I know I’m late giving accolades to this Pulitzer-prize-winning book, but I finished reading Tyehimba Jess’ Olio recently and: wow! This 2016 collection goes on my must-keep-&-read-again shelf (okay, that’s not a real shelf in my house, but it should be).
How to describe the experience of reading this book? The poems are mostly lyrical, largely persona pieces, yet the scope of the book as a whole is encompassingly narrative. It takes readers from the mid-19th century through the late 20th century through poems that imagine the voices of slaves, ex-slaves, singers, composers, musicians, performers: all of them real people. It’s part history, part fiction, interspersed with dynamic prose that suggests interviews and letters and song lyrics; furthermore, the sureness of Jess’ use of classic and experimental poetic craft astonishes.
Plus, the stories are just so compelling. Inspirational? Sometimes. Sad? Often. Entertaining? That, too. The title comes from the term that means an amalgam, a mish-mash, and which was used to describe the various acts of minstrel shows. Yet Jess’ book does not feel like that sort of random “show.” It holds together like a carefully-sawn jigsaw puzzle or a masterful collage.
In the midst of the “entertainers” who voice the poems in Olio, there is the unavoidable pain of Black lives in the United States. It’s depicted clearly in the words of the speakers of these poems, and sometimes more subtly, as in the litany of Black churches burned, bombed, or shot up that appears under the choir poems.
Most awe-inspiring for this reader is the section about the conjoined twin girls Millie and Christine McKoy. What Jess does here, besides a spectacular imagining of the characters of the twins (born into slavery and exhibited in “freak shows,” they sang duets!), is to create sonnets that are twinned, star-shaped on the page, syncopated in meter, rhymed and off-rhymed, and–here’s the kicker–that can be read across each line or on each side, (columns or linearly). How did he come up with that form? It’s so suitable to the lyrical aspect of the pieces, which are interwoven into a kind of unexpected crown of sonnets.
If this is hard to imagine, here’s a reading and article that may explain better than I can. Also, if you can locate a copy of the book, you’ll see that the publisher went out of the way to accommodate Jess’ unusual approach: there are fold-outs, illustrations, changes in typeface, and the book’s size is larger than the standard trade book or poetry collection.
Olio doesn’t fit on a shelf as easily as some poetry books; it’s going to stand out. As it should.
Reading poetry can be uncomfortable; some of Jess’ poems are deeply discomfiting and sad. Nonetheless poetry helps me put the world into perspective, perhaps especially when it forces me out of my personal point of view. So I value it immensely. Times like lately, when I am writing only a little and not submitting my work at all, reading the work of fellow writers reminds me of why we bother to create.