Book Review: Olio

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On Olio

by Shani Jamila

“Jangle up its teeth until it can tell

our story the way you would tell your own”

Tyehimba Jess is known for giving flesh to stories “straight from America’s barbwired heart” that have been marginalized over the course of history.  His trademark virtuosity and genius are on full display in his recently released second collection of poetry, Olio.

On a recent train ride into Manhattan, I ran into a colleague who remarked on his well- worn book that sat dog-eared my lap. I held it up so that she could take a picture of the cover as I enthusiastically explained the mastery of form that Jess demonstrates in this latest publication.  It’s been more than ten years since his National Poetry Series winning debut collection Leadbelly was published, but as viewers of his 2011 TED talk know, Jess has been working in that interim period on further cultivating his already notable poetic aesthetic. 

His signature syncopated sonnets have numerous possibilities for interpretation—they can be read column by column, crosswise, backwards or as a whole. As he describes in the appendix, they are simultaneously “interstitial, antigravitational and diagonal.”  And that is one of the most remarkable features of this book —not only is it over 200 pages long, an exceptionally thick volume for a poet, but many pieces contain multitudes. Indeed, some pages are designed to be torn out and reshaped into rolls, banners and folds to create something newer still. The end result is a deeply layered manuscript that one can get lost in, inspired by, and stand in awe of. 

Olio, which Jess dedicates to our community’s long trajectory of musicians who’ve devoted their whole selves to their art form but never had their work recorded, takes its name from the variety of performances that comprised the second half of a minstrel show. It is a meticulously researched book that gives voice to a cast of fourteen characters, including figures such as the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, Henry “Box” Brown who made history with his daring escape from enslavement, and artists like the renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, sculptor Edmonia Lewis and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The timeline that contextualizes the stories extends from 1816-2012, beginning with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and concluding with the second election of President Obama.

A standout piece is “McKoy Twins Syncopated Star,” wherein Jess revels in his ability to deftly interweave a compelling visual narrative with lines like “—we’re fused in blood and body– from one thrummed stem/ budding twin blooms of song.” Allusions to the work of poems like Ntozake Shange’s “Sorry” come through in excerpts such as “Fear. I got no use for it. Fear never paid one bill nor put one morsel in my mouth,” in his “Lottie Joplin, Part 2.” He also incorporates illustrations by Jessica Lynne Browne that adeptly punctuate the poems and offer a powerful visual complement to the work.

As I stated to my colleague on the train, once I closed these pages I came to the conclusion that Tyehimba is our Langston— not necessarily in terms of style or lyrical sensibility, but in terms of proficiency and historical impact. It is the rigor with which this book archives history, offers new narratives and context for the “characters” it contains that leads me to the conclusion that readers a century from now will count this among the treasures that are emblematic of this era. This stunning work of reclamation is a book for the ages.

Shani Jamila is a Brooklyn based artist whose work explores identity, genealogy and the idea of home.  Her travels to nearly fifty countries throughout the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean deeply inform her painting, photography and collage practice. She has exhibited and performed at the Manifesta European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Ethelbert Cooper Gallery, Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas y Diseño, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Brooklyn Museum, New Museum, Smack Mellon, SCOPE Art Fair, Corridor Gallery and Princeton University. Shani lectures internationally, having spoken about the arts and society at institutions including Harvard, NYU, Odeon Firenze, the New York Times and the United Nations. Info:

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