Reviewed by Lydia Melvin
To fully understand the masterful and challenging poems in Thomas Sayers Ellis’ The Maverick Room, one need look no further than the poet himself, a genuine “Massa” of wit and play, both on and off the poetic page. Ellis refers to himself as a poem, deflects questions about his aesthetics, and happily erases words that have fallen, quite artfully, out of his mouth.
The Maverick Room takes its name from a 1980s-era youth go-go club in DC, in which Ellis saw, for the first time, someone shot and killed. Without doubt, one can imagine walking up, down, and across avenues and streets of Washington, DC until finally stumbling, star-struck, upon the doors of the Maverick Room. The poems that drive us to this central location take us first NW, then NE, and afterwards, push us back into the crisp and murky air of SW, then SE, into the ease of the city as contradiction. However, one cannot and should not simply see The Maverick Room as a youth club in which violent acts sometimes take place. One must wonder, with Ellis’ panache for puns and for squeezing language until definitions run out like water, if the go-go club is a perpetual destination. Where are we “going” (squared), and how do we get there (squared)?
The first poem in the collection, “Starchild,” imagines a futuristic, psychedelic freedom for P-Funk musician Garry Starchild Shider. Ellis contemplates the nature of being both “starchild” and “child star,” and how a man who strives to live in this world and beyond this world, simultaneously, will eventually leap to the next world: “Newborn, diaper-clad, same as a child / That’s how you’ll leave this world. No you won’t die, just blast off.” This premature obituary celebrates the life of Shider, ironically, by anticipating his “blast off.” The active verbs “blast,” “break,” “crack,” “tear,” “pluck,” “bang, bang,” out of context, and listed as such, imply a kind of violence, but these words are used to honor a man who believed in the above-life, the “flash of light: comets, whistles / Glowing noisemakers” of the universe. Similarly, by paying attention to the soft sound of “Star Child” and infusing the poem with “s” and mid-frequency vowel sounds, even words like “crack” and “bang, bang” come off as a lullaby.
In stark contradiction to the playful metaphors (“Guitar: a lover, slanted in a hug, plucked”) and uncharacteristic use of simile (“lift like a chorus of neck veins”) of “Starchild,” the remaining poems in the NW quadrant of The Maverick Room take on a decidedly more turbulent and serene tone. The poems are a house comprised of stanzas that are both maven and maverick.
The oft-quoted “Marcus Garvey Vitamins” begins with an aggressive claim: “All us we folk // person community first // Invent truth.” The poem then moves rapidly to an argument between a couple of people: “no he didn’t, // yes he did. Ain’t English.” This poem, perhaps less inviting (due to its unconventional use of sections and language), attacks the senses, dipping and diving between jive-thought and truth-talk to a conscious disruption of “proper” grammar, syntax, and mechanics of language: “I break beat, I rhetorical strategy, // I escape route. // I, I, I, psych.”
Has violence been meted upon our sense of the correct usage of language and syntax (“don’t Pulitzer me.”)? Would Strunk & White, Truss, and Stilman pull out their bloody rulers and pulverize the knuckles of the enormous fist of this poem? Can one only invent truth by inventing syntax, grammar, and language mechanisms? “Marcus Garvey Vitamins” seems to think so, and crafts a semantics of cultural literacy that both raises a fist to (give props to) and raises a fist to (black power, brotha) education programs that homogenizes (yes, as in fat particles in milk being emulsified to create a consistency that halts these particles from separating from the milk; as in fat particles signifies dissidents, milk signifies whiteness) language. “No child left behind,” as political agenda, is left behind, replaced by “each one, teach one; each one, reach one” as community conscious. Or, as Ellis says in interview: “I’m so tired of massa (little m). ‘Marcus Garvey Vitamins’ are for those of us who are tired of massa (real little m) and are looking for ways to Massa mass without using Massa’s maps.” In Ellis’ estimation, the violence of grammar and language is not done to “standard English” by “non-standard” practitioners, but vice versa. The poems “A Roll Call” and “The Baptist Beat” are a hallelujah to this practice, each embrace community and individual.
“Sticks” muses on the “escape route” that is “I, I, I,” while also questioning the heredity of violence as practice and language. A narrative poem that yanks itself out of the narrative by poem’s end, “Sticks” shows how “imitation” can turn to “influence” and how “influence” is remixed in order for the narrator to “massa” himself. What I love about this poem is its ability to remix language, to violate form and structure in order to unleash the violence of metaphor, and the surprising line breaks that, in their own way, perform, brutally, as metaphor.
My father was an enormous man
Who believed kindness and lack of size
Were nothing more than sissified
Signs of weakness. Narrow-minded,
His eyes were the worst kind
Of jury--deliberate, distant, hard.
There is an economy of words here that causes us to slow down and deliberate the “enormous” father, a man who unfolds like well-packed work shirts, crisply, seamlessly, wrinkle-free, one surprisingly long arm, then the next. Each line tricks our sight of the father, beginning with the benign, factual statement “My father was an enormous man.” Despite the enormity of the father (and the lack of enormity of that particular line), the narrator is ruthless in his condescension: “Big man, man of the house, king,” an overstatement of the father’s position, the repetition of “man, man,” the words nearly hitting each other, but spared by the comma, they seem to cancel each other out. They also take me back to “Starchild” where we see “bang, bang” used as celebration. “[M]an, man” is seemingly a glorious look at the father, yet we see this “man, man, king” hitting the mother and using his fists to terrify people. Is the father’s only salvation the ability to cause physical harm to others? With closed fists? Son, by poem’s end, learns to open his fists, flex his fingers, tongue, mouth and gray cells, and turns “slaps” into the beats of music, the rhythm of pain and resistance.
We witness the poet’s growth (as poet man and man poet) at the beginning of stanza 6 (“--I discovered”). Ellis disturbs the sense of the line by inserting a hyphen as the first “word” instead of an actual word. While a poet less invested in creating risks than taking them would have placed the hyphen at the end of the preceding stanza, Ellis senses violence and violates the senses. He proves that he has and is “discovering” the “I, I, I, psych.”