Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant, this outsized second volume from Jess celebrates the works and lives of African-American musicians, artists, and orators who predated the Harlem Renaissance.
, Starred Review
It's been a decade since Tyehimba Jess's debut, and this sprawling, extraordinary book shows he's used his time well.
–Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR
This daring collection, which blends forthright, musically acute language with portraiture (e.g., poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Scott Joplin, and Booker T. Washington) to capture the African American experience from the Civil War to World War I. An impressive follow-up to leadbelly
–Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
, Starred Review Olio
is one of the most inventive, intensive poetic undertakings of the past decade...Through photos, drawings, interviews, foldouts, tables, facts, fictions, and yes, so many strong poems ... Olio
assembles and raises the voices of an essential chorus: "Listen to how we sing while we/ promises unto ourselves not to die."
The content of this book really is a remarkable one...Tyehimba Jess gathers the histories of the lives–untold lives of many of the African-American artists who sort of built the blues and jazz and the sound that...we consider quintessentially American. And he's written these poems as history in a variety of voices, in a chorus.
–All Things Considered
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.
If you've been wanting to get into poetry but haven't been willing to give up the power, characters, and length of a novel, Olio
is the book for you.
A tremendous, and tremendously accessible, book of poetry.
I don't want to overstate the case, but there is no way around it: Tyehimba Jess's Olio
is a tour de force.
–On the Seawall
Tyehimba Jess's second book, Olio
, is a book without rules, blues on the page. It weaves new and reimagined facts with poetry, prose, and biographies of first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows. A spellbinding and lyrical melange of verse, Olio resembles its namesake–a minstrel show's hodgepodge variety act that later evolved into Vaudeville, "the heart of American show business."
Historical personae has long proven to be a useful protest tool against oppression, and is, for this reason, not new to African-American poetry. Olio
, though, is so ambitious, so relentless in its pursuit of the antebellum realities that remade our country, with its entrance into the canon we are jolted awake by a hundred alarms, a century's racket.
[T]he variety that Tyehimba Jess packs into Olio
amply supports his goals of celebrating African-American musicial genius and bearing wit-ness (in the dual sense of affirming truth and acknowledging intelligence and agency) to first generation freed voices, especially those of never recorded nineteenth-century artists. At 235 pages, Olio is so plentiful it is impossible to read in one sitting. Not only does its format invite browsing, but Jess encourages readers to weave your own chosen way between the voices.
This 21st century hymnal of black evolutionary poetry, this almanac, this theatrical melange of miraculous meta-memory. Tyehimba Jess is inventive, prophetic, wondrous. He writes unflinchingly into the historical clefs of blackface, black sound, human sensibility. After the last poem is read we have no idea how long we've been on our knees.