Brian G. Gilmore on Tyehimba Jess

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OLIO
By Tyehimba Jess

Wave Books, April, 2016
224 pp. Paper. $25.00
ISBN 978-1-940696-20-1
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WINNER of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

There is, perhaps, no book of poetry ever conceived like Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. David Wojahn’s Mystery Train comes to mind to a degree, as his is another collection where snippets of American music history are displayed as collages. But Jess’ style here is so unique and chance that an allusion to Wojahn’s poems on rock and roll history only captures a few of the sensibilities Jess rides. Kamau Brathwaite’s earth-shattering collection, Trench Town Rock, is much closer, a movie of book that takes literature to another level by giving the reader poetry as scrapbook. Braithwaite shapes an entire story by using dialogue and other literary devices in addition to poetry, producing a rich narrative of life and living.

In Olio, Jess ventures into that same aesthetic struggle, but he expands upon Brathwaite’s take with guts and ambition. There is poetry in Olio, letters, drawings, and photographs all used to sing the praises of unsung heroes of African-American history: singers, piano players, rag timers, and artists. Jess provides a clue to the reader where he is going in Olio when he shares his dual definition of “olio”. It is, according to Jess,  “miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements; hodgepodge” and “also: the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.” Thus, in Olio, the reader is presented with a hodgepodge of narrative and historical moments in the lives of those unsung African-American entertainers of long ago who functioned in a vastly different world.

There are well-known entertainers who have been the subject of writers before, such as Jess’s own award-winning collection, leadbelly, from 2005, but there are also highly successful entertainers, lost in time and history, whom Jess brings to life, such as Millie and Christine McCoy:

We count the blessings of our doubled shell with each breath. We prove we’ve endured faith’s storm every time we rise to face the crowd’s face — as we pay our dues.

The McCoy twins were born into slavery and conjoined at the lower spine. Eventually freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, they enjoyed a highly successful career as “The Two Headed Nightingale,” an international piano playing and singing duo. Jess, a master of the poetic expression that allows his subjects to speak, gives voice to the McCoys in Olio, repeatedly hammering home their humanity and the fullness of a dignified life achieved on their own terms.

There are fourteen players in the epic that is Olio, a cast as Jess calls them, and their lives occur between 1816 and 1933. Chattel slavery, national oppression, Black Codes, and racial violence made this a particularly difficult time for African-Americans, which Jess documents with archival records, personal correspondence, poetry, and vignettes to unmask the truth of that period. And these Americans — Blind Boone, Henry “Box” Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ernest Hogan, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, the McCoy Sisters, Booker T. Washington, Blind Tom, Bert Williams and George Walker, and Edmonia Lewis — share a noble courage that is a central theme in Olio. This is evident in  “Blind Tom Plays For Confederate Troops,” where Jess writes: “slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying across ivory . . .” and where Blind Tom, the legendry slave savant piano player, “leans like a runner bout to throw himself to freedom through forest bramble . . .”

Olio, is not only a story of those who were relegated to the “minstrel show” of the white-dominated worlds they inhabited. Olio is that show, at times, and perhaps throughout, in form and aesthetics. Or, more appropriately, Olio is an olio, though it is more museum than just minstrel shout.

At times, as Jess builds this world and tribute, you feel like Olio is poetry as documentary, and in his struggle to achieve his artistic goals, Jess piles on the words and lost scraps of history he believes must be heard and read. The section “Bert Williams/George Walker Paradoxpart ” is an ode to minstrel era entertainers full of this approach. Here, Jess stabs the reader with the “coon” concept, pain, and theory, but the ability of Williams and Walker to endure: “This song that I sing. Do you know how twisting beauty into ugly burns. Believe this: ain’t no way I’d take a insult if I weren’t getting paid. Yes I sing the coon’ song.” In this section, Jess executes the remarkable within the remarkable. He crafts literary vignettes that are part his writing and excerpts from the Indianapolis Freeman, a newspaper published during the era.

Some figures that appear here are not obscure but still deserve the attention Jess affords them in his two-hundred and thirty pages of poetry, documentation, narrative, history, photography, visual art, and bibliography that is Olio. One notable is Scott Joplin, perhaps the most important cultural figure in the book, and someone equally important to America. Jess, as many writers and poets have done, uses Joplin not just to tell America’s sordid racial history and to express black genius in print, but to comment on cultural appropriation using another poem (“Berlin v. Joplin”): “I heard my kidnapped tune / ramblin drunk through Tin Pan Alley. Then, I heard ‘bout the minstrel leer it wore smeered with burnt cork.”

It is in stories like Joplin’s that Jess uses like paint to tell a larger, more tragic tale throughout Olio. That tale not only encompasses individual lives, struggling on their own to live beautifully, and honorably in a racist society, but also all of the lives of black people and all those who scorn them. And it is the beauty of Olio overall that makes unsung blackness magical and unified, a compelling poetic statement no longer quiet in our worlds.

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Tyehimba Jess  is the rare poet who bridges slam and academic poetry. His first collection, leadbelly (2005), an exploration of the blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. A two-time member of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was also Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana. He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy (2003). His honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award. Jess has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, as well as a Lannan Writing Residency. Jess has taught at the Juilliard School, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and at the College of Staten Island in New York City.

 

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Brian G. Gilmore is the author of three collections of poetry, including his latest, a 2015 NAACP Image Award Nominee, We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters. Brian Gilmore teaches social justice law at Michigan State University.

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