30 Books #21: Walton Muyumba on Tyehimba Jess’s Olio

by Walton Muyumba | Mar-09-2017

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Walton Muyumba offers an appreciation of poetry finalist Tyehimba Jess’s Olio (Wave Books).

Tyehimba Jess’s Olio is an elegant, ingenious tour de force.  Jess makes music conjuring performers like Blind Tom Wiggins; Millie and Christine McKoy; Henry “Box” Brown; “Blind” Boone; Bert Williams and George Walker; Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington; Sissieretta Jones; Edmonia Lewis; Scott Joplin; and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  These artists make up the first generation of postbellum black American professional artists performers; from popular music, carnival act and comedy routine to classical sculpture, opera and oratorio, they reinvented American culture and theatre at the turn of the 20th century. 

To stage manage all these actors, if you will, Jess invents Julius Monroe Trotter, an African American WWI veteran, a Pullman Porter, and intrepid music historian.  Moving him in and out of focus throughout Olio, Jess excavates and arranges the other voices as context for Trotter’s actual search: the roots of Scott Joplin’s genius and the sound of his late style.  Trotter acts as both amanuensis and co-composer; a kind of Billy Strayhorn to Jess’s Duke Ellington.  Because Olio doesn’t look or act like most contemporary poetry collections, it might be useful to read Jess’ work as a series of chapbooks designed to hang together chorally, each suite and interlude harmonizes with and counterpoints the others.  

Olio opens with Trotter’s introductory letter to his literary role model, W. E. B Du Bois, then the editor-in-chief of The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine.  Having interviewed Joplin’s friends, musical partners, and widow, Trotter sends his “small bundle of voices” to Du Bois as a debt repayment for the power and guidance he’s gained reading Souls of Black Folk.  Olio is an homage, then, a lyrical elaboration and extension of Du Bois’ essays.  As such, Jess’ poems improvise on Du Boisian concepts: the second-sightedness of blind pianists; masking and minstrelsy as conscious self-doubling; black genius in the classical arts.  Not only does Jess implore readers to improvise (“weave your own chosen way between these voices”), his poems do their own syncopation: each “Jubilee” poem voices a different Fisk singer and its opening line echoes the closing line of the previous Jubilee verse as though they were performing a round

When writing about the conjoined McKoy twins, Jess designs shape poems to represent their union.  The first poem is butterfly-shaped.  The poems’ stanzas seem to read as stand alone, one for each sister.  However, Jess’ lineation also works when one reads across the stanzas as though they were literally conjoined. That five poems sequence closes with them all reprinted on one side of a foldout page with a perforated edge: “McKoy Twins Syncopated Star” can be torn out and rolled into cylinder to see another form of twinning.  Flipping and rolling that page, one sees and reads a carnival barker’s exhortation “to step right up . . . to see their indelible story written all over their doubled up bodies (or is it body?).” 

Jess inserts foldouts for his other twinned pairs: Williams and Walker; Dunbar and Washington.  There’s even one for Henry Brown’s in and out the box selves.  Jess’s sculptural poems both call Joplin’s piano rolls to mind and harken toward Edmonia Lewis’ sculptures.  In Olio’s appendix, Jess suggests that these pages can be folded, bent into Mobius strips, or rounded into toruses as a way of further elaborating – in language and construction – the psychological and emotional doubling continuously central to African American experience. 

With its list poems and prose poems, its freedsongs and coon songs, its letters, pictures, instructions, illustrations, and charts, Olio performs its definition: a) “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements; hodgepodge”; b) a miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selelctions); also: the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.”  Because Olio extends the physical, material possibilities for the book of poetry, it reminds me of both Anne Carson’s Nox and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.  Because Jess demonstrates such formal, visual and historical capaciousness, Olio also reminds me of two other works of outsized genius: Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus and Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank.  And because, in the poem, “Sissieretta Jones, Carnegie Hall, 1902: O patria mia,” Jess imagines the soprano’s performance of Aida’s aria as a kind of anthem, I’m reminded that African American comedians, dancers, singers, sculptors, pianists, and poets continue to use the arts to demand doubly “self-liberated life” and the full benefits of American birthright:

Let this belting be our

unbinding. Let o bring

the sound of all our wanting.

Let patria speak the names

of all my fathers.

Let the curtain rise

to show the face that is

known. Let the country

be mine. Let the country

be mine. Let the country

be mine.

Walton Muyumba is a writer and critic. His essays and reviews have appeared in Oxford American, The Crisis, NPR Books, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He’s the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism. He is an associate professor of American and African Diaspora literature in the English Department at Indiana University-Bloomington.

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