Olio—defined as a mixture of elements, as well as the second part of a minstrel show—is an apt title for Tyehimba Jess’s second book of poetry. A seven-by-ten-inch miscellany, the collection is a self-referential, prosimetric, fictionalized archive of late 19th and early 20th century black musicians who, as the dedication states, “never had their sounds recorded for posterity.”
The book is a formal tour de force. Among its woven forms are a chronological catalogue of “burned and bombed black churches,” a hymnal sonnet crown, poems in the voices of marble statues, detachable fold-out pages, concrete poems, and a sequence of “Freedsongs” that “blue the blackface” of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” The final pages acknowledge the collection’s memorializing impersonations. In the voice of Jess’s principle persona, Julius Trotter: “I’ve struggled through most of the acts – but I’ve learned more and more from show to show. I’m the masked man of the caravan. The phantom of the minstrel show.”
Musical prose pieces stitch the olio together with a kind of ventriloquized meta-commentary on the snags and joys and motivations of Jess’s own masked archival revival. In one masterful sequence, Trotter interviews various acquaintances of pianist Scott Joplin, transcribing accounts that by turns excavate forgotten facets of Joplin’s mythic genius (“He was swinging somewhere between Liszt and spirituals, then lurching back into something gutbucket and backroom”) and recount how his music was stolen (he said Treemonisha had “been kidnapped.”)
Olio’s most impressive formal experiments are its contrapuntal, “syncopated” sonnets. In these duets, two speakers share lines, which Jess instructs us in the appendix to read “interstitial[ly], antigravitational[ly], and diagonal[ly].” In “General Bethune v. W.C. Handy,” the exploitative master and manager of a blind, autistic pianist and the great blues composer sing together. The form is uniquely capable of scoring the broken music of a divided nation:
Blind, half-crazy, or illiterate: this Ol’ Blind Tom must be some great Hoodoo
mastermind of piano–he’s a goldmine. of sound workin’ them keys. He’s got that
But lord, he’s a demon when he gets his magic hard. Gets some whites steamed, boils their blued
blood all hot . . . .
The two speakers are made to finish each other’s sentences, eerily composing the same thought, but speaking from vastly different positions. The haunting result is a rag only a racist United States could produce.