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Patrick F. Durgin reviews

Dancing on Main Street
by Lorenzo Thomas

130pp. Coffee House Press. $15.00 1566891566 paper

This review is 1,500 words
or about 3 printed pages long

The Cartesian Funk on the Recent Work of Lorenzo Thomas, Poet.

The following was written just prior to Thomas’ death, which I had no way of anticipating. I hope mentioning this explains the context of the word “recent” in the title. Upon hearing the sad news, I had the opportunity to share this piece with a few friends and colleagues, some of whom were much closer to Thomas and probably much more nuanced readers of his work. While I’d never intended this to stand as a sort of memorial tribute or testimony, it did seem a fitting touchstone for marking the passing of a sorely under appreciated USAmerican poet.

Writing poems involves that desperate attempt
to pass through sophistication into wisdom.

 — Lorenzo Thomas, introduction to
Chances Are Few: Expanded Second Edition, 2003

In French philosophers Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari’s third of A Thousand Plateaus, a lobster becomes an exemplar of and persona for the history of philosophy. Simultaneously, it stands for geo-political “globalization” – neo-colonialism’s intrinsic foil. The lobster’s flesh secretes its own shell – the virtual as such becomes actual.

Lorenzo Thomas

Lorenzo Thomas, Xavier University, Louisiana, 2004

Unless you also read the seemingly a-Deleuzian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, you will read the lobster as a metaphor rather than a constituent of this veritable “globe.” Levinas’ ethical system is hinged on the infrequent but fundamental observation that Descartes’ “discovery” of modern scientific reason is not taken at liberty. That is, ‘I think, therefore I am’ (‘I am thinking, therefore I am being’) can only announce the principle of universal doubt and its corollary mind-body split by fiat. For Descartes, the thought of infinity perforce “takes place” within us – there is no will to doubt in Descartes. History is the infinite encasing of time itself; it is only a metaphor for the indeterminacy – not a Marxian “anarchy of exchange” – modern and contemporary USAmerican poetics have inherited as the “promise of infinite determination” (Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy). They used to call it “ambiguity,” and its types. For one, you have the weird nostalgia of the Poundian epic. But another way the USAmerican poem includes history is via (dare we say) organic form, as the lobster secretes its shell. But it is another thing entirely (osmosis maybe, but not, in Guattari’s word, “chaosmosis”) when

… the drama is wholly subjective
stone knowing the form which the carver imparts it
the stone knows the form (The Cantos 450)

Ethical self-evidence is metaphysical fascism. PART ONE: They eat them for dinner.
If all this supposedly heady quipping seems to you out of place in a review essay on Lorenzo Thomas’ recent work, I won’t apologize. There are few other ways to return the generosity of a poem like “Dangerous Doubts.”

The mind invents its own inadequacies
But not the power to erase illusion
That schemes and wholesome dreams
Can become actual despite the truth
That thoughts invest themselves in flesh
And direct motion (Dancing on Main Street 119)

This from the man who, in the 2003 “Introduction” to the expanded edition of his first major collection Chances Are Few, wrote:

This modern world—what T.S. Eliot taught us to call “our civilization”—began
in 1492 with a series of cultural collisions that continue to reverberate. We’ve
had five hundred grim years of progress: a kaleidoscope of ancient fears and
hatreds, bright visions and hopeful dreams, justifiable suspicions and ordinary
greed, constantly recycled as history becomes everyday life and vice versa. (vii)

Justifiable suspicions are not the unique providence of the benignly reasonable subject whose danger begins when the thought (unthinkable) of the infinite takes place within her / him. But what “civilization”—what “our”—seeps through the many salvos from Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement (see also Thomas’ epic The Bathers), and the mundane “career” vicissitudes of a Panamanian in Texas’ “liquid city”?

That you have 30,000 shots at immortality
But only one you dare not miss at being rich
Or at least escape the nag of destitution (Dancing on Main Street 119)

A veteran of the latter New York School scene (see The Angel Hair Anthology), Thomas’ lists are several times less “sophisticated” than a Ted Berrigan. As the listing continues, I’m mostly taken with the bravery this approach demonstrates—especially in face of what used to be known as “subject matter.” Last I saw such bravery it was heroism (Whitman, Sandburg, Baraka). Thomas’ piece on the Umbra Workshop school (Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry 118-144) is informative here.

That maybe exercise shows on TV
Are really harmful
That sound bodies just
Amplify our empty minds

That platitudes contain a grain of wisdom

And fortune’s a rush hour train that doesn’t wait

The limits of human invention = organic form. So it allows these things to replace eternity. What else?

To really live means needing other people
That whatever that means love
Could conquer hate

Love and hate are beside the point when the real escapes the “means.” It’s not just that is an elegy, but it’s steeped in the anticipation of the elegy’s raison d’être in this, “our civilization.”
USA TODAY: the migrating quagmire / ‘5 Million Tsunami Survivors Lack Food & Water’ / Rumsfeld to Go / He Can’na Make It Cohere. PART TWO: He Can’na.
Thomas is that rare critic / literary historian who takes the evaluative function of criticism seriously, not as self-evident, but as a question of literary production (as opposed to disinterested reflection). There is a singular lack of hubris in his project – reading his work is to witness the self-conscious entrance of one man’s labor into historical, indeed “interesting times.”
I’ll just excerpt one short passage from Extraordinary Measures, Thomas’ new scholarly tome, by way of commenting on his economy in that expository mode, but moreso his thoroughgoing responsibility to critical self-reflection within the construction of historical categories / narratives. I have been an avid reader of Amiri Baraka’s work for many years and have never found a truer summation of his historical centrality than this one:

Many are not always convinced by his notion of science. For good and bad reasons. Baraka, as critic Ezekiel Mphalele (otherwise one of our most alert readers) has consistently failed to understand, is best as a poet of intense personal reflection, which is exactly why he always appears to us in the prophet’s sackcloth of social activism. Literally, he does not have time to be himself. But were he given the time, who (as he himself eloquently ponders in his poems) would that self be? In this way he speaks to us in our lostness, striving, and misery, and we are habituated now to the eager anticipation of his own subsequent interpretations of each current guise. For all his complexity, however, Baraka’s work reveals a fundamental consistency. (159)

The lobster’s gotten loose. Thomas, as central (if not as high-profile) to the history of “Afro-Centric Modernism” as Baraka, ranges his account from Fenton Johnson to Harryette Mullen, with the Umbra school sharing elbow room with Baraka’s return to Newark in 1966. Ishmael Reed and Thomas are seen making a pilgrimage there to indulge in Newark’s acidic nightlife, all of a Christmas Eve. Thomas gives testimony so much due, perfectly integrating memoir and history, with critical treatment. As such, he makes his critique possible and his deceptively simple apostrophic address (in Dancing on Main Street) plausible. And I get wise to it, this civilized funk. It wriggles out between the two books as a frontier defines itself by the here and there it must touch. This makes him a prototypical but atypically better critic in the now sadly clogged cultural studies vein.
Another way of saying this is to say that Thomas has a penchant for developing true questions out of his material—history, experience, language. He never takes the validity of those questions for granted. Instead, he works them like a George Clinton bassline, over and over until they prove their mettle, which saves him from sycophancy and solipsism. The conditions of the real are not far from the conditions of the true—and that’s what lends the whole adventure its palpable suspense. From Dancing on Main Street, “Thinking in Words” is a good example to these ears.
There is an account of what seems to be a gathering of French philosophers,

Thinking in strong but well-scrubbed Germanic
Words adopted by romantic conversation
Knowledge of their natural parents lost
To counterfeit a long melodious decay
We might call Art or serious concern (87)

Then the mingling scents of a bar-b-qued beef sandwich and “piss”—and a litany of synaesthetic linguistic triggers befalls our narrator, an alienated young ethicist on a street corner (perhaps my own beloved Mission District): “Freedom fighter, weirdo, wino… ”

So the distinction can be made
Between bar-b-qued felons
And napalmed bystanders
We need to be thinking in words
To tell our hearts and minds
Which way to flutter (88)

PART THREE: He flutta’ (or, synthesis) / Shell-shock / I am thinking, therefore I am being.

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