Reviews: leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess

Review by Keith Gaboury

In leadbelly, Tyehimba Jess merges history and poetry. Of course, in order to understand who a person is, one has to know who and where they came from. For Leadbelly or Huddie William Ledbetter, the first section is titled “what kind of soul has man?” Jess assumes the voice of his mother, father, his infamous guitar, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Sallie Ledbetter’s hymn is a series of provoking questions from “how to peel dynamite from his bones?” to “which breast gilded his mouth with song?” The infusion of her uncertainty for her son’s future bleeds through the words. In “1912: blind lemon jefferson explaining to leadbelly,” a father-figure tells his protégé the story behind a scar. Beyond the fierce story, the dialogue is written in colloquial African-American dialect. By the end of that poem, it feels as if I am eavesdropping on two blues icons.

After the reader understands the people that raised Leadbelly into a man and a musician, he declares: “i am a lake caddo man.” Yes, Leadbelly is now given a voice of his own. In “Misfire,” he recounts his attempted murder of a man when his “scotch and whiskey hands came too close.” When he “filled him full of lazarus” from an empty barrel, he was left “with only a gun butt to blast him into black and blue sleep.” There’s also a narrative trajectory to follow because the next poem is “harris county chain gang.” Since he served many jail sentences during his life, leadbelly reflects this truth. Indeed, Jess poetically synthesizes history onto the page.

Martha Promise and John Lomax are threads Jess wove throughout. In “martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935,” second-person is employed in order to instruct Martha “when your man comes home from prison.” “You got to” begins the last three stanzas, beginning such declarations as “scrub[bing] loose the jailtime fingersmears” and “hold[ing] tight that shadrach’s face.” Furthermore, Leadbelly’s friendship with John Lomax and the ultimate falling out is chronicled. Lomax recorded hundreds of Leadbelly’s songs and even petitioned to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen for his release. A widely circulated belief is that the governor enjoyed his song “Goodnight Irene” so much that he allowed for his release. On one level, “Leadbelly: mythology” is composed as a letter from the Angola Prison warden insisting that Leadbelly received no preferential treatment on his release. In the line “He received no clemency” for example, Jess struck a dash through “no.” This is repeatedly done so that a reader is left with the mythology of lying over reality.

It’s a fascinating meditation and in many ways representative of the collection on a whole: leadbelly is hard to pin down. While Jess’ poetry exists in prose, verse, and dialogue, multiple personas are employed so that a reader perceives a composite perspective of a musical titan. The collection ultimately brings a blues god down to the human level where we see all his flaws and brilliance on display through our contemporary lens.

 Jess, Tyehimba. leadbelly. Amherst, MA: Verse Press, 2005. Print.

Featured image courtesy of: Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Blog

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