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REVIEW: Tyehimba Jess’ “Olio” Puts Him In A Genre Of His Own

by Charles Ellenbogen

Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess.

Jess, who this spring won both an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters, interviews, music (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and history. This book is so full of life that at more than 200 pages, I still never wanted it to end. Even Jess’ author notes are marvelous.

We meet Scott Joplin, Henry “Box” Brown and Booker T. Washington, among others. But I think the most memorable character is Wildfire and the account of her introduction to academic and community life in Oberlin, Ohio, and her brave and bold exit. In this untitled poem, Jess brings us gently, even optimistically, into Wildfire’s new surroundings: 

 “1862. Wildfire lay not far from the campus of Oberlin, where her older brother had sent her to learn how to mold herself into a brown survival of whiteness.”

In addition to the searing phrase “a brown survival of whiteness,” the use of the word “mold” here seems deliberate, to connect to the previous poem, “Forever Free,” which is about the work of the sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. 

“Forever Free”

What a thing it is
to be delivered
from beneath
the dirt, 
from hardship’s rubble,
from underneath
the feet
of the world.
To raise up
on one’s own pedestal
and become
bondage’s living
tombstone.

Like most great literature, Olio makes me want to read more (a biography of Scott Joplin that Jess includes in his bibliography), see more (the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis) and listen more (I’ve been playing ragtime in my car since I started this book).

I can’t wait to hear him present his work in September, as a part of Cleveland Book Week.

Friday, September 8
Tyehimba Jess, 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Award Winner, poetry, Olio

5:30 p.m.
Karamu House

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

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