Reading: What Marked Tom by Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess (b. 1965) is the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for his poetry book ‘Olio‘. Born in Detroit, he currently teaches at the College of Staten Island in New York City. I was impressed with some pages of Olio, a complex and beautiful poetic journey into the life of African American performers from the Civil War period up to World War One. Here is one poem from that book:

What Marked Tom?
Did a slave song at a master’s bidding
mark Tom while asleep in Charity’s womb?
The whole plantation would be called to sing
and dance in Master Epps’ large parlor room—
after work sprung from dawn and dragged past dusk,
after children auctioned to parts unknown,
after funerals and whippings. Thus
was the whim of the patriarch. No groans
allowed, just high steppin’ celebration,
grins all around, gritted or sincere.
Charity threw feet, hips, arms into motion
to please the tyrant piano. Was it here
Tom learned how music can prove the master?
While he spun in a womb of slavish laughter?
I take it Charity is the name of his mother and Jess is referring here to the hyped ‘Mozart-effect’ of playing music to children when they are still in their mother’s womb in order to stimulate their creativity. With a few words, Jess paints the picture of plantation life: The cruel Master and his luxury, the long working hours, and the horrendous auctioning off of children. Mentioning funerals and whippings in one sentence normalizes the latter, which makes this poem haunting.
At the whim of the patriarch, the black folks dance and is forced to smile. The desperate mother plays the ‘tyrant piano’ for the scumbag slaveholder. The instrument is introduced as a tyrant that has to be pleased, a far cry from a medium of authentic blues let alone songs of revolt. Tom learned about music, that it can ‘prove the master’ – prove him something? Reaffirm him as a master? Or rather, put him to the test? Did little Tom learn about the subversive power of music while listening to a slave song during the auctioning off of children?

Reading: What Marked Tom by Tyehimba Jess was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Ellis Island by Peter Balakian

Today I read a poem from Armenian-American poet Peter Balakian (b. 1951). He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2016 and has been vocal about never forgetting the 1909 Armenian Genocide (death and expulsion of 1.5 million people in what was then the Ottoman Empire). Here’s a poem called Ellis Island, the island of new beginnings:

Ellis Island
The tide’s a Bach cantata.
The beach is the swollen neck of Isaac.
The tide’s a lamentation of white opals.
The beach is free. The Coke machine rusted out.
Here is everything you’ll never need:
hemp-cords, curry-combs, jade and musk,
a porcelain cup blown into the desert—
stockings that walked to Syria in 1915.
On the rocks some ewes and rams
graze in the outer dark.
The manes of the shoreline undo your hair.
A sapphire ring is fingerless.
The weed and algae are floating like a bed,
and the bloodless gulls—
whose breaths would stink of all of us
if we could kiss them on the beaks—
are gnawing on the dead.
We learn that Balakian’s grandmother had been among the few survivors of a death march in the Syrian desert so the stockings that walked to Syria in 1915 placed in the middle of the poem are a personal relic. But first, what is evoked by the Bach Cantata (perfection) and the swollen neck of Isaac (sacrifice). I don’t understand what he means here, I see people arriving at Ellis Island, washing up in a way on its shore with the serene precision of Bach’s music, to be taken in by a beach that was almost given up to prove loyalty. A lamentation of white silica gems jives with Bach, the freeness of the beach with Isaac. Is the beach free for the taking, are the newcomers the ones who make the sacrifice?
The list of paraphernalia sounds like the treasures immigrants would bring with them. And then the stockings of his grandmother of course. Then, why are there ewes and rams, instead of just sheep? Difference goes before similarity?
The manes of the shoreline undo your hair: beautiful. With hair undone, you feel home, the privacy of your bedroom. Your hair undone becomes manes: freedom is contagious. The fingerless ring belongs perhaps to a family member that had to be left behind dead.
The poem ends with the gulls that are ‘gnawing on the dead’. Are they eating away the memory of those who didn’t make it to Ellis Island? We would like to kiss them on the beaks, perhaps to persuade them not to gnaw on our dead, but that is not possible. The dead disappear with the same cantata rhythm that moves the tide.

Reading: Ellis Island by Peter Balakian was originally published on Meandering home