“The Gut Meaning of Grace”: Tyehimba Jess’s Olio

Jacob Sunderlin

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2016. 235 pages. $25.00.

“You know—parable old. You know how you hear something new, but after you hear it, seems like you couldn’t have done without it, like it was waitin’ there to be heard all the time and how could it have been missed before now? That was him.”
     —Carmen Ledieux, on Scott Joplin

Bethel Methodist in Natchez; Christian Union Baptist in Canton; St. Matthews in Brandon: one of the most striking sequences of Tyehimba Jess’s Olio is the litany of burned churches, lists which introduce and conclude the “Jubilee” poems in the book. In those poems, the voices of dead jubilee singers rise in sonnet form. The churches are Southern and Northern, dating from the early 1900s to the mid-2000s. The names of them pile up in tiny print that leads in and back out of the poem on the page. It’s the kind of thing the eye might slip over—a textual affect, a stylistic quirk—losing those names, places, and horrors to white space and time, just as the apathetic contemporary reader may be inclined to let the past slip into the ether. But when you read the names, the voices on the page will speak from beyond the grave, louder than flame. You should read the names.

What does it mean to record, to document a voice in the age of Snapchat? If I want to hear Charlie Burse’s Memphis Mudcats, the whole discography is available for five bucks a month on student-discounted Tidal. On my phone, a commercial plays before a free YouTube clip of Frank Ocean, telling me that I can pay to stream songs from YouTube on my phone. Who is getting paid, I say aloud to nobody. Jess is concerned with that same disconnect between singer and song and listener, and he writes across that silence: “Our home is our voice, gathered / and honed and whetted and sharpened— / cuttin’ slave days down to sermon up salvation.” I’m thinking about contemporary music because Olio places itself in a continuum that connects these unrecorded blues singers and scarred figures of history in a direct line to Beyoncé, to Frank Ocean, to Trayvon Martin, to Leadbelly, the title-subject of Jess’s first book. “Each of us got a story to yell / out in song” sings Isaac Dickerson, a jubilee singer whose voice was never recorded. Olio is that book of songs—a book of poems, an anthology of voices, the middle section of a minstrel show, and an opera of lost history. We meet dozens of characters in the poems, who come onto the stage of the page to sing individual songs that make the whole. Blind Tom, Blind Boone, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Edmonia Lewis, and a choir of Jubilee singers are the speakers of the olio the book creates.

The world of Olio may be populated by turn-of-the-century musicians who went unrecorded, by sideshow twins whose voices were lost to time, by singers and slaves and artists unheralded, but the deeper Jess digs into the past the closer he comes to the present. Those litanies of burning churches draw a line to the present day. Today, black voices are still buried under the white noise of All Lives Matter hashtags. What does it mean to speak for yourself in print? On record? In Olio, Jess acts as an anthologist and a record collector. In the anthology he creates, the song works for the purposes of mythology, but it also admits space for the voices as they are. The book is made of lyrics and prose, songs and interviews. Blind Boone never recorded, but his eyes see from the leaves of trees in “Blind Boone’s Vision”—“Bless the fever, for it gave me sight,” writes Jess. Most of his subjects are physically disabled in some way—Blind Boone’s eyes have been removed after being struck with elephantitis, the McKoy Twins are conjoined at the hip, Julius Trotter wears a mask to obscure the wounds he received fighting in the First World War—but they’re also all performers. The book creates a space where these voices are allowed to perform, to tell their insuppressibly human stories: “I wanted them to know that I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself—ain’t asking nobody to come see me ’cause I can’t see like normal folks—but to listen to me because you’ll leave a better person afterwards. Enlightened, you know? From my darkness, you shall see light,” says Blind Boone to Trotter in one of the interview sections that partitions the book.

The frame narrative of Olio is the story of Trotter, a railroad man who works the Pullman line, a wounded veteran who is collecting stories about Scott Joplin from the people who knew him. We learn in a note at the end that Trotter’s interviews were discovered in a trunk in someone’s attic, a too-good-to-be-true narrative that’s the stuff of myth. Trotter can stand in for Jess in the project, keeping one foot tethered in the contemporary—“How to know where the mask begins and you end. How to balance the world on edge just between that mask and you, until the mask melts away into mirage.” When Trotter reveals to Carmen Ledieux where he’s come from, a town where black men are being lynched, she replies: “I can’t make up my mind if you’re smart for leaving Cairo or dumb for roamin’ around looking for a dead man’s story.” The book moves through these impulses—to look backward not for some hit of nostalgia, but to reveal, to reclaim. Jess juxtaposes a newspaper criticism of the “coon song” from 1901 with the imagined/real voice of a black musician who made a living singing those same songs, respecting the confliction and conflation of the song and of the singer:

This song that I sing. Do you know how
twisting beauty into ugly burns?
Believe this: ain’t no way I’d take a
insult if I weren’t getting paid.
the coon song
it keeps a belly full.

This isn’t about identity politics—to be black in the United States is to reckon daily with the white space of historical erasure and silence. When the book deploys traditional forms—haiku, sonnet—it is an implicitly political gesture. When Jess tears down John Berryman’s Dream Songs, it’s a way of reclaiming a poetic space Berryman minstrelized. It’s possible to talk about Olio as a book of technical wizardry—Jess works in the haiku, the sonnet, and perhaps most spectacularly, the double-jointed sonnet, which can be read a total of three, or possibly infinite ways, both down and across the caesura, or diagonally. In these poems, two voices emerge from the poem, distinct, and two voices combine into a single song.

Scott Joplin cut several Pianola rolls before he died—rolls made by playing the keys of a player piano. You can hear recent recordings of these Pianola rolls being run through a machine, but you can’t actually hear Scott Joplin play—he was never recorded on phonograph. To hear this Pianola approximation is to hear the ghost of the notes in the player piano. You can hear the tempo, the rhythm, the cadence with which he played, but there’s no soul in that machine. What’s the difference between that Pianola roll and the “real” Scott Joplin? You can hear Joplin when you hear a piano player interpret Joplin—when another in the lineage picks up the notes he dropped on the page. These characters may be more than a hundred years old, some of them a hundred years dead, but they are alive in the Olio, and they call out to you. It is those same notes Joplin played that Jess plays in Olio. It is that lineage that he aligns himself with—a Black American, a contemporary poet, a voice to be reckoned with. Narrative, lyrical, technical, experimental—some of these poems you can tear out along a dotted line, make them into sculptures of sound. Olio is a twisted funhouse of history and it’s timely as hell. Like D’Angelo, I think Tyehimba Jess came back because we needed him.

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