Beachhead America: Tongo Eisen-Martin and the Politics of Place

In “Just Keep Running,” an interview for Bomb Magazine, Tongo Eisen-Martin says

“our bodies are in some ways inconsequential to the craft. It’s really just thoughts and the physicality of it is only to give yourself that little space to play with your thoughts and organize them and dialogue with them or have them dialogue with each other. Synthesize new things. You’re kind of like a voice with no physical location.”

I’m not sure what the role of a poet’s body is in relation to their craft; I hope it is in most ways inconsequential but, in this case, it is Eisen-Martin’s approach to voice and place that I find most interesting in Heaven is All Goodbyes (City Lights Publishers, 2018). When I talk about voice, I mean what Claudia Rankine refers to as this book’s “polyvocal assemblages” and when I talk about place, I mean what the speaker, or speakers as it may well be, term “Gary, Indiana,” “San Francisco,” “Beachhead america,” and “Chicago.” I mean prison, and city, “pyramid of corner stores,” white house and “Where Windows Should Be.” One project Heaven is All Goodbyes is carrying is an effort to, if not place voices in physical locations which could be charted on a map, then to place them on the mental map of American culture and in relation to the prepositions of power— “state violence rises down.” Other projects include considering how those who have voice have power, and looking at how voices, buildings, and poems are all subject to an architectural framework which can apply to them simultaneously. Eisen-Martin achieves this most through an energetic use of line length and justification.

            I am interested in how the places, bodies, and voices in “The Course of Meal” are navigated. The beginning of the poem sets the scene—so much of Eisen-Martin’s writing resembles a script for the stage—in a San Francisco that “was not there in the first place.” It is a call to recognize both the colonization/renaming of land and the reality that cities are as much concepts of culture as they are collections of buildings. But then the font is changed to italics and seems to denote a kind of logical voice. One whose line-length is determined by grammar, by clearly denoting options as in: “Or (put another way)/ State violence Rises down/ Or/ Still life is just getting warmed up/ Or/ Army life is looking for a new church and ignored all other suggestions.” It is a series of plainly denoted possibilities. The length of the lines is not determined by any kind of math but, instead, by how long the grammatical clause takes; every line break happens at a break in the grammar. Just after this though, another voice is introduced. Its font is different, it is un-italicized; its line breaks are different, enjambed at the end and stopped at the middle, and it is introduced with quotation marks as clear indicators that the speaker has changed as well. And it is in this section that the poem really begins to explore a surrealism of place. Eisen-Martin writes:

“this is the worst downtown yet. And I’ve borrowed a cigarette everywhere
…I’ve taken many a walk to the back of a bus that led on out the back of a
storyteller’s prison sentence, then on out the back of slave scars.”

It is clear to me that this is a different speaker, a different voice than the rationalized list-maker who precedes it. This voice is more interested in figurative space than an analytical approach. It is a voice which allows the back of a bus to enter on a prison sentence, and then out the side of scars. On my first reading of this poem, I noted that it was a kind of surrealism. I still think that is true but now I realize that it cannot be compared to the Dadaists who saw such desolation and destruction in their life-times that they sought to create art from scratch without the burdens of that history. This speaker is aware of those burdens and elsewhere in the book, in “The Simplicity of Talent,” Eisen-Martin writes, “my art is rational and therefore my life is in danger.” The rationality that Eisen-Martin is referring to, I think, is not the kind that might be mistaken for “these words make sense in a literal way.” Instead it is rational, and therefore dangerous, because it is thinking through things that our government, that our tastemakers, and that our policing forces, would prefer to be taken at face value. “The Course of Meal” and other poems in Heaven is All Goodbyes do trend toward the surreal but not Dada and not senselessness.

            “The Simplicity of Talent” continues to vacillate between dialogue and voices in much the same that “Course of Meal” does. Long lines like “I tell the witness that all characters are in motion regardless of what that day did to your disposition,” right justified and reaching across the page, feel different from short lines like “Every room has a kitchen in it/ Every life has company to feed/ Every room has a rumble in the corner// 8th grade heroin in my hand,” right justified, never stretching more than half-away across the visible space of the page. Other lines are contained by quotation marks, or fit to the left margin, or linger in the space between margins. And I think this is a clever way of creating the feel of Claudia Rankine’s term “polyvocal assemblages.” The content is so fluid that when these pieces are scattered around the page, their justification as a typographical technique seems to justify their marking space for their voice.

            And throughout the book there is a tension placed upon whom quoted material comes from and the power that gives them. I want, especially, to talk about this stanza from “The Simplicity of Talent”—I’ve tried to maintain some formatting for effect:

             “you caught me,” said the hangman to the condemned
“caught me red handed,” but the hangman’s hand kept moving nevertheless.

In this passage, we do not hear the proof the condemned person has collected but it is not enough to stay the execution. And besides, being red handed is kind of the executioner’s job. But the privilege of being quoted, the privilege of having a voice, is integral to this hangman’s power in the poem. I’m thinking of a passage from Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Utopia. “Queer evidence” is, according to him, “an evidence that has been queered in relation to the laws of what counts as proof.” In other words, the same proof or evidence can be changed in nature just by the power dynamics of its subject. In the case of this poem, the executioner and the condemned. Munoz goes to write, “Queerness has an especially vexed relationship to evidence. Historically, evidence of queerness has been used to penalize and discipline queer desires, connections, and acts.” I think the evidence that the condemned person in this poem presented, which we do not hear, is a queer one because we do not hear it. The power is the hangman’s because he is the quoted person, the representation of the law. Confronted with evidence, his power remains. Evidence is only ever effective against those society marginalizes and takes voice from.

            In addition to Eisen-Martin’s architecture of the line and page justification, I am also really interested in the way cities, houses, and prisons become figurative spaces in this book and how they express the same themes of power-dynamics, containment, and connections which the poems’ voices instruct. In “May Day,” Eisen-Martin puts a lot of focus onto the architecture of everyday life, the places we inevitably fill with voice. He writes, “under the house” and “while we spend the new sea level at the store.” He writes, “the morning is a zoo in love/ A killing field’s smile// where they send applause in front of their troops.” And, most intriguingly, he writes:

When a neighborhood is in pain, houses stutter at each other

in a theater of human and plaster


No one ever goes free, but the walls become more thoughtful and

remember our names.


Men think they are passing around cigarettes
But really cigarettes are passing around men

houses stutter at each other
about the rich man’s world

and the poor man’s water

about the rich man’s world

and the poor man’s repetition


The poem builds itself around images of buildings which are made because of their placement and the prepositions. We are not in the house, we are under it. (Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, suggests that under the house, the cellar is near a figurative representation of the subconscious.) Sea-level, in this poem, is not a marker of space but duration of time that can be spent at the store, and morning is a zoo and a killing field. These are all such unusual, again surreal seeming, ways to think about space.  But it is worth noting that none of them inherently include speech. The neighborhood does. The houses stutter! At each other! They are communicating! And they are talking, of all things, about ownership of life and place. They are talking about how it is poor people who repeat themselves. I recognize now my own verbal and poetic habit of repeating myself. And I think about the way the houses and apartment buildings in poor neighborhoods seem to repeat themselves block after block while the towers of the rich are all completely unique modern monuments. Eisen-Martin’s poetics follow this trend too. The nitty gritty details seem to repeat. They change and gather force over time but mostly the forms themselves remain the same. At the 2018 Sarah Lawrence Alumni Writing Festival Traci Brimhall said, “Love is anaphora: repetition and change over time,” and I see that at play here.

            At their Craft of Poetry Colloquium, Kenneth Something began by describing how the founding of the Black Panther Party began with poetry. Kenneth mentioned that their one hope was that a poem of theirs might affect this same sort of catalytic incitation. Claudia Rankine echoes that in her praise for Heaven is All Goodbyes, saying, “This is resistance of sound.” And Joshua Bennett writes, “In a moment marked by cynicism and disenchantment, Eisen-Martin remains a believer: in the commons, in collective struggle, in our capacity to flourish in the midst of what we were never meant to survive.” Neither of those two blurbs seem like hyperbole to me. They are representative of how I feel about this book too and the things it makes possible in on a macro-scale. On the micro, however, I think it allows me new ways forward in my own work of poetry. Where I have always been, like Eisen-Martin seems to be, interested in how the architecture of poetry mirrors and represents the architecture of cities and surroundings, I now have a new model for how to play on the page. In the poem I turned in for my first workshop of the semester I was trying to find a way to allow three separate and distinct voices to be heard at the same time. Eisen-Martin, I think, does that, and it’s an amazing and unanticipated model for me at this time in my writing life. It has also inspired me to go back to Cruising Utopia and The Poetics of Space. It has inspired me to think about how voices and places are nearly always inseparable because wherever there is a human witness or observation, there will be human noise. There are no quiet places, no matter what Hollywood might tell us.