Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2010. 112 pages. $23.00
So, you want to know what this book is “like”? What category it fits in? Well, you can go to hell. Or back to the library. Read this book on its own terms: that is the condition set forth by Ellis in his opening poem “As Segregation, As Us.” He writes: “Everything supposedly ‘like’ something else, or forced into skin, / has already been taken advantage of / by an Aesthetic (Affirmative) Action. / If we could measure the integrity of a simile / It wouldn’t be any different” (3). To make a comparison is to situate this new individual work in an over-determined landscape. Delineations among literary borders as among races cover over the real that arises from the particular: “These genres these borders these false distinctions / are where we stay at / in freedom’s way” (3).
Ellis portrays the fitfulness of a living being resistant to a cladogram of genres, species, or races. As biography kills the living person, so a Linnaean tree taxidermizes emergent species. Likewise, a typology of this book as black or white, as American or African-American, as poetry or graphic art preemptively fixes the living art. Skin, Inc. disrupts each of these categorical boundaries as it ranges from lyrical onomatopoeia to graphic art on the page, from graphic to photographic, from revolutionary manifesto to confessional meditation, from prose paragraphs to subtly lineated stanzas. Where the contemporary literary scene divides into the “white space” of poetry on the page and the “black space” of spoken word, Ellis intends to fragment that chess-like opposition: he tells us that the “first footwork [of identity repair] . . . is to fragment the linearity of the contemporary literary, color line” (75).
It’s not that there are no groups, Ellis tells us. In fact, “We know there’s a recognizable We, / an I-identifiable many” (174). This plurality, this “we,” figures and refigures through the book. The book also repeatedly addresses a “you.” So much depends on how you perceive that “you.” Do you feel included or excluded by the pronoun? Is it the second person anonymous, as in, “You know how it feels when . . . ” or is it the second person direct address, as in, “You, there!” Ellis calls this the “door of the pronoun” (43). For the most part, the antecedent of the “you” is plural, or singular-plural, “an all within one, the soul of many” (43). Occasionally, it narrows to a particular you—James Brown, President Obama. But for the most part, Ellis is happy to keep the numerical aspect of the “you” open. He is “committed to subject-verb disagreement, its liberating conflict” (76).
In a footnote-like paragraph at the bottom of a page, he instructs the speaker (or the reader?) that prior to beginning the stanza in the second person there should be “Stage, stanza, some silence, a moment of preface, of breathing, before the door of the pronoun” (43). In other words, if you are going to read this poem correctly, you cannot simply pass over the pronoun “you.” You must pause and “recite the emergence of fire so that it becomes attitude, weather and aesthetic.” The speaking of the “you” sets the weather, the atmosphere of the poem in each new performance. When you address the “you,” do you do so intimately? Diffidently? Inclusively? Violently? You must admit audibly your relationship to this pronoun.
The pronouns “you” and “we” comprise living bodies that are busy remaking their individual and collective selves on the fly. These bodies, these identities, are as malleable and fragile as that of Michael Jackson. Ellis’s series poem “Gone Pop” pays tribute to Jackson and his family. At times it reads like an elegy, at times a mournful critique. Jackson’s father “wanted little falcons and got peacocks” (139), Ellis explains in the first section titled “Falco Berigora” (the Latin genus and species of “brown falcons”). The Jackson children did not fit this typology. Instead, they were peacocks, brilliant birds, who only fly briefly, defensively.
Unlike the peacocks, this is not a colorful book. In this book the very lack of color is at issue. It is literally a book in black and white: black letters on white pages, like a number of other books you may have read. But in this book the very foreground and background of that framework is questioned. Although poetry of page is portrayed as “white” poetry, Ellis finds that “There are small Black settlements / throughout every alphabet” (174). Even as he plays with this black-white opposition, he makes it problematic, just as he does with other dichotomies. Sound and sense can be distinguished but cannot be separated, Ellis suggests; no more can his work be categorized as either auditory or visual. Ellis shows us time in his most graphic poems: he depicts the very temporality of looking across the page. In this, he stylistically and literally alludes to the Futurist movement. He most directly evokes the Futurists in “Two Manifestos” which includes the sections “The New Perform-A-Form,” and “Presidential Blackness: [A Race Fearlessness Manifolk Destiny],” and in “Mr. Dynamite Splits,” an homage to James Joseph Brown. The “perform-a-form” ’s command for participation echoes earlier Ellis work in The Maverick Room.
These poems structurally require interpretation the way a musical score requires interpretation insofar as it is to be lifted from the page into sound. Not speech only but reading can lift an Ellis poem into sound. But the difference between reading and speaking an Ellis poem will be felt. As we are told in “Two Manifestos,” “a perform-a-form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another. This coupling, though detrimental to aspects of their individual traditions, will repair and continue the living word” (71). These poems require the living word. When do words live? Well, when they are not dead: dead of meaning, deadening, dead because unread, unthought, unspoken.
In pursuit of this liveliness, Ellis claims he is too busy making art to concern himself with genre: he is “breathing, / repairing, breathing, // half-interested in progress / and half-interested // in progression, never finished” (6). But this purported lack of concern is belied by the numerous techniques that serve a hyperconscious evasion of typology. Such contradictions are rampant through Ellis’s manifesto. He tells us in the first poem “I don’t allude like you. I don’t call me anything,” but the poems that follow offer one allusion after another, one name after another. If you expect a resolution to such contradiction, then you won’t enjoy Ellis’s work. But, if you can accept that, frustrating as they are, these contradictions reflect the reality of individual and collective working-identity-maintenance, then you will find much to enjoy. The pleasure comes in part from knowing that Ellis has anticipated and negotiated so many possible reactions to his work. He even includes quotations from imagined or real—I can’t tell—reviewers’ and colleagues’ responses to his work.
In that sense, reading Ellis can feel like playing chess against a master. You know that every move you will make has been anticipated. He thinks what you’ll think about what he thinks about what you think he thinks, whoever you are. He throws down his opening gambit: the claim that this work is un-categorizable, un-like your expectations. He then provokes you into thinking about your expectations, your hopes, your categories, your relation to all three. As in chess, the gambit is offensive, delimits the possibility of reply.
Like Ellis’s graphic poems, the game of chess is deceptively spatial—it appears to take place on the board, in space—but in fact, it is temporal: a playing out of patterns between the white spaces and the black spaces. You’d think there is nothing really for the player to do: the rules are given; one merely adheres. Creativity in chess involves innovation with the rules: an interpretation, not a disruption of rule systems. Poetry, thank goodness, is not like chess. The poet both creates the constitutive rules of play and also plays along with the regulative rules she has made up. (Regulative rule: this poem will be in iambs. Follow the rule until you want to break it. Constitutive rule: poems exist in order to repair identity. Follow rule unless you need to change it.)
Ellis seems to challenge himself with remaking the game, playing it and breaking it in this way with each new effort. It must be exhausting to be Thomas Sayers Ellis, to work with that much self-consciousness. (I would never lift a pen.) But reading this particular mind-body at work is exhilarating.