A version of the following review will appear in the next issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.
I love when I stumble onto a poet that I’ve never heard of before and who is good. Even better, when they are doing something new, at least new to me. You all probably know of Thomas Sayers Ellis, but I didn’t. But now I know something you don’t know. His newest collection, Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf P, 2010) is good. Oh, I am digging this book. I’m not sure if I know how to talk about it and explain why I like it because this style, this poetry is so new to me, but give me the chance.
The first thing I hear are a strong tone and voice. It’s so distinct and it comes off the page. This poetry is clearly meant to be read aloud. So much poetry wants to be read aloud, but it rarely is except in the quiet whispers to ourselves or in the typically reserved voice of a poetry reading. But that’s obvious. That’s not what is new.
Good poems do, and Ellis’ poems do. These poems leap. There are jumping-with-sensation poems, or as Ellis says:
The line lives life and life lives the line,
(“The Judges of Craft”)
That stanza is abstract, but that’s okay. It’s one of the many ars poeticas in this book. Besides, there is that haiku leap from line two to three. Let’s listen to some other stanzas from “Godzilla’s Avocado”:
From a lumpy russet, swirling
in a cosmos of miso,
colors mash into casserole.
Kids love kitchens, the sushi chef
Life’s raw rolls, ready
to unravel the difficult answers
we wrap in seaweed.
“Love is when two people
like the same food
and the same toys [...]”
There’s a lot of leaping here. Leaping from line to line, like “in a cosmos of miso, / colors mash into casserole” (And how do you not love the sounds of “cosmos” and “miso” in the same line? and the rest of the harmonies in that stanza. I love harmony and there are plenty of harmonies in this collection.), leaping within a line, like “Kids love kitchens, the sushi chef,” leaping from stanza to stanza, as every above stanza does, and leaping from concrete to abstract, as those first two stanzas leap into those last two stanzas and then back again at “seaweed” and back again. In fact, the leaping between abstract and concrete happens throughout. But leaping is not new, but this leaping is refreshing.
What is new is the poet who is fighting on both sides of the Page vs. Stage poetry battle. What is new is that he bridges the gap, and he helps the stage poets understand the page poets and the page poets understand the stage poets. What’s new is that he teaches us how to read poetry. His poetry.
That’s kinda vague. Let me give some examples.
When we get to the “Mr. Dynamite Splits” section, Ellis gives us footnotes. What I like about these footnotes are that they tell us how to read the poems. “Why is that important?” you might ask. Well, because poems are meant to be read aloud. Too often, as I mentioned, they aren’t read loud enough. What happened to the “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”? In fact, I just went to the roof of my apartment, the highest point in Brockport, NY, and read my favorite section, “My Dynamite Splits,” over the rooftops of Brockport and to Lake Ontario to the north, and to Rochester to the east, and to the churches to the south, and to the sun setting in the west.
But there’s more. Those are just my reasons. Ellis’ reasons are different.
A big concern of his is the level of respect given to the spoken-word, or Perform-a-Formist, poet. I’ve heard this often. The spoken-word poet wants the respect of the printed-page poet. I’ve also heard the page poet wants the attention and the celebrityhood the spoken-word poet receives. Ellis teaches us how both can be had. For instance, “A perform-a-form line breaks many times, verbally, before it breaks the last time visually. If written, it is written more like blood than bone. If spoken, it is spoken more like stutter than song” (“Two Manifestos: The New Perfom-A-Form: Two,” p 72).
I drifted. The footnotes. In the “Mr. Dynamite Splits” section, an elegy to James Brown, Ellis tells us how to read the poems. The instructions are for the Perform-A-Form poet and for the page, or academic, poet. My favorite footnote, man I like them all, is from the one on page 53, especially the last sentence. I’ll quote the two stanzas on the page and then the footnote.
“These nuts,” that’s what all the Camel Walks,
splits, spins, and Popcorns
told those early closed doors.
Get up offa that thang.
Long live you plea, please, pleases,
Byrd’s brotherly loyalty,
and calling-on Maceo’s licking-stick.
Live at the Apollo laid legend to myth.
Grown ass male physical solo with real references to animal behavior, and the freedom-hesitation to lean back, scream and jump. Fists up to the face, body tightening – a prep for flow, like a brother getting some no matter who is looking. Sweet life I do. Get the “long” and the “loyalty” and the “licking” and the “live” and the “laid” and the “legend” all on the same time and they’ll remember your shine. Eyes will catch the hits before they syllable the ground.
That last line is all about scansion, and it’s one of the most accurate scansion definitions I’ve ever read. At least that’s what happens to me.
Or consider this from page 45 of the same section:
and a bewildered next-time fire
of choked chords and percussive horns
Papa lit the behinds
of new bags with.
To quote Sweet Charles, “Yes it’s you”
the warm globe mourns . . .
for passing mashed potatoes and peas.
Gimme some more.
Call to mind the “be” from “be f-o-r-e” from the preface to the poem and make the “be” in “bewildered” an echo and extension. Do this in the mind near the remembrance of Papa, southern-styling your young “be”hind. Your voice, when reading, must not rest in any one bag. Passing is not rest. Like you, the gesture and line must “unit of gimme” some “unit of more.” A poem is just some.
That’s stage directions on how to read the poem. That’s also prosody. That’s Ellis telling the stage poet the academic significance of the poem, and Ellis telling the academic how to read the poem aloud.
As a result, Ellis has it doubly tough because he has to prove his poetry to the academics and to the spoken-word poets. He’s caught in the middle of the Page vs. Stage battle. In other words, as Ellis says, “I am weary of working / to prove myself equal.” That comes from the “Colored” section of “The Identity Repairman,” which is a wonderful poem that gives the history of African-Americans through the epithets of the times: “African,” “Slave,” “Negro,” “Colored,” “Black,” and “African-American.” (Who invented those words?)
There’s so much more to say about this collection, this voice, what the poems do, and what the poems say, but page space is limited. So I’ll end like this. Even though Thomas Sayers Ellis read and performed “The New Perfom-A-Form” at the “Futurism and the New Manifesto: Celebrating 100 Years of the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” event at the MoMA in 2009, this Vorticist forgives Ellis his Futurist leanings, because that’s a helluva manifesto and Skin, Inc. is a helluva collection of poems.//