Originally published in 2016, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and has since been reprinted by Wave Books to recognize the award. This essay explores my reading of the book for the first time in early 2018, in the onset of the second year of the Trump Administration.
Tyehimba Jess wrote Olio. It is important that I acknowledge the brilliant artist behind a book that is about so many people that are not the artist. It is important to me to acknowledge the artist who creates a conversation that extends beyond the moment of the absolute personal, for the absolute personal is easy to forget in a book that is about community, unity, and collective memory. And music. Yes, music too.
It is also important that I publicly thank Jess in this text, right here, because what will come soon after this set of lines is another set of lines, and another, that reflects my haggard, distracted, and often chaotic sense of time, space, identity, and the thinking-feeling mind. I thank you, Jess, for creating this book—and regardless of the clutter and ideas that are soon to follow, what, at the core, I would like to impart and pass on to anyone who comes upon this text is a hope that they will find the book, and approach it, and see how it is what it is, and perhaps see how it is that they did not see previously, and maybe consider the many qualities of the book, as a book in a lineage of books, of poetry, of African American art, of abolition, and as much of the 1800s and 1900s as of the 2000s. So, thank you for your contribution and, on a selfish note, to sending out a gift that I (and so many others) received.
Part 1: Olio
At 235 pages of text, Olio is the offering that sits beyond description. It is the established collection, gathering, fulcrum of voices recovered from their state as dematerialized and depoeticized through the malfeasance of time and structure. It is a book with the title demonstrating the miscellaneous, and as by the act of beneficence it is the miscellaneous taken into center, compiled, reinvigorated. And we have a presence to this book that grows with age, continues to sit as a cornerstone of a new epic, a new shattering and reinventing of the canon of American poetry and, more generally, the avant garde. And perhaps, through roots literal and figurative, representative of the deeply, historical individualism of the poet, and also representative of actual individuals who actually provide their own poetic, beautiful, souls, souls that continue to survive, and burn brightly, singing and singeing their way through text and context into today.
Thinking: that NPR would call this poetry unconventional.
The era that I write this in is an era of quaking and screaming. It is an era of agony and an era of unending uproar. 2018 comes two calendar years after the first publishing of Olio, which to much agreement and praise became a book to win the Pulitzer Prize. When the book won the prize, there were, of course, those who knew about it and those that did not. There are still those who know about it and those who do not. The prize resulted in those who would write about the book, and those who did not. And of the many public descriptions and responses of a book winning the Pulitzer Prize, many are lackluster, vague, and objectifying.
Like this, which is nothing much greater than a summary.
Like this, which refers to the book, among other things, as embodying book arts.
Like this, which may understand the book's humanism, but doesn't highlight the demand for this book's existence.
Like this, which despite its integral descriptions of the book's functions, still manages to leave readers with the reverberating, deeply callous "twisted funhouse" imagery.
How would you want your epic to be described?
How would you want a smash of canon to be shown?
How would you want the opportunity for respect and humility to be left tasting in your mouth and sweating from your ears as you move forward into the future?
But surely, disrespect and shallow beams from writers of our country can be tossed aside. Surely, they can? We are all deposits from the bowels of a fetid and fetishized dream, a landscape of infinite surfaces. "We" are the excusable writers whose privilege coats them in protections made to look like constraints and agreeable language. "We" the writers born out of a landscape of sickness. Turning the blind eye as our sick country decays and implodes around us. "We" who can hide behind the uproar and pretend to get away with our musings.
The country’s uproar is the uproar of a sickness. And the stupefying malaise of the responses to Olio, which in no way make up all of the responses but do stand out, notably, is a malaise that is contained within this sickness of the United States. That a poet of color, writing about people of color, heroes of color, would be denied or given less grace than anyone else, is the logical continuation of both historic racism and recent crises in racial identity embedded, deeply, in our fabric, in our daily conversations, in our sense of belonging, and our sense of communal history. The continued oppression and the minimized, passive-aggressive silencing of this great American poet is an also a phenomenon forming as an extension from other phenomena in our culture, which I hope to get into below. But there is racism, and one only needs look at the flat, bland rehashing of the book solely formed as narrative text (a deeply limited and limiting view) that we get a sense of how the book was received and interpreted beyond its greatest supporters.
Olio is a word I didn’t know before reading the book, and as I read the book, with the white privilege of being able to easily transport myself into other perspectives and appropriate other identities, I take a moment to wonder about what being within the olio as a physical thing might look like, and how being part of a culture of the minstrel show might look like, and how this book could serve as a guide, could in some way iterate the trajectory of a trinity, a contemporary Divine Comedy, or perhaps some degree of cantos. For there are songs in Olio, are there not? But who is doing the singing?
When I think about myself as the reader of this book, I think about my own differences from Tyehimba Jess, and Tyehimba’s representation of the “Owners of This Olio,” which include John William “Blind” Boone, Henry “Box” Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ernest Hogan, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, Booker T. Washington, “Blind” Tom Wiggins, Bert Williams, George Walker, and Wildfire (or: Edmonia Lewis). I think about the other representations and recordings and descriptions and borrowed words of other real people in this book, including (but not exhaustive) Julius Monroe Trotter, Della Marie Jenkins, Ben Holmes, George White, Maggie Porter, Greene Evans, Carmen Ledieux, and Thomas Rutling.
I ask myself things, automatically, things that may tell me more about me than they do about American poetry, but still come to mind, like:
“A miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selections)” . . .
I consider whether the irony that the audience of Olio is in fact an olio also, a la Terrace House, contributing in their own contemporary illusions of minstrel show-esque trapping is one Tyehimba Jess wished to invoke in the creation of his book. And I wonder if the book’s readership, as extension of our country’s splinter of seekers of the poetic, will ultimately arrive to encounter this quality of this newly spot-lit epic.
Now I am thinking back to the canon, and I am thinking back to Olio as a cornerstone text in our canon—yes, “our,” as representative not just a book of the African American literary history, but of one being, celebrating, poetry created in the United States as a geometry, a territory, a country, with its own macro-culture and fucked up but describable mass-lineage. I think of those texts we identity within our cannon already. Can we all agree on specific titles? If you think of a keyword string, say, “famous American poetry,” or “best American poetry,” what have our power structures, our leadership and decision makers, our consumer markets, agreed to meet those requirements?
I very much want to dwell on the inevitable oppression that exists in the canon, but I have other things my mind considers as well. In other words: there are qualities to “American poetry” as a canon, as a thing that we may ascribe denotations to, agreeable descriptions about, that I question as intersecting qualities with consumerism, technology, simulacra, and oppression. There are prevalent qualities that require us to examine the soulless, the invisible, those who suffer, those who are forgotten. There is also what is taught, what is known, and what becomes normalized. We are all victims to these trends, these patterns, these inevitable manifestations of management of media and content and cultural miasmas that we trudge through, as though swampy and murky and nearly-drowning us.
What happens if we change the keyword phrase to: “What makes American poetry good?” “How did American poets become famous?” I am reading Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants and am also thinking about Kevin Young’s Bunk. And Olio, where I take notes like “The ritualization of the performance as one that is commodified; breaking free from that performance seems to include an acknowledgment of it and a performing to the self.”
Is it possible to feel satisfied with simply acknowledging that a powerful new book has entered our canon, and that we can all sleep easily knowing that as an epic poem and as an expertly-navigated body of voices Olio has done more for the evolution of American poetry than any other book in recent memory, arguably ever?
On page 122, we encounter the Greene Evans jubilee, which, following a section of poems on Blind Boone, states:
“My friend, / can you imagine how it must feel to / finally own your own skin? Arms? Legs? Eyes? / To bellow with your own almighty light?”
I page through my notes, and think of a certain self-awareness to the notes I wrote of this section:
“As with Blind Boone, the people that are characters in this book not only struggle from systematic oppression, but also have to deal often with disability. Such is the case with Blindness, which ends up coming off as a blessing in disguise.” (See: page 105, on “Blind Boone’s Blessings”.)
Part 2: Breathing through the Book
When thinking about the breath used in various modes of meditation, there is often the metaphor of the breath as a way to carry and release the burden that exists. The burden may be that of the self or that of the world or that of the universe. It may be specific or it may be in totality, but the breath continues, and the breath lets the burden arrive, only to dispel and dissolve the burden a moment later. I have heard of song described the same way. I have heard of song as a way to resolve moments of pain, hardship, and suffering. That there is song, that there is voice that can carry music, is proof that we, that humans, can counter that which we face and carry.
Not all works disembowel the soul of this work. Not all.
I approached Olio as I approach most poetry I encounter at this point in my life, and that is through breath and voice. As I’ve just described, both the act of breathing (whether you describe this in terms of meter and form within the text or something that happens in parallel but not bound to the text, or otherwise entirely) and the act of expelling sound is an action of relief and processing. To read through breath and voice becomes a form of momentary liberation. It is tempting to make the jump, as ridiculous as it might sound, from liberation from the moment as the general reader to, analogically, the works of the minstrel show and the African American slave performances. This is tempting, but I do not think it is fair. What I do think is fair, and hopefully not entirely disrespectful, is that encountering a poetry bound in song and performance (as qualities of freeing, for the African American cast described in the previous section, the “cast” of Olio) that feels relieving to the reader will help develop some degree of empathy and engagement with the slave experience.
I wonder if perhaps the trouble with this book, as identified by the public, is through that empathy, through that unlocking pathway toward even one or two steps toward an inkling of understanding of what these individual humans went through in order to come to grips with their selves, their souls, their identities, their personhoods. Does unlocking that pathway thus turn this book on its head? Does it make it perform to the point where we are dissuaded from reading it? How many readers project their own insecurities onto a book in order to make it perform for them? To relieve the qualities of the olio (miscellanea of struggle) to find the bearable qualities of the olio (a minstrel performance)? And, sadly, if not also ironically, would a reader through unconscious transformation like this end up causing so much dissonance that once again the characters are just characters, the minstrels are just minstrels, the blacks are just blacks, and the poetry is just poetry?
The oppression of the soul is insidious. The murk of our disconnection is vague and safe.
“How do we prove our souls to be wholly human / when the world don’t believe we have a soul? / How do we prove black souls holy and human / when the whole world swears we got no souls?” (from: “Jubilee Indigo” on page 166)
Tyehimba Jess’s choreography is incredible and incredibly poignant, and it explores far better than my own writing these ideas, these layers of who we might be before, during, and after Olio is part of our lives. He quotes from Paul Laurence Dunbar: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-- / This debt we pay to human guile; / With love and bleeding hearts we smile . . .”
And at what cost to pick up the book, in 2016, 2017, 2018, and read it? Or better yet, at what investment? Where do we pay to be liberated from a canon of the dead, blasé landscape of vague hierarchy?
I feel a sense of demurring within the implications of this book that sits open in front of me. An demurring of the self. I of course write from a seat of a history of power, of people who came before me and continue to exist around me, whose qualities are very similar to my own, who I identify with at times, and I write of this book and its reception from a perspective of a section that I ache to see transformed and, in staring at that white abyss I ritualistically ignore the world that I do not look toward—of those who are and will do more with, and benefit from, this book.
Part 3: Recognition and a Recognized Present
Well through Olio, Sissieretta Jones speaks in one of the poems: “Let the key be infinite. / Let the coon song scatter. / Let each mouth be envy. // Let bloodlines be muddied. I stand solo in this country / of concert. I am multitudes / of broken chains. I am Aida / with war on her lips.” (159)
Jones, a crooning Black Diva (to use Jess’s description), is a mesmerizing individual who, her story of survival, success, and struggle recognized, represents a truly beautiful and marvelous language. Olio is filled (in its many pages) with powerful, paralytic language. The verse is capable of throwing the reader from their seat. It is heroic and sacred, as warm as blood and as strong as steel. The imagery is hypnotic and the tone stings. There is a sense of the incredible, but a reader need not veer far from the stories of the speakers to understand why: the lives these people, these many chosen by Jess, were truly extraordinary. They were lives filled with horror, with the miraculous, with the truly unbelievable.
How often are we buried in our own perception of what is real and what we believe to be the limits of our knowing, when some new component of our collective existence comes along and shows us we were wrong, we did not actually know anything at all? What level of performance does it take to realize the drab din of our daily waking existences? What spell does it take to waken us from the perilous, endless dream?
If Olio was a single, simple parable, it would give us an answer to these questions: it takes the individual’s relationship with their expressed self, with their art, to realize how to elevate above the status quo, the chains, the indentured. Time and time again, story upon story, recollection upon recollection, confession upon confession, and celebration upon celebration, we encounter the meaning of the proposed answer, the subtext of Olio.
As I interpret it, it becomes the acknowledgment of the power within, and the ability to recognize that power for goodness.
Reading that line over, I find the crossovers with religion (which are too numerous to dive into too deeply here) significant, and that much of the community of sharing (where the transcendence of these artists took place) is one that finds solace in common ground. The ethical qualities of that ground are undeniable, and the collective suffering is undeniable as well. I will touch on this a bit in the next section, but I wish to acknowledge it here as well: Olio is strongly about itself as a world. It, as a text, operates on itself, as a concept, and the concept is one of dualism. It is miscellanea, but it is also the identified modeling of characters of significance. Jess as an artist has chosen to buffer the stars of the show, the cast as defined, with the myriad voices that also compose the greater miscellanea. Through these additional voices, through the found documents and extended contributions, there is the level of support that goes into the construction of the book.
Let me take a moment to undo the intellectualization of this text by simply commenting on the size of the book. It is a giant. Simply lifting it, feeling its weight and loftiness, indicated an item of grandiose fervor. Of an exceptional, storied essence. In its design, its approach, as a physical object of symbolic resonance, Olio’s appearance and surfaces reiterate its meanings of largeness, of collectiveness, of the voices and voices and voices.
I think for a moment about what it must be like to pick this book up. To know that there is so much within this book, and yet, could there also be an anxiety to interact with this book? Where are some readers of American poetry sick right now? Where is a book like this inaccessible? Where does its bulk, and the nature of its bulk, become a barrier or impediment?
“This is how I know love-- / so you can see my life is brimmed. It’s full-- / with every breath we’ve got. I’m filled completely, / the way any other human would love.” (53)
If anything rises through those question marks like truth to the surface of a body of unknowing, it's love.
Part 4: Speaking Toward the Future
“I conjure a claim / of birdsongs blended from each season’s sun / rooted deep in black muscle memory / that’s set slaves almost free, that carved its name / scrawling across each heart, the music's brunt, / ringing like a bell, like an open wound” (28)
There is the opening of a funnel. There is the drawing attention to an approach to craft capable of community. An embodiment of voices of those that deserve to be sung. Olio is not a reinvention of poetry, or the tradition of human storytelling, but it is a successful revitalization of how we successfully explore humans of history in the contemporary era.
It is a book that pulls forward the voices of a disembodied era into the contemporary. It is a book of evidence as much as it is a book of direct action. Olio is synchronized in its arc of the 19th and 20th Centuries with the spirit of the indie presses and indie artists of today, those spaces where the marginalized explore and receive justice, where the minoritized are capable of eroding the hegemony. Where systemic oppression is proactively countered. Where pride and worth is kindled. Where belonging and community blossom again and again.
To say that Olio as a grandiose, epic text fits into the current mode of the young and progressive poets operating within the world today, at large, is only one end of the book’s full scope. It also integrates uncomfortably but excitingly, into the ongoing, enduring story of the canon, which is published, which is nationally and internationally recognized. That discomfort, explored here a bit, will only be explored with Jess’s next projects, as well as those of his peers, of “American poetry.” That we may consider the past, the present, and the future as the culminating resonance of this book—a book that speaks with a peripheral in multiple temporal directions, is of note. But also of note is the splicing into, the fragmenting off of, our ever-emerging context, the context of the “on the verge of” and “eminently.”
In many ways, the book’s poems and the stories within those poems, about the life praised within those stories, all deals with the moments upon moments we carry around with us, symbolically attached to our lives. These moments define who a person is, what they have gone through, and what they have become as a result of those trials. The performance, as corrupted and bastardized and commodified as it was in the case of the heroes of color within Olio, was also the performance that fulfilled the dualism of freedom and autonomy within these individuals.
The performance in some cases was an identified pathway towards a vision of liberation from the beginning; in other, more epiphanic moments, performance became the hinge of transformation towards liberation and self-empowerment. And of course, there were those whose performance began, endured, and ended through its abuse, as in the case of Wildfire/Edmonia Lewis. Though it exists within its own timeline and I think it should be respected as such, the full spectrum of this relationship with this active, living expression of one’s thinking and feeling life (the performance), is also worth looking at as we, individuals living freely (in some ways) and enslaved (in some ways) go through with our own lives, our own potential transformations.
How might the literary artists of the world learn from Olio where Olio, a year after its award, remains more underappreciated than not? How might its size and its miscellaneous containment, threaded exquisitely together through Jess’s visionary mind, be accessibly and relevantly applied to the niches and moments that surround us? How might is battle institutional racism, individual racism, and the discomfort of knowing the corrosion and disgust that exists within the reality of the brutally pale Western canon? At what point might it, as a model, demonstrate the capacity for compassion, selflessness, and love that we have within ourselves? I ask these questions not in thinking they haven’t been asked before or answered before, but because the book, as I read it, continues to respond to these questions by default. The themes that emerge for a universal readership draw us, the readership, closer, educate us, inform us in ways that may not have done so in quite the same way.
And while the world has known fantastic writers of color finding well-deserved spotlights and recognition and elevation for influence (including poet laureate Tracy K. Smith receiving the Pulitzer in 2012, which was also trounced, also the end point of the racist confusion, and meanwhile her words speak for themselves and above the others), the world, and the United States, hasn’t quite been a moment like the moments it sees now, and hasn’t seen such a book as Olio. It joins links with other unforgettable works, works which defy and diffuse the spotlight toward a new centrum. And true, selfishly, I write this coming out of my own appreciation and acknowledgment of the overlapping moments of discovery and awareness that explores this book’s existence at this time, this place, this cornerstone of cornerstones for my own journey.
There is no easy way to close this piece of writing, and so I turn back to the text, look at one of its many fantastic moments of arising, where the voice of Edmonia Lewis bears witness to the undeniable power of self and transformation, on page 195 in “Minnehaha”:
I was born when I was written,
then hammered out of a mountain.
I was shattered and then broken,
then sharpened to the human.
Part *: Becoming and Unbecoming
It costs the journey
of the burn-out rockets
to learn how
to light up space
with the quick fire of refusal
then drift gently down
to the dead surface
of the moon.
As I move forward, as I have taken moments of my life to look and to look further, I move backward and follow, as the light of an illuminated reflection, what has been created. There was creation and there was response, which was additional creation.
This piece, which I've written out of respect for but also with admitted haste, this piece on Olio, on the olio, is far from perfect. I think about what I was hoping for when I picked up Olio for the first time and, with an intentionally open mind, said "Okay, I embrace this," and pulled the book close. The act of embracing one book and keeping others from being embraced. The act of intentionally choosing which book instead of a mindless flow of literature, the endless tides of words, the soulless sprawling of an abundant mass based upon previous conjectures of whiteness and power.
As I move forward, I imagine each book I stumble upon, encounter, am greeted by to be a masterpiece. I imagine the oppression of the academy and the institution of the published poem and the published poet as holding potential inequity. I imagine those works that gather dust in the corners, gather corrupted data in the corners of their owners' thumb drives, to be the next contribution to the canon.
I think about the generalizations I've made in these statements, and what kind of wrong they might bring. Have I oversimplified? Have I objectified? Have I appropriated? Have I misappropriated? Have I seized as an element of my entitlement, or am I honest and loving in my explorations? Where have I stumbled? Where have I lost foresight? Where has my blindness held me back? Where are lessons I should have learned previously? Where is there no conversation and only ego? Where is there only ego and no conversation?
The considerations of the spaces that have become uplifted and have the power of affecting so many people. These spaces have a certain spiritual quality. They have a certain quality that can transform the lives of those who believe in it. But first they must see it. Know it. Be aware of it. Conscious. Directly entwined. Intentional. The process of the presence of works like Olio have so much potential. There is a light. And there is more light after that.
When someone asked me, recently, what I was writing thousands of words about, it was hard to respond. I believe that sometimes the most vigorous words I encounter are some of the most chilling. And we often don't know why they chill. They just do. For me: Rene Char. Audre Lorde. Georg Trakl. Adrienne Rich. Claudia Rankine. Some and yet many. Many voices. Voices that erupt the notions of what "notion" even is.
These are seen. These people are seen. But olio. But jubilee. But the collective. The people who are not. The people who are not seen. The people who emerge. Who are discovered. Uncovered. Remembered. Brought to life. The people who have the potential, all the people, who all have the potential, to exist.
I think of the endless sequence of faces. The endless smiles. The endless struggles. The endless recoveries. The endless steps forward. And with each step, the procession of what is brought, like rhythm, into being and acknowledgment. Acceptance.
The truest canon that we can see: directly in front of us, as individuals and as collective, what we draw. But it takes the presence of these magical, powerful, and mesmerizing individuals in order to watch their works fill in the gaps of experience. I am grateful that Wave Books allowed for this to happen with Tyehimba Jess's Olio. I think of it as risk. I think of it as testimony. I think of it as dynamite on the floodgate. And it excites me. As it certainly does and will continue to excite the world. For poetry. For beyond. For truth. And for a persistence of an appreciation for the equitable human experience. Of the past, of the present, and the future.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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