A Deeper Narrative: Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven Is All Goodbyes

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Audre Lorde wrote: “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.” In Heaven Is All Goodbyes—shortlisted for the 2018 Griffin International Poetry Prize and winner of the American Book Award, PEN Oakland Award, California Book Award for Poetry, and NCIBA Poetry Book of the Year—Tongo Eisen-Martin conducts the revolution, indeed, is the revolution, as a poet and activist, with words that underscore the oppression of our society even as they celebrate the tenacity of the human spirit.

Eisen-Martin provides a natural and necessary voice for those who are disregarded, and he has a talent for creating pieces that are as mesmerizing on the page as they are spoken aloud. When reading this book—or if you’re lucky, seeing him perform live—one is reminded of the street corner preacher with a hypnotic style and rhythm. Warning against complacency, these poems also serve as echoes of the past, witnesses to the present, and Cassandras for the future.

We were doing so well
           So well we got sleepy
                        So sleepy the institutions returned

When the genocide kicks up in late May
When the politicians have too easy a time:

I’m gassing backwards out of a one-way street
In honor of myself
And in honor of you (if you understand the nature of the world)

Eisen-Martin also clarions the increasing—and seemingly unstoppable—erasure and commodification of people, in a time when individuals are brands and products, and organizations are often accorded the rights of personhood.

Men think they are passing around cigarettes
But really cigarettes are passing around men

These are not poems to read quickly, but to return to repeatedly. Akin to listening to a Miles Davis solo, each iteration builds on the next, as Eisen-Martin does with four repetitions (each pair enjambed differently) of “We don’t know what we good at besides this traveling” in the collection’s title poem, so that the experience becomes an accumulation, a deeper narrative greater than the sum of its initial, memorable parts.

These works are visually striking, with offset quotes, overheard comments and verbal splinters that underscore the complexity of our global and far-too-fragmented lives. We are bombarded with constant destruction of the human spirit: the indignities heaped on the underserved, mass incarceration, genocides here and abroad.

The start of mass destruction
Begins and ends
In restaurant bathrooms
That some people use
And others clean

“you telling me there’s a rag in the sky?”
—waiting for you. yes—

My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison.
If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.

There are faint echoes in this book of the passion and brilliance of Bob Kaufman—another incomparable Bay Area poet, from the Beat era—but Eisen-Martin is creating his own distinctive lineage, from which future poets will spring.

This is not writing poems
This is wishing carloads well

I’m writing poems for the rest of my life again

Phrases and syllables bump into each other, as if in a verbal chemistry experiment, sometimes aligning harmonically, sometimes exploding like land mines, always making the reader want to come closer, listen deeper, understand more. Eisen-Martin’s work demands that we face ourselves bluntly and consider what we may do to protect each other, as well as the consequences if we don’t.

            —as is the custom, two humans make a humanity

somewhere in america
the prison bus is running on time

you are going to want
to lose that job
before the revolution hits

Eisen-Martin also explores the multiplicity of the self and how it may be subsumed by collective blind judgments. Both in the sub-dermal strata and overt epidermis of every poem, he spotlights the demands on and risks of being a Black man in America.

“I am not an I.
I am a black commons”

Especially now, such sharp societal commentary, as well as his distinctive use of language, is timely but the themes—what it is to be alive, to survive, to strive, to unyoke from the chokehold of society, and dream of that little bit of space that might be yours alone—are universal.

                        I mean I’m going to make it
                        even if I have to drive backwards

Eisen-Martin isn’t only focused on the individual within and versus society; often the speakers in these poems are in conflict with themselves and their own demons:

“My shadow has more of me than me,”
                                                      I said next to myself

“fight me back,”
the man said, of course, to himself

Reading poems that filet social injustice so sharply, so simply, so elegantly, calls to mind James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Eisen-Martin achieves that with simple and devastating skill throughout this book, and especially so in “Selling What Slaves Made:”

a ten pound weight on your shoulders can kill you
if applied the american way

If the dualities of existence—resistance and surrender, despair and joy, life and death—were sound and motion, they’d resemble a Tongo Eisen-Martin creation like Heaven Is All Goodbyes. He is a linguistic medium, channeling voices from beyond the traditional poetic veil, demanding that we pay attention: to our words, to our world, to ourselves, to each other.

Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and editor and senior strategist at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in several anthologies, as well as in the Ploughshares blog, Chicago Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, Split Lip Magazine, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She was named a 2021-2022 Emerging Critics Fellow by the National Book Critics Circle. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York. More from this author →