Book Review: Skin, Inc by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Review by Keith Gaboury
Through one hundred and seventy five pages of verse, Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems is if anything ambitious. Ellis has written his poetic manifesto on race from James Brown, President Barack Obama and Michael Jackson.
Indeed, the collection is divided into theme-based sections. Spanning nine pages, one of the first poems is titled “Spike Lee at Harvard.” When Poetry’s David Orr reviewed Skin, Inc., he asserted that “a writer this good ought not spend his time peeling potatoes this small.” However, such a question as “Should we / separate the black poets / to make it easier / for customers to find / African American work?” is a nuanced one. While Ellis begins to spin his wheels towards the end, the poem should not be simply regarded as “small potatoes.”
Ellis’ best work lives and finds shelter in sound. In the poem “Or,” he takes an often overlooked word and brings it into the spotlight through “or any color / other than colored / or Colored Only. Or “Of Color.”
Poetry as a genre exists in synthesized brilliance when sound and content find a marriage on the page. Moreover, Ellis strives to analyze the very racial vocabulary we use. “Song On” declares “Our little columns of expletives / . . . looks down on nuance / even as it battles poverty / and the battles with poverty / we disguise / as battles with each other.” Forty-four years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we continue to live in a segregated country where our very language dictates our skin color and by stereotypical association, whether we live in poverty or not. Ellis’ language works within a perfect compression of meaning.
In a contemporary discussion of race in America, “The Obama Hour” is a quintessential representation of Ellis’ distinctive voice. After he lays out the claim of “Finally, one of us is properly / positioned to run,” Ellis proceeds to unpack the sentence. “Finally[‘s]” “f” is italicized in order to express “a “’bout time” up from the reservoir / of coded sighs.” the poetic page is used as an operating table to deconstruct language in order to reconstruct its meaning.
The faults of Skin, Inc. cannot be ignored. “No Easy Task” focuses on race in American poetry, proclaiming that “bling-bling has more / rhythm and imagery / than all of Ashbery.” And later, Ellis dismisses the villanelle and sestina as “outdated shows-offs.”
Orr’s review criticized these lines as “undeserved.” Placed alongside “Or,” “Easy Task” comes off rather trifling. Despite this weakness, the large-scale determined scope of Skin, Inc. is a worthwhile one. Any young poet interested in writing about race but unsure how to navigate such a subject will benefit immensely from Ellis’ work. There’s a masculine forcefulness to the collection that stays with a reader long after they put the book down.
If you pick it up for a second read, you will certainly find new multi-faceted delights.
Ellis, Thomas Sayers. Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2010. Print.