Olio - Tyehimba Jess
History’s lasting voices tend to be first-person, taken from primary documents that bring back to life a perspective otherwise lost to time. With Olio, Tyehimba Jess attempts to provide lasting voices for slave performers that didn’t have any, as he employs every reasonable form possible in this exploration of slaves’ contributions to popular culture and the humiliations suffered by even the most prodigous talents. Consisting of fact amid historical fiction, Jess’ narrator is on a quest for information about Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, a man whose contributions to music are as likely to be argued over as they are to be revered. Conversations between some of Joplin’s closest acquaintances and the narrator are interspersed with glimpses of several other historically overlooked, enslaved performers. These performers include Blind Tom Wiggins (a fellow piano prodigy), a performer of “Coon songs,” a set of traveling siamese twins, and so on. Readers witness each of these performers’ struggle over the inherent self-effacement of their acts, as their talent and pride clash with an ingrained lack of self-respect, a lacking reinforced by every night’s audiences. As impressive as Jess’ work is in relating and empathizing with these talented performers, the most ingenious aspect of the work is indeed his expert command of the many forms he inhabits with his first-person perspectives. Specifically, contrapuntal poems that create dueling narratives within the same piece – poems that can be read two or three ways, brilliantly breaking down the central disconnect between imprisoned prodigy and oblivious audience. The result at times is satirical commentary as heartbreaking as it is historically apt. It’s just one stunning form among many that deliver hate and despair in concert with beauty and talent throughout.