Chances Are Few
Of all the impossible rules by which poets have lived—no ideas but in things, form is never more than an extension of content, show don’t tell—the sternest has always been the koan: say it without saying it.
Lorenzo Thomas has remained associated with two significant movements in American poetry—the Umbra poets, and the New York School/Poetry Project scene—and is also revered in his own right, without having published a collection in this country in over twenty years. In lieu of a new book, in 2003 he revised and expanded his second full collection, 1979’s Chances Are Few; the reprint is from the original publisher, George Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press.
All Americans are losing
Their minds are going crazy
With the fear of being
In the world
How much there is to hear in those enjambments (which incidentally allow the lines to work separately) of how little things have changed since the book first landed. Read the stanza according to the linebreaks and it’s as if FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear” remark never happened. Yes, this poet is wide awake to injustice, folly, and ordinary sadness. He is also alive to beauty’s ironic addiction to categories; the transport scene in “Security” closes with the phrase “I, too, am an American”—only it’s attributed not to Thomas’s speaker, but to a “lovely desirable gone white girl/Marvelously sedated in a chair.”
A running joke in the poems is letting the need to get ahead get the better of you. “My Office” opens “I’ve spent the last 10 years/ In other people’s offices/ Learning the alphabet of nods and eyebrows.” It sounds as though it’s going to be a painful ride, and it is; about a third of the way through comes the one line stanza: “And got nowhere.” But that’s when the purgatorial consolation prize—the fun—begins.
This happy corner, sucking up hard-boiled eggs
And polish hots
The seidel sliding down the polished bar
Clatter of friendly pool balls in the margin
Not exactly somewhere, but a certain place.
Lorenzo Thomas’ poems will generally send you to the dictionary even as they anticipate your slap on their back. (A seidel is, as the context suggests, a beer mug.) There’s a moment of genially ambiguous code-switching as a regular at the bar calls out “Jack, when you gonna get some country music?” and an anonymous voice replies with the name of black singer “Country Charlie Pride?” “My Office” closes with a plan to make the best of the situation: “Next trip, I think I’ll bring the wife.”
The joke runs on. In “Art for Nothing,” Thomas is sharing a train ride with “the new dean” when the remark that the third stop is the boss’ town brings out a stream of yes-man enthusiasm. The dean responds: ” ‘The week we moved there,’ he said/ ‘They lynched a man/ Hanged on a big live oak.” There’s more, but I’ll get to the stone faced ending: “Together, we both said/ ‘Yep, that’s some town’.”
In a foreword new to this edition, Thomas claims that he’s never thought too much about what poetry is for—”Poetic license simply amounts to what the old people in New Orleans say when babies cry: ‘Sure you right, darling, let them know you here!'” He seconds the thought in a translation from the Panamanian poet Roberto MacKay: “Someone always seems to be saying/ ‘A poet’s task is making poetry… blah blah blah’.” I see in these poems an effort to first dive wholeheartedly into, then cast away, all manner of temptation and vanity. If that sounds like a mannish task, there is in fact a poem where “Her boyfriend answers,/ ‘Yeah? Lorenzo who?'”
In “Too Much One Thing, Not Enough Somewhat Else,” Thomas takes a dim view of masculine tenderness—even the slightest “unstable moisture of confusion” will be a sign of weakness that will turn into a mark, a waterline, and eventually, by the poem’s logic, a nilometer indicating at what point a man can be controlled. “O brother stay strongest,” he implores, and later, anticipating charges of chauvinism, he says “No one/ Must take their pleasure in offense” at his remarks. Chauvinism isn’t the problem, though. Suffice it to say, waterlines are most visible on stone—and John Donne’s “No man is an island” is probably still better advice.
Apparently, under the rules Thomas proposes in “Too Much,” just about the only place a man can stay strongest is at the movies. In “Shake Hands with Your Bets, Friend,” “An excerpt from Big House Movies,” “Screen Test,” and “Class Action,” he looks at movies, and he just about loses the wit, pain, and sharp vision of the book thus far until he comes round to the less depressing position “That we must speak or be like patterns on a wall,/ Moving or pasted still, it doesn’t matter which.”
At their most cropped, Thomas’s poems give the impression of a reasonable man thinking three moves ahead; sometimes it feels like he’s left the moment or resigned himself to an outcome under somebody else’s control. As with the work of Ted Greenwald and Steve Malmude, two other poets educated at Queens College in the 60s, his poetry rewards hard parsing with complexity preserved and laid bare.
What comes through in general, though, is a personality by turns empathetic and guarded, with a sure ear (or eye or whatever sense organ it is) for happy phrases, and confidence in the shape of his poems. I hear his influence in ornery New York lyricists from Alice Notley to Gary Lenhart, or maybe I just conflate his “Inauguration” (“The land was there before us/Was the land…” “Because/The bombs us have always work/Sometimes it makes me think/God must be one of us”) with Notley’s “You hear that heroic big land music?/Land a one could call one.”
Thomas has not been completely silent since Chances. In 1982, I[shmael] Reed Books brought out The Bathers, a collation of his early mimeo- and chapbooks. A collection of lyrics was translated into German, published under the title Es gibt Zeugen (There Are Witnesses). In 1997, he edited Sing the Sun Up, a collection of essays about teaching children to write using poetry by African-American writers, for Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Charles Bernstein included his essay “Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings in the Black Arts Movement” in the anthology Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Most recently, Thomas was on a panel at the MLA with Harryette Mullen, Adalaide Morris, and Steve McCaffery, among others.
Do I even need to point out that the occasion of this reprint contradicts the title? Take these Chances.
Note that at press-time Critic became aware that a new collection by Mr. Thomas will be forthcoming from Coffee House Press soon.