Thomas Sayers Ellis

Heard-them-say has it that the term "beatnik" was coined to describe the behavior and lifestyle of poet Bob Kaufman, aka Bomkauf aka The Black Rimbaud aka The Abominable Snowman of American Arts & Letters. Kaufman, they say, took a vow of silence on the day J.F.K was assassinated and did not speak again until the Vietnam War ended, muttering words from T.S. Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral. I discovered Kaufman's Golden Sardine and City Lights broadsides Does the Secret Mind Whisper… and The Ancient Rain in New York City on a summer day in 1987 and the enormous influence he had on my work is evident, in varying forms and nuances, throughout The Maverick Room. Not just in poems like "My Autopsy",  "Undressing Mr. Wiggles" and "Bright Moments" but in the less obvious and (seemingly) less complex structural utterances like "The Break of Dawn" and "Giant Steps". Kaufman's "Picasso's Balcony" taught me so much about wedding music and meaning, and his "Blues Notes" became, after one reading, the perfect container to imitate when I was trying to "bogart" Go-Go a place within the tradition. The referential portrait of Ray Charles, made mythic, made biblical, and made integrationist via separation sang as intimate sculptor and both challenge and blue(s)print, our changing same. The moment I read

He separated the sea of polluted sounds
And led the Blues into the Promised Land.

I knew I was one of his children. I also felt it to be, creatively, true Of Ray Charles and a radical statement about the relationship between Scared and secular music in America.

In the beginning of his career Sugar Bear, the lead mic/talker/hype man, for Experience Unlimited aka E.U., a local D.C. Go-Go band. (See and hear "Da Butt" from the last reel of Spike Lee's School Daze), was known for shouting into the microphone aka yelling and was therefore considered a "Bama" (old school slang for a person from Alabama, i.e. someone who was out-of-step with Northern behavior, also a Mark.) Bear though, at the level of naming (and through his gigantic orality), became Abominable–– two places at once: North and South. The name Bear also had implications in African American Folklore, so I tried to use the 'lore the same way Kaufman had used "Bessie's crushed black skull…" in his poem, the severe surrealism, the jazz edge, like Bunuel's razor across and eye, the violent, blue weather report of myth-making. And, of course, it helped that E.U. had a conga player named Foxy Brown that Bear could let loose.

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Giant Steps

by Thomas Sayers Ellis


Sugar Bear is the Abominable Snowman of Go-Go,
Laying stone-cold sheets of bottom
Over forgotten junk farms and Indian deathbeds.

Years ago, a conspiracy to melt him
Was put to sleep by an unlimited freeze.

He bridged the gap between Southeast & Northwest,
Passing through, Anacostia  & Watergate,
Untouched, plucking veins & exposing hidden tapes.

Bear's melody is Big Foot music;
2 places at the same time.

On atomic nights
His footprints can be viewed from heaven,
Extinguishing mushrooms.

Bear let the first fox loose on the moon.
Hear his cry: ooh la la la!


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"Giant Steps" by Thomas Sayers Ellis from The Maverick Room (Graywolf Press, 2005). Copyright 2005 by Thomas Sayers Ellis.  Reprinted with the  permission of the author.




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