March 2009

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Lorenzo Thomas, American

Of the cities one might live in, Houston, with its bayous and highway congestion, in part offers an experience of modernity rivaled only by the more recent transformations of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Like those mirage cities of the Middle East, Houston, grounded in the extraction and management of energy systems, remains close to the fossil sources of North American ease. And like those Emirates, Houston has made the banal from the improbable. Glass skyscrapers rise above suburbs that now occupy the subdivided remains of sugar plantations. Nearby, Bay City refineries prepare crude for domestic consumption. Companies in the Bayport Industrial District contribute essential chemicals that go into the making of plastic bags, cleaning agents, and antifreeze. It is difficult to think of this, however, when walking along the magnolia-lined street of Sul Ross. In this neighborhood -- the Montrose -- the Menil hosts a significant collection of surrealist art, and near it, the Rothko Chapel broods obdurately beneath the oaks.

In Houston you live either “inside” or “outside” the “loop,” a reference to Interstate 610, an artery that separates downtown “island cities” from the outer portions of Bellaire, the Memorial Villages, and the suburbs beyond. The Third and Fifth Wards, located within, have given Houston much of its vitality through the blues scenes long established there. The city’s cultural or spiritual orientation, too, is turned toward the Gulf; it is more trans-Atlantic than southern, mid-western, or Latin American. Something about the dazzling contradictions and puzzling spatial dimensions must have appealed to Lorenzo. Perhaps something about the sky and air there recalled for him his family background in the West Indies and Panama. The Atlantic meets there the black prairie of North America. This geographic confluence meant something.

Lorenzo, when I asked him once whether he lived “inside” or “outside” the “loop,” only said, “Outer Space,” and we laughed. We talked about jazz, his small car hurling through space somewhere, that day, “inside.” At Brazos Bookstore, he pointed out new work on Texas jazz, along with Travois, a 1976 anthology of Texas poetry. Line drawings by Houston artist John Biggers accompany Lorenzo’s poem. One drawing shows a West African couple. A woman approaches a man, her body doubled, as if an aura moved a slight step ahead of the actual body. In the other image they embrace, kissing. Their forms darken and their features flatten. An aura of light penetrates the space where their faces meet. Lorenzo’s poem speaks into these images. “I want you to dance / GET IT,” he writes. “[D]o you get it? / I want you to dance / light as air / like the water.” The question brings a kind of brooding self-consciousness to the poem. “[D]o you get it?” There is an urge here, and in much of his other work, to expose, and then reject, what he feels in order to arrive at the truth of the poem. He thinks through it to discover what it means to live in a kind of powerless situation, and in the poem he makes the heart account for what it so deeply desires.

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Lorenzo Thomas was born in Panama and grew up in New York City. He served in Vietnam, moved to Houston in 1973, teaching first at Texas Southern University, where he edited the magazine Roots, and then later joining the University of Houston-Downtown. His participation in the Umbra workshops in New York in the 1960s significantly influenced his poetics. With David Henderson, Askia Muhammad, Larry Neal, Tom Dent, and others he began a study of poetry that was inspired by the racial, political, and cultural movements of the period. For Lorenzo, whose family came from the Caribbean via Central America, poets like Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, appealed to his sense of identity as a black writer. Also, the African poets writing in Portuguese -- people like Francisco-Jose Tenreiro and Marcelino dos Santos -- motivated his work, along with Harlem Renaissance figures, to a lesser degree.

His study of twentieth-century African-American literature, music, and popular culture first came together in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), and, more recently, in Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). In the first of these, he presents an alternative tradition to a mainly white modernist heritage, beginning with Chicago poet and editor Fenton Johnson (1888-1958) and ending with younger contemporary writers, such as Harryette Mullen, Thomas Sayers Ellis and others. Opening with studies of Johnson, William Stanley Braithwaite, Margaret Walker, and Melvin B. Tolson, whose "campaign for social justice" responds to a "selective humanism and partial enlightenment of European expansion," Lorenzo enters the documentary with his own accounts of New York in the 1960s.

"The young black writers in those years approached their world with a sense of outrage," he writes, "and with a missionary zeal borrowed from the southern civil rights struggle and heightened by an urgency bred by their surroundings." Mixing historical scholarship with memoir, Lorenzo's study is strengthened with criticism earned through personal insight. His claims, in particular, on the 1960s Black Arts movement provide an informative evaluation of an influential and vibrant period. Here, African American poetry, he argues, reached "full maturity and strength" through "African song in American English," drawing "upon the syntax of traditional proverbs and the tersely sentimental tone of Rhythm and Blues." He admits a love-hate relationship for New York City, and for the Eurocentric models of verse important to Black Arts writers who worked to create a tradition for themselves that spoke to their own situations. While there was "a direct line between the Beat poets and the Black Arts movement," Charles Olson's emphasis on poetry as an act of speech would "have far-reaching philosophical and -- as redefined by African American poets -- political implications." (The relationship too between Black Mountain and Black Arts has not been looked at closely enough, particularly in both movements’ affinities for poetry as a speech act wherein the use of words overrides any attempt to lock down for them a kind of meaning.) By weaving African song into American English, these writers, Lorenzo argues, brought new perspectives to American poetry. And while their sense of social activism came directly from the racial injustices they faced, their social critique was applicable for anyone who witnessed a "spirit of acquisitiveness encouraged by capitalist commercial society" and the "monstrous results" produced "wherever it interfaces with ordinary human concepts of feeling and care." Inhumanity and money, Thomas ironically notes, "remain America's most important products."

"All the young black writers in New York shared a sense of cultural crisis that was to become the basis of the Black Arts movement," he argues. "They were basically concerned to effect the re-turning of a purely African sensibility and a style that would develop organically from this feeling and stance. They did not know exactly what to do. All were alienated, lacking a direct connection with African culture simply because they had grown up as black Americans with fundamentally American tastes and sensibilities. Most of them felt that an understanding of the most traditional black lifestyles and folkways available to them here would lead to a greater comprehension of the African way of life."

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His first collection -- The Bathers (1981) -- looks at the alienation he describes above, inspecting where individual perspective collides with social forces that seek to contain dissent, identify racial and social classes, and create boundaries that manage the interactions of cultural and social life. He uses myth to understand present social conditions, reading the contemporary through an Africanized understanding of the past. His poems in certain ways pose socio-psychic studies of every day life in the racially subdivided contexts of North America.

One of the smaller books republished in this collection looks critically at American culture to comment on its insatiability and violence. Dracula (1966) printed with a facsimile of Britt Willkie’s cover design, applies surrealist technique to form a collage-like narrative. The cinematic movement of his verse establishes a dizzying pace that lets Lorenzo comment on the vampire-like nature of American social life. The poem opens with Dracula catching a bus in “a personal state of permanent transit.” In the “half- / dissolving boundaries of his presence,” the image of the vampire is racially ambiguous at first. But it becomes clear that Dracula is not necessarily singular. Lorenzo writes:

Dracula                                    your white faces
                                    against the night
                        Hair falling back
                                    over your faces
            formula STORY

Dracula also is “[a] man whose heritage and biography was death.” He “is not a myth but / Just another cheap novel.” The “dissolving boundaries of his presence” complicate the poem, its images enjambed with social and historical references. “Dracula,” he writes,

Changes his form
Assumes an entire jury of peering witnesses walking
Deliberately like negroes on the street,
And then the strict transformation rabble
Screaming and waving pockets torn off
The most respectable fences in town
A lynch mob. Simple. This is nothing
With symbols except the holy mystery of
Our people in this country today.

This poem’s preoccupation with cultural and social vitality ends on a reflection on African-American culture. “Our people bear their judgement,” he writes. “There is no release in the songs / Their music is dying.” Moreover, “[n]othing happens. / More nothing and / The loss of the land hangs in the air / A rotten rapist.” “Dracula” remains an essential poem in Lorenzo’s work because in it he early on identifies themes that will return in different forms. And while an urgent demand for judgment seems to accompany his writing, his sense of “dissolving boundaries” allows him to create poems that withhold answers. In other words, he is brilliant at letting the poem undermine his own perspective so that others may form in an ambiguous and absurd half-light, where knowledge is gained.
           
“Framing the Sunrise” (1975) documents more explicitly the postwar years of U. S. social and political hostility. Channeled through a television set “where a magazine is thrown carelessly / by the sofa / Family Circle,” Lorenzo observes “solemn middle American words / about mortars and dyings.” The poem flashes with images punctuated by the refrain, “[the] state of the art is improving.” He writes:

remember the technical shakedown
Elizabeth Two’s coronation
the excellent march on Lam Son

surplus camouflaged maimed
                                                ARVN vets
the colorful Beefeaters
                                    Grant Park mounted police
Caroline’s jumper            remember Selma
                                                            the bridge
colorful b&w 8mm teargas clouds
                                                            from Budapest
            by satellite relay
bullets from Kent State Ohio

The “memory” here is also technologically manufactured by “satellite relay,” to enter the “solemn middle American” home. “[R]emember,” he writes, “the festive gold knobs / on the Magnavox of live assassinations.” He wonders how this mediation of atrocity filters through people -- through himself. “We lived with this shit twenty years,” he writes, “and each became monsters / lazy unfeeling / brutally corrupted by our senses.” As in “Dracula,” this moral corruption figures significantly here and in later work. But despite the social and political sense of helplessness that often comes out through his writing, his fidelity to the imaginative agency of the poem provides a way to overcome the limited perspective of the individual in order to see a world more comprehensively -- a world that can include a hard-earned optimism.  

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Tom Dent has observed that Lorenzo’s “sense of irony, absurdity, and his social awareness are very much a part of the shared concerns of contemporary black literature, despite his surreal influences.” Dent argues moreover that Lorenzo is “a critic of the Western world writing from the perspective of Afro-America, with inherited and acquired attitudes of an Afro-Caribbean.” This understanding of his work puts him, in part, with the company of Edward Dorn, another critic of the Western world. Their perspectives were informed by different social, historical, and cultural contexts, certainly, but they both used poetry to address their locations in the West. While Dorn turned to satire and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to help in his understanding of the West, Lorenzo’s use of the surrealist lyric helped to deal with the absurdity and irony he experienced as a black American living in large urban spaces. Both poets offer ironic visions of American culture, but Lorenzo’s poems, charged with images of the social fabric, comment more on the suffering and voicelessness of individuals. Laughter frequently results from the poetry of both men, but in Lorenzo’s case, the work is accompanied too with a sadness grounded in the perspective of his race and body of feeling.

In his final collection, Dancing on Main Street (2004), Lorenzo wrote of a "carnival of soft-spoken meanness" in America, noting this perspective in the fabrications of daily life. Here, as in The Bathers and Chances are Few (1979 / 2003), his lines float calmly while under them the horror of human fate with numb compliance registers diminishing prospects. "Main Street," of the book's title, for instance, refers to an office address of the University of Houston-Downtown where he worked. One can only imagine the dance, those necessary performances given to appease the mediocre expectations of a faculty:

Given choices, standing in the street
And shouting
Even for a worthy cause
The way we used to do
When we were young
Even for nothing
Is not choice

The world has changed.

There is, in part, a resigned self-criticism here, for in his occupation of an office in Houston, compliant to university expectations, he had to perform at least partially in ways that must have run counter to his spirit. This awareness of the complicity in our social obligations helps make these poems ultimately sympathetic, and potentially transformative.

Other poems look at the violence America aims at marginalized people. "Dirge for Amadou Diallo" addresses the 1999 police murder of a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea. "We could blame chance / Or curse our earthbound ignorance / Vow to concoct new mythologies / That wouldn't / Forge us such raw cruelties / Marching our hope / In coffles toward the grave." "Coffles" casts an historical shadow over this "incident," relating the violence between owner and owned, European and African. "It is hard to have your son die / In a distant land," echoes the refrain. "And harder still / When we can't understand." Another poem, "Psalm," dated "Waco, Texas, 1993," might not relieve the suffering of the Diallo family, but it indicts with sad mockery the export of weapons by "pro-life murderers," "bombs and guns made in the USA." As in “Framing the Sunrise,” the poem here registers, though more passively and sarcastically, the overwhelming failure of meaning generated by the images of evening news. He writes:

O Lord, I don't know what to do
I don't like watching what comes into view
I will narrow my eyelids
Till there is nothing in the world but You

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Since moving to Texas in the mid 1990s, I could expect to see Lorenzo at least once or twice a year, often with my wife, Hoa Nguyen, and his partner, Karen Luik. It’s about a three-hour drive from Houston to Austin, and he’d often arrive for the annual Texas State Book Fair (hosted by Laura Bush), or come unexpectedly to pursue research at the University of Texas. I remember sitting with him at an open mike event in Houston once wondering where he got his enthusiasm for such things. His generosity was admirable, and I would try to absorb his kindness, to learn from it.

Once we ate Moros y Cristianos -- “Moors and Christians” -- a Cubano version of black beans and rice, laughing over the metaphoric capacities of the Cubans. He loved conversation, and I could always learn from him -- especially through the way he pitched his thought -- his elocutions somehow commenting on the words as he spoke them. But where do these words go? In my memory it’s as though I retain certain sloughed impressions of the man -- his gentleness and authority. I wasn’t close to him in any kind of emotional or daily sense, though I appreciated deeply his attention. What I miss is the certainty of his presence, and my reassurance in his life and his labor. He had a head start in this marvelous adventure we call poetry, and there was much to learn from his perspective. He showed me how to inhabit a place like Texas -- from the “outside.”

I think sometimes about the irony of his death on July 4th, 2005, amidst the numbing hoopla of celebration for a country cracking up under weight of its identities and violent contradictions. The date corresponds with something in Lorenzo -- an appetite to read cultural patterns and, as a poet, to give shape to them. Such need to test what we are and remake that into something other strikes me as uniquely American. Maybe he would think so too.