One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis | The Nation


One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis

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Skin, Inc. is subtitled "Identity Repair Poems," which is more evocative of the dimensions of don't than the book's title. Don't is there from the opening poem "As Segregation, As Us," and so is the eternal United States/first-person-plural pun: "I don't allude like you. I don't call me anything." The problem with negative imperatives, though, is that it can be hard to grasp both the instruction and the negation, so don't risks triggering another in reply: don't tell me what to do. In small doses don't clears the air; as a bona fide program it is a recipe for self-destruction.

Skin, Inc.
Identity Repair Poems.
By Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis is Poetry Editor of The Nation. His most recent publication is POD | Poems on Demand (2011). Photo...

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Around the time of publication of The Maverick Room, Ellis was editing a project called Quotes Community: Notes for Black Poets, a commonplace book of 600 entries by 140 poets on "what's beneath writing." It is also a meditation on the allure and dangers of don't. In an interview introducing an excerpt from the book in the noteworthy journal Callaloo, Ellis expressed his hope that "sharing certain 'close-to-home' practices and personal beliefs about the 'being' in being a poet and being black will reveal healthy samenesses and healthy differences within the community, and, perhaps, generate some new ways of creatively discussing the complexities of that being." For whatever reason, the book doesn't appear to have been published, which is a shame. The sixty-one entries excerpted in Callaloo are all as tantalizing as the first two:

An idea occurs to me: I have to decide whether all black writing in the New World is about one thing, and whether that one thing is emancipation. This seems false to me, but I like the idea of poetry as an unfinished historical project. At least it means that there's a common task and a common place to start from.
—Mark McMorris

Avoid didactic poems at all costs. (Don't preach to the reader.) If this is your leaning, write an essay. If you wish to make a serious point, however, show, don't tell. If you wish to make a creative point, use poetic structures such as metaphors, similes, understated language, and punctuation.
—Dolores Kendrick

The remarks run the gamut from observation to declaration to proscription, and Ellis says he hopes the effect will be of the voices rising "above a family reunion." But the complexities might include outright self-contradiction: what's more didactic than saying, "Avoid didactic poems at all costs"? In an interview in the following issue of Callaloo, Ellis makes it clear he's aware of the risks involved:

I believe that W.H. Auden said one of the things a young poet needs to learn is to pun, and I think I took it upon (intended) myself to shake and bake and mix and remix pun, irony, and now radical black rule breaking—often trying successfully and unsuccessfully to merge every possibility of what it is possible to receive (and share) into one blood.

If Auden did indeed say that, he ought to have apologized for it. To learn to pun is to learn how to do so judiciously. Slightly different is Auden's line in "The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning" that "Good poets have a weakness for bad puns." In any case, Ellis seems to be aware that an interest in rule-gathering is a step away from woolgathering. He's willing to risk error for the reward of bringing more into the poem than he could by playing it safe.

For the first sixty pages of Skin, Inc., the contradictions and broken rules pay off. At a recent reading at New York City's KGB Bar, Ellis introduced "Or," in which each line contains at least one use of the title's sound or letters, as an ode to "my favorite conjunction." Part sound poem, part fretting elaboration of alternatives, it begins "Or Oreo, or/worse" and ends with a meditation once again on how to understand fear and anxiety as a product of black-and-white thinking:

or fear of...
of terror or border.
Or all organized

He inverts the drumming motif of his early work in "My Meter Is Percussive," announcing up front,

I am sucker-punching I,
the I that informs

these lines like
only I    know I    know how.

Having implicated himself, he's free to speak up about anxiety, appropriation and projection with symmetrical efficiency:

In life, they clutch
their purses because

they    want you    to think
you've stolen    something.

In art, they clutch
their purses because

they know    you know
they've stolen    something.

The sequences "Spike Lee at Harvard" and "Society for the Friends of Former Property" build on these successes, the first relating Ellis's experience working at Cambridge's renowned and claustrophobically tiny poetry store, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the second riffing on as many live-wire words of segregation as sense will allow. The anger stays near the surface, which makes it easier for Ellis to work off it. In "The Identity Repairman," Ellis narrates the transition from African to African-American in six quatrains. Here are the last three:


I am weary of working
to prove myself equal.
I will use education
to make my children superior.


My heart is a fist.
I fix Blackness.
My fist is a heart.
I beat Whiteness.


Before I was born,
I absorbed struggle.
Just looking
at history hurts.

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