If we are to have black history that lives outside of our bodies and resonates in the world, we are going to have to do it ourselves. I have long known this, being presented a mainstream history where our stories were drowning only in pain, or grief. Tyehimba Jess has always been vital to the archiving of black performance, and black performers. In his new collection, Olio, Jess continues this tradition. In the poem “Minnehaha,” written in the voice of sculptor Edmonia Lewis, Jess writes “what part of me is mine / that was not mined from the mind of poets?” and I return again to the to the idea of history, what it is to speak for the dead, or to speak for someone who no one has an interest in hearing until they are on a stage.
The “Olio,” in the definition that most imagine it in both title and driving force behind Tyehimba Jess’s second full-length collection of poems, is the middle part of a minstrel show. It means “a medley,” a time in the show when other singers, comedians, and side performers would come out and take the stage. Jess, poet, historian, world-builder, populates his newest collection with these performers and their stories. It is an overflowing and ambitious collection, one that bursts at the edges with the voices of black performers who existed in an era before the Harlem renaissance. Many of the poems are written from the direct perspective of the artists, all of them acting as the speaker. For Jess to pull this off so effectively, in artists spanning different backgrounds, eras, and genders, is indicative as his skill as a writer, and I imagine his skill as a listener. Someone with an ear towards conversation, tone, and urgency. There is, rightfully, much to be made of how Jess executes form in this book, using contrapuntal poems to put the histories of the artists in conversation with each other. The sonnets that bring light to the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, all carefully crafted and presented in a way that adds to the overarching narratives that run throughout the collection.
The book, in many ways, revolves around the ultimate reclaiming of ragtime performer Scott Joplin’s legacy. These sections, imaginary interviews taking place throughout the 1920s, with real people who knew Joplin, are the most jarring and brilliantly executed sections. The interviewer, a disfigured World War II veteran. One can imagine that this is how Jess places himself in the book, acting as excavator. The prose in these sections are almost small novels, tracing a path to answers, to questions that are both asked and assumed.
What becomes clear in the reading of this book is that Jess, though an author who has a voice that cannot be mistaken, acts more as a gentle tour guide through a period of black artistry that is often represented differently than it is here. The players, Joplin, Lewis, Sissiereta Jones, Henry Box Brown, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Blind Boon, Blind Tom, Bert Williams, and George Walker, all tools in the lesson that Jess is teaching. It occurred to me that Tyehimba Jess presents this work to us in the way a social scientist may. The book is unmistakably a book of brilliant poetry, but it also has the feel of an encyclopedia. Not in the sense of weight, or language, but the mere presence of its existence is encyclopedic. In walking away from reading Olio, history has been reclaimed and redefined. It is, beyond a book of poems, an encyclopedia of black stories, told as we most want to see them told.
I talk often about folklore, and how this has played into black history as a means of survival. If no one else will speak of us, we will speak of ourselves and make each other more than just our deaths. Olio, among other things, is a book of living. There is a type of darkness within, particularly in the section voiced by Blind Boone. But even in these moments, the arc lifts towards hopefulness. At the end of “Blind Boone’s Escape,” a poem detailing Blind Boone’s escape from the St. Louis School for the Blind after being told he couldn’t play piano, ends with “Could’ve been killed. But still, here I am. And I will remember that night under a sky that I knew must be stuffed with a million tunes I could almost hear from my grassy bed. I’ll never forget…I leaned in to wear it like a bowler, tipped hard across my head.”
The darkness in this history is nothing without a mention of what is being survived, and the showing of how that survival plays out. I love the people who are redeemed within this glorious field of a collection. The lives that existed beyond simply “career” or “work.” Black performance was once only performance and often silence before, and after. Even in Jess’ imagination, the full amount of living and emoting that these performers do is a way for black writers and performers now to feel seen.
Beyond the beauty of the poems in the book, the layout is also gorgeous. The structure of the poems on the page are both risky, and yet not overbearing. The flexibility of the work on the page speaks to the depth and flexibility used to conjure the many voices that fill them. My favorite story about Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones is the story about Louisville, Kentucky in 1908. The Black Patti Troubadours, Jones’ troupe, sang “My Old Kentucky Home” to an audience of mostly white people at the Avenue Theater. Afterwards, the crowd was so moved that Sissieretta Jones was given a bouquet of flowers, the first time a black performer had been awarded such a gift in the city. All of these years later, and we are still trying to collect the flowers that those in our past earned, but were never given. Olio provides us a stage, littered with rose petals. An audience that stood to applaud, and has yet to sit down.