What with the stunning eclipse, the troubling interactions of President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the daily fraying of truth, the melting arctic, and white supremacists gathering in Berkeley and San Francisco, the end of the world comes easily to mind.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz imagined the end of the world as an unnamed destruction not remarked upon by the happy porpoises that jump in the sea, the women walking through fields, nor the vegetable peddlers that shout in the street. Instead, he writes:
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
Heaven is All Goodbyes by Tongo Eisen-Martin is not a book about the end of the world. But the author’s second poetry collection, released by City Lights, has an feeling of being written from the brink of cataclysm.
In Eisen-Martin's verse, black men get out of cars “against white supremacy,” Europe reaches America “carrying headaches and mirrors,” alarms are made of gold, and in perhaps the most succinct description of our national circumstance, “People are newspapers / and actors / And the congregation is all going to die in character.”
I read this book while in the bathtub, with my ears below water, like I was listening to a pristine record with headphones. Musical references pepper this collection, so it is no wonder I had music in mind. There is a sublime cadence in Eisen-Martin’s work that is polyphonic, gritty, and unexpectedly fragile, like jazz. These poems yell, shriek, whisper, mumble in a mosaic of disenfranchised voices pondering police brutality, guns, the power of community, the terror of inherited addiction, and the cold nature of a city that blankets the poor and colored in oppression.
And of course, death, and the passing of the world.
In a recent interview for the Poetry Foundation, Eisen-Martin said that watching musicians gave him ideas: “For example (and to paraphrase), the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, speaking about soloing, said that what he does is start with a familiar phrase everyone recognizes, and then through the following notes walks away from it towards his subconscious.”
These poems certainly do that — walk away from themselves and toward a subconscious riff.
Probably the most unique aspect of Eisen-Martin’s style is the decentralization of power featured in his poems, from which he builds a spectacle. The “I” is often not writ large; instead, buildings, streets, and alleys have eminence:
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 the 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
There is something comforting and soothing about this syntax, the way Eisen-Martin shifts the axis and importance of personhood from people to inanimate things. The air talks to itself in these poems, streets want to be ceilings, the coffin stares at the nails. And though there is grief in this work, it is often faceless, universal, and embodied—as in the last lines of The Confidence Scheme:
"I will buy you a drink tomorrow,"
the pain here told the pain there.
I don’t know about you, but it's exactly the type of poetry I would want to be reading at the end of the world — the kind that holds a mirror to itself, then a mirror to that mirror.
Eisen-Martin some years ago described poetry as being "every stitch of an expanding universe speaking for itself." The act of poetry was "the playfulness of people who are outnumbered and outgunned," in his eyes.
"The universe expands, possibly contracts, and always wants us to be free," he wrote. "And always we are ready for liberation. We are the universe looking at itself. Talking to itself. Healing itself. Instructing itself even. Always. We are ready for liberation."
Tongo Eisen-Martin celebrates the release of Heaven is All Goodbyes at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco on Thursday, Sept. 14, at 8pm. More information here.
The Spine is a biweekly book column. Catch us back here in two weeks.