Wendy S. Walters
Identity Repair Poems
by Thomas Sayers Ellis
$23.00 List Price
Racial identity and aesthetics may not spell fun to most, and poems about those topics even less so. But a strong sense of play infuses Thomas Sayers Ellis's Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems. This is a poet who can use the same word eight times in a single stanza without sounding redundant: "coloring color the color / I want to color color, not the color / color colors me."
These themes do come bearing history—particularly the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. In 1971, in the introduction to the anthology The Black Aesthetic, literary critic Addison Gayle made a case against integrating black culture into that of mainstream America for fear of its usurpation. His argument presumed that fundamental differences between black and mainstream culture existed and needed to be maintained due to the inability of most people, especially white liberals, to see the black experience as broadly American.
To this point, even Ellis's metaphorical manifestations of whiteness are circumspect. As he writes in the poem "Spike Lee at Harvard": "As auteur, as author / I pray this last stanza / won't fade or break / into whiteness, the tense silence." For some, it may seem surprising that in this time of Obama, there is frustration among writers who see a dwindling interest in work that has not moved past the subjects of culture and color. In "The Judges of Craft," Ellis cites his own rejection letters from literary journals: One editor dismissed a poem for being "too strident" in its assessment of racism; another felt its way of "addressing . . . the politics of the writing scene" wasn't