Review by Joshua Jones
Tyehimba Jess’s most recent volume, Olio, documents the lives and voices of African American performers in the latter years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. This Olio, which the front matter helpfully defines as “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements [or] the second part of a minstrel show,” meditates on the masks these performers inherited and subverted. These masks sometimes manifest literally, like the blackface made from burnt cork ironically donned by black performers Bert Williams and George Walker, but sometimes suggestively, like the persona of the disabled savant worn by Blind Boone and Blind Tom. The voice that ties the collection together, Julius Monroe Trotter, who conducts interviews about the life of Scott Joplin with many of the volume’s speakers, wears a prosthetic mask to hide a wound from the First World War. Trotter, while serving as a thinly-veiled stand-in for Jess collecting narratives of the past for a book, discovers and pushes back against his own minstrelization. His interviewees often understand him better than he understands himself, and while early on he doesn’t “think of [himself] as a performer in a minstrel show,” by the book’s conclusion, he escapes the murderous envy of a white train engineer only by running off with the “North Star Traveling Negro Troubadours” to play piano.
The book falls into seven sections divided by smaller sections generally made up of one of Trotter’s interviews and two sonnets in the voice of the Fisk Jubilee Choir. While these sonnets lack some of the formal innovation of the rest of the volume, they form a subtle and surprising crown. Their constant presence directs the reader’s attention to one of the most important sources of ragtime and blues music, the gospel tradition’s insistence on freedom. In “Jubilee Mission” the choir declares:
So, we’ve chose to sing up heaven rather
than dwell down on plantation’s minstreled
shuck and buck. Our home is our voice, gathered
and honed and whetted and sharpened—
cuttin’ slave days down to sermon up salvation.
These singers stay one step ahead of Trotter, and know that their performance serves their freedom. But these sonnets are, as so many other parts of this book, put into counterpoint with history’s somber details. Above and below each sonnet, Jess places the names, location, and dates of African American churches attacked, burned, or bombed. The appendix, as much a poem as any in the volume, tells the reader that “Each hymn inhabits heat and smolder; each biblical spark is kindled with story,” and that while, “There is no complete record of all such attacks…these 148 stand in testimony to all the unarmed churches lost.” This essential historical frame moves beyond the age of ragtime and blues to our own more familiar, contemporary tragedies like the shooting at Charleston, reminding us that the work of these poems is not simply historical.
In fact, any perception of a difference between historical apparatus and contemporary poem blurs from the very beginning. On the first page, the reader finds “INTRODUCTION or CAST or Owners of This Olio” which describes the lives of each of the speakers or subjects of the book in as vibrant and poetic a language as can be found in any of the later poems. Scott Joplin, who rarely speaks in the book despite his central roll in the narrative, is described as “Ruler of Ragtime, Professor of Piano Prestidigitation. Saint of Syncopation. Ace of Ivory 88s.” Even where a reader might expect a clinical biography of these characters, Jess imbues every word and phrase with the musicality and thickness of the lives he describes. The same poem exhorts the reader: “Fix your eyes on the flex of these first-generation-freed voices:/ They coalesce in counterpoint, name nemeses, summon tongue to wit-ness./ Weave your own chosen way between these voices…” mimicking the work of Trotter as he wends his way across the train tracks of the country collecting the stories of the ragtime legend.
But Jess makes any clear distinction between his poems and the history they describe problematic in more drastic ways. In “Berlin V. Joplin Alexander’s Real Slow Drag,” he juxtaposes a public response by Irving Berlin to questions of his having stolen Joplin’s music with an “imagined response” by Joplin himself. Midway through the poem, Berlin argues, “And I wanted to know,/ if a negro could write/ ‘Alexander,’/ why couldn’t I?” To this Joplin responds “Why can’t some folk handle/ tunes as good as my own/ —and not steal? Me?” However, when the two blend together, a third argument appears, “And I wanted to know,/ Why can’t some folk handle/ if a negro could write/ tunes as good as my own/ ‘Alexander,’/ —and not steal? Me?” Berlin’s racist invective and Joplin’s defense of his own artistry combine into a discussion about appropriation of African American culture more broadly, making Berlin an unwilling participant in his own undoing. By incorporating into this poem—and so many others—texts of the period and suggesting that the readers work through each poem in their own way, Jess encourages a meditative process by which the reader interrogates his or her own selective choices in reading. This enforces a state of constant discovery as readers must explore and attempt each poem to—sometimes physically—bend it into a new shape. The space that divides so many of these poems in two on the page stands as a line the reader must choose to cross or not, making a commitment to hear the two speakers in harmony or discord.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is what a stunning artifact of book arts it is. For anyone who has had the chance to see Jess read—and thankfully the TED-X Nashville talk in which he reads the syncopated sonnets between conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy is available online—it might be hard to believe a book could live up to his dynamic performance. However, Olio does not disappoint. The paperback is a veritable behemoth among poetry books, measuring 7×10 and 235 pages. Its austere white cover confronts you with OLIO in the shape of a face that suggests blackface caricatures as well as the necessary work of multiple readings of each poem. Four poems are printed on perforated pages that the reader can tear out and fold into different shapes—including simple folds, cylinders, and even a mobius strip—in order to offer a more dynamic 3D reading that ends only when the reader chooses. The book even includes directions for making these shapes in the appendix.
Other poems receive pictures or designs alongside the text to illuminate them. “John William ‘Blind’ Boone, Columbia, Missouri: Oct. 25, 1925,” for instance, includes a picture of two steam trains in an orchestrated head on collision, and “Freedsong: So Long! (Duet)” combines several of these visual methods. The text of that poem is superimposed over the silhouette of Henry “Box” Brown and his “slave catchers.” When the reader tears it out and wraps it into a cylinder, the two faces meet and the lines form a third reading of the poem. A series of eerie drawings that serve as wordless prefaces divides the book’s sections visually. The first drawing shows nine ghostly torsos springing from the back of a central figure supporting their weight, and Blind Boone’s poems follow a lone tree nourished by and bearing the fruit of enormous, grisly eyes. Olio works as much as an art book as it does as a book of poems. A reader has to feel his or her way around inside it, break it in, and even break it to read it right.
Joshua Jones has an MFA in poetry from UMass Boston and is pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of North Texas. He has published poems for Poemeleon, Fourteen Hills, Far Off Places, among many others. He has reviewed books for the American Literary Review and the Breakwater Review.