One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis
Literary history, at least as far as race in America is concerned, is stuck, and the doctrine of separate but equal has to be overturned again and again, with every book published. If the doctrine were dead, then it would be common knowledge that Robert Hayden is at least as remarkable a poet as Robert Lowell, or that the Hugheses—Ted and Langston—run about even; or that it would be ignorant of a young poet to study Elizabeth Bishop to the exclusion of Rita Dove, or vice versa. It would also finally be possible to assess the claim that Amiri Baraka's work—his early work as LeRoi Jones, anyway—outdoes them all.
Fortunately, poems aren't written at the service of literary history. They're written in the moment, often in ways mindful of tradition (which doesn't rhyme with literary history), and anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to trick you out of your birthright. Poets who start out with one eye on literary history find out sooner or later that they need to focus both eyes—maybe all three—on the poem. In Skin, Inc., his complicated second book of poems, Thomas Sayers Ellis seeks a space apart from the demands of both history and the immediate moment, to protest the overwhelming conditions he finds, or as he puts it in the title poem, "To sit-in/in the sit-in/in the margins."
The problem is that, even now, if you raise your voice, people start expecting you to provide the answers, to be not one among the many but the one to lead and speak on behalf of the many. In "Marcus Garvey Vitamins," from his first book, The Maverick Room (2005), Ellis declaimed at the top of his voice that the one should not be him: "Don't like it, don't Pulitzer me." He was kidding, but don't laugh. Consider this remark from 2003 by critic William Logan about Ellis's colleague Kevin Young, whose first and second books had been nominated for big prizes:
It can be difficult to be a young black poet now. You're courted by publishers and anthologists, by the halls of academe; yet post-colonial and subaltern and diaspora scholars, who fight turf battles over what to call themselves, tell you what to write and how to write it, questioning your language and your motives (or, worse, applauding them) before you've written a line. Easier, I suspect, to be a young poet everyone is ignoring.
Easier for what? To do what? Write a memorable poem that makes everyone around take notice? Then where are all the show-stopping thousands of young ignored poets? Is their game good enough to stand up to some of the best trash talk of our times, talk so dismissive it doesn't even bother with the second person?
All their fences
All their prisons
All their exercises
All their agendas
All their stanzas look alike
I didn't think so. Logan may have had a point about the pressure of premature attention, but just as the pressures of rhyme and meter can still lead to happy accidents of meaning, it might be good for a poet to learn early how to shape expectations as well as metaphors. Along with the difficulty of being the subject of attention comes the opportunity to be the subject of your own sentence, your own strophe, your own simile. Among poets, the anxious force of Ellis's chains of equivalences could not go unnoticed:
All their tables of contents
All their Poet Laureates
All their Ku Klux classics
All their Supreme Court justices
Except one, except one
Exceptional one. Exceptional or not,
One is not enough.
All their stanzas look alike.
What did go unnoticed, however, was who or what exactly was being signified on (the reference to the late Nigerian novelist Flora Nwapa's excellent One Is Enough is a bonus). The poem is anything but an example of black-and-white thinking, which it plays on to get to the heart of an overwhelming confusion—the one between poet and poem, and the one between poet and public. The anticlimactic ending clinches it: "Even this, after publication,/Might look alike. Disproves/My stereo types." Ellis is not having it both ways; he's just not having it.
Most poets are still just finding out about their stories in their second books, but Ellis is not most poets. The Maverick Room came in at 121 pages, twice the length of the average collection of poems; so Skin, Inc., which is 181 pages long, might be considered Ellis's third through fifth books. Raised "in a so-called single parent household in Washington, D.C.," and educated at Harvard and Brown, Ellis came to national attention as a literary community organizer. With fellow poet and Harvard grad Sharan Strange, he founded the Dark Room Reading Series out of their rented house in Cambridge in 1989. It didn't take long for the project to outgrow that setting.
The reading series featured African-American writers both hugely successful and secretly influential, from Alice Walker and Terry McMillan to Samuel Delany and Bell Hooks. Word about the readings got around, and soon people were commuting from hours away to attend (including Natasha Trethewey, then a graduate student in poetry at the University of Massachusetts). The series morphed into the Dark Room Collective, a "pre or PMFA" that played a role in the development of award-winning poets as aesthetically diverse as Carl Phillips, Kevin Young, Tracy K. Smith and Major Jackson, and also drew the bright light of publicity from the Boston Globe and The New Yorker. It ran until the late '90s, its decade-long existence coinciding with the beginning and end of the first major phase of mainstream rap, from the rise of Public Enemy to Jay-Z's breakthrough.
While everything around Ellis was blowing up, in the hip-hop sense of the phrase, he took his time with his poems. The ones in his chaplet The Good Junk (1996) and his chapbook The Genuine Negro Hero (2001) have more in common with the self-knowing work of Ellis's Nobel laureate teachers Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott than with platinum recording artists. The music in them is played by people, not CD players. "Sticks" starts out as a disconcerting family romance ("I learned to use my hands watching him/Use his, pretending to slap mother/When he slapped mother"), but rather than closing with catharsis and confrontation, the poem ends with an uncertain resilience in which the pain—the narrative—is channeled into writing and drumming:
The page tightened like a drum
Resisting the clockwise twisting
Of a handheld chrome key,
The noisy banging and tuning of
Throughout these early poems, drums figure as a means of escape and entrapment (snare). "A Baptist Beat" conflates a go-go performance with a church service ("The tambourine shakes like a collection plate"), while "Tambourine" inverts the simile ("Sundays, it took a sinner's beating"). Ellis addresses the cowbell that called the neighborhood to clubs and block parties, but also families during blackouts: "Down-to-earth, hardheaded, hollow, loud./I know your weak spots. You know mine." This conflicted sense of the sources and meanings of rhythm is personified in "Tambourine Tommy," the story of a local character just this side of St. Elizabeths who showed up at events with tambourines and bells strapped to his body. Ellis is aware of the comedy and pathos in the situation, but he leaves the reader with solidarity in suffering: "the way/He beat himself/(head, shoulders, knees/and toes), proved he//Was one of us."
The Maverick Room shuffles the chapbooks' personal poems with newer poems about the outsize personalities clustered around musician-impresario George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic. A reader could have worried that the abrupt change of subject matter from local characters to famous musicians would deprive Ellis of the lived intensity his poems thrived on. That reader's worry would have been misplaced. The book opens with an ode to Garry Shider, the voice at the beginning of Parliament's Mothership Connection, better known as Starchild. Ellis writes:
Newborn, diaper-clad, same as a child,
That's how you'll leave this world.
No, you won't die, just blast off.
The diaper, the spaceship: Shider's iconography was crazy, and also a way of reminding the audience of funk's origins, not Saturn but a similarly alien place somewhere near the gut. Four stanzas later, after Shider blasts off and the "black hole at the center/Of the naked universe" responds, Ellis riffs on one of Parliament's best-known songs to set the stage for his own arrival, "Roofs everywhere cracking, tearing,/Breaking like water."
As poetic births go, The Maverick Room was promising: personal but not private, accessible but not obvious. The risks of reclaiming the Clinton universe from within the heart of the Bush II era paid off. Both enormously successful and incorrigibly idiosyncratic, P-Funk smuggled the pleasures of bop back into dance music while underscoring a message that deserves to be called hilarious, positive and above all autonomous. Following their lead, Ellis teased his audience while expanding his personal mythology. And the influence of P-Funk's over-the-top portmanteau titles, such as "Gloryhallastoopid" and "Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop," had the liberating effect on Ellis's aesthetic predicted in the title of Funkadelic's 1970 album, Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow.
At the same time, the don't Ellis uttered in "Marcus Garvey Vitamins" as a dare—"Don't like it"—fulfilled its purpose: the book is sui generis, a record of Ellis's experiences and excitements, not a labor at the service of literary history. As he says in "Balloon Dog (1993)," "poetry escapes/poems that/contain more//ego than/feeling." It's unclear whether this poem loves or hates its insight that a poem might be something like a rubber tube, filled with hot air, twisted ingeniously, a solid scribble. This is a signal moment of the poet articulating his resistance to other people's rules for what a poem has to be: poems are almost never going to be permanent, so stop worrying about that. But the poem at hand better have enough whatever to fill the form into a specific, recognizable shape. Call it empathy: "Nothing,/not even//love,/should have to live up to/or as long as//sculpture's attempted/permanence."