Tyehimba Jess. Olio. Wave Books.


Tyehimba Jess’s 2016 Olio is mammoth. Comprised of letters, interviews, sketches, architectural and mathematical poems, "Jubilees," songs, conversations, and formal poems, and accompanied by a playlist of musicians, Jess’s second offering introduces us to (reminds us of) thirteen "first-generation-freed voices" plus the Fisk Jubilee Singers, all of whom "coalesce in counterpoint, name nemeses, summon tongue to wit-ness."

The musicians in Jess’s volume were innovators, virtuosos—Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, receives the most attention here, floating through several sections of the book via interviews by one Julius Monroe Trotter, a Pullman porter who questions how a king can die in virtual obscurity. In Trotter’s letter to the Crisis editor, W. E. B. DuBois, Trotter writes about attending one of Joplin’s live shows: "I remember this—that my eyes were closed . . . when I opened them again, the figure had retired from view. . . . I waited for the maestro to reappear. . . . But to my alarm he had left the building altogether." This disappearance of Joplin from a live stage prepares us for the disappearance of Joplin "altogether" from the metaphorical stage. At the height of his fame, Joplin began writing operas, which were accompanied by bad luck and poor audience reception. Trotter doesn’t "see" Joplin again until years later in Joplin’s obituary: "his final grace note; his life’s work reduced to one simple paragraph." The disappearance of Joplin from the public’s imagination carries Olio and moves from Joplin to "Blind" Tom Wiggins to Millie and Christine McKoy to "Blind" Boone, Bert Williams and George Walker, Sissieretta Jones, Ernest Hogan, and the aforementioned Fisk Jubilee Singers—Isaac Dickerson, Eliza Walker, Ben Holmes, Minnie Tate, George White, Maggie Porter, Greene Evans, Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Jennie Jackson—who are honored in the Jubilees. Olio has a dedicated section for the formerly enslaved abolitionist Henry Box Brown, himself an innovator of freedom, as well as poems for Booker T. Washington, the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. This book is an ensemble of asé.

Literary, linguistic, activist, and musical influences pop off the pages of this book, and it’s no wonder. The attraction that Jess has to originality in poetry and, specifically, in blending music with poetry with sociology with history, can be traced back to his early college days. A student of Sterling Plumpp, Jess has said about him: "When I met Sterling Plumpp, it was that first day of class, him leaning on the lectern, elucidating the history of the Black Arts Movement in a Mississippi drawl. Over the course of that spring, I would begin to realize the possibilities of the word. . . . And when I read his work, it seemed like he was doing that thing in ways I had never quite imagined. He was bringing together the worlds of music and politics and history in a way I had never quite understood". The same could be said of the artists in Olio.

In this incredible undertaking, Tyehimba Jess himself demonstrates his own virtuosity by remixing the sonnet (a derivation from the Italian sonnetto, a little sound or song), including the invention of the conjoined twin sonnet aka the syncopated star sonnet (which visually has the appearance of a butterfly). Christine and Mille McKoy were born in 1851 on the McKay plantation in North Carolina. At ten months old, the conjoined twins were sold to a showman who wanted to place them in the circus; eventually they were sold to the Smiths, from whom they were kidnapped when they were three. Whisked off to England by their kidnapper, Christine and Millie were "[t]aken like doubled dark treasures". They ask ‘‘were we not blessed?/we’d earned a London court’s sympathy/returned to a master we could trust".

Nicknamed "Two Headed Nightingale", the McKoy sisters were lauded for their singing and dancing skills. In their autobiography, History of the Carolina Twins: "Told in "Their Own Peculiar Way" by "One of Them", they write: "Although we speak of ourselves in the plural we feel as but one person; in fact as such we have ever been regarded, although we bear the names Millie and Christina" (20). Each of the sonnets in this section is shaped to highlight the individual limbs of the sisters and their conjoined spine. In the five McKoy poems, Jess relies on the dual-we point-of-view, with the exception of ‘‘Millie-Christine’s Love Story’’, where each sister gets to speak both independently of the other and as joined we.

                            Here—this is our story I want you to hear—
our own duet. Listen to how we’re bound           in unison. Listen to the grace we
                          —one body crooning two notes. By God, we’re
like sympathetic string. Each sung sound       ringing within me and my other half (53).

The final McKoy poem is the magnificent syncopated star sonnet, which brings the five individual sonnets into one stellar star sonnet. Doubling as mirror of the conjoined twins, the butterfly effect of the McKoy sonnets creates a visual image of sisters who are both "doubled rose/descended from raw carnage of the South" and individual "souls ablaze".

Tyehimba Jess is to be applauded for this archival research work and for daring to attempt as much formal invention as did the brilliant musicians who passed through this life ahead of him.