Tongo Eisen-Martin: Blood on the Fog (2021) | featured image

Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen Martin Subverts Verse to Infect the Senses

Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen Martin’s words snake their way into one’s consciousness and viciously bite at the tragic absurdity of American racism.

Blood on the Fog
Tongo Eisen Martin
City Lights
September 2021

The explosive poetry of San Franciso Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen Martin exists in a category, nay, dimension all its own. His work is not exactly political poetry as conventionally contrived, since it doesn’t bash the reader over the head with obvious polemical intent. Rather, his poems expose the terrifying truths therein by way of jarring juxtapositions and brutally shocking or even humorously coded images.

This is not to say that Eisen-Martin’s poetry is surrealistic, even though his incongruous imagery could almost be pegged as such. Eisen-Martin’s verse moves beyond prototypical surrealism to create a self-contained idiomatic universe.

Finally, it hit me that Eisen-Martin’s poetry might be best described as savagely satirical. His words snake their way into one’s consciousness and viciously bite at the utter, tragic absurdity of American society and politics. His poems inhabit that paradoxical place where they are subliminally subversive but in the most scathing way possible. 

In his latest work, Blood on the Fog, released by City Lights Books in their Pocket Poets series, “A Sketch About Genocide” is one of over 100 poems that surreptitiously and searingly satirizes American society. The poem begins offhandedly enough: “A San Francisco police chief says, ‘Yes, you poets make points. But they are all silly.”

As the poem progresses, however, the lines maneuver into a startling place: “Police chief sewing a mouth onto a mouth/ police chief looking straight through the poet.” Here, the reader begins to sense rage at senseless police brutality.  Later in the poem, the poet declaims, “Anglo saints addicting you to a power structure… No pain/ Just a white pain,” and references to slaves and civil rights take the poem to an even darker realm. 

By the end, a firmly outraged anti-authoritarian tone has taken hold, as the poet weaves his way partially into the persona of the policeman while still retaining his own identity: “If you shred my dreams, son, I will tack you to gun smoke/ The suburbs are finally offended.”

Later in the collection, in “Kick Drum Only”, Eisen-Martin pronounces, “All street life to a certain extent starts fair.” But then, “the garbage is growing voices” and “white supremacist graffiti” is “reauthored”. So, the scene, which seems to start out on an even note, has morphed into horror, as white supremacy rears its hideous head and again and again, with no end in sight. 

A bit later, we are lured into a “merciful Marxism”, wherein “A disquieted home life” has someone relaxing “next to a gun”. This is unsettling imagery at best, alluding to, perhaps, a kid feeling the constant trauma of growing up in an unjust society where Black people have to defend themselves constantly against attack. 

Most arrestingly, the poet writes, “You know what the clown wants? The respect of the ant” and it also wants to “pull a .38 out of a begging bowl”. The insistent reference to guns throughout Blood on the Fog is disquieting when considering the horrifying context of America’s gun-saturated society. The poem ends drearily: “Baby, I don’t have money for food/ I have no present moment at all”. 

Despite the dreary turns in his verse, Tongo Eisen-Martin’s words have the capacity to liberate both the senses and repressed society. While his poetry is never exactly ebullient in tone, it can certainly evoke ebullience by way of its jolting, sometimes humorous style, replete with poetry “meta-references”.

Above all, and maybe somewhat contradictorily, Eisen-Martin’s poetry is vigorously musical. The feverish delivery of his poems at a reading hit me like a tornado, causing chaos in my consciousness. When I came home and read his words on the page, I was blown away once again. But it was his trance-like, intense reading that I could not shake off. 

Beware, because his readings can be deceptively casual at times; he can start out sounding like he is in the middle of a colloquial conversation, but then he builds toward a frenzied crescendo, all the while his soothing voice undulating rhythmically. Other times he spits fire, suffusing your senses, and doing so with an urgent and unorthodox lyricism. 

Indeed, Eisen-Martin is a powerhouse poet whose vivid, scorching satire is humane to the core. He subverts the way that political poetry is presented and calls for a smashing of the state that is so imprisoning for so many.