Rather than spending several paragraphs discussing my way to the statement that needs to be made about this book, I need to write it up front: Tyehimba Jess’ latest collection, Olio, does and is so many different things that it distracts you from your preconceived notions about what poetry can be, what it can do, and, ultimately, what you think you know. More than a book (and many reviewers have commented at length about what a fantastic object the book is), Olio is an extended performance, a musical score, and an epic libretto which, like John William “Blind” Boone says of Scott Joplin in one of Jess’ fictionalized interviews, comes on stage and “[commences to play] a trainwreck.” And I mean that statement in the same complimentary way that Jess writes in Boone’s remarks. Olio is and is not like any book you’ve seen before, summoning up reading experiences of the research-driven poetry of Martha Collins and visual/spectacular/performative work of Douglas Kearney, among many others—the same way that one can imagine a spectacle, but to attend it is altogether different.
Various concepts of performance play a key role in Olio beyond the mere frame of the text, the concept that Jess pursues in presenting black artists who sing, sculpt, and write and play music. Working with multiple definitions of the title term provided on a pre-introduction page, the text works with the deeper and problematic structure of the minstrel show—which Jess reclaims as a form of truth so real that it is integrated as a social and internal institution. When the fictionalized interviewer (identified by readers as a stand-in for Jess himself) comments that they “don’t think of [themselves] as a performer in a minstrel show,” the aforementioned fictionalized Boone replies that “most don’t.” If there is anything that contemporary (and, as Jess proves, all) history shows, it’s that something so systemic as to be unacknowledged is a reality so ingrained that it becomes, to far too many, an invisible fact of life. But, for those who see and experience these forces,
there’s a way to tell [one’s story] straight and true, so that the joke’s not on you, but all around you.
In Olio, Jess places focus all around the reader in such a way as to collapse time. One only needs to think to the present to make connections, both triumphant and tragic, with the past.
It strikes me at this point that I’ve written many times of the “fictional” in Olio—but it is not to detract from the fact that it is firmly a book of poetry, a way to tell the stories of the artists in the book with alarming accuracy and truth. The fictional elements of the narrative, which exist in the text as both poems and interviews, come up against the register of excerpts from newspapers and an extensive bibliography in the back of the book which sets itself up as “facts and audience instruction,” another indication that what we see is a performance of information ranging from musical sonnets and brief intensely-charged moments of language to reports and the ongoing oral history project that takes the form of the interviews throughout the book.
Quite of a few of the books which we’ve reviewed at the Found Poetry Review engage directly with history, be it through the poet’s choice of source text or the way that comments are made through or in spite of them. However, out of all of these books, Olio is by far the most ambitious and comprehensive. In addressing a particularly figures in specific times, places, and relationships to each other, Jess creates a project which investigates forces that underpin contemporary culture in such a way as to lay a new claim to a part of the true history of race in the United States. Rather than engaging in received narrative, Jess’ characters and speakers sing loudly and mellifluously that “despite loss…I won my life. This story—/is essentially about how a slave steals back his skin:/smuggles loose like I did,” in this instance, taking ownership of the language of Berryman’s “Dream Songs,” appropriating a construct in order to pursue the notion that “Berryman can’t talk for them,/and talks about himself…” a declaration that only the speaker himself (Henry “Box” Brown) has the right to “tell my tale at all.”
And this is what Jess gives us: voices who take the stage with the mandate to tell their stories. One of the most striking features is that the characters in Olio are regularly identified and part of the titles and utterances themselves. In some cases, these names will be new to readers, but, in any event,we cannot forget their names; there is no room to fail to acknowledge their presence and their being. If one of the major tenets of performance is an audience or, at the very least, an observer or listener, the sense of presence acts as a binding contract between speaker, writer, and reader.
We must look. But, when we do, even in the midst of tragedy, we see and hear beauty.
Though other writers acknowledge the physical construction of the book, few have made mention of the ways in which this presence is extended to the reader through interaction. Much more than the pictures and engaging typefaces, Olio requires the reader to, on several occasions, fold out pages, which extend the size of an already-mighty book, to read its full text. Some of these foldouts change in orientation, so that the entire book has to be turned in order to read it. Though Jess’ writing is captivating, powerful, and inviting, Olio ensures that the fact the reader is paying attention isn’t enough: agency doesn’t emerge from passive acknowledgement or pleasure reading. If Olio makes you do intellectual and emotional work, it’s also going to give you some measure of performative physicality as well.
Once more to avoid failing to eloquently work my way into a statement about this book: Olio is required reading. It locates a reader at the heart of many stories that are not finished when one comes to the end of their telling. Instead, as one of Jess’ speakers comments in an excerpt from a WPA field interview, Olio, like the dancer being interviewed, “[knows] how to twist myself into knots until most people can’t tell where I begin or end.” This experience is the way that we experience stories that become integral parts of our consciousness, that are granted as intimately bound in the social fabric with which we surround ourselves. But, as Jess recognizes in Olio, it’s up to us to seek out the truest strains with which to weave them.