The Fires Behind Him

The Fires Behind Him - Nick Sturm

In the spring of 1963, Lorenzo Thomas read some of his early poems at the Le Metro coffeehouse on New York’s Lower East Side, a reading series that showcased experimental young poets. At 18, Thomas was one of the youngest there. He had only recently graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens and was a student at Queens College. Accompanying him was a group of other Black writers known as the Society of Umbra: Calvin Hernton, Tom Dent, Ishmael Reed, and David Henderson, among others. “[We would] hijack the readings at Le Metro and blow them all away,” Thomas recalled in a 1998 interview with scholar Daniel Kane. In the audience were notable white writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Diane Wakoski, Ted Berrigan, and Jackson Mac Low.

One of the poems Thomas likely read at Le Metro was “The Unnatural Life.” The poem’s speaker caustically satirizes white paranoia of empowered black intellectuals. An unnamed “you” is at times a romantic interest (perhaps a white woman, judging by the line “I see your happy face in every blond table”) and at other times a stand-in for all of white America:

My picture is in that cheap frame
And you are that first dollar pasted on the mirror
I have been so busy of late, translating
“Two or Three Chants” by Leopold Senghor and
Thinking about the coming revolution You know,
Something got on my mind, I had to come back
It is my lucky day I am in the Crown Delicatessen
And you are not here
[…]
My copy of Muhammad Speaks covers the table and the wind, and
The door hanging open, frightened because I am here
That I might forget these young delusions of love, afraid
As I emerge from my fashionable jacket my brain turns
Black and hateful Like a beast, your color rising in my nose
And you are raped and murdered in the usual manner.

Thomas’s critique is blistering, mixing motifs of suburban conformity—“The same peach tree in the backyard spreads on the white house / Behind your house”—with references to economic inequity, international Black liberation, and the Nation of Islam. The poem’s climax sees the speaker transform into the stereotypical Black killer of bad vigilante movies. The violence is horrifying but blasé, an affectless description reimagined again and again through racist images of “unnatural” black men terrorizing white women. The poem then shifts with the surreal image of a peach that morphs into “a simplified heart” with its “blind aorta sketched over the vacant bedroom windows.” The last line of the poem—“I should never have moved into your neighborhood!”—is biting and sardonic. An epigraph from Aimé Césaire, “What I am is a man alone / imprisoned in white,” suggests Thomas’s lineage among Pan-African, diasporic poets.

Thomas shared his poems at weekly Umbra writing workshops at Tom Dent’s apartment on East 2nd Street (Dent called them “sessions”) that included avant-garde jazz musicians Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, alongside poets and civil rights activists. Langston Hughes was a mentor and supporter of Umbra, and Sun Ra, whose study of Egyptian mythology was pivotal for Thomas, was published in the third issue of the group’s eponymous magazine.

Named after a Lloyd Addison poem titled “The Aura & the Umbra,” the Umbra Workshop was the aesthetic extension of ongoing civil rights and Black nationalist political work. While Thomas grew up in New York City, many of the Umbra poets had arrived from the South, and had met via the internationalist On Guard for Freedom, an activist literary organization. When On Guard dissolved in 1962, Umbra emerged. For the two years that Umbra flourished, 1962 to 1964, Thomas was a central figure. As he writes in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2000), “The black nationalist approach of older men [like Calvin Hernton and Tom Dent], so persistent in the face of the civil rights movement’s continuing disappointments, seemed to exert a particularly powerful influence on young writers who, through the Umbra Workshop, actively sought a better understanding of the shadow world that is black life in the United States.”

Born in the Republic of Panama in 1944 to a Costa Rican mother and a West Indian father, and raised in the Bronx and Queens, Thomas grew up in “a home full of race conscious people” where Spanish was the primary language. He began reading and writing English-language poems at an early age. “I had been reading poetry using a relentlessly catholic method,” Thomas said during a lecture in 2000. “I simply read the entire 811 section of the Queensborough Public Library, starting with Léonie Adams and continuing book by book through the alphabet.” Favorites included traditional formalists such as Edgar Bowers, Isabella Gardner, and Thomas Merton, alongside avant-garde modernists including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (1960) generated “a new alphabet of favorites,” including John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Barbara Guest, and Frank O’Hara. Thomas was also attracted to Césaire’s Afro-Caribbean Surrealism and other Négritude writers whose poems carried a “dimension of disaffection or disaffiliation … as people of African descent living in a colonial situation.” The Harlem Renaissance, high Modernism, mid-century lyricism, and postcolonial aesthetics swirled together in Thomas’s encyclopedic self-education. In an interview with Dale Smith in 2000, he describes the kinship he felt with Umbra, New York School, and Black Arts poets who shared this obsessive, non-hierarchical approach to reading:

Everybody was very much interested in knowing who came before us regardless of what their nationality or race might have been…. But that was the thing, we wanted to know who came before us. What, if anything, did we have in common in terms of the situations that we faced and the situations they faced, which is, I think, what study is about.

This shared sense of lineages and of living together among common crises is a hallmark of Thomas’s poetry. Until recently, his work was available only in hard-to-find, out-of-print editions from small presses. Dancing on Main Street (2004), published by Coffee House Press the year before Thomas died, was the only significant collection of his work in circulation. Even during his lifetime, Thomas’s poetry was often published belatedly. His service in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, and his move from New York City to Houston, Texas, in 1973, where he lived and taught for the rest of his life, contributed to his diminished literary visibility. Even as the work of a poet like Baraka gained international attention (and the attention of the FBI), Thomas’s poetry was difficult for a wide audience to access. The notoriety of the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1960s and ’70s superseded the impact of Umbra. As a result, Thomas’s work has remained on the margins.

***

The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas (Wesleyan University Press, 2019), edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Laura Vrana, brings nearly all of Thomas’s poetry to a new readership. Clocking in at more than 500 pages, the volume underscores his stylistic and thematic virtuosity, from the transformative mythic-political landscapes of The Bathers (1981), to the kaon-like minimalism of Sound Science (1992), to the introspective fierceness of Dancing on Main Street. Humorous, parodic, politically devoted, and formally experimental, Thomas’s work amounts to more than four decades of writing that stood outside of both mainstream and avant-garde traditions. The spaciousness of his work can be summed up by these lines from “Another Poem in English,” from The Bathers: “I’m doing that anyway! / Anyway, I’m doing that // And this this.”

The book’s timing is fortuitous, as Umbra itself is being reassessed. As David Grundy writes in A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets (2019), “It is high time for Umbra to emerge from the shadows.” Thomas’s poetry “attests to the existence of Umbra not only as a vital organizing force but as a collective spirit that persisted long after the workshops and readings had collapsed,” Grundy writes. In Vrana’s preface to The Collected Poems, she further cements Thomas’s role not only in Umbra but as an advocate and emissary for “a diasporic intimacy that asserts a global Afrocentric view of blackness,” especially in the South during his 20-year career at the University of Houston-Downtown. “Thomas served as a key institutional and connecting force himself,” Vrana writes, “sharing little-known literary and musical artifacts and speaking across the country until his death in 2005.”

Appearing in Jambalaya (1975), an anthology of four Black poets, “Collective Poems,” dedicated to fellow Umbra member Ishmael Reed, records Thomas’s living archival sensibility. “I have been a collector / Of tones, a sound keeper,” he writes, an apt description of his dedication to documenting and preserving the legacy of Umbra and the various strains of what he calls “Afrocentric Modernism.” Thomas’s collecting was for those who came after him, embodied in his support of Black poets like Harryette Mullen who, as Vrana notes, recognized Thomas as “one of the messengers who brought the Black Arts movement below the Mason-Dixon Line.” “Collective Poems” continues into celebratory defiance that could be a lyric description of The Collected Poems itself:

I collected “trash” and
Added antique connotations;
Changed all the understanding
Of them who dig my collection.

Made like I tolerated antagonism
Only to uplift the defamed
My people sing and dance it
I made “bards” of my excluded brothers
When the bigots refused me my name.

Been so poor, but a magnet with my shamed English

I have reclaimed the Legends

“Poetry is an instrument that we study in order to free the spirit, to celebrate the ancestors,” Thomas writes in an afterword to Jambalaya, reaffirming his commitment to the diasporic Black mythos—“the Legends”—that are the sources of his poetics. Akin to the music of Sun Ra, Thomas saw himself working in “Aural Design.”

The aural and oral traditions, the heard and the said, are at the center of Thomas’s earliest poems. He collages the increasingly media-saturated landscape of New York City with images of diasporic movements, and with narratives about romance, distance, and time. The first poem in The Collected Poems begins, “The way Egyptians used to sit / she sits / listening to the radio,” a line that merges hieroglyphic imagery with contemporary technology. Radios are present throughout Thomas’s work, acting simultaneously as conduits for musical resistance and as tools for narrative manipulation through the news. “Her dissent is like that / of the music,” Thomas writes, suggesting a liberatory union of aesthetics and politics that resonates with the poetics of Umbra. “The age we live in doesn’t matter,” the poem also proclaims, “Some mixup, huh.”

This collaged “mixup” of times and references in Thomas’s early work is best displayed in “Embarkation for Cythera,” which opens with references to an 18th-century French painting and a Nigerian revolutionary poet. Following this anti-colonial juxtaposition, Thomas describes “[a] new motif of / [d]estruction” perpetuated by the violence done to diasporic oral traditions through the dominance in Western cultures of “a written language / when before, / the words in our / mouths were enough.” Suddenly, the poem shifts to a narrative setting in Queens “[a]long Merrick Blvd, standing in front / the dance hall” where the speaker encounters a “cop in a luminous blue / His badge spreads all over his face, / threatening me.” The speaker looks for a way into the show, but the police officer prohibits access. This is both a singular threat and a representation of the white supremacist violence the state perpetrated against people of color. Stripped of collective agency in the space of the music and living out a fragmented history—“What someone has done to us, that / my words become unintelligible”—the poem ends with the speaker wandering the neighborhood:

This much is understood
I go down to Benson’s Burgers
and sit in the parking lot.
Food smell, but I don’t have any money
All I have is the blues
and a ticket for someplace called Cythera
a bus outing on Sunday.
Got this magazine telling about the great
new thing going on in Nigeria
and I have my beautiful high
a green alcove of the evening
called “music”
My voice when it is understood,
piped into dancehalls and restaurants by
this very intricate and lovely machine.

It’s difficult not to read these lines as Thomas’s rendition of Frank O’Hara’s ode to the death of Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died,” another mid-1960s poem built around Black music. The entire scene, including the food, magazine, and references to money, recalls these lines from O’Hara’s poem:

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

Rather than O’Hara’s casual “I do this, I do that” approach, Thomas’s is an “I can’t do this, I can’t do that” poem, a narrative of exclusions and alienation. O’Hara has his “hamburger and malted” while all Thomas has is the “food smell”; O’Hara buys whatever he needs and even goes “on to the bank” in a breezy encounter with the teller, while in Thomas’s poem the speaker states directly “I don’t have any money.” O’Hara picks up “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING” as an occasion, ostensibly, to read outside his Eurocentric tradition while Thomas’s magazine “about the great / new thing going on in Nigeria” is a reference to the revolutionary work of Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, whose lines appear as the poem’s epigraph. The divisions of class and race are obvious. O’Hara’s cultural and economic fluencies allow him to move effortlessly across Manhattan. Meanwhile, Thomas’s obstructed movements around Queens leave him nearly voiceless, anonymous, if not for the liberatory potential of music. For Thomas, it is music—“a green alcove of the evening”—that connects listeners beyond these scenes of disenfranchisement.

In contrast to the so-called “aesthetics of the everyday” associated with Thomas’s New York School peers, the urban verisimilitude of Thomas’s early poems is cut with a constant threat to speech, and to the ability to communicate outside the distortions of the state and the media. “Somewhere in New York in the snow / The news again challenges our speech,” he writes in “Great Love Duets.” This is an ongoing confrontation in Thomas’s poetry. “[W]hy does popular America persist in death dreams?” he asks in “Screen Test,” from Chances Are Few (1979), challenging how the media frames events for passive consumption rather than for critique. In “Framing the Sunrise” from The Bathers, Thomas stages a montage of domestic and international scenes of protest, and subsequent state violence, as captured through various media:

remember Selma
the bridge
colorful b&w 8mm teargas clouds
from Budapest
by satellite relay
bullets from Kent State Ohio
by outrage
from Belfast, bombings on videotape

Technological documentation displaces or distorts each historical event by isolating its content and context. People are not dying in protests or in wars, they are “dying on CBS NEWS / via satellite relay / dying,” a televised violence that erodes distinctions between news and fiction, danger and entertainment. Thomas rages against how “lazy unfeeling” this consumption of death makes us. His poems satirically deconstruct how power, affluence, and conspicuous consumption create a toxic culture in which language is reduced to empty branding, another mechanism erasing our ethical ability to drive change, as in “Dracula” (1973):

The white glitter of our impressive table
Manners and thoughts that go nowhere after
All we are content to have surround us and
Lift up to the light of our language and
Sip thoughtlessly of the ravishing cup marked
With a brand name of the thing we have used
To identify ourselves on this surprised earth

This parodic critique of capitalism and exploitation is present even in Thomas’s earliest poems, such as “Economics”:

Pleased with this life we living smiling
At how we have apprehended the time itself
How we have put it to work for a profit
How those can’t understand ECONOMICS
Can steal watches to sell in the park

It quiets the mind to think of transactions
Like this Even the vandals are part
Of the affluence our bodies exercise

Wealth is a farce, Thomas suggests, an accumulation of resources that depends on perpetuating inequity. Such inequitable “transactions” organized a major part of Thomas’s own life. In 1968, at the height of the Black Arts Movement and Thomas’s increasing role in the poetry communities on the Lower East Side, he went off to fight in the Vietnam War, where, appropriately enough, he was a radioman. Politically engaged since his teenage years, and deeply embedded in radical poetry-activist enclaves through Umbra, Thomas’s service in Vietnam mystified some of his peers. “Given Lorenzo’s political awareness, why had he volunteered to fight a white man’s war against a Third World country?” asks New York School poet Ron Padgett, a friend who first corresponded with Thomas in 1959 through his magazine the White Dove Review. In his chapter on Thomas in A Black Arts Poetry Machine, Grundy helpfully complicates the terms of Thomas’s military service. Thomas was “[i]n a complex position due to his status as a first-generation immigrant,” Grundy writes, “[and] debated whether to flee to Canada to escape the draft. After deliberation, he joined the Navy in 1968 and was posted to Vietnam as a ‘military advisor’ in 1971.” These conscription laws “disproportionately targeted African-Americans,” making Thomas’s choices even more precarious. The poems in Fit Music (1972), edited by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh’s Angel Hair Books, narrate Thomas’s years of service, including the incredible “Proem,” which toys with the formal buoyancy of iambic pentameter to address the dread of being drafted:

You spent childhood rehearsing the Korean War
You fucked up in college and picked the wrong major
And in 66 everyone faked concern for Asia
It was all more fitting than you thought;
The staging.

Alienated from peers who couldn’t help him reconcile the ethical impasse he was in, Thomas’s enlistment starts to feel like fate, a message transmitted through the distorting frames of technology.

And the orders came down
As your prophets demanded. Strange FM stations
And astrological phonecalls hastened to soothe you,
Saying, “don’t give a damn.” It was time
To be going. Vancouver or South Viet Nam.

“Envoy,” also in Fit Music, describes the layers of alienation Thomas experienced both in Vietnam and upon his return, weaving a hollow materialism into episodes of spiritual and racial exploitation:

I wanted somebody to stop me at the airport
And ask all about Vietnam

But nobody asked me
What did you find out
About Jesus,
Was it worthwhile did you have fun
As it says in the song making me
Suffer it was fun
Making me suffer
Now I want to know

Did you by lucky chance
Buy a camera a stereo deck

How did you like being the envoy of a monstrous epic
Or saga of Western corruption
When the white guys blacked their mugs
Before the ambush, what did you do kid?

Hyper-aware of his own complicities, and of the forces that drove him into complicity, Thomas reframes the economic contradictions and racial hypocrisies in which he is enmeshed. These rhetorical questions are even more haunting for not actually being asked, highlighting the silence Thomas met when he returned to New York City. These experiences led him to move to Houston as a writer-in-residence at Texas Southern University. “Following the experience of double alienation (as a black soldier) in Vietnam and double alienation (as a black veteran) in New York,” Grundy writes, “Thomas now faced the double alienation of being an African-American academic in the still racist culture of the South.” Poems like “My Office” and “Art For Nothing,” both from Chances Are Few (1979), chart Thomas’s precariousness in shepherding the experimental poetics and radical politics of Umbra and the Black Arts Movement to the South. “I’ve spent the last 10 years / In other people’s offices,” he writes in “My Office,” describing the ways a black academic is unfairly hyper-visible in mostly white institutions.

“Art for Nothing” stages the familiar academic ritual of awkward conversations between faculty and administrators. Having traveled to work in artist-in-the-school programs in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, Thomas is asked by “[t]he new dean” “[w]here all my work / Had taken me.” Having mentioned a place that the dean says was “my hometown,” Thomas sees the exchange as a scripted professional opportunity to celebrate their shared connection to another school and town:

“I loved it there! There’s so much happening
Folks are so friendly
The kids impressed me. Really on the ball
Yep, great potential there
That’s a town that really has it all …”

But the dean interrupts Thomas:

“The week we moved there,” he said
“They lynched a man
Hanged on a big live oak
In the Court House square
All through the holidays
They let the body hang there

Said, This is our civic Nigger Christmas decorations
And set a watch so as we couldn’t cut him down”

Together, we both said
“Yep, that’s some town”

Being “together” in this recognition of white supremacy, Thomas suggests, is the ever-present underside of black life in America. Just as the dean cuts through professional frivolities to tell the truth about the association between “home” and terroristic violence in the South, Thomas’s poems abandon regular channels of communication to craft a new sound for American poetry out of the rich and still under-studied lineages of Umbra and the Black Arts Movement.

“The fires behind us / Are our signatures,” he writes in “Last Call,” from Dancing on Main Street, and Thomas’s commitment generated a lot of fires. His work paid off for generations of younger writers and artists, as Thomas taught and organized across the South for more than 30 years, including at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He settled into a faculty position at the University of Houston-Downtown in 1984, where he remained a beloved professor. New York School poets Padgett and Alice Notley have written admiringly about Thomas’s poetry, and his influence can be seen in the work of Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, and younger poets like Simone White. Thomas’s work continues to hover between these lineages. As he said in a 1966 radio interview on WNYC, “What may sound like outrage [in my poems] is to me just a way of getting at what may be the truth.” The host’s reply shows how acolytes of the New York School were challenged by the political and social critiques in Thomas’s early work: “This then becomes an aesthetic problem because one would not see a poet like Kenneth Koch write a similar kind of poetry.” Thomas responds: “I think he should.”

Readers discovering Thomas for the first time through The Collected Poems might also seek out his influential scholarly and pedagogical writing, including essential essays in Callaloo, African American Review, and Black American Literature Forum, his textbook Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Literature (1998), and his two scholarly books, the most recent of which, Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (2008), was published posthumously. Taken together, Thomas’s work can now be recognized as the irreducible record of what he called the “tenacious traditions of black nationalism in the streets” that first inspired Umbra in the early 1960s. Nearly 15 years after his death, Thomas’s poetry has been brought back for a new audience. As he writes in “Like a Tree,” from Dancing on Main Street: “There is no vanishing point in our art / Ancestors do not go away / You say they are here / It is not even a question / Of return.”

Originally Published: December 16th, 2019


Nick Sturm is the NEH Postdoctoral Fellow in Poetics at Emory University’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. His poems and essays are published in the Brooklyn Rail, Jacket2, PEN, ASAP/J, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. His scholarly and archival work can be traced at his blog Crystal Set.

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