In the poems of Eisen-Martin, the violent truth of the racialized city, and an address to the forms of collective life that might survive it.
Heaven Is All Goodbyes
City Lights | $15.95 | 136 pages
Tongo Eisen-Martin is the principal author, in conjunction with comrades in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, of a curriculum — “We Charge Genocide Again!” — that sets out to contextualize and organize against the extrajudicial police killing of black people. It situates extrajudicial murder in the broader historical and political context of “the maintenance of hegemonic power in the United States,” and defines it as a feature of US class structure, which in turn comprises interlocking modes of organized violence. One central claim of the text is that the ongoing practice of violence requires that extrajudicial murder seem not only justifiable but also logical, intrinsic to social function and reproduction. Disrupting that logic is one intervention a properly political poetry might make. Eisen-Martin’s collection Heaven Is All Goodbyes can serve as an example of what such poetry might look like.
Political poetry in this sense does not tell us how to vote or how to live, but instead makes us uncomfortably aware of the discrepancy between our desires and attachments — our investments and commitments — and the institutionalized avenues available for their satisfaction and realization. Such poetry may make us question whether voting, for example, is the best avenue through which to achieve substantive freedom. The contrasting term to “political poetry” here is not “mainstream” but “middle class” poetry, referring less to a class than an affective orientation toward the existing order. Such poetry resolves the apparent contradiction between quotidian pleasures and desires, on one hand, and the alienating, calculative logic of the unliving and unlivable, on the other, through the facile solidarities of interpersonal recognition, reinforcements of the common sense, and appeals to individual morality or sympathy. For all their crafted semblance of immediacy, middle-class lyrics typically present as universal normative experiences that reflect and reinforce the genocidal cultural logic Eisen-Martin’s curriculum outlines. Clichéd sentiments implicitly provide cover for quotidian violence, or personalize and depoliticize it, all the while evacuating everything messy and singular about subjectivity.
To my mind, this collection’s mode of political engagement reveals the ultimate intellectual and political bankruptcy of perennial debates surrounding the so-called “avant-garde.” As Fredric Jameson argued regarding the more fundamental “high”/“mass” culture binary, avant-garde and middle-class poetry are inseparably twin: they mutually reinforce forms of aesthetic production that correspond to historically specific moments in the development of capitalism. The issue is not that middle-class lyrics — often mischaracterized as “workshop poetry,” which in turn stands in for the shifting class, racial, and institutional dynamics surrounding poetry’s production — do not accord with readers’ experiences, but that their prestige forms too rarely offer a vision of desirable forms of life. The strength of Eisen-Martin’s work generally, and this collection in particular, is the glimpses it offers readers not only of the ways social life and organization exist, but the ways we might desire it otherwise.
Heaven Is All Goodbyes addresses itself to readers uncomfortable with poetry understood as a celebration of the paper-thin solidarities and small gestures of a shared morality, the celebration of survival that does not ask what makes life difficult. Yet, from its dedication — “Like 50 familiar postures in the dark . . . Run here. We will save your life” — its solution is not sloganeering through seemingly transparent expression. Neither the speaker nor addressee of the imperative “run here” is given; the collective “we” is hard-won rather than assumed as the outcome of readily obvious historical predicates and antagonisms. Forms of salvation are fraught and uncertain — the collection’s title itself is a caution against certain narratives or “familiar postures” of redemption. Read as a poem, which its presentation invites, it serves as an apt preparation for the strategies of the collection: assertive and advanced (not hindered) by implicit skepticism toward the given. Its discourse is terse but not obtuse, direct but withholding. Read as a private message it works in roughly similar ways.
From the first poem, “Faceless,” the collection blends flat assertion — “Warehouse jobs are for communists” — with an indirection and will to discrepancy that abuts surrealism: “But now more corridor and hallway have walked into our lives. Now the whistling is less playful and the barbed wire is overcrowded too.” The ironic reversal that has corridor and hallway walking, rather than walked through, initially appears playful. The next sentence undercuts play through metonymy insofar as “barbed wire” figures prison. Corridor and hallway apparently refer to passageways between defined spaces, indoors or outdoors, figuratively connecting the unthought spaces of incarceration and the nominally free. The next lines read:
My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison.
If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city
At the level of the nation or the planet, “overcrowding” usually activates a Malthusian argument promoting eugenics (I wanted to type “genocide”) as pseudo-feminist, anti-poverty measure. Alternatively, in the instance of prisons, it promotes an argument for constructing new carceral spaces and enhancing police budgets, which can only produce more “criminals” by broadening the category. Nowhere in the collection is the familiar notion that crime results from misfit “mentality.” Instead, the social situation does not fit the people; rather, the people fit the social situation. Here and throughout the collection, the prison is a defining feature of modern social space, so “barbed wire” is at least partially figurative. What keeps us captive? What would it mean to be free?
The latter question finds no answers in poetry, but rather in the change of society. Poetry can make the present situation thinkable, in part by giving names to common forms of experience that otherwise go unremarked. Heaven Is All Goodbyes does this by drawing attention to the alienated forms of sociality presently available, while maintaining a tough commitment to the sociality of speech and, beneath that, language. Recurrent references to cigarettes, labor, police, and prisons initially appear to be emblems of working-class solidarity, but those references operate alongside similarly prevalent references to unfinished or interrupted conversation and irregular irruptions of dialogue. Eisen-Martin blends prose and verse. Individual poems typically alternate staccato, clause-based lines, interpolated dialogue (untagged), and tight enjambed stanzas positioned near page margins. Altogether, they invoke the peculiar temporality of working-class life. Represented objects such as cigarettes alongside rhetorical tendencies to subordinate the sentence to the list, the litany, and other organizing forms of thought create little pockets for breath, little pockets of life within the suffocating texture of the unliving, moments best conceived as insolated seeds of time yearning for legibility as chronological progression, if not progress. Eschewing the singular voice or focalizing consciousness, the poetry instead features collectivities of different scales — the family, the neighborhood, the guild — drawing out the rhythmic feel of the attachments and common desires, not necessarily articulate, for alternative ways of living. Put differently, these poems limn a speculative architecture of what common life could be. The cumulative effect is moving, less sympathetic toward the dispossessed than in solidarity with them, with an aesthetic agenda at least as ambitious and deep as its political commitments.
As I read this collection, I found myself thinking about an early debate between W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke about the possibility of a political black modernist art, a debate framed in terms of the relationship between art and propaganda. Du Bois famously declared that “all art is propaganda and ever must be”: that is, all cultural production under capitalism necessarily serves ruling interests, so black artists have an obligation to take the side of the oppressed. Locke rejoined that propaganda (or, in more contemporary terms, protest) “perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates.” Both ultimately describe the conditions of art, and reveal the falseness of the binary between “political” and “middle class” poetry I described previously. However, if one is to avoid the poetry of pity, which provides an affective release for the oppressor, or of cheap solidarity, which can preclude historical and political understanding of domination, the question is how one is to take sides. The strength of Heaven Is All Goodbyes in this regard is that it manages to transcend empty sloganeering and refuse the seductions of easy pessimism, bombastic militancy, or unearned optimism. Its value is not its interpretation or representation of the world, though poetry inevitably represents, and representation is an interpretation of the world. Rather, it invites readers to examine their attachments; it helps generate new concepts and encourages aesthetic and political experimentation; and it invites readers to a world, this one, where we might live otherwise.
In its awareness of the character and texture of life shaped by the possibility and threat of spectacular black dying, Eisen-Martin seems to set himself to answering a question June Jordan posed: “What shall we do, we who did not die? What shall we do now? How shall we grieve, and cry out loud, and face down despair? Is there an honorable non-violent means towards mourning and remembering who and what we loved?” “All friendships have dead people in them,” Eisen-Martin writes, and mourning is part of what it is to live a life. It is right to focus on the ways the state and those who understand themselves to act on its behalf deploy different scales of violence. Focusing on only the most extreme and spectacular forms of violence takes attention from the forms of life and social reorganization that grow within and despite quotidian violence, tempting us to see conspiracy rather than the system’s intended functioning.
But violence is only part of the picture. The other part is collective investment in the cruel optimism of bourgeois society — that is, in the social forms and horizons of fulfillment that stand to destroy life as such. More than grieving the dead and the ideology that normalizes their killing, poetry should encourage disinvestment in the state of affairs that normalizes death and suffering. It should encourage broad reimagining of social arrangement, and address itself to the forms of collective life that may emerge. Heaven Is All Goodbyes does just that, and offers a glimpse of what poetry might follow the dissolution of the current order.