“I am not an I. I am a black commons.”
H. Jordan reviews Tongo Eisen Martin’s new book of poems Heaven Is All Goodbyes, published in September 2017 by City Lights.
It’s 1967 in America. Hot summer. The Detroit riots leave more than 2,500 stores looted or burned, 43 people dead and thousands homeless. The economic costs are estimated at over $40 million. Half a million American soldiers are stationed in Vietnam. Last year Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther party in Oakland. As society collapses, a motley crew of predominantly white Diggers, communards, draft-dodgers, outlaws and runaways flee to the hills of Mendocino County in northern California. Out on the land, they build autonomous communes in a bid to reject the hierarchies that structured the capitalist reality and create actually-existing alternatives to the capitalist death star. By the 1970s, thousands of such communes will sprout up in the territory between Big Sur and the Canadian border.
Fast forward to 2017. Tracing the same route from Northern California towards Canada would take you from somewhere around Google Village in San Jose all the way up to the Amazon Campus in Seattle. If you take a hike up the mountains of Big Sur you’ll find that the only remnants of those ‘alternative infrastructures’ from the 1970s are a few bone-dry saunas baking in the sun, abandoned aluminum shelters, weed farms and a lot of meth. Almost nothing remains. But things are different in the city of San Francisco, where the relics of the utopian counterculture movement have been transformed into a technocratic hell. The dreams of subverting society’s rigid structures were recuperated, and in the process produced the precarious world of whatever the fuck Valencia Street is supposed to be now.
In short, a lot has changed and, for people living on the margins of society, not for the better. Yet life continues, and it is in this dismal yet futuristic landscape of contemporary San Francisco that Tongo Eisen-Martin’s new book of poetry Heaven Is All Goodbyes brings us. Though subdivided into individual poems, the book in its entirety reads like one single litany that narrates a bus ride as we tour the city streets, stopping at the “police state candy dispenser[s] you call a neighborhood.” The sights we see along the way are not pretty or polished; the city is in decay: “hopefully you find comfort downtown. But if not, we’ve brought you enough cigarette filters to make a decent winter coat.” We are shown an inhospitable city: “San Francisco will kill you.”
The narrative itself emerges through a trail of ricocheted voices that transform and mutate as they are simultaneously interrupted, cut-off, left jagged.
“Porch Lights” is what they call our guns
I’ve seen this house in a dream
I believe a trumpet was the first possessed object to fly
“keep going,” she cheers
In this passage, so characteristic of his style, Eisen-Martin plays with text alignment, italics as well as quotations. The effect is a feeling of dissonance, a sense that all continuity or duration in time is obstructed. Just as these lines seem to have trouble corresponding with those immediately preceding them, many of the characters’ activities in the book are stunted. One character “wandered to the edge of a parking lot” and another recalls “being shaken down for two dollars by parking lot security.” Rather than grand excursions undertaken to gather life experience, the journeys through this urban landscape are thwarted by banal and everyday encounters with the police. The neighborhoods traversed along the way resemble penal colonies, where “the barbed wire is overcrowded, too.” Prisons and police, stops and frisks, guns and death – these are the givens of the situation, the pretexts that allow anything like civil society to function at all. Eisen-Martin chronicles the aimless wandering of a society unsure of how to compose its own decomposition.
This overbearing environment isn’t characterized by stagnation, but by continuous and frenetic shifts. “This is the worst downtown yet,” Eisen-Martin writes, evoking a downtown that constantly updates itself like software. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel The City and the Stars (1948), when he writes “The wall flickered partially out of existence as he stepped through to the corridor.” In Clarke’s utopian vision, the buildings constantly re-arrange themselves to make circulating through them as expedient as possible. In its place, Eisen-Martin’s inferno is decorated with a “building [that] wants to climb up and jump off another building.” Rather than smart, this city is suicidal. His description of a cities is all too timely, especially considering it was published just a month after Trump’s executive veto of mandates requiring that federal infrastructure be built to withstand rising sea levels, and two weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated Louisiana and Texas. The way Trump is planning the cities of the future is macabre because he is planning them in such a way that they will not be prepared for the future: he’s shipping us all off to outer space without spacesuits.
The absurdity of this asinine race towards the future is thematized elsewhere in the book, like when Eisen-Martin writes “I’ll be driving out of town for the next five minutes.” Driving out of town implies having a destination, a moment of arrival. A drive out of town that only lasts five minutes seemingly lacks a destination entirely. This line, strange as it is, substitutes the temporality of something that would normally last at least an hour or two (driving out of town) with a timeline that only lasts five minutes. In doing so, the activity of driving out of town is made to seem surreal. The whole journey loses its meaning.
In Eisen-Martin’s poems, a new relationship to time emerges, one that opposes the unidirectional passage of time into the future. His poems move in different directions rather than just forward: elevators travel “side to side,” voices travel “backwards coming up through the page” and people walk upside-down. In another passage he writes, “I’m proud to deserve to die. . . I will eat my dinner extra slow tonight.” Here, a meditation on death is an antidote to the hyper-contracted time that characterizes fear, panic and frenzy. Someone deserving to die evokes, in this context, a person sentenced to death. This ability to go slow and maintain presence of mind in the face of that death sentence makes a parody of a society enslaved to the imperatives of development and progress. “Perhaps the greatest transgression possible under neoliberal capitalism is to stand very still,” tweets Anne Boyer. I couldn’t agree more.
For us humans, time comes to an end when we die. In an epoch like our own, characterized by police genocide, ecological disaster, economic collapse, threats of nuclear war and species extinction, there is no shortage of memento mori, no shortage of reasons to fear that our lives could be cut short at any moment. In spite of that, Eisen-Martin writes from the eye of the storm. His words are unaffected by the constant crises that punctuate media headlines and regulate the rhythm of our attention. “It’s cool to panic for a second / Composure is wasted on your worst enemies.” The voice here is serene and reassuring, full of compassion, wise as if having traversed the dimensions of time and space, having died a thousand deaths. “I’ve taken many a walk to the back of the bus that led onto the back of a storyteller's prison sentence then out the back of slave scars.” The narrator’s capacity to travel back in time and speak from firsthand experience about America’s brutal origins in plantation slavery and segregation brings to mind George Jackson’s journey through time, narrated in one of his letters in Soledad Brother: “I recall the very first kidnap. I've lived through the passage, died on the passage, lain in the unmarked, shallow graves of the millions who fertilized the Amerikan soil with their corpses; cotton and corn growing out of my chest.” What is relevant in the comparison between the two authors is how both Jackson and Eisen-Martin conjure up a force-field with their poetic writing, a form of psychological protection against a reality in which the authors’ bodies and thus vitality are threatened by enclosure in a prison cell. Rather than enforcing docility and isolation, enclosure becomes an impetus that spurs the imagination across boundless ranges of time and space. This imaginary parallel realm of experience is the sphere of mythic figures, spirits, of revolutionary transformation; it is autonomous from the world that structures the individual’s finitude. As Eisen-Martin says, “I am not an I. I am a black commons.” When I read this, I start to imagine poetry as a martial art, a mode of psychic self-defense in the face of the actually-existing hell that is 2017 America. At the same time it is an invitation to see; to not let our imaginations be destroyed by fear.
Heaven Is All Goodbyes make no promises – “futureless is this music.” Instead, it recites a prayer that doesn’t expect to be to be answered:
“knowing what you know now
would you still have written fortunes
on the bottoms of church shoes
and put them back on the rack”
At the same time, there is no lapse into total despair. After all, “there might be heaven” if we can find stillness amidst the adversity. If we can recognize that a time of collapse is also a time of transition and everything really does matter because everything is up for grabs. If we can find the composure, the clarity that cuts through the “chorus’s confusion” of our present moment. Maybe history is just the stories we tell each other. It’s a question of composition. “I would like to tell you that somewhere / Despite the checkpoints / There is an apostle body in which I can be set free”, Eisen-Martin writes in the poem ‘All Bets’. Maybe we don’t need to flee to the next place, maybe Ursula Le Guin is right, maybe our “utopian image is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism, in a one way future consisting only of growth.” Maybe what we need is staying power, the power to interrupt the coming and going of things transient and meaningless. Maybe time is actually on our side – as Eisen-Martin’s poem ‘I have to talk to myself differently now’ says, “The communist has plenty of time / To finish his cigarette / And lie to his boss.” The equanimity and confidence of these poems cut through catastrophe, reminding us to stay attuned to the present moment, sensitive to whatever circumstances we may end up in. The last page of one of the more outstanding poems, Four Walls, tells us of just that:
“Said, running water is a myth
It’s us who run up, down, and along the side of this water
And people don’t rise from the grave
They are not laid down neither
It’s us who flip all round their body
So beware when the people around you look like they are about to jump
It might be your time
You’ll feel a heat
And when four walls demand to be four walls
And the earth outside mutes
Do not panic
Do not recreate the earth outside
Do not tell jokes to yourself
Do not talk disrespectfully to the four walls
Instead, unclench your fist and walk away
There might be heaven
If you understand the nature of the world”
Inspired by Eisen-Martin’s book, author H. Jordan wrote the following; a kind of coda to this review [—eds]
It’s 2016. I’m in jail in Paris. God knows how long. I’m bored without my phone. This withdrawal combined with the suspense of waiting to be transported to the courthouse sends me into a spiral. Alone in my cell, this pressure starts to break me. But I do not let it. Without a pen or paper, I compose letters out loud to my friends on the outside, knowing they are working to get me out as soon as possible. In my letters I let them know that I miss them from inside of this cell. I recite these out loud for my cell walls to hear. Maybe the cops are listening and they won’t understand a word I’m saying, they don’t speak a lick of English anyhow. No matter, these words that will never arrive calm me, provide me with momentary quiet.
It’s 2017. I’m in a busted apartment in Chicago. It’s too cold to get out of bed. Last night someone froze to death in the alley outside my window. The gas company shut off my heater because it’s toxic, and I can still smell the carbon monoxide. The inside of my bedroom door has a time and a date written on it: “07/08/2013 12:52 AM” I wonder what happened then. Who else was trapped inside this room without heat, without a job, with nothing to do. Why did they write that on the wall?
It’s 2027. The big earthquake has finally wrecked downtown San Francisco, the one we’ve all been waiting for. Wifi is down all over the city and everybody who can afford to do so has evacuated. I return to the city of my young adulthood and step into the calm of a forsaken place. I walk across the crumbled ceilings and listen to the whistling of the wind kicking thru the ruins. These walls remember my name and that’s bad news for me.
It’s September 15, 2017. I’m in Atlanta writing about poetry and the police at a cafe in the morning. There’s a man in the cafe from Florida who lost everything in Hurricane Irma. He uses the cafe as an open air storage unit for his luggage and his dry cleaned suits because he’s already checked out of his hotel room. He’s headed back to Florida in 3 hours. I read Eisen-Martin’s line “May you swim out of this business alive.” I smile and look up. He wishes us good luck.
It’s 8:00 pm later that same night – killer pig Jason Stokely has been acquitted of murder charges. How far away is St. Louis? Can we make it up there by tomorrow night? “I’m off to make a church bell out of a bank window”