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Battlefield and Wind Chime


Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poems are echo chambers of vernaculars and unofficial languages. He both registers the damage caused by systemic racism and evinces—and by his work extends—the rich modes of resistance that rise up to meet it. His is a poetry of total commitment that never becomes merely programmatic and instead stretches the possibilities of meaning to the far edge of sense, where they become music. “I wake up on a battlefield and also looking down from the crystal of a wind chime”: Eisen-Martin writes at once out of practical struggle and a sense of wonder, insisting by his example that one demands the other. A longtime political organizer, including against mass incarceration, he can pithily capture the inhumanity of the capitalist present: “I can hear hate / And teach hate / And call tools by people names / And name people dead to themselves.” But simply naming alienation will not suffice; this poet refuses to be dead to himself. He will not surrender his imagination to the logic he opposes: “I have to fall in love in here too, you know.” Like few other contemporary writers, Eisen-Martin can “play the piano against itself”—wrest from a thoroughly commercialized and militarized language new chords, new possibilities of musical and social combination. His work pays homage to a constellation of influential predecessors—Audre Lorde, Gil Scott-­­­Heron, Roque Dalton—but he sounds like no one else. I am grateful for the openness and outrage of these poems. As he writes, “It’s not the type of season for backing down.”

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