by Stephen Burt
Ragtime and the ragtime era, African American minstrelsy as an embarrassment and a productive art form, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their proud alumni, and the African American expatriate sculptor Edmonia Lewis are only some of the topics Jess’s encyclopedic second volume pursues. Unified by its interest in what black artists said, did, and made before the Harlem Renaissance, the outsized oversize book is also beautifully subdivided and given variety by many speakers and forms. Gospel singers remember performances in tautly rhymed sonnets; Lewis recalls her life and works in free verse. Henry “Box” Brown, the abolitionist orator who mailed himself to freedom, adapts for himself the patterns of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs”; large-type haiku explore the music itself (“i / inhale earth’s songbook”). There’s even a poem in the form of a Möbius strip reminiscent of a piano roll, to be cut out from the book itself. In it, “Paul Dunbar and Booker T. bring their doubled shovels to work: to excavate the boundaries of pride.” As capacious as his scope becomes, Jess keeps coming back to the too-short career of Scott Joplin; prose segments follow a researcher, a First World War veteran, as he interviews Joplin’s intimates and allies, envisioning a genius who tried to make a self-sufficient artistic present from the racial struggles that defined America’s past, “to grow something in his head nobody else could hear.” Jess’s debut—about the bluesman Lead Belly—could not have prepared his readers for this outsized and fascinating volume. It’s something people who care for the music, or for African American cultural history, will read and reread, whether or not they notice its ambitious expansions of what has been possible for the contemporary poem.
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.