Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tyehimba Jess and the outstanding Olio

Tyehimba Jess's new book Olio (2016) is really a remarkable feat of scholarship and artistry.  On the one hand, the book reveals careful attention to historical records, noting a variety of important events and cultural figures. At the same time, the volume displays an inventive mind highly capable of imagining -- in eloquent verse -- the unrecorded musings of extraordinary people.

Henry 'Box' Brown, the Fisk Jubilee Singers,  Paul Laurence Dunbar, Scott Joplin, Sissieretta Jones, Booker T. Washington, "Blind" Tom Wiggins, Bert Williams, George Walker, and Edmonia Lewis are among the main characters in Olio. Their stories correspond to specific moments in history. Jess clearly pursued an extensive amount research in order to bring so much information together in a single volume.

[Related: From Leadbelly to Olio]

The book contains persona poems, contrapuntal poems, imagined interviews, interrelated series of sonnets, and poems that appear on fold-outs. The links between the many poems indicate that Jess was doing more than simply writing poems; instead, he weaved together a tapestry of compositions. The intricate design and interconnections of the poems also speak to the poet's creativity, not to mention his intense focus on detail.  

One central purpose of Olio is to illuminate the experiences of African American artists who may have largely been lost to history. Jess takes up the noble and trying effort of filling in all the spaces and silences surrounding figures like Wiggins, Joplin, Williams, and those various other historical figures. Jess presents the imagined ruminations of Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins and former slaves, and he also offers poetic accounts from paradoxical performers such as Williams & Walker, and Ernest Hogan.

The book contains photographs of some of the key figures in the book, line drawings by Jessica Lynne Brown, an extended timeline, bibliographies of books and newspaper sources for the project, and explanations for the pages that are perforated for easy removal. All these parts contribute to the overall complexity of the volume.

In the coming weeks and months, I'm looking forward to reading, re-reading, and blogging about this powerful book, Olio

A Notebook on Tyehimba Jess

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