From Tennessee to the Gaza Strip, Truth Thomas’ genius lies in his ability to take us places where we’ve never been before…the message is always clear, the craft exquisite and masterful.
–Randall Horton, author of The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street
Truth Thomas, one of our contributing editors, is on our Salon Series schedule twice. First for February 7, when he will read from his new chapbook, Bottle of Life, along with Rafael Alvarez and Danuta Hinc. Then for April 25, when he will conduct a poetry workshop. So it is only fitting that we say a few words about him and his book before all this transpires.
Thomas is a musician and poet, born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised in Washington, DC. He studied creative writing at Howard University with Tony Medina and poet E. Ethelbert Miller before earning his MFA in Poetry at New England College. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies, including the Little Patuxent Review’s Winter 2010 Issue and The 100 Best African American Poems. Prior to Bottle of Life, he published two poetry collections, Party of Black (2006) and A Day of Presence (2008). His music can be heard on his new album, If The Spirit is Willing.
Bottle of Life–among many things–chronicles childhood memories of Washington, DC, explores the motivations for America’s involvement in Afghanistan and celebrates African-American musicians. At its core, it addresses the sanctity and fragility of life. Thomas has given us permission to present poems and Alan W. King, fellow poet and former Baltimore-based Afro staff writer, has allowed us to reprint his recent review.
It’s “…the language of collard greens and black-eyed peas seasoned with fatback and Big Mama’s sweet tea” was how one writer put it in a blurb. Another writer called its contents “…intoxicatingly sweet, sharp, with a dash of bitter, good for the soul’s health.” A third one noted the poet finds “heaven in his Mama’s macaroni and cheese…”
And I have to agree with them; the food analogies are fitting for Truth Thomas’s Bottle of Life. Knoxville-born, DC-raised, Thomas brings a streetwise wit and lyricism to his third collection of poems. He’s been compared to Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove the way he chronicles what one writer called “the atrocities of our violent, ‘soiled world.’”
Within these 75 pages Thomas has ended the literary food shortage. Bottle of Life is a Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trimmings. Or it places the reader at the buffet table, with delicious imagery steaming under a heat bulb.
But read each poem again, go through the surface, and the scene morphs into something else; the heat bulb becomes an interrogation lamp. In place of the food are the ugly realities Thomas brings to the surface of his readers’ conscience. Take “Up Growing” for instance, which opens the collection. Aiming the interrogation lamp at the violence, abuse and denial of childhood, Thomas skillfully juxtaposes the ugly with the beautiful:
…in “one small
step for man” days,
in Jackson 5, “ABC,”
“Stop the Love you Save”
days, there were no fights,
no duels in bruises.
faces of door frames
to lattice boys in
choke hungry fingers.
Here’s another example of that juxtaposition in the same poem:
Never did a Knoxville,
scratch the mug
of a 6-foot
did this wannabe Shaft,
wrestle a woman
to the ground – not yesterme,
yesteryou, not yesterday –
not on streets where boys
would shadow box
like Muhammad Ali,
and float over
girls with names like
or Teresa Youngblood.
Another theme of this book is war. His poem, “The War is Here,” questions America’s involvement in the so-called “war on terror.” It also alludes to social injustices committed on American soil whether it’s post-Katrina treatment of Gulf Coast residents, or gang violence and child prostitution:
Dial down the swagger in your trigger
finger. The war is here—not over hills,
everywhere. Shots fired in New Orleans,
a community down, please respond. Shots
fired in Bodymore, the unwired down…
Repeat: insane days
and nights—right here. Little girls who
could be your girls, selling for a dollar in
Harlem, in Chinatown—right now—right
down the street from your 1600 dome.
The ironies Thomas masterfully captures are as bizarre as a trick-mirror image. Here’s a Christmas night robbery on a Baltimore street while “Silver Bells” plays in the background of his poem, “Baltimore: Dressed in Holiday Cheer”:
Walking on Saratoga Street, a gun barrel stops
and asks me for a smoke, and all my money.
“Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas
time in the city…” My fingers fumble through lent
like quicksand in my pockets. Outside my
body, I watch as Andrew Jackson unfolds
in my hand, and rises like Superman’s cape. “City
sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday
style…” As three windows in King Tut Jewelers
keep watch by night, the handgun flies away,
a trash truck passes, and you ask me, “What
do I recall?”
At times, Bottle of Life could be a 40 ounce poured out on the curb as Thomas remembers those who’ve passed on. Here’s a poem in memory of his friend, Tony, “A Dynamite Player.”
Tony was a
blew an alto to bits—
hit notes Bird
forgot to play
bebop fuses over
like Chinese food,
and be hungry
an hour later.
Yes, Tony was
a dynamite player—
had a dynamite gig
left Philly stages
an equal opportunity
every jones like
Chaka Khan was
every woman, and
I wanted to be him—
from his Pork Pie
to his sleep-deprived
in a crack pipe
all the way down
to his reeds.
Thomas is clever. “Villain ‘L’” is a poem that remembers Grammy-award winning singer Jennifer Hudson’s nephew, Julian King, who was shot to death by his father in 2008. The poem’s title is a play on the name of the poetic form, villanelle, in which he wrote the poem:
Gunshots steal a child, a city is slain.
A mother, an aunt, track serial tears.
Your pawns leave the board, take the rap in chains.
Bottle of Life, however, is not entirely what a writer called “an exquisitely crafted urn…” The book has its tender moments in poems like “Love Poem to a Lesbian” and “When Mama Does the Cooking.” Here’s “Night in Topeka”:
you make me–
as a pillar
Bottle of Life is refreshing. I have to agree with another writer on the music woven through this collection. “Each page,” the writer stated, “is like plucking the strings of a bass guitar, but the beat never gets too heavy, the message is always clear, the craft exquisite and masterful.”
I’ll close out with a poem that touched a chord with me and might do the same for anyone whose sibling(s) is(are) currently serving or has served in the armed forces: “Roller Coaster of Love.”
We are all strapped in past points of
“no going back,” from moments
wombs welcome us to days. As I
wait on the runway of a roller coaster
with my older brother Andre. I am
reminded of this, although I cannot
help but wonder if this ride they call
Kingda Ka, here at Six Flags, means
“Scared shitless” in another time and
Tongue. But, can a man say “scared”
In a poem? Even when zero becomes
128 miles an hour in 3.5 seconds,
And a hot dog is poised to rise from
a vomit launch pad, in loop de loops,
this is hard for me to say. And so, I
captain silence with an iceberg tongue.
And, as usual, I go along with Andre.
“It’s going to be fun,” he tells me, just
like he did when we used to
smack the asses of cars, to set off
their alarms when we were kids. And
it was fun, until Lucky Thompson’s
father came out with his .44, cussing
holes in summer evening, aiming
at all creation. We had to hide for
twenty-seven days under Mr. Richards’
green Chevy nova—or was it half an
hour? And later, was it an extension
cord or a telephone pole that Daddy
used to build us up on every leaning
side? Andrew never cried, though we
were guilty as roaches in the
refrigerator—not then, or in 2006,
when his right leg met a roadside
bomb in Iraq. He never cried when
nightmares came, and sleep became
a desert storming lead. Even after
years of underbelly unemployment,
he never loosed a sniffle. “Tears are
not the clothes of kings,” he likes to
say—something that he read in a book,
I think, like he reads me now on these
rails. He tells me I should “man up,”
“get tough,” step up my arms in air
of amusement squeals. And I do—as
I am used to doing, all except question
this man, who once would SpongeBob
snot from my nose. But a week from
next Wednesday, when he jumps from
the roof of his 30 story life, and witnesses
say he sailed to earth without a sound,
I will wonder if tears finally came to
ride his cheeks down, just like we were
riding this coaster. I will wonder if he
closed his eyes to wipe them away, and
wish that I could catch that holy water.
Whether poetic ability like that can be taught is an age-old question, but surely it can be shaped. Check back here again around the middle of April, when Thomas will post his thoughts on what he plans to achieve with his poetry workshop at month’s end.