Setting: Most of the lives Jess evokes unfolded in America between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of WWI.
Premise: This book is a celebration of the lives and works of several more or less obscure African-American artists and performers, through poetry and poem-like prose. These artists include sculptress Edmonia Lewis, opera singer Sissieretta Jones, and pianist John Williams “Blind” Boone. And then there’s Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer: at the end of each chapter, Julius Monroe Trotter, a (fictional?) WWI vet with a passion for music, interviews someone who knew Joplin, however tangentially, in an attempt to reconstruct his life and better understand his music.
Why you should read this book:
How do I talk about a book like Tyehimba Jess’s Olio? I feel like I lack many of the tools I need to both understand it fully, and even talk about it. For one thing, poetry intimidates me, which means that I don’t read it very often, which means that there are a lot of references I don’t get, and comparisons I can’t make, and verbal acrobatics I can’t label. If I read a poem aloud, several times in a row, I can appreciate its rhythm and its melody, and I can appreciate the story it tells, but that’s it, and sometimes, that doesn’t feel like it’s enough. Secondly, I am white, and have lived most of my life in either Italy or the UK, countries where race relations have a different past and present compared to the US, so I’m sure I missed a million, million things in this book that’s primarily about black artists creating art in defiance of racial oppression. Thirdly, and finally, Tyehimba Jess assembles words so well, it feels somewhat disrespectful to talk about this book with words that can only feel clumsy and fumbling in comparison.
But, but, but. I absolutely loved this book, and it would feel wrong not to recommend it to as many friends and strangers as I can. So, in the simplest and most direct way I can, I’ll tell you why I loved this book, and why you might love it too.
(1) Because the poems are beautiful. I don’t want to waste time arranging clumsy words in such a way as to persuade you that Jess arranges his words in a way that’s the very opposite of clumsy. Just trust me. Or don’t—you can read excerpts from Olio here (a single poem), here (an entire chapter), and here (one of the book’s fictional interviews). There’s a fourth link under point 3, for reasons that will be obvious once you reach it.
(2) Because each page is packed with forgotten or semi-forgotten history. Come for the music of Jess’s words, stay for the education. Learn about Henry “Box” Brown, who literally mailed himself out of slavery, Edmonia Lewis, the first artist of African and Native American heritage to achieve international recognition (though living as an expat in Italy after being accused of witchcraft in the US), and Christine and Millie McKoy, conjoined twins who sang in front of Queen Victoria. Learn about John William “Blind” Boone, a great unrecorded piano prodigy who could reproduce note-for-note any tune he heard, and Sissieretta Jones, an opera singer who achieved global celebrity at the end of the nineteenth century, and “Blind” Tom Wiggins, another piano prodigy and autistic savant. Learn about comedy duo Bert Williams and George Walker, who billed themselves as “Two Real Coons” to distinguish themselves from all their white “colleagues” who performed in black face, and Scott Joplin, a tragic genius composer of ragtime, opera, and a piece inspired by the infamous “Crush” publicity stunt in which people were invited to witness the collision of two old trains (many people died or were injured). Many of these artists were able to avoid exploitation and make a living expressing themselves, even in the face of personal trauma and professional setbacks.
(3) Because the poems can be read upside-down, left-to-right, diagonally, pretty much however you want. Not all of them, but many. They’re often divided into two (or even three) columns and you can read one column by itself, or both columns as if they were the same poem. Here’s an example. This is no mere gimmick. For one thing, it encourages reading and re-reading the same poem over and over again, in a way that creates fresh new meanings and connections every time. Also, in the McKoy sisters’ chapter, and the poems dedicated to George Walker and Bert Williams, it’s a clever way of reflecting the fact that two people are performing, not one. And, perhaps most interestingly, the different strands of a poem represent different perspectives that fight over which one gets to impose itself as the dominant narrative in history: in one case, Irving Berlin, on the right, refutes rumours he stole one of his most successful tunes from Scott Joplin, and, on the left, Jess imagines Joplin’s response; in another, on the right, a newspaper denounces minstrel shows as a discredit to the African-American race, while, on the left, a minstrel show performer explains that he does because he needs to support his family.
(4) Because the book itself a beautiful object. Every element of its appearance has been thought through. Each chapter is accompanied by a line illustration by Jessica Lynn Brown (which you can see in some of the links I’ve included), and some pages can be cut out and either folded into all sorts of shapes so as to further multiply the way the poems can be read, or, as one Goodreads reviewer suggests, “plastered over the walls of every city in America, like posters reminding us a show is coming back to town.”
So that’s it. Olio, by Tyehimba Jess. Should be relatively easy to find in the US, but perhaps harder to get outside of it—though you should be able to order it online. And it’s definitely worth ordering, and owning your own copy.