Tongo Eisen-Martin

Vito Acconci | Three Frame Studies, 1969-70




A tour guide through your robbery
He also is

Cigarette saying, “look what I did about your silence.”

Ransom water and box spring gold
–This decade is only for accent grooming, I guess

Ransom water and box spring gold
–The corner store must die

War games, I guess

All these tongues rummage junk

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

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

we’ve written
we’ve set a stage

We should have fit in. warehouse jobs are for communists. But now more corridor and hallway have walked into our lives. Now the whistling is less playful and the barbed wire is overcrowded too.

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

When a courtyard talks on behalf of military issue,
all walks take place outside of the body.

Dear life to your left
A medieval painting to your right

None of this makes an impression

Crop people living in thin air
You got five minutes
to learn how to see
through this breeze

When a mask goes sideways,
Barbed wire becomes the floor
Barbed wire becomes the roof
Forty feet into the sky
becomes out of bounds

When a mask breaks in half,
mind which way the eyes go.

They killed the world for the sake of giving everyone the same backstory

We’re watching Gary, Indiana fight itself into the sky

Old pennies for wind. For that wind feeling you get before the hood goes up and over your headache. Pennies that stick together (mocking all aspirations). Stuck together pennies was the first newspaper I ever read. Along with the storefront dwelling army that always lets us down.

Where the holy spirit favors the backroom. Souls in a situation that offer one hundred ways to remain a loser. Souls watching the clock hoping that eyes don’t lie to sad people.

“what were we talking about again?”
the narrator asked the graveyard
-ten minutes flat-
said the graveyard
-the funeral only took ten minutes-
“never tell that to anyone again,”
the narrator severely replied

“You just going to pin the 90s on me?”
-all thirty years of them-
“Then why should I know the difference between sleep and satire?”

the pyramid of corner stores fell on our heads
-we died right away

that building wants to climb up and jump off another building
-these are downtown decisions

somewhere on this planet, it is august 7th

and we’re running down the rust thinking, “one more needs to come with me”

on earth, so
that we could
be sent back

A conductor of minds
In a city-wide symphony
Waving souls to sing
He also is



The Course of Metal

Apparently, too much of San Francisco was not there in the first place

This dream requires more condemned Africans
State violence rises down
Still life is just getting warmed up
army life is looking for a new church and ignored all other suggestions
folk tale writers have not made up their minds as to who is going to be their friends

“this is the worst downtown yet. And I’ve borrowed a cigarette everywhere
…I’ve taken many walks to the back of buses…that led on out the back of a story teller’s prison sentence… then on out the back of slave scars.”

“Though this is my comeback face.”

“I left my watch on the public bathroom sink and took the toilet with me. I threw it at the first bus I saw eating single mothers half alive. It flew through the line number… then on out the front of the white house”

hopefully you find comfort downtown. But if not, we’ve brought you enough cigarette filters to make a decent winter coat

a special species of handshake
let’s all know who’s king and what the lifespan is of uniform cloth

this coffin needs to quit acting like those are birds singing
those rusty nails have no wings
and have no voice other than a white world dying
there are indeed book pages in the gas pump
catchy isn’t it?
the way three nooses is the rule
the way potato sack masks go well with radio codes

Or the way condemned Africans fought their way back to the ocean only to find waves made of
burned up 1920’s piano parts
European backdoor deals
and red flowers for widows who spend all day in the sun mumbling at San Francisco

“red flowers, but what’s the color of a doctor visit?”

There are book titles in the street

Book titles like:

*Hero, You’d Make A Better Zero*

*Fur Coat Lady, The President Is Dead*

*Pay Me Back In Children*

*They Hung Up Their Bodies In Their Own Museums*

-and other book titles pulled out of a drum solo

-lied the hiding place

all the bullets in ten precincts know where to go
no heaven (nor any other good ideas) are in the sky
politics means: people did it and people do it.
understand that when in San Francisco
and other places that were never really there

bet this ocean thinks it’s an ocean
but it’s not.
it’s just 6th and mission.

“All know who is king. King of thin things. Like america. I’m
proud to deserve to die… I will eat my dinner extra slow
tonight in this
police state candy dispenser that
you all call a neighborhood… “

no set of manners
goes unpunished
never mind about
a murderer’s insomnia
or the tea kettle preparing everyone for police sirens



Skid Bid

Lord, here comes the tap water whistling passed our heads

Institution tile under brake pedals
Matching the white watches
painted on palms for smash and grab recollections

People who are related by ballad:

hotplate failures fishing for proletarians

the matchstick that is a draft card
(by the time the loner finishes sweeping the train)

Also related by ballad:
under-paved streets hanging like strips of film in thin air

Brother, I miss the carpentry more than the religion

I tore the tattoo out of my uncle’s picture and lent it to my friends
one left cross at a time

–for life mimed behind my back

the child would do better upside down:

the child’s cake party is in the precinct / mainstream tune playing upside down
a t-shirt with their face printed on a cop’s thumb

twenty-eight hours later, a headrest will do

the city rain feels like clientele
I dozed on the back of a bus and
woke up in the mind of a three-story man

“God wants you here with that crowbar in your hand… all of the world is a third floor.”

seasons invent themselves
but we invent the underground

—cause and effect is nothing but a casual venue I once played—

he decided not to kill me like giving loose change
don’t teeter now, tall man
I was nobody at point blank
nobody finally again

lung first I fell

a love
a rule
a hate

dance moves within murder attempts within dance moves

Lean back and be celebrated by small people,” he said. The clothes on my life teacher needed new patches. “Sit back and disrespect it all

“I’ve given up on counterrevolution,” I said
“Well then here is your weapon, Little Bank”

—That’s our father you are writing graffiti on—

Horn players beat him up
and everyone left the altercation a better person

“knowing what you know now
would you still have written fortunes
on the bottom of church shoes
and put them back on the rack?”

“How does everyone think that a rich guy is their twin?”
-along with other tantrums is my cue

fortune teller half sleeps while talking about a mayor treading all
over the posters in my childhood room and how cold
calculation mothers nothing and a vision of
chess pieces in chains…….

“Then you will have fear. Then you will have form.”




Channels to fall asleep

While shoe box to shoe box travels my childhood

Professionals roll garbage cans around a conference room
Half the size of a holding tank
Half the hope of a holding tank
Full of third world retail flattery
“nothing wrong with the blind leading the blind,”
we think they just said

porcelain epoch
succeeding for the most part
dying for the most part
married for the most part to its death

when a hostage has a hostage
that is u.s. education

stores detach their heads
and expect you to do the same when you enter

God says, “do not trust me in this room”

Two fascists walk into a bar
One says, “let’s make a baby.”
The other says, “let’s make three… and let the first one eat the other two.”

 your sky or mine
read from
the book of pool room enemies

“I’m the best kind of square. Poor and in love with the 1960s.
The first picture I ever saw in my life faded
from my storytelling a long time ago.”

Not even ten years old
And most of you are on my shoulders

The store’s detached head smiled

casually be poor
teach yourself
how to get out of this room
and we’ll leave you enough blood
to turn off the lights
on your way out

casually be poor…
they are all cops when you are poor




Tripwire 14

Mark Nowak | “Something about the worst society to write a poem in”: On Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven Is All Goodbyes and Hardt/ Negri’s Assembly 

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri open the “Preface” of Assembly, a follow-up to their collaboratively written Empire trilogy—Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009)—by quoting a poet, Aimé Césaire: “Here poetry equals insurrection.” I often go to Hardt and Negri to help me think through my relationship to the odd bedfellows of politics and literature, so Césaire’s inclusion so early in their text helps to remind me that any discussion of the new “leaderless” social movements, as Hardt and Negri describe them, is a space for engaging poetry and poetics, too.

In a passage on these new social movements about a quarter of the way through Assembly, Hardt and Negri contend that today’s movements “affirm a beating heart of plural ontology. A pluralism of subjectivities, multiple models of temporality, and a wide variety of modes of struggle, which emerge from different traditions and express different objectives, together form a powerful swarm held together by cooperative logics.” (69) The aim of these pluralisms, they continue, “is to create a model of constituent democracy in which differences are able to interact and together create new institutions: against global capital, against the dictatorship of finance, against the biopowers that destroy the earth, against racial hierarchies, and for access to and self-management of the common.” (69)

If this is, indeed, the age of new plural ontologies, as Hardt and Negri claim (and we could certainly argue the verity of this point with them at some future date), then it is hard to imagine a more apt and more engaging literature of this new plural moment than Tongo Eisen-Martin’s magnificent new collection, Heaven Is All Goodbyes. Rarely have I read a recent poetry book that simultaneously hearkens back to those 20th century works at the apex of politics and poetry—think Audre Lorde and Dennis Brutus, to mention just one arm of that tradition—while feeling so “right this second,” so a factor in this historical moment that finds many of us filled with both hope—#BlackLivesMatter, the Sanders campaign and recent DSA electoral victories, the #NoDAPL and #MuslimBan protests—and deep trepidation (i.e., #45, a.k.a., @realdonaldtrump).

Heaven Is All Goodbyes is grounded in a “pluralism of subjectivities”: a grandmother, a bluesman, fathers and uncles and sons, bus riders, prisoners, slaves, communists, and many more. In the opening poem, “Faceless,” Eisen-Martin describes a social and economic dialectic that too many have only encountered on the patron side: “[t]he start of mass destruction/Begins and ends/In restaurant bathrooms/That some people use/And other people clean.” (9) Later, in “Look at this ghost that thinks it can fly,” he introduces a narrator who needs to “start deciding whether/I’m alive or differently alive.” (37) His “pluralism of subjectivities” are regularly working class and precariously employed, like the speaker in “Ceiling Traffic” who says that “working class windows is all my cigarette knows” (72). The narrator in “The Oldest Then The Youngest” similarly avows that “no one can name you better than the oppressed.” (132)

The book delves extensively into what Hardt and Negri term “multiple modes of temporality” in stanzas that address the long 1990s: “‘You just going to pin the 90s on me?’/— all thirty years of them —” (11), as well as just a single year in that decade as in “The Simplicity of Talent,” where “a phone rings in 1988/and an epoch begins after a mother hangs up.” (27) The epoch, in many ways, refers to the ongoing deindustrialization of America that comes to the fore in many poems in this collection. In “Wave At The People Walking Upside Down,” one speaker (denoted in italics) can “hear the engines of deindustrialization” inside “the tin can on my left shoulder” (23) while another speaker, in normal font, speaks of “The cold world/Of deindustrialization…” In “Selling What Slaves Made,” Eisen-Martin writes, “I’m down on my luck/Making snow angels/On the abandoned factory loading dock.” (48) Like Gwendolyn Brooks did in an earlier era in her poem “boy breaking glass,” the author reminds us that the landscapes of neoliberal globalizations can be creative spaces, too.

Yet Eisen-Martin’s book is, thankfully, far from the typical 19th- and 20th- century working-class literatures of elegy and regret. As Hardt and Negri point out, our contemporary social movements engage “a wide variety of modes of struggle, which emerge from different traditions and express different objectives…” (69). In Heaven Is All Goodbyes, we find singular acts of resistance, such as “The communist [who] has plenty of time/To finish his cigarette/and lie to his boss,” but we also encounter more collective modes of struggle. In one such instance, Eisen-Martin writes about “The cop in the picket line” who “is a hard working rookie,” then subverts the image in the remainder of the stanza when he adds, “The sign in my hand is getting more and more laughs./It says, ‘the picket line got cops in it’.” (21) Here, as elsewhere in the book, simple images—tattoos, bus rides, graffiti, kick drums, “where the couch came from” (66), etc.—become spaces where struggles “express different objectives” than those of earlier generations of working-class writing.

Yet it’s within Hardt and Negri’s notion of “creat[ing] a model of constituent democracy… against global capital, against the dictatorship of finance” that the poems in Heaven Is All Goodbyes are perhaps at their most pressing. In “may we all refuse to die at the same time,” the narrator announces that “I’m writing poems for the rest of my life again,” informs readers that “Electric chairs are not complicated: Have a drink. Go to work,” then writes that

The best way to pay me
Is in my left hand
While my right hand is juggling
A cigarette
A steering wheel
And a negotiation with the ruling class. (34)

For me, one of the books most compelling poems—though in truth, it’s almost impossible to choose one from the countless remarkable verses contained here—is “Channels to fall asleep to,” a poem about the searing effects of “the dictatorship of finance” on children and childhood. The poem opens with a single line followed by a brief stanza:

While shoebox to shoebox travels my childhood

Professionals roll garbage cans around a conference room Half the size of a holding tank
Half the hope of a holding tank
Full of third world retail flattery
“nothing wrong with the blind leading the blind,”
we think they just said (105)

This appraisal of public, professional, and police-state spaces is soon followed by Eisen-Martin’s searing critique of public schools: “when a hostage has a hostage, that is u.s. education.” He presents us with a child who is “Not even ten years old/And most of you are on my shoulders,” followed by his assessment of precarious life:

casually be poor

teach yourself
how to get out of this room
and we’ll leave you enough blood
to turn off the lights on your way out

casually be poor…

they are all cops when you are poor (106)

Finally, Heaven Is All Goodbyes is equally vehement in its critique of biopowers, racial hierarchies, and “the lack of access to and self-management of the commons.” Throughout the book, we read of “the day jail quotas get filled/the day that the planet plays flat” (17), speakers who “Get out of the car against desperate white supremacy” (29) and who “saw a white man sketching the meat hooks into my angled carcass.” (124) And we hear the collective and the common speaking—“I am not an I./I am the black commons” (16)—of a future that may—or, more likely in contemporary America—may never arrive: “A masterpiece is coming/(It just has to beat a million bullets to the spot)”. (55)

“Here poetry equals insurrection.” Césaire’s phrase is an equally appropriate epigraph for Heaven Is All Goodbyes, too. In Tongo Eisen-Martin’s second collection, we hear a dialogue between the “pluralism of subjectivities” and a more collective commons. His book reminds us, today, of poetry’s potential role as more than an ornament in our movements. Don’t we all occasionally need reminding, as Eisen-Martin prompts us in the volume’s final poem, that “World history has a proletariat when the lights come back on—”? The brilliant poems in Heaven Is All Goodbyes provide just a little bit of those future lights’ electricity, too.


Tripwire | Red Issue 14


  1. Alexander Buchanan

    “I will eat my dinner extra slow / tonight in this / police state candy dispenser that / you all call a neighborhood”
    Damn. That’s brilliant. . .


  2. […] *Line pulled from one of my favorite poems by Eisen-Martin, “Faceless“ […]

    Liked by 1 person

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