Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues19-2Rebellious Enthusiasm, Ambivalent...

Rebellious Enthusiasm, Ambivalent Forms: On Freedom and Bondage in Tyehimba Jess’s Olio

Molly McCracken

Abstract

This article considers Tyehimba Jess’s representation of the lives of several historical African American musicians from the post-emancipation period in his 2016 collection Olio. Reading Olio in the context of African American musical traditions, it considers how Jess’s syncopated sonnet forms appropriate and contest historical instances of white supremacy to undermine the dehumanizing logics of plantocracy. At the same time, it explores how the collection’s three-dimensional forms materialize feelings of constraint to reveal the embeddedness of antiblackness in American popular culture, and the fragility of liberty into the twentieth century and beyond. While Olio reifies the tension between freedom and bondage in the post-bellum nation, this paper argues that Jess’s archival recuperation of elided historical figures and innovative configuration of sonnet form demonstrate an ethos of creativity, as it envisions alternative forms of community and autonomy through poetry and music.

Top of page

Full text

1“To able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival”: so suggests Tyehimba Jess on the motivations of the “cast” of characters that fill his Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection Olio, a text that adopts the personae of numerous African American musicians from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries (“Excavating Popular Music”; Olio 3). For Jess, then, the aesthetic pleasure of song is no mere frivolity; the drive to “make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness,” as he describes it, is a politic, an ethos directed towards the very durability and meaning of life itself (“Excavating Popular Music”). Composed in a range of formal registers, most notably sonnets, Olio is a text informed by detailed archival research into the lives and legacies of a diverse range of Black performers active in the United States between the Civil War and First World War. Described by Emily Rutter as an example of the “archival turn” in twenty-first century African American poetics, one that seeks to use the “imaginative landscape to revivify” these figures and draw attention to their “absence” (175), Olio contemplates the complex affective experiences of Black musicians in the post-emancipation US. Drawing on the stylings of the ragtime and blues genres in which these musicians excelled, Jess constructs innovative syncopated forms that demonstrate the liberatory potential of artistic production for escaping the dominating logics of plantocracy, while at the same time testifying to the limitations of freedom post-bellum. Music thus becomes the fulcrum at which the possibility of radical self-expression rubs against the commercial pressures of the music industry and the continuing exploitation of Black labor in a nation still entrenched in the racialized logics and economies of slavery. Olio’s musical forms in turn become a means of embodying the dissonances, the double-consciousness, felt by a population who, despite their legal emancipation, were denied the financial autonomy and political inclusion that equal citizenship entails.

2Attending to a number of the collection’s syncopated sonnets, this paper considers how the form creates opportunities for dialogues between Jess’s poetic personae, their oppressors, and the broader structures of racism that surround them. It opens by contextualizing the history of music as a site of resistance and community in African American culture, before building on this genealogy to conceptualize syncopation as a textual structure for crafting the shared, defiant voice of the formerly enslaved McKoy sisters. Thereafter, it considers how this syncopated form enables dialogic exchanges in other poems, allowing speakers such as Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins and Henry “Box” Brown to converse with historical agents of antiblackness and the exclusionary cultural canon they represent. Following with close readings of Jess’s three-dimensional poetic structures—poems that can be recomposed into various sculptural forms—and their juxtaposition with archival documents of white supremacy, this paper explores how Olio’s form materializes the continuities between freedom and bondage in the post-bellum nation. In so doing, it concludes, the collection demonstrates the embeddedness of racism in American popular culture and the fragility of liberty at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond.

1. ‘Black waveforms’: Community and Resistance in African American Musical Traditions

3As Howard Ramsby argues, the very form of the persona poem, which adopts the voice of a specific individual, is a means of invoking and “catching [the] ghosts” of African American history precisely because it allows a creative engagement with the past (550). That Jess is concerned with ‘catching’ these lingering histories is evident in his use of real African American musicians as the numerous personae in his collection; yet while this creative practice allows the text to navigate the lives of specific figures excluded from cultural memory, in their accumulation these individuals in turn symbolize the wider historical effacement of Black American artistry. Certainly, in its resurrection of the legacies of post-bellum musical performers, the collection follows a long genealogy of scholarly interest in how African American music has incorporated, and been incorporated into, forms of resistance against the cultural machinations of white supremacy. Numerous such thinkers argue this interplay of music and protest can indeed be traced back to the period of plantation slavery, during which song offered a means of escaping the processes of social isolation and intellectual and emotional negation—what Orlando Patterson terms “social death” (50-51)—through which enslaved individuals were disempowered and objectified, constructed as less than human. As Eileen Southern notes (perhaps drawing on Du Bois’s own descriptions of the “Sorrow Songs,” through which the “soul of the black slave spoke to men”) the “mournful songs” and “field hollers of the slaves” serve as potent antecedents in later genres such as the blues, which, in its loose structuring, offers a “kind of catharsis” through performance (Southern 331; Du Bois 168). Likewise, per Édouard Glissant, music was a means for enslaved peoples to produce a “language from one end of this world to the other,” that, “born of silence,” might vocalize the “cry of the Plantation” outside the relations of domination that isolated them (73). Thus as Katherine McKittrick argues, music was a key means for the subversion of “plantocratic values that negated and objectified blackness,” as the shared acts of music making and listening enabled “collaborative possibilities” capable of “undermin[ing] the existing system by exposing its inequities and limits” (87-88). Those inequities, as Angela Davis suggests, have survived beyond the abolition of slavery, and subsequent generations of Black musicians have used their craft both to “[contest] oppressive conditions” against the prohibition of “organized political protest,” and to establish cultural customs that recuperate the diasporic histories plantocracy erased (121). As she describes, blues artists in the twentieth century adopted “folk” practices to “affirm” an “[African] heritage that might otherwise have receded into the collective unconscious” (183); it is this union of creativity and dissent that Jess draws upon in Olio, as he too mobilizes historical musical forms to memorialize both the work of individual, erased musicians, and the revolutionary force their artistry signified.

4In turning briefly to these scholarly accounts of the origins of Black popular music in the US, two distinct traits emerge within their historiography. Firstly, as Southern describes, African American genres can be categorized by a certain “propensity for improvisation”; in part necessitated by the enforced illiteracy of enslaved persons, early African American musicians, she suggests, were nonetheless liberated from the dominant trends of white and European musical forms, allowing the experimental development of genres such as ragtime and blues (356; 308). Secondly, the political and affective forces of these musical forms are deeply intertwined, as musicality reclaimed the modes of communication and self-expression denied under slavery, and allowed Black communities to endure against the isolating structures of the plantation. Indeed, by naming “‘black waveforms as rebellious enthusiasm,’” Sylvia Wynter articulates a “claim that making black culture reinvents black humanity and life” (qtd. in McKittrick 81; 85). Artistic production in this view “rebels” against the dehumanizing epistemologies of antiblackness—what Saidiya Hartman names the positioning of Blackness as “fungib[le]” and “dispossessed” of subjectivity (21)—by affording a capacity to affect, and not simply be affected, both as individuals and as communities. It is under this rubric that we can understand how musical creation can “[engender] black joy” as a counteracting force to the oppressive structures of white supremacy (McKittrick 88). For Jess, creativity is an ethos through which freedom is enacted: he argues that “self-expression is, for his characters, a “means towards self-preservation,” precisely because it reinforces the humanity of the enslaved individual (“Excavating Popular Music”). The musical labor of Olio’s personae, both in the collection and in history, thus demands critical attention not only for the aesthetic ingenuity they demonstrate, but likewise the radical political significance their songs had in challenging America’s racial hierarchy.

5Of particular interest to Jess is ragtime, a musical genre that was popularized during the 1890s to 1910s, and through a mastery of which many the personae featured in Olio achieved fame and artistic success—and yet, at the same time, was appropriated into the racist parodies of minstrel performances. Jess’s experimental poetic forms are significantly invested in the aesthetics and rhythms of ragtime, drawing renewed attention to a genre that, despite being contemporaneous with the blues, and significant in the development of African American music, has been critically undervalued. Indeed, like its related genre of blues music, ragtime is noteworthy for its complexity and innovation: they are typified by modes of hybridization, improvisation, and synthesis, and, taking “shape and style during the performance” are liberated by their spontaneous forms (Southern 331). Nonetheless, such styles were decried by early white audiences as the “sensual depravity of African savagery” (Berlin 32), an interpretation that was exploited and emphasized by white musicians through minstrel performances plotted around the racist portrayal of infantilized and animalistic Black characters (Southern 311). It is perhaps this distorted legacy of the genre, the bifurcation that Edward Berlin locates between its optimistic origins in “plantation spirituals, and work songs” and its manipulation into the “caricature” of “minstrelsy” (21) that makes it so potent for Jess; in adopting the ragtime register throughout Olio, the poet locates the nexus between the artistic freedom of post-bellum African Americans and the racial fantasies of white supremacy. Further, in his revival of ragtime through syncopated verse, Jess revitalizes a key moment in African American cultural history whose legacy has been tainted, and, due to the lack of surviving transcriptions and models of white patronage during the period, has largely been erased. I am thus interested here in how Jess’s ragged, syncopated poetics bridge the gap between historical fact and his own speculative, improvisational archive to revivify his cast of characters, and in turn how they materialize the tensions between freedom and subjugation that the genre brings together.

6How then might we quantify the ragtime stylings within Jess’s poetry? His own “appendix” of “audience instructions,” his role as the “interlocutor interpreting during intermission,” qualifies the unconventional forms at play in the collection, suggesting a number of performative reading practices necessitated by what he terms his “syncopated sonnets” (Olio 211; 221). While syncopation, the “dominating and distinctive element in the evolution of ragtime” (Berlin 32), invokes a sense of improvisation at odds with the printed form of the book object, Fred Moten argues that improvisation is the underlying force of “black performance,” and the site at which we find a “revaluation or reconstruction of value, one disruptive of the oppositions of speech and writing” altogether (14). Indeed, per Jess these “syncopated sonnets sometimes sing in circles to allow recitation that’ll roll interstitial, antigravitational, and diagonal,” offering what Anthony Reed terms “interpretive possibilities [to] expand in the poems” (Olio 221; Reed). The poet’s sibilant description of syncopation affirms the cyclical, recursive nature of these contrapuntal sonnets, which, composed of two voices in dialogue, can be read in any direction to create subtle variations of tone and feeling. Invoking the reader to “strike [their] own path through their lines,” Jess offers an improvisational reading methodology that reclaims the agency and animation of his speakers, as we “circle round their stories to burrow through time,” materializing what Moten names the “freedom drive” wherein Blackness is remade and given autonomy outside the plantocratic model of commodity (Olio 222; Moten 26). Indeed, music theorist David Temperley notes that while there is little consensus about where syncopation originates, it can be defined as a “deviation” or “displacement” of the prevailing rhythm, in which the hierarchy between weak and strong musical beats and accents is subverted by displaced notes (20). It is this ‘contradiction’ in rhythm that most aligns Jess’s exploitation of ragtime form with the subversive and experimental patterns of African American music. Certainly, for Joshua M. Hall, the disjunctive sounds of syncopation correlate with the phenomenology of racism—invoking Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, for example, he argues that syncopation represents the feeling of “‘a slightly different sense of time… never quite on the beat’” (Ellison qtd. in Hall 69). In this way syncopation evokes the affective state of displacement within a white supremacist culture—the sense of having to “go slow toward justice” while also to “prematurely get over existential hurt” (Bruce 6; 11)—but at the same time, that displacement powerfully opens opportunities for thinking beyond the dominant racialized episteme.

7Perhaps the most potent example of how syncopation counterpoints the feelings of ecstatic liberation and metaphysical bondage for these post-bellum musicians is seen in the sequence of poems inspired by Millie and Christine McKoy. The McKoy sisters were conjoined twins who were “born into slavery,” “leased to travelling freak tours” and “kidnapped” as children, and who “upon emancipation,... famously travelled the world until they bought their old plantation” (Olio 2). The McKoy sonnets are structured with the use of two separate columns—a feature Jess employs in multiple poems to portray dialogic exchanges between two speakers—to represent the individual voices of Millie and Christine. Where the McKoy sonnets are distinct, however, is their inclusion of an additional interstitial column, a poetic arrangement that interlinks the twins’ voices into a third, hybrid voice; offering a textual depiction of their shared body, Jess pays homage to two “distinct” individuals who simultaneously cultivated “one” shared voice by syncopating their speech into multiple, layered compositions (Jess, “Music”). The McKoy sonnets in this way materialize instances of polyvocality: as the sisters’ voices variously diverge and re-join, they bring into being a collective lyric “we” that affirms their own belief that, “although we speak of ourselves in the plural we feel as but one person” (McKoy qtd. in Frost 48). As the McKoys’ biographer Linda Frost argues, the twins’ identification as a single being was a “powerful statement of solidarity” when considered in the context of the slave state, the functioning of which entailed the forced separation of Black families and communities as a measure of domination (17). In the act of memorializing their notable achievements, their syncopated voice(s) in the poems thus create an indivisible persona that subverts the logics of plantocracy—thus, the concept of repair is emphasized in their poems as a means of forming solidarity in the face of antiblackness. They declare in their first poem, “Millie and Christine McKoy,” for example, “we’ve mended two songs into one dark skin,” while in “Millie-Christine: On Display,” Jess revises, “God mended two souls into one dark skin” (41, 45). The echoes between the lines gesture towards the sisters’ conflation of their “souls” and their “songs” as their syncopated harmonies become a route towards their spiritual union. Significantly, the site of their “mend[ing]” is through their explicitly “dark skin”: the twins undermine the racializing and imperial logics that construct Blackness as inhuman by demonstrating the metaphysical power that their racialized body gives them.

  • 1 1 Jess demonstrates the multidirectional readings of his syncopated McKoy poems at a TEDx conferenc (...)

8Indeed, in their uniquely plural identity, the McKoys offer a mode of what Xine Yao terms “counterintimacies,” an “alternative community” that rejects the epistemology of the individual liberal subject and subverts the “exclusionary conditions of belonging that constitute modern citizenship” (84). To this effect, the McKoy sequence draws heavily on the affects of sympathy, a feeling that, Yao reminds us, was embedded in hierarchical colonial structures as a tool through which colonized subjects could be assigned value (12-13). In “Millie-Christine’s Love Story,” the McKoys declare, “By God, we’re/like sympathetic strings,” framing their syncopated harmony as a means of expanding the very notion of the self (Olio 53). The combined movement of a musical instrument’s “strings” becomes a metaphor for the ways in which collaboration and plurality empower them—thus, considering the poem’s lines as individual “strings,” their shared movement combines into a melody that unifies their experiences. Their polyvocality is demonstrated by the multiple orders in which the poem can be read, further evoking the image of “one body crooning two notes” (Olio 53). Through a poetic structure that can be read in any direction (“up/down, back/forth, and diagonal”)1 the sequence exemplifies the “multidirectional and polymorphous” patterns of what La Marr Jurelle Bruce names “rhythms of madness,” precisely because they deviate from the “teleological” and linear logics of Western time (Olio 221; Bruce 4). Thus in “Millie-Christine’s Love Story” we can read, for example, horizontally (“we’re/like sympathetic strings. Each sung sound ringing within me and my other half”) or diagonally (“we’re/like sympathetic strings. Each sung sound/airborne, shook and shimmering through my head”), in each instance shifting the meaning of the lines (53). While the horizontal reading reinforces a sense of bodily and familial union between the sisters, as their two “hal[ves]” sing together, the diagonal reading invites a more abstract interpretation, using the metaphor of “shimmering” sound to indicate the affective force of their music as that which liberates their imagination. The use of syncopation as a mode of sympathy and plurality is even more potently materialized in the “McKoy Twins Syncopated Star,” a double page that reprints the McKoy sequence in the shape of a star; in this arrangement, each individual sonnet acts like a column, enabling the reader to join lines between the poems in multiple directions to create new, intertextual sonnets (59). For example, reading across poems “Millie-Christine’s Love Story” and “Millie and Christine McKoy” creates an enjambed line,

I love this burden that we’ve been given-
to ride the shared wake of one blood’s rhythm…
We ride the wake of each other’s rhythm
beating our heart’s syncopated tempo

  • 2 2 Certainly, this cohesion is further exemplified in Jess’s inclusion of Jessica Lynne Brown’s illu (...)

9that unifies the metaphors between the sonnets (59). This experimental composition amplifies the syncopation seen thus far into a larger harmonic arrangement that, in Jess’s words, allows the reader to “become part of the performance” and enter “a real conversation with the nineteenth and twenty-first century” (“Excavating Popular Music”). The broader narrative of their lives—their experiences of individual traumas such as kidnapping, and their fight for freedom—is rendered cohesive and indivisible, unifying their voices into a cosmic symbol of their legacy.2 Olio’s experimental syncopations are no mere aesthetic gimmick in this reading, but rather a revival of what Lorrie Smith describes in the sorrow songs as a “gift of recovery from a history that haunts us all” (434), a manifestation of the communal bonds that the slave system sought to destroy.

10While the textual arrangements of the McKoy sonnets animate and elegize the lives of two African American musicians who achieved unprecedented success, Jess’s composition keenly reminds the reader that the twins have been largely elided by historical record, and indeed continued to experience racial oppression throughout their lives despite their eventual legal freedom. We see this in the textures of polysemy that permeate the poems, as individual textual moments accumulate multiple inferences that undermine the sequence’s utopic scope. For example, in their first sonnet, the McKoys state, “We sing past rage,” a line that suggests in one reading how music gives the sisters a means of feeling beyond (or ‘past’) the confines of their anger towards the structures that victimized them—music in this sense mobilizes the McKoys towards experiences outside the destructive affective force of racism. At the same time, as they “sing past rage,” it is also possible to read rage as the very structure and content of their song; the affects of plantocracy in this reading become inescapable as the twins sing them into being, suggesting the traumatic legacy of their bondage emerges even in their performance. Similar moments of contradiction occur in the twins’ relationship to their shared body: in a single poem in which the McKoys “count the blessings of [their] doubled shell,” they recount the ways in which they have been transformed into a public medical spectacle—how they have been “photographed half-nude, verified/like prize bovine,” “been pawed up and down,” “probed, prodded, and roughly exammed” (Olio 45). Though they find liberation in their unique physical form, the “miracle” of their freedom takes shape against the ways in which they have been exploited, and the poem thus oscillates between differing interpretations of their figure to emphasize the fragility of their freedom under the white gaze. Certainly, we can see in these moments of semantic opposition what Ramsby describes, in response to Jess’s earlier collection leadbelly, as the textual echoes of Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness in a visual manner” (562). It is noteworthy that Jess adopts the sonnet form for this sequence, as one of the notable conventions of the sonnet, the key to what Stephen Regan names its “brevity and dialectical structure,” is the volta: a twist that redirects the poem’s significance and/or affective force (13). It is through these moments of subversion that the sonnet is able to “state more than one point of view, change its mind, or adapt an interlocutor’s perspective” (Cousins and Howarth 1), thus allowing the poems to portray moments of liberated ecstasy beside moments of profound anger and mourning. Jess further demonstrates the inescapability of trauma in the material arrangement of the McKoy poems. Published overleaf of the “Syncopated Star” arrangement is a prose excerpt that replicates an introduction to their performance in an olio show—one that advertises them as participants in a “freak show,” and names their unique physical form as a “white man’s burden” (Olio 60). The scene draws heavily on the rhetoric of minstrelsy, which, as Hartman argues, “(re)produced blackness as an essentially pained expression of the body’s possibilities” that “cannot be disentangled from the bodily politics of chattel slavery” and through which “suffering was transformed into wholesome pleasures” for white audiences (32). As the introductory passage begins and ends with ellipsis, it is suspended in a continual loop in medias res; falling outside of linear time, it holds the McKoys in a perpetual performance that undermines the project of radical self-expression that defines their sonnets. The twins’ poems are thus literally enveloped in the language of their racialization, materializing the ways in which minstrelsy erases their artistry, providing a stark reminder of the continuing logics of antiblackness that shape their participation in civic life, even post-emancipation.

2. “[C]an’t tell my tale at all”: Olio’s Syncopated Dialogues

11Another musician whose narrative in Olio demonstrates both the rapturous freedom, the “rebellious enthusiasm” of musical performance, and its conflict against the material structures of white supremacy in the post-bellum period is “Blind Tom,” a figure inspired by the musician Thomas Wiggins, who, across a series of poems, brings to the fore the tensions between the ontological and corporeal, the legal and spiritual, conceptualizations of freedom that the collection contends with. As Rutter reminds us, Wiggins was at the height of his fame in the “pre-recording age,” meaning that there are no surviving performances of his music, and that any records we do have, “if heard at all, [are] always already a trace of the original” (177). Wiggins’s own personal history powerfully alludes to the contradictions of emancipation: even after being conferred freedom from slavery, his widely remarked upon physical and intellectual disabilities were exploited by his white “guardians,” who managed his musical career and “guarded [him] closely, obsessively, and litigiously for nearly 35 years” while profiting from his work (Brooks 395). Despite his widely acknowledged musical prowess (Wiggins was able to mimic challenging music by ear alone and play multiple instruments at once) his white audiences often spectated his performances precisely because of the ostensible “incongruity” between his embodied status as Black and disabled, and his complex compositions, thereby cementing a “‘freakish’ capital” as the underside to his “musical genius” (Brooks 395). With this legacy in mind, Jess’s “Blind Tom” persona poems regularly suggest the looming context of bondage as the force behind his emotionally potent and liberatory performances. One poem, titled “Blind Tom Plays for Confederate Troops, 1863,” perhaps best demonstrates the indivisibility between freedom and oppression that shaped Wiggins’s life. In it, Jess describes how “The slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying/across ivory,” evoking a sense of freedom through the progressive flow of fricative sounds that urge the reader onwards, mimicking the loose, rapid rhythms of Wiggins’s music, even as his identity is collapsed into that of an anonymous “slave” (15). This dynamic force within the lines, or as the poem describes it, a “stomping toward/a crescendo,” ultimately leads us to the motivation behind both Wiggins’s music, and its central paradox: it “remind[s] the Rebs what they’re fighting for - /black, captive labor” (15). Taking the fourteen-line form of a sonnet, this poem falls into a genealogy of African American poets who, as Timo Müller argues, have long used the form to contest the very “boundaries erected by the conventions, traditions, and histories [it] evokes” (5). Indeed, the sonnet’s distinct capacity to show “discipline and constraint while simultaneously inviting endless permutation and innovation” (Regan 11) offers a literary analogy for the tightrope Wiggins treads in enacting his own freedom in his experimental musical style, while also adhering to the racist expectations of his Confederate audience. The stark naming of “black, captive labor” as the audience’s mobilizing force powerfully exploits the sonnet’s volta to underline the paradoxes of his condition as both the artist and object of the performance—certainly, as Wiggins performs for the same “Confederate Troops” who fought in the Civil War to protect the institution of slavery, his story “disrupts the temporal arc of the narrative that ‘ends’ in material freedom” (Brooks 409) to demonstrate the inseparability of Black economic exploitation as it occurs both on the plantation and the stage.

12Just as the McKoy sonnets counterpoint the affective freedom of their musical performances against the racializing tropes of minstrelsy, Wiggins’s poetic sequence likewise considers the anxieties between the liberation and constraints that music affords him, contemplating the fallibility of emancipation and his opportunities for freedom within the structures of racialized patronage and spectatorship. In discussion of Olio, Jess has described his interest in how the minstrel show archetype “shaped and framed [the] creative output” of the “last generation of slavery” and the first generations post-emancipation (“Music”). The poet argues its origins as the “primary form of American entertainment” in the 1800s have “deeply embedded [it] in the DNA” of the United States, such that it “speaks toward the present” even when we treat it as a historical phenomenon (“Music”). In turn, Olio features an excerpt from The Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia, originally published in 1899, quoting from a historical text that informs readers how to perform blackface and the various racist character tropes that make up “the one American form of amusement purely our own” to demonstrate the permissibility of such behavior across the nation’s history (Olio 130). It is this historical context that gives the “Blind Tom” poems their force, as they both reveal and resist the racial fantasies of white Americans as they attempt to constrain and disempower Black lives. How, then, do Wiggins’s poem-songs navigate this balancing act between power and sublimation at the heart of ragtime music? One motif through which Wiggins’s musical self-expression attains a rapturous force—its simultaneously radical ecstasy and bitter rage—in Olio is that of weather. Indeed, weather is one means through which James and John Bethune, the white slaveholders who controlled (and profited from) Wiggins’s musical performances, introduce him to audiences: they describe him as a “brown tornado,” a “storm that brings lightning, thunder and rain” (Olio 16). Immediately this language works to dehumanize Wiggins, even as it purports to celebrate his musical power; as “tornado” and “storm,” he is rendered a hollow phenomenon, a spectral figure devoid of emotional or intellectual capacity. Certainly, for Christina Sharpe, “weather” functions as a potent metaphor for the “totality of our environments,” the surrounding structure of feeling of a political and social “climate [that] is antiblack” (104); as she continues, the invisible circulation of weather further clarifies the ways in which antiblackness evolves into new “administrative logics,” just as over time “slave law transformed into lynch law,” as white supremacy structures political and social life (105-106).

13Alongside revealing how antiblackness adapts to new circumstances, however, Sharpe’s theorization of “weather” also shows us how this hostile cultural environment necessitates the formation of new “ecologies” by “the shipped, the held, and those in the wake” of slavery, in order to “move through these environments in which the push is always toward Black death” (106). It is through Wiggins’s subversion of the very language used to dehumanize him that these new ecologies take shape—a subversion that occurs most potently in syncopated poetic dialogues through which he speaks back to those who racialize and silence him. In “Mark Twain V. Blind Tom,” for example, Jess adopts a contrapuntal form that, like the McKoy sonnets, uses separate columns to signify two poetic speakers. In this poem, Wiggins’s poetic voice is constructed in response to a review published by Twain, who had seen Wiggins perform in 1869, and whose own writing is excerpted in the text (Twain). Quoting his descriptions of Wiggins as a “dull clod” who “no more comprehends/than does the stupid worm,” Twain serves as a representative for the insidious racism that bounds and codifies the cultural canon, obfuscating the value of Wiggins’s prolific ability through dehumanizing references to his race and disability (Olio 18). This form, Rutter proposes, allows Jess to “[destabilize] contemporaneous descriptions of Tom’s music... unable to reconcile” his musical prowess with his embodied status as “African-descended, blind, and purportedly cognitively disabled” (179). Decidedly, in his section of the contrapuntal poem, Wiggins appropriates the insulting language of the earthly as used by Twain to envision a metaphysical existence beyond the realm of the human. He responds, “I’m sent from above,” immediately subverting the debasing and animalistic comparisons in the review to establish a sense of divine purpose (18). As the poem continues, Wiggins

can see up to God’s throne, yes,
while he plays this soul
of flesh free—makes me
the music of piano, the 
breath and
burn in the
stormcloud’s roar...

14relaying a number of transfigurations that further suggest his spiritual emancipation even at a time in which his performances were entirely regulated by white “patrons” (18). As he describes God “play[ing his] soul of flesh,” music is conceptualized as a mode of creation that brings Wiggins into being, as his body is rendered a musical instrument, made “free” by the sonic forms it engenders. Wiggins subverts racist tropes of dehumanization by becoming, in a sense, more than human: as “breath and burn in the stormcloud’s roar” he encompasses feeling that cannot be contained, that has the capacity to affect the climate or environment around it. Such language manipulates the racist descriptions by the Bethunes, demonstrating Wiggins’s musical prowess by enriching tropes of physical strength with both sonic force and biblical allusion: these metaphors have an apocalyptic aurality that frames his performance as a moment of destruction, an event marking an epistemological shift wherein contemporary biases against Black affectability and artistry are ruptured, leaving in their wake a site for the potential genesis of a new, liberated mode of being. As he concludes the poem, “I play the wind/in my blood,” Wiggins harmonizes the corporeal and the metaphysical, reclaiming both forms of agency against the annihilating forces of antiblackness. Indeed, there are multiple instances in Wiggins’s poems where the “Wind, Rain, and Thunder” and other natural forms are shown to speak to him, though the text never discloses what they ‘say’ (Olio 19, 21, 27). Embedded into the structure of the poems then are moments that refuse the demands of his imagined audience (and likewise Jess’s reader), in this way resisting the risk, per Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, of the Black musician’s performance, and in turn their “own enjoyment” of said performance, also “belong[ing] to white [viewers]” (“The Position of the Unthought” 188).

  • 3 Jess notes in Olio that Wiggins was buried first in Brooklyn, before his body was “allegedly moved (...)

15The dialogic response Wiggins makes to Twain’s review thus adopts a contrapuntal, syncopated structure to both centre the musician’s own experiences of the liberating force of his performance, while at the same time drawing attention to the ways in which antiblackness is layered into American culture. Undoubtedly, while his review is but one response to Wiggins’s concert, Twain’s reputation as an esteemed writer gives his words cultural force, symbolizing what Harryette Mullen names a mode of “predatory literacy” wherein literacy acts as an “instrumentality of white male domination” (120). Preserved by historians (unlike the music Wiggins’s performed that was never transcribed) it is part of the genre of archival documents that, as Plate and Rose suggest, are capable of “obliterating” the “history and humanity” of certain peoples while privileging that of others (621). In Rutter’s terms, it is in fact this “disjuncture between archival materials and lived experiences” that embeds certain “cultural scripts” in which “white Americans avidly consume black entertainment while supporting (overtly or implicitly) the systemic degradation” of its producers, and thus why Wiggins’s narrative is so crucial to the text (190). Jess’s syncopated form effectively rewrites Twain’s review, crafting an imagined voice for Wiggins that might fill in the gaps of our historical and cultural understanding, and recognizing the potent artistry of his music. In another of Wiggins’s poems, “One Body, Two Graves,” Jess further adopts this contrapuntal, dialogic poetic arrangement in order to allow Wiggins to converse with himself, with each column representing the division of his body as he was buried in “two graves” after his death (Olio 28).3 Bringing these two ‘halves’ of the musician into exchange, Jess liberates him from the white gaze and ear—the forms of “biopolitical systems of supremacy” in which emotional life is performed “for the privileged” (Berlant 197)—allowing a greater level of performative autonomy than possible in the material conditions of his lifetime (Olio 28). As the poem begins, “Here I lie: Blind Tom: Piano Man. I’m free/here in Brooklyn soil, I’m ’mancipated - like so much Georgia dust,” Jess further appropriates the language of earth and dirt used by Twain to dehumanize Wiggins, reconceptualizing them instead as a spiritualized connection to the natural world (28). Rewriting as a practice offers novel ways of remembering the past, by revealing the limitations of the ostensible objectivity of historical records (Plate and Rose 21), while at the same time opening a space to “‘talk back’ to texts” by those who render Black lives “absent or subordinated to other aims” (Mullen 120). By thus revising motifs from “Mark Twain V. Blind Tom,” Jess displaces and undermines the rhythms of racialized speech towards Wiggins’s metaphysical liberation. Indeed, as Wiggins states, “I’m nowhere at all, but sing everywhere,” his experiences reverberate beyond the confines of his body (Olio 28). His song is personified as the wind itself: a force that transforms and affects the world it moves through, that cannot be contained, and exists outside of time, to transport Wiggins beyond his own situation and into relation with the wider African American community. It thereby exemplifies what Daphne Brooks labels as the “radical acoustics” through which he modeled a notion of “selfhood that stretches between and beyond freedom and enslavement and into the world of black radical, avant-garde emancipation” (412). As an act of memorialization, it subtly adapts archival records and fact to reconceptualize and revalue a figure written out of history; while the poem cannot restore freedom to Wiggins posthumously, it instead shifts the narrative around his performances, culminating in a statement of freedom (“Here I am, Blind Tom: Piano Man. Free”) that centers the beauty of his song over the degradation of his labor, and sustains his legacy among a new generation of readers.

16The use of syncopation as a means of “talking back” evidenced in the “Blind Tom” sequence is replicated elsewhere in Olio in ways that expand beyond the singular narrative of any individual musician; Jess adopts these intertexual forms to attend to the potent antiblackness that informs the broader cultural canon, and how this functions to exclude African American voices. “Pre/Face Berryman/Brown” is a particularly forceful example of how this syncopated form critiques the mobilization of racist fantasy as a literary trope, demonstrating how such motifs obfuscate Black experience for aesthetic merit. The poem dramatizes the voice of the Black abolitionist and mesmerist Henry “Box” Brown responding to the white American poet John Berryman, by incorporating the latter’s own words as written in his Dream Songs—a collection that has earned him critical acclaim (77 Dream Songs was awarded the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry), but holds a controversial legacy due to its depictions of minstrelsy. Jess has commented that his choice to invoke Berryman comes from a sense that his use of minstrelsy as a “cultural prop” risks negating any of the detrimental effects the genre has had on the African American community, and thus “needed to be responded to” (“Excavating Popular Music”). The poem is arranged in two columns, the left, italicized, being a verbatim excerpt from Berryman’s introductory note to the text, while the right acts as an imagination of Brown’s response (Olio 73). Though “Pre/Face” lacks the multidirectional readings demonstrated in the McKoy sonnets, here Jess uses what Reed names “stichomythia,” juxtaposing “two voices in speculative dialogue” to enable us to read the Berryman and Brown sections both independently (in vertical columns) and joined (in horizontal lines). For example, read vertically, Berryman describes Henry as 

a white American
in early middle age,
sometimes
in
blackface,
who has suffered
an irreversible loss
and talks about himself…

17Whereas Brown introduces himself: 

I’m
‘Box’ Brown. Ain’t
masking my truth: one day,
I delivered myself.
I ache
my
love for
…those left behind.
…Berryman can’t talk for them,
can’t tell my tale at all (Olio 73). 

18Jess here juxtaposes the ambiguity of Berryman’s suffering and “loss” with Brown’s sincere “ache” of loss for “those left behind” in his escape from slavery. Dressing “sometimes/in/blackface,” Henry is shown to be merely performing pain, a solipsistic exploitation of African American experience that legitimizes his own perception of victimhood, whereas Brown’s column incorporates ellipsis as a visual reminder of those “left behind,” erased by “tales” and histories that go unspoken, and the subsequent impossibility of recovering them in art and in life. While more receptive readings of Berryman’s verse suggest he employs racist tropes subversively as commentary on the racism within US culture and politics, to depict an “American light that is not as pure as we may wish” (Young), Jess’s critique of the Dream Songs is emphasized by reading the columns together, and joining the voices into one to centre the African American experiences that are marginalized in Berryman’s poems. In this arrangement, the poem reads,

sometimes I ache
in my
blackface, love for
who has suffered …those left behind.
an irreversible loss …Berryman can’t talk for them,
and talks about himself… can’t tell my tale at all

19reclaiming Henry’s performative suffering on behalf of those who were “left behind” in slavery, defining their lives as the “irreversible loss” that haunts the nation’s history. What the poem enacts is thus a contortion of the literary canon, and by extension the aesthetic and cultural values it privileges, all the while critiquing Berryman’s project by showing how the impurity of America’s racial history can be demonstrated without evoking the same tropes of minstrelsy it proclaims to detest. Indeed, as Jess states, this poem works by specifically “employ[ing]” Berryman’s own voice, and “turn[ing] the voice back around on him” to “add a new way to understand” his work (“Excavating Popular Music”). We might view this as an example of the type of apostrophe Sianne Ngai describes as a significant feature in abolitionist writing. Though Ngai warns how the politicized “animation of racialized bodies” can evoke a form of “puppeteering” or “ventriloquism” that undermines the notions of agency it claims to advance, she also defines a mode of “boomeranged animation” in which the subject “might acquire agency within his or her own automatized condition” so that they can “exert some form of direct resistance” to the “forces manipulating [them]” (97-8; 112). The dialogic syncopation of Berryman’s and Brown’s voices in the poem disrupts the habituated understandings of race that inform the Dream Songs, layering an ambivalent cultural touchstone with the ‘dream song’ of someone for whom Berryman purports to “talk for,” but continues to erase. At the same time, however, the poem’s form draws attention to the artifice of the conceit of its imagined conversation: while Brown is empowered to speak against Berryman and the wider forces of white supremacy he represents in the poem, when the columns are read together Brown’s rebuttal nonetheless absorbs the racist language of “blackface” he condemns. The imagined voice that Jess gives to Brown bears the sonic remainder of Berryman’s racism, and, unable to erase his words, is forced to coexist alongside them. Jess’s syncopated verse thus incorporates the “lit[erary] sins” (Olio 218) it seeks to dismantle to materialize the habituation of racism within US culture, and disrupt the ways by which structures of antiblackness are rendered invisible and thus entrenched. The syncopated sonnets thereby reveal a fundamental ambivalence as they demonstrate moments of radical self-expression for marginalized Black figures, while at the same time adhering these moments to the histories of racism that they seek to rectify.

3. Ambivalent Forms: Syncopation and Olio’s Three-Dimensional Poetics

20Beyond his experimentation with instances of syncopated voice, the tension between the affective liberation that Jess’s persona poems offer to his speakers, and the evolution of the racializing structures that constrain them, are also demonstrated powerfully through the poet’s self-reflexive play with the text’s material forms. This formal strategy is replicated most innovatively through Jess’s inclusion of perforated, pull-out pages that can often be manipulated into multiple sculptural arrangements, allowing separate textual sections to interact in dialogues much like the contrapuntal syncopations of “Mark Twain V. Blind Tom” and “Pre/Face Berryman/Brown”—compositions I refer to as Olio’s ‘three-dimensional’ poems. In so doing Jess draws attention to the ways in which we read and to the artifice of the text, thereby calling into question the authority of the archival documents and structures of cultural memory from which our knowledge of the past is shaped. Certainly, the ability to reconstruct the poems in Olio into different shapes speaks towards a desire to reconstruct historical and cultural narratives, as well as a skepticism to any singular dominant perspective; as Reed notes, the collection demonstrates a distinction between the formality of historical documents, and with “being documentary,” precisely as the gaps between what exists and is excluded from these records invite us to see the “discrepancy between the archives and the conceptual apparatuses through which we generate a sense of pastness” (Reed). Given Olio’s investment in the legacies of African American musicians and its adherence to the sonnet form—a genre whose very name originates in the Italian sonetto, meaning “little song” (Regan 5; “Sonnet”)—it’s worth considering how these syncopated “songs” draw on the role of sonic forms in African American culture, a subject that has taken increasing prominence in recent scholarship. Alexander Weheliye, for example, argues that sound technologies have been critical to the development of Afro-modernism, as Black creators have developed new methods of producing sounds beyond their original sources or modes of production, and operating in more ephemeral forms to circumvent the modes and logics of Western production through which racist constructions of Blackness have been established (7-8). Similar links between Black musical forms and futurity have been considered elsewhere: we might locate the syncopated rhythms of Olio’s ragtime poetics in the same patterns of “futurity” that Jayna Brown describes within Afrofuturism, which produce “temporal distortions that refuse a Western chronology of civilization” (15). Though Afrofuturism is indebted to a range of cultural influences and motifs, like science fiction, that are beyond the scope of this paper, Brown’s reference to John Akomfrah’s short film The Last Angel of History emphasises the link between these musical genres and the kinds of movement “back and forth in time” and against “linear notions of progress” (15) that Jess undertakes in his contrapuntal and syncopated poems. Towards a similar conclusion, Rinaldo Walcott riffs on the creative potency of funk as a style and attitude that “demonstrate[s] a sense of autonomy and self-creation beyond the imposed scripts of what a Black life should be”: one that “refuses the too-easy script of death” we see in “white supremacist logics” (71), precisely because the genre refuses notions of “rationality and logic” in favor of a “body of knowledge” rooted in the more improvisatory impulse of “emotions, feelings, and intuition” (76). Thinking alongside these scholars, we might consider how, in Olio, the page becomes an extension of these sonic technologies, producing an alternative mode of historiography and performative engagement with Black cultural memory outwith the limits of the official archive.

  • 4 4 As its title alludes, “The Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel” is an example of a “Golden Shovel” poem. (...)

21By way of an example, we can look at Jess’s own appendix of notes on how to read the text. The voices of writer Paul Laurence Dunbar and political leader Booker T. Washington seen in “The Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel,” for instance, “intertwine” into a “sculpture you’ll find liberated from these bifurcated pages of history”—a phrase revealing the ways in which Jess correlates cultural memory with the book form (Olio 213-14).4 Instructing the reader to “create your own path” through their speeches, he gives examples of how the poem’s two columns of text can be shaped into various folded, torus, and Möbius forms that create multiple different poems from the same set of lines and words (213-14). The reader can thus read down the end of each column line to reveal an excerpt from Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” or can twist the page to place the speakers “back to back” in opposition, or into a loop that “flips seamless from Dunbar to Booker and back again” (213-14). The same effect is also seen in “The Bert Williams/George Walker Paradox,” a ghazal inspired by the titular African American entertainers whose performances in blackface rendered them controversial yet successful figures in the early twentieth century, which can likewise be reformed into different three-dimensional shapes that rearrange the lines and the form of the text. Williams’s and Walker’s individual speeches can thus be combined into unified, circular arrangements, shifting, for example, from

That is our mission:
telling real human comedies. That’s us. Nobody
working with a truth that smothers Jim Crow’s stench

22to “That is our mission: making theater about us. Plays of paradox/telling real human comedies. That’s us. Nobody slowly erasing Darky to don a human face” (130). As Jess describes, through this form “Bert and George step out of the minstrel box with paradox... to emancipate themselves from two-dimensional postulates of blackface fate” (215). Here the use of three-dimensional forms draws a link between the image of the “minstrel box” (noting the previous references to the “box” through which Henry Brown contained and then liberated himself from slavery) and the two-dimensional page, the structure through which history is constructed and preserved in ways that have, since emancipation, obfuscated the evolution of racist structures into the twenty-first century. In our interactions with the page as a material object, then, Jess shows how readers might ostensibly free these figures from their marginalized place within history, allowing them an ontological and affective complexity and self-determination that has been prohibited under the flattening tropes of minstrelsy and racialization.

23That notwithstanding, however, Jess is careful to remind us that this structure is ultimately a “paradox”—that while the poems creatively reimagine the lives of their personae, they still react against a history in which said speakers’ experiences of freedom were severely limited by physical violence and political disenfranchisement, as the structures of white supremacy evolved from slavery into Jim Crow law post-emancipation. Indeed, while such poems can be reorganized into different iterations of the same text, in so doing they produce infinite scrolls of verse from which it is impossible to reach a conclusion. In other words, they become poems that cannot end, a “rolling cylinder that reads back and forth and up and down, end of line into beginning into end again until there is no beginning,” a “paradox poem” that repeats “again and again ad infinitum” (Olio 214). On one hand, the text’s resistance towards linearity and permanence produces a model of collaborative Black performance that refuses codification into fixed material forms, and thus reminds us of the unfixed nature of memory and value as processes that we can influence and change. Yet this open form also speaks to what Jess describes as the “circular nature of history” (“Excavating Popular Music”)—how structures of racism transform and adapt to shifting political situations, demonstrating the futility of reviving historical figures in ways that cannot change the material circumstances of their lives. Elsewhere too Jess suggests the limits of political progress by using the folded format of these three-dimensional poems to envelope his own verse within historical texts demonstrating the saturation of racism within US culture. Dunbar and Booker’s “Double-Shovel,” for example, is printed on the reverse of a table detailing the statistical frequency of Black lynchings, and the “reasons given” for them. This arrangement once again reinforces how the spectacular violence of white supremacy is exemplified (and sustained) by archival records that preserve instances of corporal punishment while at the same time sublimating the individual lives of those murdered into mere numbers. Further, by listing the reasons for which thousands of African Americans were killed—including egregiously trivial motivations such as “being obnoxious” or “demanding respect”—Jess demonstrates the absurdity and banality of racism in the national imaginary as it creates its own presumptive logics dependent upon the criminalization of Blackness (Olio 142). In turn, Reed suggests that the poet is invested not only in the lives of his speakers, but the “documents that preserve, convey, and distort those lives”; in his provocative reading, Reed argues that this engagement forces us to question the “narrow narrative frames” that emphasize “redemption” and thus “obscure the animating force of the attachments that bind a people”—attachments, as Olio reifies, towards the embeddedness of white supremacy (Reed). Indeed, as Jess describes this statistical evidence of lynching as the “stacked lynch mobs [Dunbar and Booker] hold inside” (214), he suggests how racism internalizes and manifests within the individual, a form of cultural trauma that motivates their political work yet also undermines their experience of freedom. To similar effect, Williams and Walker “turn their backsides” to The Witmark Minstrel Guide, the historical instruction manual for blackface printed overleaf of “The Bert Williams/George Walker Paradox,” emphatically rejecting the racist tropes of minstrelsy that constrain their performative identities (215). Nonetheless, through Jess’s innovative formatting, any arrangement of the poem into its three-dimensional shapes necessarily contains the Witmark text as its interior – the Minstrel Guide is enfolded into the heart of the poem to emphasize how the “joke” of white supremacy “never (ever?) never ends” (Olio 217), by physically materializing the inseparability of these figures from the racist structures that surround them.

24What such recurring subversions—reminiscent of poet M. NourbeSe Philip’s description of how Black diasporic citizens exist both “outside of the law, or literally imprisoned” within it (207)—reveal are the self-contradictions inherent within the concept of emancipation, that which Walcott names as a “legal process” that “marks continued unfreedom” (1), as it obfuscates continuing structures of cultural and affective exclusion. Certainly, Jess’s work reminds readers of the ways in which the contemporary moment emerges from, and in turn reproduces, these legacies, crafting textual traps that mimic what Sharpe terms the “still unfolding aftermaths” and “disturbed flow” created by Atlantic slavery (14-15). While his poems resist notions of closure or resolution, I want to suggest that such forms are where the optimistic force of his collection lies. It is the ambivalent interplay between the text’s hope for a liberated future and its witnessing of historical trauma in which we find what Sharpe terms the “wake work” that emerges from a full recognition of the living structures of antiblackness today, the “mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme” by attending to the “known lived and un/imaginable lives” of historical African Americans whose legacies invisibly shape US culture in the present (25). As Andrea Brady proposes, the constraints put upon lyric form and on human life are deeply connected, precisely because at the same historical moment in which lyric was being thematized as the form of the individualized subject, so too was that mode of liberal subjectivity being denied to colonized and racialized populations around the world (21-22). Given this coupling of whiteness with poetic tradition, the formal constraints of poetry offer a potent metaphor for the bondage suffered by persons of color; it is by experimenting with these formal regulations that Jess envisions poetic subjects whose artistry unravels the underlying logics of racism. Thus, as Jess himself has commented, his choice of historical musicians and artists as inspiration for Olio reflects the significance of art and self-expression within systems of oppression, as an “ability to have the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness” (“Excavating Popular Music”) speaks towards a belief in another way of living—or in Sharpe’s words, of ways of “re/seeing, re/inhabiting, and re/imagining the world” (28). If “we are in the constant business of remixing [the past] according to our position in the present” (Joseph and Bell 523), then the archival poetics of Olio invite us to re-evaluate the work of a range of historical figures whose legacies have been obfuscated despite their ostensible freedom. In this way, they offer an alternative model for the African American archive, while refusing to erase the forms of white supremacy that have shaped Black American history so that we may better recognize how they shape the present.

Top of page

Bibliography

Akomfrah, John. The Last Angel of History. Black Studio Film Collective, 1996.

Berlant, Lauren. “Structures of Unfeeling: ‘Mysterious Skin.’” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2015, pp. 191–213.

Berlin, Edward A. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. U of California P, 1980.

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs, edited by Daniel Smith, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.

Brady, Andrea. Poetry and Bondage: A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint. Cambridge UP, 2021.

Brooks, Daphne A. “Puzzling the Intervals: Blind Tom and the Poetics of the Sonic Slave Narrative.” The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative, edited by John Ernest, Oxford UP, 2014, pp 391-414.

Brown, Jayna. Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds. Duke UP, 2021.

Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “Interludes in Madtime: Black Music, Madness, and Metaphysical Syncopation.” Social Text, vol. 35, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1-31.

Cousins, A. D., and Peter Howarth. Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet, edited by Cousins and Howarth, Cambridge UP, 2011, pp. 1-5.

Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Pantheon Books, 1998.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Clydesdale Classics, 2019.

Dumont, Frank. The Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide and Burnt Cork Encyclopedia. M. Witmark & Sons, 1899.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Penguin, 2001.

Frost, Linda. Conjoined Twins in Black and White: The Lives of Millie-Christine McKoy and Daisy and Violet Hilton. U of Wisconsin P, 2009.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing, Michigan UP, 1997.

Hall, Joshua M. “Syncopated Communities: Dancing with Ellison.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 45, no. 2, 2013, pp. 57-71.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford UP, 1997.

Hartman, Saidiya, and Frank B. Wilderson III. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle, vol. 13, no. 2, 2003, pp. 183-201.

Jess, Tyehimba. “Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness.” The Interlochen Review, 14 Apr. 2016, www.interlochenreview.org/tyehimba-jess. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

---. Olio. Wave Books, 2016.

---. “Syncopated Sonnets.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 18 May 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmtH0A5mVnA. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

---. “Tyehimba Jess on Excavating Popular Music Through Poetry.” Literary Hub, 5 May 2016, www.lithub.com/tyehimba-jess-on-excavating-popular-music-through-poetry/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.

Joseph, Etienne and Connie Bell. “Everything is Everything: Embodiment, Affect, and the Black Atlantic Archive.” Transactions, vol. 45, no. 3, 2020, pp. 520-524.

Kahn, Peter, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith, editors. The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks. U of Arkansas Press, 2017.

McKittrick, Katherine. “Rebellion/Invention/Groove.” Small Axe: A Journal of Caribbean Criticism, vol. 20, no. 1, 2016, pp. 79-91.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. U of Minnesota P, 2013.

Mullen, Harryette. “Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved.The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be. U of Alabama P, 2012, pp. 102-129.

Müller, Timo. The African American Sonnet: A Literary History. UP of Mississippi, 2018.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard UP, 2009.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard UP, 1982.

Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng. Wesleyan UP, 2008.

Plate, Liedeke, and H. G. Els Rose. “Rewriting, a Literary Concept for the Study of Cultural Memory.” Neophilologus, vol. 97, no. 4, 2013, pp. 611-25.

Rambsy, Howard. “Catching Holy Ghosts: The Diverse Manifestations of Black Persona Poetry.” African American Review, vol. 42, no.3, 2008, pp. 549–64.

Reed, Anthony. “Ain’t Gonna Change One Fact: Tyehimba Jess and the Documents of History.” www.fightandfiddle.com/2019/04/26/aint-gonna-change-one-fact-tyehimba-jess-and-the-documents-of-history/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.

Regan, Stephen. The Sonnet. Oxford UP, 2019.

Rutter, Emily. “The Creative Recuperation of “Blind Tom” Wiggins in Tyehimba Jess’s Olio and Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank.” MELUS, vol. 44, no. 3, 2019, pp. 175-96.

Sharpe, Christina. In The Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.

Smith, Lorrie. “Hungry Ghosts and Restless Spirits: Lyric Voices of the Middle Passage.” Africa and Trans-Atlantic Memories: Literary and Aesthetic Manifestations of Diaspora and History, edited by Naana Opoku-Agyemang, Paul E. Lovejoy, and David Vincent Trotman, Africa World Press, 2008, pp. 417-37.

“Sonnet.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/sonnet. Accessed 6 Jun. 2022.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 2nd ed. Norton, 1983.

Temperley, David. “Syncopation in Rock: A Perceptual Perspective.” Popular Music, vol. 18, no. 1, 1999, pp. 19-40.

Twain, Mark. “Letter from Mark Twain.” Alta California, 1 Aug. 1969. www.twainquotes.com/18690801.html. Accessed 21 Nov. 2022.

Walcott, Rinaldo. The Long Emancipation: Moving Toward Black Freedom. Duke UP, 2021.

Weheliye, Alexander. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Duke UP, 2005.

Yao, Xine. Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling. Duke UP, 2021.

Young, Kevin. “On Form.” Poetry Society of America, www.poetrysociety.org/poems-essays/on-poetry/on-form-kevin-young. Accessed 3 Mar 2023.

Top of page

Notes

1 1 Jess demonstrates the multidirectional readings of his syncopated McKoy poems at a TEDx conference in 2011 (“Syncopated Sonnets”).

2 2 Certainly, this cohesion is further exemplified in Jess’s inclusion of Jessica Lynne Brown’s illustration of a butterfly (37): infusing this further visual materialisation of their syncopated voices and conjoined body with the liberatory motif of flight, the drawing performs an image of spiritual freedom beyond the confines of their corporeal form.

3 Jess notes in Olio that Wiggins was buried first in Brooklyn, before his body was “allegedly moved by the Bethune family to Columbus, GA”; while records in Brooklyn contest this removal, both states bear headstones for him (28).

4 4 As its title alludes, “The Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel” is an example of a “Golden Shovel” poem. This poetic form was created by Terrance Hayes in the composition of his poem “Golden Shovel,” in which the text of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” was used as a scaffold, with each word appearing in sequence at the end of his poem’s lines. The form has since become a popular creative exercise, as exemplified by the publication of The Golden Shovel Anthology in 2017 (Kahn, Shankar, and Smith). Jess’s use of the Golden Shovel thus adds a further layer of homage to his invocation of Dunbar’s poem, by connecting it to more contemporary African American poetic traditions.

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Molly McCracken, Rebellious Enthusiasm, Ambivalent Forms: On Freedom and Bondage in Tyehimba Jess’s Olio European journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 23 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/22155

Top of page

About the author

Molly McCracken

Molly McCracken (she/her) is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis explores the relationship between affect and national identity, the evolution of white supremacy, and the afterlives of transatlantic slavery in African American literature published since 2016. Her research also considers the mediation of racial politics through interdisciplinary form, with chapters analysing intersections between text, image, music, and archival practice. Her research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and has been presented at symposia hosted in the UK and Ireland.

Top of page

Copyright

CC-BY-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search