in a better way than I could imagine. So I tend to comb through these records and historical documents and start to see a side of the history that needs to have an alternating voice, a callback. As one would say, a “clapback.”
This "clapback" of history is what part of what makes Jess's work so instantly classic. In formally nuanced runs and series (syncopated sonnets, anyone), Jess invites readers to develop a greater understanding of what has shaped our contemporary context. These 7 poems show the poet at his finest.
I sing with one hand smoldering in the steely canon, the other lento, slow, languorous: lingered in the fields of “Babylon’s Falling” ...
"Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues"
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.
"Hagar in the Wilderness"
My God is the living God,
God of the impertinent exile.
the war speaks at night
with its lips of shredded children,
with its brow of plastique
and its fighter jet breath,
and then it speaks at daybreak
with the soft slur of money
unfolding leaf upon leaf.
Let me tell you how
white hands kilned me
in the moonless middle
"Harris County Chain Gang"
i'ma smash outta this choir, come up gasping new breath, my name burned clean, made mine.