Follow Harriet on Twitter
The Nation of Thomas Sayers Ellis
Jordan Davis reviews Thomas Sayers Ellis’ new book, Skin, Inc., or The Nation. The review is long, careful and generous. It’s not full of simple praise like most poetry reviews, but composed of actual criticism—Davis actually attempts to grapple with the poems (huzzah!):
Skin, Inc. is subtitled “Identity Repair Poems,” which is more evocative of the dimensions of don’t than the book’s title. Don’t is there from the opening poem “As Segregation, As Us,” and so is the eternal United States/first-person-plural pun: “I don’t allude like you. I don’t call me anything.” The problem with negative imperatives, though, is that it can be hard to grasp both the instruction and the negation, so don’t risks triggering another in reply: don’t tell me what to do. In small doses don’t clears the air; as a bona fide program it is a recipe for self-destruction.
The review is too rich and complicated to redact, so we’ll leave you with the link. But in the spirit of criticism, we should point out that the review falters when it attempts to appeal to some vague sense of “feeling” that, apparently, should be essential to poems, and to poetry. Occasionally, Davis seems to accuse Ellis of “shielding” his poems from emotion. The accusation bears traces of a trashy anti-intellectual strain in poetry criticism, to which the rest of Davis’ writing does not submit:
The last quarter of the book is given over to “Gone Pop,” a prosaic sequence about the life and death of Michael Jackson. In The Maverick Room Ellis’s handling of the P-Funk mythology is assured, organic; here his impersonal investment in the King of Pop raises again the concern that he might be seeking a substitute for feeling. There are fine moments of writing and some amazing neglected bits of information—such as the account of Jackson’s maternal great-great-, great- and grandfather, all named Prince Albert Screws, and the brief biography of Ola Ray, co-star of the “Thriller” video—but the work feels incomplete, as if it were written out of obligation and in haste, as if publishing a book were catching a train.