One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis
The best poem in the book is "Mr. Dynamite Splits," an elegy for James Brown published several months after Brown's death in December 2006. In the book, Ellis expands the poem into "A perform-a-form, photo-elegy with footnotes for feet work," with photographs taken by Ellis from outside the Apollo Theater, where the New York memorial to Brown was held forty-four years after Brown's concert there set the template for live recordings. The photographs—bewildered children next to mournful parents, smiling aging fans holding up tribute T-shirts, crowds behind barricades—go beyond illustrating the poem's celebration of a performer to give depth to the assertions in the poem:
you and your Revue were
the only flames the hood could
and by "hood" I mean "nation"
and by "nation" I mean "community"
and by "community"
I mean any one of the various
Black "folk" Americas
within Black America,
the Constitution's future re-framers.
Your famous flames
were not the famous flames
of Civil War or Civil Rights.
These flames were raw chicken guts
and a bewildered next-time fire
At the 1962 Apollo gig immortalized as Live at the Apollo, Brown sang, "I'm not singing this song only for myself now,/I'm singing it for you too./And when I say something that makes you feel good inside/When I say that little thing/I said that little part that might sting you in your heart now/I want to hear you scream/I want to hear you say OW/I want to hear you say OW/Don't just say ow say OW/and I believe my work will be done." The poem and the photographs say OW. The footnotes to the poem do not. They are a tedious distraction. For example, the footnotes to the second and third stanzas quoted above say this:
An all within one, the soul of many, every read note. Emphasize "folk" as poly-purpose, the hardest working utterance—k to c and c from lower to upper case, the protest of climb and crash into law. Stage, stanza, some silence, a moment of preface, or breathing, before the door of pronoun. One must recite the emergence of fire so that it becomes attitude, weather and aesthetic.
Why the footnotes say this I do not know—I can hear all kinds of resonances in "folk," both poignant and obscene, but Ellis loses me around "utterance." What's clear is that Ellis is determined to worry "Mr. Dynamite Splits" past the point of diminishing returns. It's as if Wallace Stevens's Snow Man showed up at the funeral to declare that "One must have a mind of winter" to mourn the Godfather of Soul.
In an interview upon the publication of The Maverick Room, Ellis confided, "I'm sure I've traded simile in for signifying (find Gates, Jr. and his monkey—see what I mean), because everybody can simile and there are some easy and bad ones floating around out there—it's gotten so easy to simile.... I've also replaced punning and referencing with (black) trick moves, okey dokes and trope-a-dopes." The reference is to Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Here is Gates on his project:
Let us descend, once again, into the shadowy realm of myth, to ascertain the black tradition's fundamental idea of itself, buried or encoded in its primal myths—ambiguous, enigmatic, profoundly figurative, complex rhetorical structures—which seem to have been scattered through several concealed fragments, as if to protect its own code from (mis)appropriation.
This might go some way toward explaining the less-than-helpful footnotes as a defensive screen behind which the repair work of mourning can go on in public privacy. Anyway, I'll leave it alone—it's a terrific poem, and would be one of Ellis's best no matter how he wants to shield it. If the book ended there or shortly after, the prize committees and book reviews would have a hard time ignoring it.
The book, however, is only a third done. The middle section, a mélange of commissioned poems, manifestos, a riff on the eye chart and praises of Barack Obama's "presidential blackness," doesn't gel. "A Waste of Yellow" repeats effects and phrasing found in "Song On" but with shorter sentences and stanzas, with less intensity, to less effect. "Sermon on the Unrecognizable Shapes of Change" takes shots at "Boring myth" and "our super weakness," but these balloon shapes remain as unrecognizable at the end of the poem as at the beginning. Sharp observations crop up—"I have seen more photos/of Barack Obama/than I've ever seen//of my own mother"—and are given not quite enough support to become whole moving organic beings. I'm prepared to say this is the inescapable sophomore jinx, which in music usually takes the form of a track by the new star settling scores with people who rejected him back in the day.
And sure enough, "The Judges of Craft" intersperses rejection letters with off-point remarks on craft and life and line and form. At KGB Bar, Ellis read the rejections in a silly voice, as if the editors of these periodicals were Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk. He paused, looked up and disclosed that his publisher had advised him not to include the poem. He paused again and then added, "They were probably right." The last quarter of the book is given over to "Gone Pop," a prosaic sequence about the life and death of Michael Jackson. In The Maverick Room Ellis's handling of the P-Funk mythology is assured, organic; here his impersonal investment in the King of Pop raises again the concern that he might be seeking a substitute for feeling. There are fine moments of writing and some amazing neglected bits of information—such as the account of Jackson's maternal great-great-, great- and grandfather, all named Prince Albert Screws, and the brief biography of Ola Ray, co-star of the "Thriller" video—but the work feels incomplete, as if it were written out of obligation and in haste, as if publishing a book were catching a train.
Kenneth Koch remarked that "Poetry, which is written while no one is looking, is meant to be looked at for all time." The best poems in Skin, Inc. have the excellent unself-conscious feeling of which Koch spoke, even when the news is bad and the poet knows nobody is going to want to listen. It's to be hoped that this flood of poems means we can expect a bewildered fire next time.