We've been conditioned since childhood to fall sleep shortly after someone begins reading to us, so it should come as no surprise that maintaining the appearance of consciousness at readings can be a real struggle, even for adults who love to read.
But that sweet sleepy feeling didn't slosh over me the last time I saw Tyehimba Jess in person. The poet, who is coming back to town this season for a Seattle Arts & Lectures appearance, gave a Hugo House reading at Fred Wildlife Refuge last year. Instead of sheepishly approaching the microphone with a clutch of coffee-stained paper, he projected a poem onto one of the venue's massive walls. It was a poem from his book Olio.
In a newsboy hat and a sharply trimmed beard, he explained that the poem was about Bert Williams and George Walker, a black comedic duo who performed minstrel shows under the name "Two Real Coons." He also told the crowd the poem was a "syncopated ghazal" (a new take on an old Persian form) whose lines could be read in several different orders and still make sense. He then proceeded to blow everyone's mind by proving that claim to be true.
He performed the poem, or rather he played the poem, as if it were some kind of instrument he was trying to teach us to use. He pointed to the first line of the poem and read it, then jumped across the page and read the 25th line, then jumped back to the top of the page and read the third line, his hand crisscrossing the page in a star pattern. He looked like a magician trying to conjure some genie. He was pumped up to show us this kind of reading, as if he were still—after 10 years of working on Olio—still genuinely excited about the possibilities of meaning contained in its pages.
On the coffee table and in the pages of press releases, Olio is a 230-page book of poems about African American music made between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II. It won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2017. But in the hands of readers, it's a humming block of space-time, one that comes with a three-page bibliography and perforated pages you can tear out, fold like origami, and read 50 different ways.
By page 60, you'll be ready to declare Tyehimba Jess a wizard. That part of the book has a series of what Jess calls "syncopated sonnets." They're persona poems about Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins who were born slaves in North Carolina and who eventually toured the globe on their own as successful performers.
The section opens with artist Jessica Lynne Brown's contour drawing of a butterfly, a symbol of radical transformation and a figure that's symmetrical across the X and Y axes, but not perfectly, which is precisely like the poems that follow. The sonnets, like their subjects, are conjoined. The left half of the sonnet tells one side of a story, the right half of the sonnet tells a different side of that story, and you get the whole story when you read the lines straight across the page. They also, just for fun, make sense when you read them down the page, up the page, and then up and then down the page. AND! They actually rhyme, unlike so many other contemporary "sonnets."
Take the poem "Millie-Christine: On Display." On the left half of the poem, Millie tells the story of the indignities that she and her twin have faced at the hands of scientists and medical examiners. On the right half, Christine tells the story of the indignities she and her twin have faced as performers. Read the left side and the right side together, and you have a defiant poem about how the conjoined twins see themselves not as "freaks" but rather as a miracle created by God. However, when you read the poem down the page and then back up the page, the tone and the point of the poem shifts. The defiance settles down into a kind of prayer of gratitude for a God who would graciously outfit them to endure the trials of performing onstage as members of the first generation of freed slaves in the United States: "We count the blessings of our doubled shell."
That's not all. As you continue through the section, Jess alternates these sonnets with short passages from the McKoy twins' autobiography, so that their written voices syncopate with the ones Jess constructed for them, until—ta-da—you open the first fold-out page to reveal that the sonnets you've been reading this whole time are actually individual parts of one mega syncopated sonnet called "McKoy Twins Syncopated Star" that's actually shaped like the butterfly illustration at the beginning. Not only do the lines in the individual sonnets read in this split and up-and-down, but the series of poems themselves read this way. That's amazing.
I know very few poets who use narrative time and space like this, and zero who do it with the level of command that Jess displays in this sequence. Before Olio, the world of page poetry had only three dimensions. With this book, Jess has drawn a tesseract.
Aside from being really cool, creating this 4-D theatrical production, this living block of time, is a way for Jess to return that time to those black performers whose work was, in many cases, lost to it. It's historical stewardship of the first order. And it's beautiful.
There is much more to say, but I have run out of room. The most important thing to know is that Jess will be performing parts of the book for Seattle Arts & Lectures at McCaw Hall on March 4, and you should buy your tickets now. Bring a friend. Olio constitutes a scientific advancement in the art of poetry. If that level of achievement doesn't do it for you, Jess's storytelling will.