Citizen Tongo Eisen-Martin
by Adolfo Azuphar
In the bio in his books, Tongo Eisen-Martin presents himself as an educator, a poet, and an organizer. As a Black person, his poetry is likely to be stereotyped as the poetry of struggle. However, when reading his poetry there is a lyrical rupture that tells us that he is shaping the English language and US culture instead of working within the existing system of signs. We find ourselves reading citizen Tongo, a knowing poet, first in line to reorganize our society and its culture through lyric, in doing so making anew black lyrical poetry in the US. Here’s an example:
THE SUBURBS ARE FINALLY OFFENDED
Like normal-speed bullets changing a normal life
Europe serves two masters
Maybe two hundred thousand
Here comes the state and its love poems again
Pond gangsters, postcard music, and the death mask that fits millions
Lyrical poetry, like that of Langston Hughes, is as ideally ‘American’ as a state fair or a one-room schoolhouse. Black lyrical poetry like Hughes’s has been integrated into our culture as “beautiful struggle” as a way to both be civilized and against this civilization. Lyrical poets are understood to either be working within the system, as progressive citizens, not as radicals. The black arts poets like Amiri Baraka, on the other hand, are understood to be radicals, often at battle, using poetry as a weapon. Take Baraka’s poem “Incident”.
He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came
back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the
shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.
At the bottom, bleeding, shot dead. He died then, there
after the fall, the speeding bullet, tore his face
and blood sprayed fine over the killer and the grey light.
Or consider “Coal” by Audre Lorde.
Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside
Take my word for jewel in your open light.
In both poems, Baraka and Lorde struggle to signify self through normative language. Even lyrical poetry of black vernacular like Paul Laurence Dunbar are using the language of a system, for black vernacular is a method of communication that does not exist outside of the master-slave relationship or the landowner sharecropper relationship.
Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poetry is a turning point for black lyric. Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poetry consolidates language, making sense of it, thus rupturing discourse and definitions, to allow the possibility of new language and community. In other words, his lyrics rearrange US English language, and in doing so taking it off of its pedestal. Why? For a new sensibility, as poetry dedicated to “changing life”.
Here’s a little more of THE SUBURBS ARE FINALLY OFFENDED:
Take the isolation as it comes now … the heartbeat with a handrail … the bad day in California
“A painful season/
Seasons gone sentient
taken as a whole
taken as a whole, I mean jailers no harm”
–a science fiction
A crisis of open-air corrections / My conscience is clean
The police pantry is well-stocked/ “society time,” they say
The poems are done/ neatly stacked on top of my infant body
Sleeping through my first imperialist summer
Activists who don’t scream Black Power/ rather Black Component
I wake up on a battlefield and also looking down from the crystal of a wind chime
“When is the last time you ducked a bully?”
To which I gave a reply and was assigned karma
Drum patterns and drum patterns perceived
I walk back to the United States in defeat
Citizen Tongo is a lot more assertive than the citizens before him, thanks to the hard work of black organizers before and after him. Tongo Eisen-Martin is a lyrical poet of the intensity, rupture, and definition grounded in assertiveness that we have not yet seen in black poetry. Climactic intensity is an aesthetic often met in Black music and Black political praxis, for example in the blues, in James Brown’s funk, Wu-Tang Clan’s Hip Hop, and also in the political praxis of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and a host of organic intellectuals, citizens of an identity and a tradition of black community. Definition is the purpose of black revolutionary practice, not just struggle. It attempts to make something else out of what is. Rupture, as we said earlier, because his poetry speaks “Tongo English” in time and space that is very unlike the literary time and space that dominates bookshelves today.
As a citizen in the grand tradition of Black citizenship, that predates the legal citizenship of Black people, his fight is not only to be Black and to protect other Blacks, but also to, as SNCC put it, create the community in which a Black individual can thrive, which must be an interracial community in this country. His poetry bursts out of this tradition, as that of an individual working to progress the collective towards a new society, or new social relations that produce wealth and community for us all.