One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis

One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis

One of the Various: On Thomas Sayers Ellis

The best poems in Skin, Inc. have an excellent unconscious feeling, even when the news is bad and Thomas Sayers Ellis knows nobody is going to want to listen.


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."

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.

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.

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.

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