Tongo Eisen-Martin - Waiting Behind Tornados For Food

Published November 2020


“I am trying to figure out the ruling class. How they raise their replacements…”

In this collection of poems and of five recent essays, his first to be published in the UK, Tongo Eisen-Martin reflects on poetry’s role in the tornado-like devastation of current political conjunctures: white supremacist street lynchings, the naked abuse of state power, the classed and racialised effects of a global pandemic. Eisen-Martin’s work crackles, investigates, worries, riffs, insists, explodes, presenting an empire in slow eclipse through the lenses of double consciousness, poems, poisons, prisons, “dry-Leninism”. This work is animated by the spark of individual phrases, turns of phrase, refrains: common sense and senses from the commons. Aphorisms, maxims, dispatches from “the hell / of where we are” (Joseph Jarman), Eisen Martin’s words are imbued with music which strains the edge of music and strains the edge of the poem; a chorus of voices filtered, refracted and remixed through the completely singular voice of its poet. Their architecture ranges across the page like that of the city—San Francisco—and its correlates whose interstices they rigorously trace, attentive to the spaces of daily life—tower blocks, vacant lots, streets, porches, bars, rooms, roads, cars—and the realities of power that cluster in and around them. 

With the nation collapsing around the corner, these texts inhabit “psychology of the mask”; “half distracted (half suicidal)”, they rest and rove by the “hard residing” of the porch, by the “kitchen table that likes to talk”, by “working class windows”, by walls with eyes and ears; then venture out in search of “socialist breakthroughs”, of revolution’s “amazing grace”. In this “cotton gothic society”, a “strange fruit theatre” where capitalism walks on water and people play dead “so they could be part of the miracle”, it can be hard to tell if you’re “alive” or “differently alive”. But Eisen-Martin knows that sometimes, it’s ghosts who write poems, and that there’s a criminality buried in art: “like introducing Gabriel Prosser to Thelonious Monk”. “World history has a proletariat when the lights come back on”.

TONGO EISEN-MARTIN is the author of someone’s dead already (Bootstrap Press, 2015) and Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights, 2017). He is an educator and organizer whose work centres on issues of mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings of Black people, and human rights, and includes a curriculum on the extrajudicial killing of Black People, “We Charge Genocide Again!”, which has been used as an educational and organizing tool throughout America. He lives in San Francisco.

A5, perfect-bound, 80pp.

Review by Jennifer Soong here.
Listed in the TLS 2021 Books of the Year by Jeremy Noel-Tod.

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