Thomas Sayers Ellis: Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf Press, 2010)

“A strong sense of play infuses Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems. This is a poet who can use the same word eight times in a single stanza without sounding redundant: … coloring color the color/ I want to color color, not the color/ color colors me.” – Wendy S. Walters, in a review in Bookforum Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Thomas Sayers Ellis (1963-) has divided the poems in Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems in six (or seven) parts: Four introductory poems, including Spike Lee at Harvard/Five Joints; Society for the Friends of Former Property; Mr. Dynamite Splits (on James Brown); Two Manifestos; The Judges of Craft; The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song; and Gone Pop (on Michael Jackson), demonstrating his range and virtuosity. 

Let us begin with taking a look at the two poetic manifestos: The New Perform-A-Form and Presidential Blackness.

Writing is not king./ Speak (from The Judges of Craft). The first manifesto, The New Perform-A-Form, tries to bridge the divide between “Academic” and “Spoken Word” poetry in the African American tradition: “A poem had to work on the page (if we wanted to be published), and on the stage (if we wanted to be recorded).”  

“The performance body, via breathing and gesture, dramatizes form. It makes it theater … The idea body, via text and thought, flattens form. It makes it fixed. It makes it language.”

“A perform-a-form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroad with one another. This coupling – the matrimony of page and stage – though detrimental to aspects of their individual traditions, will repair and continue the living word,” calling the late Sekou Sundiata (1948-2007) – of The Blue Oneness of Dreams and longstoryshort, CDs mixing poetry and music, a.o. – the last great perform-a-former.

Identity repair kit (from Absolute Otherwhere/Cave Canem, 2009). We turn now to the second manifesto, Presidential Blackness: “We miracles: We have not known true freedom in America or in Art, thus our work has struggled in containers not of our own construction; and yet, within those constraints, we have conjured a magnificent aesthetic toolbox.”

In the age of Barack Obama (2008-2016), Ellis was not one to subscribe to the idea of ‘post- blackness,’ an America where race no longer mattered, seeing American history and the color (and commerce) of one’s skin as key to African American identity:   

“It’s racist to erase Race (because “erase”/ means Blackness, ethnic cleansing,/ get rid of the Blacks); and worse to hack off history/ or any limb at any time, except for purposes/ of assimilation and modern design./ …” (The Obama Hour).

And The Identity Repairman remembers history: AFRICAN > SLAVE > NEGRO > COLORED > BLACK > AFRICAN AMERICAN: “Just looking/ at history hurts.”   

The Judges of Craft. “Thanks for your note. We’re actually very interested in poems that address issues of race and racism and wish we could run more of them. Most of what we get in that regard is mere subject matter; that is, there’s not enough craft to carry the content (though that is certainly not the case with “Spike Lee at Harvard,” which I am sure you’ll place somewhere very good).”

Spike Lee at Harvard begins: “ At the Grolier, I was/ the shipping clerk,/employed in a corner/ slim enough for a book./ I was surrounded by books,/ by boxes of books,/ and photographs of poets/ and by customers/ who loved poetry/and by famous poets/ who were also customers/ and that is where/ I got my first glimpse/ of the life of poetry/ (through the Grolier’s/ cinematic glass window)/ and where the life of poetry/ first governed me,/ …” – the poem that perhaps  most closely resembles the poems in Ellis’s first full length volume, The Maverick Room (Graywolf Press, 2005).

AWSs Ode pays tribute to British publisher Heinemann’s African Writers Series, and in A Galaxy of Black Writing/A Universal Course Ellis walks us through an alphabetical list of the titles of some 90 anthologies and magazines of African and African American literature, from Arna Bontemps’s American Negro Poetry to Paul Breman’s You Better Believe It.

The graphic poem, The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song, would seem to depend on how it looks on the page, typographically, but with its play with pronouns/vowels is equally dependent on being heard (read): U   O   I.   APO/ LOG/ IZE.   

Two poetic elegies. Mr. Dynamite Splits, described by Ellis as “A perform-a-form, photo-elegy with footnotes for feet work,” is a homage to James Joseph Brown. Jr. (1933-2006), the Godfather of Soul: Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud; Funky President; Living in America, a.o.

The photographs that accompany the poem were taken by Ellis at the Memorial Service for James Brown and his more than fifty years on stage, held at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem 28 December 2006 (his 1963 album Live at the Apollo “laid legend to myth” – Thomas Sayers Ellis).

The final poem, Gone Pop/Michael Joseph Jackson, constituting almost a quarter of the book, contains 15 brilliantly written biographical episodes from Jackson’s short life (1958-2009):

1. Falco Berigora: “Joseph wanted little falcons and got peacocks,/ infinite vultures, a lone prodigy.” 4. Lemme Tell You Now: “Motown made stars like Ford made cars.” 7. Bye Bye 5: “It was 5/ and it did not belong to them.// It belonged to him.” 13. Wacko Jacko: “The tabloids can’t keep up with the surgeries,/…/ so they make things up, things/ hideous as hearsay, weird things, we believe.” 14. White Skin, Black Surgical Masks: “.. black vs./ white, male/ vs. female// For vitiligo,/ make-up, .../” 15. The Last Anti-Gravity Lean Dream: “A mother and a father has lost one of its grown babies,/ the most famous of their famous children,//… Tragic mulatto, triumphant albino.”

IN THE POEM Absolute Otherwhere /Cave Canem, 2009 Thomas Sayers Ellis writes: “There is more to words than becoming books.” In 2014 he was a co-founder of HAGL/Heroes Are Gang Leaders, a poetry-jazz group which received the American Book Award for Oral Literature in 2018.