It's All in the Wind

Olio, by Tyehimba Jess, has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It is an outstanding book that visits, and reimagines, a deeply influential yet far too little examined African American cultural moment. This is a powerful, innovative work of verse created by one of this country's best contemporary poets. Here is a review.
Tom Griffen
December 1, 2016
https://www.wavepoetry.com/products/olio

Olio
Tyehimba Jess
Wave Books
ISBN: 9781940696201

And he threw them rags all up in the air and into the palm
of that hand, and it made a fist and smeared his music all
over New York. All them notes all scattered over Manhattan
like so many raindrops. All them notes burning up in smoke.

              – Sam Patterson (1924)

 

Tyehimba Jess’s second book, Olio, is a book without rules, blues on the page. It weaves new and reimagined facts with poetry, prose, and biographies of first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows. A spellbinding and lyrical melange of verse, Olio resembles its namesake—a minstrel show’s hodgepodge variety act that later evolved into Vaudeville, “the heart of American show business.” In Olio, Jess examines the transition from plantation slavery to a less overt servitude where, marked as entertainers, overburdened black women and men mock themselves and their people for the audience’s merriment. The word minstrel is derived from the Latin minus meaning “lesser.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines minstrel as “servant.”

In an attempt to better understand the minstrel show performers, Jess mobilizes a medley of forms and craft elements: contrapuntal poems persist as poetic conversations, church and work songs seek incorporation, imagined interviews add a contemporary perspective, and stichomythic lines offer new context to inspire a deeper awareness. In addition, crude yet powerful line drawings provide an image-bridge between biographies, while exuberant typography and circusy headings add a solemnly ironic yet human feeling to the unprecedented collection.

Jess analyzes this American narrative by conjuring the voices of the conjoined McCoy Twins, Scott Joplin, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Henry “Box” Brown and other obscure but historically significant African American artists. On the surface, Olio’s stories seem lighthearted and undemanding, but formidable layers of historical truth make for an anguishing read. An end quote early in the collection sums up this collision of aesthetic and painful content, “I like the music, but I don’t like the words.”

Olio’s fictional interviewer, Julius Trotter, a disfigured World War I veteran, serves as a stand-in for Jess himself. Most obvious is their reversed initials, but Trotter is likewise a man seeking truths about the past to better understand the present. A line from “My Name is Sissieretta Jones,” sums up the motivation, “I’d look out of the darkness and hear my true name.” Trotter’s quest, specifically, is to ascertain details about Scott Joplin, the famous ragtime musician for whom there exists no audio of his piano prowess. The only evidence of Joplin’s genius is the coverage of his compositions, which are merely interpretations of reality, and faulty as such. In his fictional letter to W.E.B. DuBois, Trotter explains, “I needed to regale in the ragtime past that had been so furiously forgotten...I wanted to know better the face of original ragtime—perhaps in order to recall my own.”

Trotter is not only faced with the literal challenge of research but also with the world’s wariness of him. In his interview with Carmen LeDieux, a past resident of the Joplin house in Harlem, NY, Trotter fields pushback during his solicitation. To LeDieux, his inquiry is a foolish endeavor. She says, “Ain’t no niggers rollin’ all over the country just lookin’ for stories ‘less there some money attached to it.” She later asks him, “What’s so special about his story you need to be botherin’ folks about the past?”

Trotter sustained injuries in World War I that left him with a disfigured face, a mask of sorts. Not only does this scarring make him an outlier, it keeps his true identity hidden from the public and from himself. Though LeDieux gives him the interview, she does so out of pity. She tells him, “seeing how as you ain’t lynched yet...guess you need these stories more than I do.” Jess works this masking metaphor to magnify Trotter’s resemblance to minstrel players. Like them, his search for self occurs behind a black face, a segregating mask.

John William “Blind” Boone infers that Trotter, as someone in search of a story, is similar to a performer in a minstrel show. After Trotter eschews this statement, Boone says, “fact is that the minstrel show is only a grin and shuffle away from any living Negro trying to tell his own true, full story and survive in the world...There’s a way to tell it straight and true, so that the joke’s not on you, but all around you.” Minstrel shows exploit, but it can not be assumed that its players are meek victims. Trotter writes, “When I can smell the cork burning just before the show, I still remember the dignity we were taught...I still know who I am, even if my reflection is a lie.”

Olio contains a form that Jess refers to as a “syncopated sonnet.” This unique poetic structure brings together two voices while drawing attention to that which keeps them separate. This demarkation mirrors musical syncopation—a disturbance in the regular flow of rhythm, an “off-beat” that makes for an interesting outcome. The unconventional, erratic pattern alarms the ear and encourages listeners to seek a rhythmic regularity. Olio’s technique also echoes psychoanalytical syncopation, a practice by which an individual relives a traumatic experience to purge its emotional excess. Olio invites readers to participate in a similar catharsis.

Jess’s syncopated sonnets can be read straight across, up and down, or in any sort of tangential, incurvating way the reader desires. The options are exponential. They can also be linked together to form a continuous vocal chain. Similar to Tarot cards, each reading offers a unique angle of interpretation, making available a new, dynamic meaning. “Millie-Christine: On Display” splices the words of two sisters joined at the hip. Visually, the syncopated form adds power to the twins’ comments; confident lines precede more of the same. “We’ve proven ourselves / to those who doubt our form. We have performed / to prove veracity.” In “Coon Songs Must Go! / Coon Songs Go On...(2),” Jess uses syncopation to induce a different outcome. He sets a 1909 newspaper article beside the words of a minstrel player. When read independently, the columns differ greatly in meaning. Column one’s newspaper lines read:

         In this way
         and in many other ways
         too numerous to mention
         “coon” songs
         have done more
         to insult the
         Negro and cause
         his white brethren,
         especially the young generation,
         to have a bad opinion of
         good Negroes and bad Negroes,
         than anything that has ever happened...

Column two, however, offers a different understanding:

         I make cash—
         I give white folks giggles
         when I wear blackface. Yeah, them
         “coon” songs
         earnin’ much bread. Want
         highfalutin’
         hilarity with
         laughing all ‘round? Crackers,
         they want to see unrefined niggers:
         the way they think we are. There ain’t
         but one kind of coon they want. And more...
         they want it made true for them on stage.

When read together, the voices create an amalgamated point of view. One of the myriad possibilities of reading the syncopated columns results in the following:

         In this way I make cash—
         I give white folks giggles
         too numerous to mention. Yeah, them
         “coon” songs
         earnin’ much bread. Want
         highfalutin’
         hilarity with
         laughing all ‘round? Crackers,
         especially the young generation,
         have done more
         to insult the
         Negro and cause
         the way they think we are.

Olio also includes interactive fold-outs and an that appendix “regarding facts and audience instruction.” In “The Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel,” Jess writes, “Can you liberate their lines from the tyranny of two-dimensional reality?...Let them roll with a nation’s lynchings scrolled up inside—and when you cut them loose along the dotted lines our speakers break out of their x/y axis grind to find the wonder of a rolling cylinder...” He continues, “one half twist before you join the torus will reveal the Möibus—a paradox poem on a two-dimensional surface with one side that flips seamlessly from Dunbar to Booker and back again and again and again ad infinitum.” Such kinesthetic characteristics add to the reading experience.

Minstrel shows shroud a lingering white ownership of the black body. Olio gives witness to its effect on specific performers, humanizing them beyond their particular talent. Trotter (and Jess) come to accept what hides behind their own masks. And before they can tolerate this history, they must each embrace their own vulnerability—a universally human challenge drawing closer to a deeper, truer self. Closer to human sensibility. The final letter reveals this revelation, “What matters is what I sing inside this mask when I play. It’s whatever I sing when I’m rounding out the olio.”

Olio enchants in its willingness to take risks, to toy with failure. Jess’s work is a determined web of strategic resistance and humble persistence. Above all, it is a documentation of hope where each individual plays a crucial role in the plight of the whole. Olio is a sorrowful nostalgia of insurmountable empowerment. A proud and haunting, yet celebratory, story of survival.

 

Tom Griffen is a North Carolina writer with Californian roots. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. He blogs, writes travel essays, and is currently working on a book of poetry in response to Charlotte’s Web. His work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, O-Dark-Thirty, and others. Tom is also an ultramarathoner, a reflexologist, and a motivational speaker in the specialty retail industry.

April 12, 2017