From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Ellis's highly anticipated second collection has a bit of everything: poems in an array of forms--a concrete poem meditating on the English vowels and money, an abecedarian list of "Black Writing" terminology, a photo essay shot at the James Brown memorial at Harlem's Apollo Theatre; prose poems; meditations on New Yorker covers; and lots more. Throughout, Ellis (The Maverick Room) makes a complicated, often contradictory critique of race relations in America; he has as many self-corrections to put into practice, "sucker-punching I," as he does punches aimed at others: "One of these badass/ glorious days,/ the signs and negative sounds/ that worked against us/ will all begin their tenures/ of service.../ It has already begun with/ ÿNigger' and ÿBitch.' " While much of his work would be right at home on a spoken-word stage--Ellis is an extraordinary reader of his poems--he feels deeply uneasy about the pigeonholing of black poetry, "as if the craft of our/ inherited calling had only/ two camps of Blackness,/ ÿAcademic' and ÿSpoken Word.' " This big book concludes with an amazing 35-page biography/elegy for Michael Jackson and the era through which he lived, and which he deeply affected. No doubt, this is a major book.
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Ellis positions himself between the two primary schools of contemporary poetry (not only African American poetry, although the divide is especially noticeable there), which he defines as “Academic” and “Spoken Word” in his poem “No Easy Trick.” The “trick” is to bridge those apparent opposites, which he does superlatively in his second full collection. The cadence of speech is audible on the page, in his “uneven ribs of verse” that worry “text to talk and talk to text.” In the searing tradition of Ai, Ellis takes on the thorny questions of race and culture, and never mincing words about the damage racism has done: “If punctuation / were a punch, / I’d publish line breaks of fists.” But he sees poets as “identity repair-people, / faders of trick moves, trope-a-dopes / and okee dokes, / laying our dice down like ( ) like we love us.” A photographer as well as a poet, Ellis includes a sequence that combines the two art forms in homage to James Brown; another sequence explores the complex image and tragic reality of Michael Jackson’s life. Ellis’s distinctive voice offers a new model for written orature, and his audience steadily widens. --Patricia Monaghan