Monica Wendel for Word for Word Poetry, July 23rd, 2013
Featuring Poets & Writers
In magic and mythology, the living transform into inanimate objects, and vise versa: the dead become living again, whether they are pseudo-scientifically animated (as in this summer’s zombie movies), or brought back from Hades across the river Styx (as in the ancient myth of Persephone). The poetry this week at Bryant Park, in partnership with Poets & Writers, achieved a similar feat. Animating spirits abounded in the poems of Tyehimba Jess, Joseph Legaspi, Patricia Spears Jones, and Samantha Thornhill.
Tyehimba Jess is the author of the astonishing collection leadbelly (Wave Books, 2005), “an exploration of blues musician Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter’s life,” as the Poetry Foundation describes it. Before reading his first poem, “When I Speak of Blues Be Clear,” he pulled out a harmonica and played; the words that followed became music:
i speak sunshine and rain from one mouth.
i am a two headed doctor spitting bullet and gospel verse,
coffin and cakewalk,
stagolee and ma rainey,
jazz in the juke of the jailhouse jump
His next poem, “Mistress Stella Speaks,” spoke in the voice of Stella, Lead Belly’s faithful guitar. In this love poem, Stella describes how Lead Belly “stroke[s] the living song from my hips,” and though he has paid money for her, she owns him. Jess’ mastery of stepping into other voices continued with an ekphrastic poem from the perspective of Cleopatra. Jess’ work then shifted into the present with poems about Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, and 9/11, describing war as having “one eye of napalm, one eye of ice.”
Joseph Legaspi, who took the stage next, also presented politically engaged work. Born in the Philippines and raised in Los Angeles, the idea of being a “poet in exile” came up before he began his reading. These poems were notable for their frankness about the body, and for their humor tempered with compassion. Legaspi began with a love poem in the form of a sonnet to his v-neck t-shirt, then offered “The Homosexual Book of Genesis,” which, we learned, “is a short book.”
Legaspi is a co-founder of Kundiman, an organization serving Asian-American poets. Before reading a poem for Trayvon Martin, he mentioned a Kundiman-sponsored project called “writing race and belonging” that took place in the Bronx and on Governor’s Island. This “living monument” was a collaborative poem on the experience of making a home in America. Legaspi’s poetry takes on that same challenge – “you are the neighbor, my neighbor,” he wrote. Another found poem, taken from directions heard and seen the subway system, also echoed ideas of home and belonging (“whatever falls on the tracks is not as valuable as you are.”). We laughed during this poem, its re-imagining of the drone passengers have learned to ignore, but it also became a commentary on race in America. Is violence just another thing we tune out, just as we don’t notice the subway operator telling us to “stand clear of the closing doors”?
Patricia Spears Jones’s first poem, “Female Trouble,” followed a pig that stopped traffic for miles in New Jersey and New York. It served as a reminder that even the seemingly powerless can have an outsized influence on the world around them. Her next poem “What the First Cities Were All About” brought us three thousand years back, to a time and place where “beer-drinking Mesopotamians” danced “to the music made on the bull-headed lyre.” Her love for cities continued in “A pillow in the city,” which animated the relationship between a sleeper and a pillow in “an ugly summer night’s air.”
Oh first kisses and last goodbyes.
If more boulevards named after dead men;Thornhill’s compassion and empathy were evident still in her next poem “Signs”: “everywhere / I go I see the people I love in the faces of strangers,” she said, transforming a banal movie scene into a commentary on “the paradox of the human struggle.” She then brought up to the stage a violinist who accompanied her on her next poems, “West Indian Woman Speaks from the Dead” and “Ode to Odetta,” a version of which was published as a children’s book. During these poems, boundaries between poetry and music, and the living and the dead, became meaningless. Thornhill used accents and theatrical conventions, moving her arms and hands as the words moved. She closed out the evening with two words: “Peace, y’all!”
if nooses resurrecting
from the shallow graves of history;
if black gold proving yet again
to the scales of justice …
isn't straw enough--then
it fears me to think
of what it will take
this camels' back
Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review, 2013) and the chapbook Call it a WIndow (Midwest Writing Center, 2012). She holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU, where she was awarded both Goldwater and Starworks teaching fellowships. Her poetry has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Lamba Literary Review, Nimrod, and other journals. The former writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando, Florida, she currently lives in Brooklyn and works as a visiting instructor of composition at St. Thomas Aquinas College.