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  • Edmonia Lewis, Provenance and: Minnehaha, Marble, 1868, Edmonia Lewis and: Indian Combat, and: Indian Combat, Marble, 1868, Edmonia Lewis and: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Marble, 1864, Edmonia Lewis and: My Name is Sissieretta Jones, and: Sissieretta Jones, Carnegie Hall, 1902, O patria mia
  • Tyehimba Jess (bio)



provenance: (n) a record of ownership of a work of art, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.

Provenance is to Providenceas stone is to heaven,as plinth is to bust,as chisel is to muscle,as beginning to endthat explodes into dustfor new beginnings.I am the sound of onemallet against history’spale fist. I’ve birthedapostles of eternalprayer and protestation,and I know how the deadsoldier’s face ascendsfrom Earth’s womb,how a mother’s prayerweeps in the desert,how the only questionsworth asking foreverappear impenetrable,but break open beneatha hammer-honed will. I willmy hands to my mother’sfinger-weave, to all its anglesand the gods within each angle;my eyes to river watersculpting Time’s ripple-smoothface to boulder and shale;my feet to my father’s maroon,broken bondage. I’m possessedin the way of a warrior [End Page 431] feather, carved to sharpenwind that weathers stone,claiming the crown of all glorythat is myself, my own. [End Page 432]


Marble, 1868, Edmonia Lewis

What part of me is mine that wasnot mined from the mind of poets,artists rewriting the past blowby blow ‘til it’s pulverized pastthe barely recognizable?I was born when I was written,then hammered out of a mountain.I was shattered and then broken,then sharpened to the human. I’mcarved in marble that never dies,hardly crumbles; a stubborn queenwho’ll die only with those peoplewho crave a ruling monarchyof fictions—tales my sculptor pliedto strike against their pale armiesof indignities. Historyis their favorite lie. I foundmy face buried in its would-bepages, then excavated bya native who fled the country.Such was her misery at homein the land where my legend roamsthe canonized Americanpoetry. I’m her stone arrow,her refusal to bow. I wearher chisel-sharp aim as my crown. [End Page 433]


Marble, 1868, Edmonia Lewis

We three warriorswere called forthto be, forever, enemies.Stolen from marble,pressed into slaughter,we never weary. Weseek no asylum exceptthe perpetual hatchet,the eternal blade,the never-ending arrow,our fists that swallowour senses ‘til we’ve carvedourselves into memorialsfor causes long forgotten.Our fight was forgedby a free brown woman’sbrunt, her design forall our fates entwinedlike fingers laced in prayerfor victory, then mercy,then dug into the Earthto resurrect our embattledlives lived just as her own:pounded into memorywith mettle on stone. [End Page 434]


Marble, 1864, Edmonia Lewis

The enemy buried me with my brothersin blue. Our bloodlines mingledin the mangled, makeshift ditch,burrowed beneath sand and gritto huddle in Earth’s quarriedmemory. We lay head to head,bone to bone with eternity.Then, her hands summoned me:bade marble limn these eyes,speak these lips. So, I face the worldagain, wishing I could call my men,once more, to stand at attention …Rigby, who’d drawl curses on Rebswhile drawing Colt revolvers;Alison, who’d sworn not to die‘til whipping his old master, his father,before his freed mother’s eyes;Roper, his every inch mapped with lash-marks that branded his route through hell …and 1100 more in the ‘54with 1100 blue-black stories to tell.Her hands somehow searched outeach tale those men carved into my face,scraping away marmorealmyths that define which racemight rule. She cut dark witnessinto this bust that carries forthmy image: proof that, in the end,it’s immortal stone that winswhen we’re all dead andfinished. [End Page 435]