Improving the Taught Toolbox: A Review of Thomas Sayers Ellis

Christy DelahantyM. A. K. Halliday, a prominent British linguist, has expressed the difference between written and spoken language thus: "While the complexity of conscious language is dense and crystalline, formed by a closely-packed construction of words and word clusters, the complexity of unconscious language is fluid and choreographic." If we, like Halliday, are used to such a distinction being upheld -- in the differences between newspapers and small talk or memos and meetings -- then Thomas Sayers Ellis' Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems will at first seem strange indeed.

Ellis, commenting on poetry's split into spoken-word and academic camps, stresses that his aim is "to make every line do both." And because his most recent collection is a book rather than a performance or a recording, his lines strike their reader as shockingly choreographic for their form.

It's not just the overt wordplay or the snippets of colloquial speech intermixed with historical imagery that lends his work this fluid feel. Though lines like "Breakfast and Black fist" first hint at a cross-genre telling, a flip through the book as a whole confirms it. The words on the page themselves look to be dancing, spaced asymmetrically here or right-justified there, depending. One section, "The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song," even toys with font size; in one case a single vowel, U, nearly puts a page at capacity, with a font size that looks to be triple-digit.

So it is that Ellis incorporates strange, vivid bites of (mostly urban) America, with one eye trained on black history and culture and another on the nuances of his craft. This dual focus is particularly apparent in such lines as these: "Ratio of us to them / far worse than / commas to words" or "Much like a drum / in a metaphor, or a muffled sermon / on the symptoms of power."

As a unique work of poetry, Skin, Inc. captivates. But in Ellis' experimentation, and despite every tool he uses to push poetry's limits, he loses something of "academic" poetry's charm. His book has neither the goal nor the consolation prize of beauty; from the cover to the inconsistencies in typesetting and language level, the aesthetic is (it is nearly impossible to tell) either unnerving or nonexistent. But with Ellis' goal of identity repair ― "[to acknowledge] that many of the tools in the 'taught toolbox' need cultural improving" ― it's no surprise that he puts craft on the back burner in an attempt to get at grittier truths. It is, after all, the collection's overt mission.

So perhaps it is that by sacrificing an aesthetic that might cry for crystalline expression, Ellis is able to pursue his literary intentions with no-holds-barred aggression and succeed in conveying a choreographic sensibility to readers of written poetry.

--Christy Delehanty

Thomas Sayers Ellis's books include Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (2010), The Maverick Room (2005), and The Good Junk (1996), all from Graywolf Press. He has received a Whiting Writers' Award, a John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and fellowships and grants from The Fine Arts Work Center, the Ohio Arts Council, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. He is a contributing editor to Callaloo and Poets & Writers magazine, assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and a faculty member of The Lesley University low-residency MFA Program in Cambridge.

Thomas Sayers Ellis will be reading at the Poetry Center on Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 7 p.m. The reading is free and open to the public. Join us!

Created on: 
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents